Special Brews of Scotland:   Groaning Malts and Maturity Ales

The brewing of beers and ales in both England and Scotland is believed to have stemmed from a single, ancient source with roots which run deep into prehistoric times. In fact, fermented beverages are considered to be man’s very first form of alcoholic drink. But as the millenia progressed, the English and Scottish brewing techniques slowly began to diverge, as did the results of those techniques. During the Regency, there were two specific fermented beverages which were made only upon the expected birth of a child, one of them being brewed only upon the birth of an heir.

The link between beer and babies in Scotland . . .

An ancient custom in Scotland called for the brewing of a strong ale, once it was known a woman of the upper or middle classes was with child. This special brew, known as "groaning malt," was to be provided as a refreshment to the women present upon the safe delivery of the child. In Scotland, "groaning" was an age-old term for childbearing, used as both a verb and an adjective. A "groaning-wife" was a woman who was lying-in during child-birth and "groaning-pains" were what she endured during the process. Malt was a term for a particularly strong ale, which typically had at least twice the alcoholic content of a regular ale. Thus, this special ale, intended for the refreshment of those who attended a woman in child-bed was known as "groaning malt." In most households, this drink was served with "groaning cake" and "groaning cheese," both of which had been prepared in advance to be served as refreshments after the birth.

In Regency Scotland, as had been the case for centuries, home brewing was a common practice among those of the middle and upper classes. There were a quite a number of commercial breweries in some of the larger cities, but none of them would have bothered with a small brewing job such as the making groaning malt for the birth of a baby. Therefore, in most households of any size, from modest farms to grand country estates, once it was known that the farmer’s good wife, or the lady of the estate, was expecting a child, a batch of groaning malt would be brewed and set aside to age in preparation for the delivery of the child.

Curiously, though groaning malt was usually made as a strong ale, by custom, it was intended primarily for the women who had come to assist and care for the expectant woman while she was in child-bed. Nevertheless, there is some suggestion that the proud father might partake of a bit of groaning malt himself, in celebration upon the successful birth of his child. The custom of making and drinking groaning malt was not completely restricted to Scotland during the Regency. There is evidence that this custom was also observed in the Ulster region of Ireland, which had been colonized by the Scots during the seventeenth century. Records show that the custom of making and serving groaning malt in conjunction with the birth of a child continued in at least some parts of Scotland and Ulster through the end of the nineteenth century.

Another Scottish custom associated with the birth of a child which can be dated at least to the Middle Ages, was the brewing of "maturity ale." But in this case, the brewing did not begin until after the child was born. However, maturity ale was not brewed for every child. This particular ale was brewed only upon the birth of an heir, usually the heir of a prominent family with a substantial estate. Like groaning malt, maturity ale was always home-brewed, since its brewing was actually the beginning of a ritual which would take more than two decades to complete. Soon after the successful birth of an heir, a batch of ale would be brewed in the brew-house on the estate. The ale would then be sealed into one or more wooden casks and stored in the wine cellar to mature. There it would remain for the next twenty-one years, untouched until the young man for whom it was brewed had come of age. The casks containing this maturity ale would only be brought out and tapped when it was time to serve the ale at the celebration of heir’s twenty-first birthday, when he was considered to be mature, right along with the ale which was used to toast his new status.

Unlike groaning malts, Scotch ales were brewed in a range of strengths from mild to strong, with a commensurate range of alcohol content. However, regardless of their strength, these ales required a long aging period to achieve their optimum flavor and enhance clarity. Therefore, ales were the ideal choice to brew twenty-one years in advance for a beverage to be served at the celebration of an heir’s coming-of-age. In addition, ales could be brewed at cooler temperatures than other beers, which made them eminently suitable for home-brewing in the cooler climes of Scotland. The brewing season for ales, as with most beers, began in the fall. Farther south, in England, beer brewing usually did not start until October. But in Scotland, brewing could begin in mary areas as early as September. Therefore, if a Scotsman wished to lay down a maturity ale for his heir, the initial brewing would take place in the September or October after the child’s birth. The freshly brewed ale would be put into wooden casks which would be stored in the family wine cellar, where they would be left to age until the child for which the ale had been brewed came to manhood.

Most of these maturity ales, like Scotch ales in general, varied from English ales in several particulars. Scotch ales tended to be very lightly hopped, since hops did not grow as well in the northern latitudes as they did in the south of England. Since hops had to be imported into Scotland, they were expensive and were therefore used sparingly. Some brewers substituted herbs and spices for the hops. However, barley, which thrived in Scotland, was plentiful. Though most of it was used in the making of whiskey, some of it was malted for brewing. Peat was most often used to fire the kilns in which Scottish malt was finished and it imparted a unique hint of smokiness to the malt. In turn, the smoky flavor of the malt enhanced the final flavor of the ales made from it. Another special ingredient used in the brewing of Scotch ales was heather. Its use in brewing has been dated back to the Bronze and Iron Age Picts and Celts. Heather made its own contribution to the flavor of the ales brewed with it. In addition, it added a touch of sweetness and increased the alcoholic strength by supplementing the action of the yeast during fermentation.

There was one more special ingredient which was sometimes added to the mash from which a Scotch ale was brewed, particularly by home brewers. Superstitious brewers would have added a liberal dash of salt to the mash for the ale. It was believed that the addition of salt to the mash would keep witches away. However, it is not clear whether the addition of salt only protected the ale itself, or if the resultant salted ale would also protect those who drank it from the predation of witches.

Groaning malts and maturity ales had been brewed in Scotland in conjunction with the birth of a child since the Middle Ages. They continued to be brewed for those same reasons right through the Regency. Dear Regency Authors, could a groaning malt or a maturity ale be just the thing to liven up an upcoming story set in Scotland? Though most women in labor were attended only by other married women, it was common for those women to take some of their groaning refreshments home. Perhaps the heroine’s mother or sister returned home with some very strong groaning ale. Will the heroine take a drink, unaware of its strength, only to become rather intoxicated just when she meets the hero for the first time? Or, will a cask of maturity ale be tapped during the twenty-first birthday celebration for the hero or another character? Will the hero quarrel with his very superstitious mother when he discovers she had directed the estate brew-master to add salt to the mash from which the maturity ale for his first-born son is to be brewed? How else might a groaning malt or a maturity ale figure in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Special Brews of Scotland:   Groaning Malts and Maturity Ales

  1. Fascinating as always

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