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If you enjoy the occasional pint of ale at home, then there are two good reasons to make it yourself: quality and cost. Unless we're thirsty enough to buy by the cask, the only real ale most of us can stock up with comes in bottle-conditioned form; usually way too gassy for my taste, increasingly rare (again) nowadays, and costing around £2 for rather-less-than-a-pint. In contrast, I reckon to make a full pint for about 25p, and it's exactly the strength, dryness, colour and condition that I want. However, you need to be a bit of an enthusiast to convert malt grains and hop cones into beer! You also need time: I always set aside a full day for brewing, albeit there's plenty of time for other pursuits while things are heating up, mashing and boiling.
Mashing, sparging and hopping on a domestic scale tax the ingenuity. There's no "standard" set of equipment, and most home brewers I've met have adapted what was to hand, sometimes with rather bizarre results. My brewery is no exception!
What follows is a description of the brewing process that's evolved in my kitchen, in
the course of 40 years and many hundreds of brews. Don't try to emulate it
without reading more widely about home brewing. Beer kits are a good starting point,
they can make surprisingly good beer and will get you used to handling and fermenting
large volumes of liquid.
Note: if you can't get Extra Pale malt, use Light Crystal with standard pale malt for a similar colour. Light Crystal and Extra Pale produce something closer to a golden ale, which I quite like during the summer season. Likewise, "traditional" Fuggle hops are fine for the main boil, perhaps with some Goldings for the late addition.
One piece of kit you must have is a boiler. Mine is a plastic 5 gallon "Electrim Bin" fitted with a heating element and a simmerstat controller. It serves literally as a boiler later on, but first I use it as a water heater and mash tun. I originally bought a polyester "Grain Bag" to hold the malt during mashing, but found that grain leaked through the coarse mesh to clog up the tap. So instead I now use the "splatter screen", shown below. It's exactly the right diameter to sit snugly above the heating element, supported by those two glass bowls and the tap nut. There's also a piece of string tightly tied round the outside of the bin at the same level, to help keep its shape when hot.
Don't worry, your boiler will look like that after a few brews :-)
With the boiler standing on a small table (newspaper between them for
insulation), 3½ gallons of water inside and the mesh in place, you can switch the
heater on at maximum, leave it to reach 71°C, then switch off and disconnect.
Meanwhile open the bag
of pale malt and insert the measured crystal malt, so that it's ready
to pour from a single bag.
Because mashing is a temperature-critical process, the malt should be pitched quickly
to bring the temperature down to the target 65°C, but at
the same time the grains need wetting and dispersing evenly to avoid them lumping
together. So you should gently stir the surface, whilst
pouring in a thin, steady stream of grain.
The heater now stays off for 3 hours (a generous lunch break!), but first
the mash tun must be thoroughly insulated. With three heavy blankets over and around
it, the temperature will typically fall from 66°C to 63°C, giving a
good balance of extraction and starch conversion.
When the mashing time is up, you need to drain and rinse the grain, known as sparging. This requires a further 2 gallons of water, heated to a little above 65°C in a large pan on the cooker. A 5 gallon bin (later to be the fermentation vessel) sits under the boiler tap to receive the "sweet wort", which you should run out very slowly at first to avoid disturbing the wodge of grain in the flow. Once the grain surface is exposed you can open the tap fully, and start to trickle on jugfuls of the hot water - again very slowly, taking about 20 minutes overall.
The spent grain rots down well
on the compost heap (or you can feed it to your cattle...)
At this point, lacking a traditional tower brewery, I have to clean out the boiler and return the sweet wort to it, using a jug at first until it's safe to lift the bin and pour out the rest. Then the heater goes back on to bring the wort to boiling point.
In an ideal world the hops should be free to roll around in a vigorously boiling wort. I take the coward's way out, and simmer them in the confines of the "Grain Bag" alluded to above (with the 'stat set about mid-way). Most of the hops (30g) are boiled for 1¼ hours, the remainder (20g) added during the last 15 minutes for aroma. To avoid the base of the bag rising up, it's useful to fix a long wooden spoon to the rim of the bin, so that it holds the vertical wall of the bag against the inside of the bin, above the heating element.
Turn the heat off, and after a short rest the wort can be run off into the fermenting
bin (which thus, happily, doesn't need separate sterilising treatment).
A kettleful of boiling water trickled over the hops replaces the volume
lost during the boil, giving 5 gallons overall. With a lid on
(which must have an air hole in it) the bin can now be left to cool
As the sun sets at the end of your brewing day, and you clean out the boiler for the second time, you can pause to reflect how much easier it would have been to open a can of hopped malt extract and dilute with cold water. Much less interesting though. This is a good time to sample last month's brew, which should be in peak condition.
When it's cold, you can fetch an hydrometer to your wort to make sure the gravity is ok (1036 or so). Then do something many brewing authorities don't mention: get some air into it, by frothing up the surface for several minutes with a long-handled spoon as shown. This helps the yeast to multiply and gain a bit of strength before it starts work on the sugars. Add the yeast, and keep well covered until some froth is visible (12-36 hours).
Fermentation takes anything from 4 days to over 2 weeks, depending on the
and the yeast. Some yeasts resist all attempts to contain them in the bin,
others (including most of the dried ones I've tried) skulk in the depths and allow
you to leave a loose lid on. In all cases you should remove the dark brown crud which
forms on the surface, as well as any excess of yeast.
When the activity has subsided, check the gravity daily; once below
1010 it's ready for the barrel (life's too short to mess around with conditioning
Syphon the beer off its sediment into a scrupulously clean barrel, seal, and leave to condition undisturbed for at least a week. Unless your yeast has dropped out exceptionally well, you'll probably want to fine the beer. In the past I found prepared isinglass finings to be convenient and effective - but you need to be sure they've been stored in a fridge both before and after purchase. In recent years, supply problems have obliged me to switch to using gelatine.
Immediately after racking the beer, put ¼ pt cold, boiled water into a small saucepan, and sprinkle in a 12g sachet of powdered gelatine. Leave for a minute or two, then gently heat the pan, stirring constantly, until the powder has dissolved - it should get no more than "very warm", and certainly nowhere near boiling. Then slowly fill the pan with beer, still stirring, and mix it into the bulk with a long-handled plastic spoon. I don't generally need to add priming sugar, unless the racking gravity is exceptionally low, when I might put a tablespoon or two in with the finings.
Finally, there's the vexed question of whether to add "extraneous CO2". To a purist, ale is only real if it's naturally conditioned. That's fine if it can be consumed either all in a couple of days, or slowly enough for the ongoing fermentation to maintain condition. Otherwise it'll go flat, and flat beer is like cold tea - even worse than gassy beer! I used to inject CO2 from cylinders, but I've now engineered a far greener system, which is described here.
Be very careful when lifting and setting down a full 5 gallon container. Raise and lower your body by bending your knees, keeping your back straight at all times, and hold the container close in to your chest.