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1,200 years ago, our ancestors had already discovered that Norfolk is an ideal place for growing barley.

They already knew the techniques of turning grain into malt.

They had built the facilities to do it. And they were malting barley. Big time.

It’s the kind of thing that stops you in your tracks and makes you think. We’re in an industry that goes back all those years – when people and life were completely different.



Then you think, well, were they completely different?

People still wanted to drink beer. People still knew enough science to cultivate barley; to process grain into malt; and to process malt into ale. And you start to think, perhaps there are more similarities between life then, and life now. Malting was providing the connection between the land, farming, the brewing of ale and human enjoyment 1,200 years ago. And it still is.

Medieval Country Life Woodcut



So, how do we know there was malting in north west Norfolk in Anglo-Saxon times? The answer is simple. Sedgeford.

Archaeology at Sedgeford

Four years ago, Crisp hosted and contributed to a British Guild of Beer Writers’ seminar about malting. One of the sessions was by the great Dr Neil Faulkner (of Time Team, Timewatch and The British fame), who was leading the SHARP archaeological project at Sedgeford.

He talked of how modern farming methods that churn deep into the soil, have destroyed much evidence about the past. He told us how fortuitous it was that a gully in the land at Sedgeford in north west Norfolk resulted in deeper top soils which prevented modern ploughs from disturbing ancient remains.

Neil explained the process of excavation at the site and how the archaeologists deciphered and interpreted the remains. He related how the first malthouse, on the site, dating back to 800AD, was revealed, and identified in 2018.

Sedgeford Archaelogical Dig

Image Credit: Lynn News/Iliffe Media



Most interesting of all, he told how a visit by the archaeological team to a working floor maltings totally changed their interpretations.

Without understanding how steeping, germinating, and kilning work, and what building structures are needed to carry out these processes, they had made mistakes in their pronouncements about the ancient vestiges.

As Neil said, what they got wrong to begin with was assuming that the kilns would have been outside in the open. It was a revelation to him when the maltsters he was visiting told him that germinating barley would need to be indoors on a floor above the kiln. Suddenly the shapes of the remains made sense to the team of archaeologists. The anomalies in their interpretations were resolved.

On the site are holes where the clay-lined steeping tanks and the kilns would have been. The posts holding up the malt-drying room decayed long ago. The holes where they once sat were infilled with material different from the surrounding ground. So once the archaeologists knew the grain needed to be dried above the kilns, the post holes at last made sense.

In his excellent post on the subject, beer writer Martyn Cornell talks of other well preserved evidence.

He says,

the flat floor of baked clay that would have been used for germinating the barley after steeping and couching, burnt grains of malt, where the drying got out of hand and the toasting went too far, and burnt daub (as in wattle-and-daub), where the drying got really out of hand and burnt the whole building down. Fire has always been a risk in maltings, and it looks as if, during the life of the Sedgeford maltings, it may have burnt down and been rebuilt two or three times.

Aeriel Photo of Saxon Malthouse

The remains of the Anglo-Saxon (or Angle, to be accurate) malthouse complex found at Sedgeford, in north-west Norfolk. © Neil Faulkner


Wrong, Curious, Humble, Brilliant

Sedgeford Archaelogical Dig BlogAll that stuff about fully understanding the process might seem obvious to you. But that’s because you can’t really be a brewer or distiller without having at least some insights into barley growing and malting.

Anyway, if you’d heard Neil talking, you would have forgiven the oversight. You’d have appreciated his humility – not just in revising strongly held convictions, but in going out of his way to highlight his “schoolboy error”. He used it to show how finds are not set in stone, investigations remain open, and interpretations may, and often do, change.

What came across in his talk was the sheer breadth of knowledge and scientific understanding needed to be a good archaeologist. All that historical, geographical and topographical expertise; all that know-how about natural and man-made materials; all that comprehension of the science and timings of decay; all that erudition about the dating of objects. And those are just some of the skills required.

Image Credit: Lynn News/Iliffe Media


Scaled Up

Since that first malthouse was discovered at Sedgeford, the remains of a further five malthouses have been uncovered on the site. That’s a pretty strong indication of malting on an industrial scale.

Who Brewed?

The tantalising, and unanswered, question is, who was using all that malt that the Sedgeford maltings were producing? Who was brewing in those early medieval days – and where? There’s speculation that the Church was organising the brewing, but evidence of that could we find none.

Sure, 50 miles away and some 200 years later, in 1086, there is evidence of Church involvement in brewing. The edition of the Domesday Book covering what is now Bury St Edmunds mentions “cerevisiarii”, or ale brewers, working in the Benedictine Abbey (which had been established around 1020). But that proves nothing about the brewers benefitting from the barley grown around and malted at, Sedgeford in the 800s.

Martyn Cornell says that in the 12th century, two manors at Sedgeford were in the hands of Norwich Cathedral Priory, with malt from Sedgeford going to make ale for the monks at the Priory. It all points in a similar direction, but again, that’s quite a bit later (like 300 years), so it would be rash to say it proves that the malt from Sedgeford was in 800AD going into ecclesiastical hands.

Group of people at Sedgeford Archaelogical Dig

Further Back in Time

As a bit of an aside, it’s worth mentioning a find from the Iron Age – 400BC – discovered by archaeologists under the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon.

If there was ale in 400BC, there was brewing. If there was brewing in 400BC, there was malting. That’s 1,200 years before the evidence of malting in Sedgeford, north west Norfolk.


So, there have been at least 48 – and it looks like at least 96 – generations of barley growing and malting in East Anglia. Without wanting to sound too clichéd, Crisp team members are custodians of that tradition. Our company value “Pass it on Better” means being conscious of the legacy we have inherited, and ever mindful of the legacy we will leave.


1,200 years on, we hope our descendants will be celebrating Norfolk as an ideal place for growing and malting barley.

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