Baking with Barm: Part II of the Surprisingly Long History of Brewing Mugs' Shot IPA


This post is part of The Historical Cooking Project's special series Booze, Brews, and Drinks, which speaks to the confluence and the divergence of the histories of booze and food.





On Tuesday, I wrote (here) about the actual process of making beer. Today's post discusses the relationship with beer and bread. This article also acts as a companion piece to our recent guest post on Egyptian bread.

I must begin by being honest: Though the loaves looked beautiful, they tasted horrible.

Can you imagine my disappointment? Not only had I spent an entire day experimenting with different bread recipes—and I do mean the entire day— but I had spent weeks brewing beer from scratch in order to retrieve the barm.  And don’t even get me started on the amount of research I did to try to learn about baking with the by-product of beer (a topic upon which not enough is written after the 18th century; in those older texts, a basic knowledge about baking and brewing is assumed).

 There are five explanations for this sad result: the kind of yeast that I used for brewing was a bitter yeast; the hops in the brew was too concentrated and this ruined the flavor (we were making an IPA after all, which is known for its high IBU due to its intense infusion of hops); I should have just scraped the barm off of the top of the bucket after the first stage rather than what was left at the bottom the bucket because the sediment on the bottom was likely dead and decaying yeast; I waited the incorrect amount of time before baking with the barm; and/or I should have "cleaned" the barm better.

Catherine Parr Traill actually warned in The Female Emigrant's Guide that sometimes one's bread will taste dreadful if they do not properly clean the barm. She suggested that you "cure" brewer's yeast, by pouring half a pint of lukewarm water on yeast and letting it stand a few hours before using it-- then pour off water, add a bit more warm water, add a tiny bit of flour and let it stand while you wait for bubbles (90-98)…. Which is why in one recipe I tried to rinse the barm. To be fair, I did this a bit haphazardly as rinsing it seemed to cause me to just dilute the barm and most was trickling down the drain.


For those of you who don’t know, barm is the live yeast cells that are present at the top of fermenting beer. Barm is not made with beer.



I wish that I had looked more thoroughly at the forums on Sourdough Companion, a site that hosts forums for a community of bakers of all levels interested in the art of naturally risen breads. Here I learned that “Briefly, barm is the term used to refer to the yeast scooped from the surface (NOT the bottom) of a freshly brewed wort. The best barms come from the traditional ales, not a lager.”

the collected barm (and the dead stuff at the bottom- whoops!)


Echoing Parr Traill’s advice, one baker, JohnD, on the forum stated that “the barm was usually washed to remove contaminants and bitterness, and can be stored as a "stock" to innoculate bread doughs or added directly to the dough as a 'maiden.' A skillful baker could cycle a barm infused dough for long periods without recourse to a re-inoculation.”
In fact,  “Barm is a polyculture of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae families, and "rouge" yeasts were excluded by careful management. Modern "baker's yeast" was isolated from  barm in the 19th century, and monocultured.”

Though on this blog we tend to find ourselves in a space both inside and outside of the academy, we tend to rely on more scholarly sources. However, after numerous hours of research, this baker's forum proved the most informative. My go-to guides for bread, such as The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and The Bread Bible only discussed the word "barm" in its modern usage, as a euphemism for sourdough. The Colonial Baker only mentioned the technique briefly. I put a call out on social media and frantically emailed some of my baker friends. Most said they were curious about the topic but hadn’t had a chance to try it themselves yet.

It was actually exciting, though a little nerve wracking, to not have much guidance on the topic because I got to play with a few different techniques. I used a basic bread recipe of a 2 to 1 ratio of flour to water, a pinch of sugar, some salt, and a dash of olive oil. The difference between the three loaves was that with one recipe I tried Traill’s advice on cleaning the barm (and failed); with one I just mixed the barm into the flour cold from the fridge (where it had sat overnight after I collected it from brewing); and in the third I had let the barm warm for an hour.

While all of these methods made nice looking, delightful-smelling loaves with such a wonderful texture, the aftertaste can best be described as...sewage-y. 

I had wanted to try a method of baking that might have been closer to leavened bread at its origins, exploring its relationship with beer. Mosher, in Radical Brewing, reminds us that the dehydrated yeasts that we use today for baking (and sometimes brewing) are not necessarily the best tasting yeasts but they are the ones that can withstand the dehydration process. I wanted to taste different flavours in my bread - I just didn't anticipate that they would be of sewage. However, the experiment was not a complete loss. One of the most exciting parts of this process was seeing how active the yeast was. I actually clapped as the barm bubbled and rumbled with just a pinch of sugar.


After the experiment had taken place, one friend informed me that I would have better luck by searching for “baking with krausen" (another name for barm). Maybe next time I will use this recipe. 

Mal and I have already begun brewing a moka stout and this weekend I will collect the barm – properly this time! -- and try again. Keep an eye on Twitter to see the results! 

If you have any experience baking with barm, please share your tips in the comments section below.

The  Booze, Brews, and Drinks special series will continue on the fourth Thursday of every month for the rest of the year. Stay tuned!

1 comment :

  1. You might also find information by searching among the experiments in medieval baking and brewing done by folks in the Society for Creative Anachronism. A website called Stefan's Florilegium has a long series of discussions about baking with barm.

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