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The ale-barm method: Worthy of revival or just barmy bread?

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John Downes John Downes | 11:38 UK time, Thursday, 28 July 2011

This week The Food Programme is all about yeast, the mysterious fungi that play an essential yet often overlooked part of our food production. The programme explores yeast in brewing and baking, and reveals how the original method of making yeast bread in Britain was a by-product of ale-making. When traditional ale is made, a yeasty froth appears on top of the fermenting liquid, the wort. This used to be scooped off, washed and added to bread dough in order to leaven it. Bread made this way is sweet tasting, and the leavening yeast used to be called 'barm'. Its unpredictability gives us the word 'barmy'. This short picture-film explains the process:

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In the 19th century, the process was refined and industrialised, manufacturing it on a large scale which we know today as 'yeast', and used world-wide as THE method to leaven bread. The barm method appears to be an ancient method developed by Gaelic peoples in the mists of time, and was quite different to that used in Europe, which is to leaven bread with a sourdough or leaven (the French call it 'levain'). When the Romans first conquered Gaul, modern day France, they were astonished by the light sweet bread made by the Celtic inhabitants. Barm bread survived with the Celtic peoples in Britain, Scotland and Éire, but was not common in Europe, being condemned during the 'Enlightenment' as 'unwholesome'. In England noblemen's bread, manchet was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners' bread maslin was a sourdough. Barm bread survived until World War Two and even later in the North of England largely as barm cakes. Curiously, the old method of making a sponge, or thick batter of flour and water with the barm was still used with the new industrially produced yeast, and was re-introduced to Europe from Vienna where the first yeast factories were established. This became popular in France as a 'poolish', the favoured method of making crusty bread such as a baguette. It is interesting that the old method survived the invasions of Romans, Saxons and Normans. It couldn't be ignored really as it made the sweetest lightest bread in the right hands. As with all of these archaic breads, it was highly digestible and nutritious because the ferments were never pure strains like they are today, but included lactic bacteria which also gave the bread good flavour.

Barm bread is so worthy of revival because it is a characteristic ancient bread of Britain, a true heritage. Even today it hasn't been forgotten as some will still add ale to bread dough to give it the ancient flavour, so appreciated in Britain and distinct from other bread cultures. It's just a shame that the process was bastardised by industrialisation to produce the unwholesome yeast breads of today. Nevertheless, there are bakers using the new organic yeast which is virtually the same, and employing long ferments to ensure the bread has flavour, character and is digestible.

 Are you a keen home baker? Have you tried sourdough starters or making ale-barm bread? Share your experiences of making unusual breads.

John Downes is a baker and food writer who pioneered the sourdough 'revolution' in Australia in the 1970s. He is interviewed in this week's The Food Programme. Picture-film made by George Casey.


  • Comment number 1.

    Fascinating clip about the barm. I regularly make a sourdough maslin bread. The recipe I have uses 50% rye and 50% wheat flour. Dense but delicious.

  • Comment number 2.

    Yes I agree, my favourite combination is (organic/BD flours) 50% sifted stoneground wholemeal wheat, 25% sifted stonground wholemeal Rye and 25% wholemeal stoneground Spelt....which is close to an old description I read of maslin in a good a bad year evidently It had little or no wheat and in a very bad year, was a combination of rye, nuts, peas,acorns and whatever there was! I simply sift the flours in a fine sieve. I think the Maslin is a delicious loaf and I agree its dense, but is actually light on the digestion because of the fermentation.

  • Comment number 3.

    Excellent John, as always!

  • Comment number 4.

    I have been using Ale-Barm for the last three years to bake bread for various local markets around Exeter. I collect a bucket of fresh barm each week from Guy Sheppard at Exe Valley Brewery. I use this to make a variety of breads, lardy cake and other baked goods, and have successfully used it for croissants.
    I was initially inspired by the recipe for "The Finest French Bread" by Robert May " The Accomplisht Cook" - published 1660 - and have successfully recreated the recipe. I have developed a variety of methods of using the barm, but usually as an overnight poolish. It is also quite easy to use directly into a shorter time dough, White Spelt flour is particularly good.
    The one thing I have not done is wash the yeast, and have not had a problem with bitterness in the bread.
    However, we have developed a bread which we call "The Brewers Mash Loaf" - this involves boiling up malt to make a wort, adding barm and hops as if to make a beer. Once the fermentation is well established we put flour in and make the dough.
    The finished loaf has a beautiful full malty taste up front, followed by the flowery character of the hops and finally the bitter finish comes through.
    I would like to know if anyone has a good recipe for "wiggs" using ale-barm as they are the next recreation I hope to try.

  • Comment number 5.

    Fantastic info - thanks for sharing. I'll have to get some from some home brewer friends of mine to try it.

    For home baking, how would you use the barm? Say, make a poolish/loose pre-ferment, let it bubble a bit, then add more flour to make a dough to ferment, shape, proof and bake? Any ideas re: ratios/formulas to start off with using barm?

  • Comment number 6.

    I have been making sourdough bread for 8 months and the results are amazing! Delicious bread, chewy crust, open gets better with time.
    I am starting my own micro-bakery from home as friends and family are urging me to spread the good bread!

    Try it, it's easy and so satisfying to make!

  • Comment number 7.

    I made my first bread using ale barm a few months ago encouraged by Ivan Day, a fellow villager. The barm I used came from a local brewer, Tirril Brewery and produced a distinctive loaf with a delicious chewy crust and good crumb. Flour was Little Salkeld Watermill's biodinamic 85%.
    Visiting your local brewer and asking for barm can be an educational process, especially as apparently and ancient law declares that the brewer is bound to acceed to your request. Your first task, therefore, is to convince him that you mean to create bread with the barm and not a rival ale!

  • Comment number 8.

    Here are a couple of methods that I have had success with using ale-barm, although due to its unpredictability I have also had a fair number of failures ( or learning experiences!).

    Overnight starter: 400g barm, 800g water, 1200g dark rye flour.
    Whisk barm and water together, stir in flour till smooth. Leave in a covered bucket overnight.
    I make a 100% rye bread from this, incorporating the starter at between 10% and 25% of dough weight.
    My best selling bread is a seeded loaf using this rye starter at about 10% dough weight, with equal parts of strong white and maltstar (from Stoates, Shaftesbury), mixed seeds at about 3% are ground and added to the dough, salt 1%. The starter above gives me about 24 kilos of finished dough (approx 65% hydration)

    White Spelt flour works with the overnight starter if temperature is kept low enough; in warmer times the barm seems to go crazy and the starter will climb out of the bucket, exhausting itself in a few hours. I don't have a retarder or fridge space but guess that would make life easier.
    My shorter time white spelt is a pretty reliable recipe.

    1000g White Spelt (Shipton mill)
    500g Water
    100g Barm
    1 egg white whisked till just frothing
    15g salt

    Whisk barm and water, gradually incorporate into the flour, adding egg about half way. Salt added once dough is coming together.
    I always hand knead this as our spiral mixer seems to slap spelt dough into submission. Knead until you have got through the sticky stage, adding a little more water as necessary. You want a smooth soft dough, but don't overwork it. Leave to rise, watching carefully as it has a tendency to bolt and then collapse. It can be knocked back a few times if required, though as with the starter the barm seems to exhaust itself if allowed to run riot.
    This is better baked in a tall sided tin.

  • Comment number 9.

    I listened to your programme on Radio 4 and was fascinated by the concept of Ale Balm Bread - if I have spelt it correctly, plus the fact that it contained the vitamin B12 (I hope I have that correct too). I had just returned from Scotland and whilst there visited quite a number of castle ruins. The one thing that fascinated me was the fact that in every castle there was a brewery next door to the bakery or the bakery was incorporated inside the brewery. It made perfect sense as both needs warmth, and as was pointed out in all the documentation, ale and bread was the staple diet then. Also my husband who brews his own beer properly has tried to use the yeast to make bread but not with the same success as his beer.

    So Mr Downes is there somewhere I can lay my hands on a book that explains the process more fully please, possibly with pictures? I have looked on the Internet and am not sure if you live here or have returned to Australia, and there appears to be a book that you wrote, but finding a copy has escaped me so far - obviously not looking in the right places. I watched the short video clip as well but realise that it is more complicated than that. We bake and eat our own bread and would rather like to try yours.

  • Comment number 10.

    Whoops, mistake number one its Ale Leven Barm bread not Balm.

  • Comment number 11.

    Ken, thats really encouraging to hear about a fellow fanatic, and that you are having such success, and clearly know what you are doing. The brewers mash loaf definitely bused to be made in Eire an older irish fellow once told me, especially from a dark mash like a guiness, but I just cannot remember the name he gave it!! Thanks for the details as well, which answer some of the other posters questions. Seems like the sponge is the way to go with barm as it increases the population of the yeast and enables some acidity to develop, also hydrating the flour (ripening it) so making very digestible bread. Ken sounds like you do this commercially? where abouts?...and making croissant with it, thats about as authentic as you can get and I want one!!!

  • Comment number 12.

    Netta, thanks for your post and yes, thats an accurate observation about the brewing/baking..."as we brew so we bake" is the old adage. Lucky you to have seen the archaic set up. Im in the UK at present, working with Shipton mill in the cotswolds, but about to return to Australia, hoping to be back in about 6 months. My previous books are available through Amazon, but there are no details about Barm, but Ken posting above has generously shared really good information, so that should help. Im just finishing a book which has barm details and will be published within the next 18 months.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hello John - fascinating programme and blog. I'm a homebrewer, been a homebaker and am also a PhD student so pretty analytical about these things. I'm brewing Belgian beers at the moment, and decided to try Barm bread. I have a question though - can you create a sourdough-style starter from the Barm, or does it have to be fresh off the wort each time? There are a lot of enzymes in Barley that turn the starch into sugars - could it be that these are also necessary?

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi Domejunky, thankyou...yes it is sourdough style, was/is called a sponge, but is essentially the same procedure, so innoculate ( to be techy) a thick batter of (pref organic) flour and warm water, which should contain a proportion of wholemeal for best results,(and organic stoneground is definitely best), with the top fermenting yeasts...not the bottom sludge, and definitely Ale, not lager. Also add some non-diastatic malt to the sponge, and keep it warm-ish (25-28) all the time. This is why the yeast was washed and stored, so as to have a fresh innoculant without having to resort to the wort everytime...often, the yeast just dies out , so the "sourdough" procedure can be maintained for a while, but will revert to a more lactic bacteria and wild yeast dominated starter.
    The enzymes do help, and as you know are even present in good (organic) flour which is "bio-active", but the non-diastatic malt provides enough food for the yeast. If diastatic malt is used, it becomes an enzyme overload, and the bread dough will be converted too radically and will become sticky and unmanageable.
    hope this helps, good luck with the baking.

  • Comment number 15.

    Thanks John - good info. I shall definitely try a starter. For my experiments this time I took a turkey-baster of krausen (glad we have the word 'barm' for this now) and added this to enough flour to make a thick batter. This is from a 'Leffe Bruin' clone. I'm quite familiar with the narrative of this yeast, after 4 hours I didn't see a lot of activity, and wondered if there was enough viable yeast from the Barm - the beer had gone beyond the heady stage. I was due to take a sample for gravity reading (100ml) so I decided to chuck that into the mix too....and off it went! Followed the instructions on the Radio4 interview (12hours -> dough -> 4hours -> knock-back and shape -> 4hours -> bake) and it made perhaps the best loaf I've made in over 25 years...I was particularly impressed with the strength of the yeast. Slower, but can lift a heavy dough - I'm going to try an all Rye loaf now

  • Comment number 16.

    Thats great news junky,im thrilled you had that success, and shows how good the process is...with the rye, you do need some lactic factor because "sour conditions improve the swelling power of the pentosans and also partly inactivate the amylase which would otherwise have a detrimental efect on the baking process and impair normal crumb formation"...Non-sour rye bread is cloying and more difficult to digest. This is a good case for adding some sourdough to the process.All traditional rye breads have a sour factor, and is also why caraway is added as it is a digestive.


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