What’s With The Boxes For Cutting Straw?

Again with Lord Selkirk’s diary of 1803-04, I noticed one thing on page 114 that sorta suck out. In his description of the set up of the kiln, there is a particular notation: “…small portable boxes for cutting straw are made for $9…” What the heck is that about? What is the function of the box? Why do you need a number of them? And what is the function of the straw?

Here is a very detailed discussion of the straw or chaff cutter. In that discussion, the tool is shown as going back centuries. The function of the cutter was to make the straw digestible by cutting it into small enough lengths to be mixed with the feed of a horse. And in this case, Selkirk’s note follows a reference to a horse run mill to grind the malt. So it could be just that.

But there are two other uses for straw in this brewery. One was expressly mentioned the other day. Mr Grieve the brewer mixed straw into his mash to keep the wheat from gumming things up. Torrified or popped wheat can be used for that today. Cutting the straw would make sense to ensure it was evenly distributed through out the mash. Straw can be a multi-purpose resource in what I am starting to call if only to myself “vernacular” brewing. Brewing with the locally available resources. If, out of that, you make a unique beer maybe that is an “indigenous” form of beer.

But there is another possibility. Or is it an additional one? Maybe he was kilning with the straw. Attentive readers will recall the fern ale post of the fall of 2011. In that discussion, we see that in the 1600s and 1700s, while coke was growing as a kilning fuel for large operations, straw was still a reliable fuel to make the palest and least smokey malt. Good wheat straw, when used with skill, made the sweetest pale malt. Notice, too, that Grieve is kilning his malt in a place and at a scale where other desirable fuels are unlikely to be as readily and cheaply available. Wheat was the monoculture crop, the gold standard for sale and even export. There may have been plenty of wheat straw sitting around as the district filled with settling farmers. If so and as the beer had a high proportion of wheat, these strong ales of his my well have been quite pale despite their frontier origin.

Just a thought. Could be tasty stuff.

One thought on “What’s With The Boxes For Cutting Straw?”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Jordan St.john – November 10, 2013 6:35 PM
    Alternately, you could have used straw of a specific length as a hop jack in order to filter out hops and then use them again in a subsequent brew. Horsehair was also used for this.

    Alan – November 10, 2013 7:14 PM
    No mention of that function but that certainly could be fourth use.

    Alan – November 10, 2013 8:35 PM
    Here is an interesting 1913 article on the poor interaction between chaff cutting and brewing.

    Craig – November 10, 2013 11:03 PM
    I wonder if burning the straw imparted any smokiness to the final beer?

    Ron Pattinson – November 11, 2013 2:34 AM
    Given that the boxes are mentioned in a section about the kiln, my guess would be that they were using the straw as fuel for the kiln.

    Alan – November 11, 2013 8:15 AM
    Craig, wheat straw imparts the least smokiness. Managing the fuel to achieve goals like even heat, low smoke and thorough drying would have been a skill we would now have no clue about now.

    Alan – November 11, 2013 8:34 AM
    Plus, they are indirectly kilning from that description. And they need diastatic properties so they are aiming for pale. And if you think about the 1835 records where it says they want pale hops to not impart a green hue due to the high hopping. That would only occur with a beer of a certain lightness of colour.

    Alan – November 11, 2013 8:37 AM
    Oh, and they would want to be efficient, using the least fuel for the achieved diastatic effect. Yet, Vassar has porter in 1809… so they would be able to manage the skill on a small scale.

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