The Malster

Reviewing my June 2015 Blog ‘Malster to Mariner’ got me thinking about the trade of Malster. Edward (my 1st cousin three times removed) who featured in the 2015 Blog and his father (my 2nd great grand uncle) on the 1861 Census are listed as Malsters; these were usually Agricultural Labourers (Ag Labs) who prepared the malt from grain, usually to a brewer’s specifications. The modern spelling of the word is Maltster. It was a completely different occupation to that of a brewer who turned the malt into beer. It is possible in some cases that one man might do both, but there is no evidence of this with Edward.

If you are interested in how malt is produced this is a great introduction:; accessed June 2016

Basically cereal grains (usually barley) are malted to make beer and spirits. The Malster is an expert in their trade and the role was crucial in ensuring a quality brew or distillation. As I like a Guinness now and then, I was interested to read that the longer the barley grain is roasted the darker the malt. So for a nice pale ale you need a light malt and for a dark ale or stout a darker malt is required.

This excerpt (source: the above link) was particularly interesting for me:

“In the early floor maltings this work was all done by hand”

I think our ancestors would have been pretty tough individuals, working on the land and finding whatever work they could on a day to day, week by week basis. I suppose the current comparison today would be a relative or family member on a zero hours contract.
As water was pretty foul in Edwards day most people drunk beer (it was a lot safer) so malting was big business. Lots of people made lots of money, including the government due to the tax system. No change there then!

The link with Agricultural Labourers (Ag Labs) is interesting; Edward and his father are listed as such on the 1851 Census:

Farming, malting, brewing and selling beer were all separate occupations, but sometimes these were combined. The farmer may have malted their own barley and then brewed beer from it and sold the beer in the inns or they might have contracted out either or both of the malting & brewing processes or simply sold the barley and brought in the beer.

Ag Labs would generally provide the labouring skills to do the manual work of moving the grain around in the maltings and bagging it ready for sale and distribution. Malting was seasonal, obviously being busiest after the barley crop came in, so many who were quite skilled malster employees were out of work for several months of the year and had to turn to labouring or go on poor relief.

Unfortunately the term ‘malsters’ or ‘maltsters’ was used both for those who owned the business and those who worked in it, so you can’t readily tell from the [UK] Census until you get to the later ones that have a column showing whether they were employee or employer.

Source:; accessed June 2016 and; accessed June 2016.

I think we take our drink for granted nowadays and don’t think of the work that goes into producing our favourite pint! Of course today most of this process would be mechanised; I wonder what Edward would think about that! Many products produced by hand seem to be of a higher quality. I wonder what the taste of a pale or dark ale would have been in 1861, compared to now in 2016, 155 years later?


Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Cambridgeshire. He delivers courses, coaching, talks, and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See for further details. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation. What stories could your ancestors tell?