Lord Corwin of Darkwater
(Reprinted from Scum #6)
The Dark AgesIn the beginning, there were no dark beers. Indeed, the wonderful variety of dark lagers, brown ares, stouts and porters that we enjoy today are a relatively recent innovation in brewing. Interestingly enough, dark beers are an indirect result of the growth of civilization in western Europe.Beer, of course, is made from malt (see Making Malt, by Countess Marieke van de Dal, Scum #6), and malt is nothing more than grain, sprouted and dried. Early maltsters sun-dried their malt - a gentle process that preserves all of the fermentable sugars produced in the malting process. Ale made from this malt would have been fairly light in color by modern standards, there being no caramelized sugars to darken the ale. That ale would also be very high in terms of nutrition - an important point for a staple in the diet of every man, woman and child.
But there were problems inherent in this method of malting. You needed several warm, sunny days in a row. If the weather didn't cooperate, you lost some (or all!) of your malt to any of a number of ills. The growing population, all of which were thirsty, only exasperated the problem. The solution, of course, was to dry the malt with fire.
Alas, as the malters discovered, you can't rush Mother Nature. Malt dried too long, or too hot, will caramelize. The sugars in the malt closest to the heat source darken and are no longer fermentable into alcohol. But progress is inevitable, and malters sought a balance between production, profit, and malt quality. Kiln dried malt became the status quo, and beer and ale darkened as a result. How dark is perhaps impossible to say, but one account, that of Archdeacon Becket in 1158, claimed that "Two of these chariots were laden solely with iron-bound barrels of ale, decocted from choice fat grain, as a gift for the French who wondered at such an invention - a drink most wholesome, clear of all dregs, rivalling wine in colour, and surpassing it in savour."