Monday, January 16, 2012

Barm Bread, part I

While doing some 'light' reading about the history of bread making, I kept coming across references to a type of bread leavened with ale barm, unsurprisingly called "barm bread." And while I know what 'barm' is - the yeasty foam (krausen) produced from fermenting liquids like beer and distillers mash - it had never occurred to me that the history of bread making (in Europe at least) would have been so closely tied with brewing. It makes perfect sense really. Breweries and bakeries were often closely situated to one another and the bread would be leavened with the mixture of yeast and ale skimmed from the brewers fermentation vessels. Reading up on the topic a bit more, it turns out that the history of making barm bread is largely a British one - dating back to the times of the Celts - with the English, Scots, and Irish making their own distinct versions of barm bread throughout the centuries. And it would remain the standard style of bread making in Britain until shortly after the Second World War.

So what exactly is barm bread? Well, it seems the main difference between a barm bread and that of say, a sourdough, is the yeast and process. To simplify things, in a sourdough starter, various saccharomyces yeasts and lactic acid producing bacteria provide the leavening for the bread and give the bread its characteristic sour-y tang. You probably didn't need me to tell you that. However, with barm breads, the leavening action comes from the brewers yeast alone, which would have been worked into starter containing a mixture of beer and flour. Sources indicate that the breads baked with barm were light and sweet tasting and as the hops contain antimicrobial properties, the 'starter' did not sour so easily. One can imagine how the beer would also add its own flavors to the bread too. Interestingly, continental bakers deemed barm bread as 'unwholesome' and the practice was virtually lost outside of Britain. Lastly, I unknowingly ate a lot of barm bread while living in Ireland and the UK, in the form of barm cake and barmbrack.

I really didn't have any intentions of trying my hand at making barm bread, that is, until I found myself sitting on a batch of freshly top-cropped wy1318 yeast and nothing to brew with it. As such, I made my barm starter last night and it should be ready by tomorrow. The process I used is similar to the one outlined by Dan Lepard in his book, "The Handmade Loaf," but differs in that I am actually using brewing yeast. Here is the process I used made to make the starter mixture:

I heated eight ounces of beer - I used my malty English brown ale - in a saucepan to 160F and added to it 50 grams of white flour that I then mixed together to form a soupy paste. After cooling to room temp, I added a few tablespoons of my top cropped yeast and mixed thoroughly. That's it! Simple. It is currently sitting in a warm corner and already I can see the yeast starting to bubble and expand. It looks somewhat horrific and smells like a super concentrated yeast cake.

I will post more on my adventure into bread making as soon as the starter is ready. I am excited to see how this bread turns out and maybe try to see if the different yeasts impart their own flavors.

Part II is here

1 comment:

  1. Interesting info. I've done a number of small batches with dry yeast and left the unused portion in the fridge for bread. When harvesting yeast, there's so much there that I've been thinking about using it for bread when appropriate. And why not?

    Now if only I could make a yeasted or quick bread that tasted akin to a good pint of ale...


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