A few years ago I learnt to make beer using the raw ingredients, that is barley, hops, yeast and water. Home brewing has a terrible reputation, all sweaters, beards, beerguts and beerkits, like folk music and morris dancing, something best avoided, in smart society at least. But it’s been a revelation for me a bit like discovering cooking or more exactly baking with fresh quality ingredients instead of making ready meals or buying sliced loaves.
One of the most interesting parts of this for me has been learning more about the ingredients I use, where they come from and how to vary the recipes to make different types of beer. I like to make my own version of a winter ale before Christmas and it’s an opportunity to try another recipe and sample some more raw ingredients.
Unusually for me I’ve been organised and while were on holiday recently in Norfolk I visited the farm shop at Branthill farm. It’s one of my favourite farm shops, and as Branthill is a malting barley farm it features a massive range of local beers which use it’s barley. You can find the online shop here - The Real Ale Shop.
The base ingredient of beer is barley which supplies the sugar that is fermented to make alcohol. The malted barley from Branthill is a pale malt variety called Maris Otter, grown particularly for brewing cask conditioned ales. Before we can use it for brewing the stored grains must be malted, a critical process in which the starch is converted to sugar. The traditional malting floors in England have almost disappeared, there are only two left one of which is the Warminster maltings. This maltings almost closed in the 1990′s but has now discovered a new lease of life supplying all types of malt and organic malt to independant breweries. I buy their malted barley because I choose to support their independant and local business in a world largely dominated by global breweries in which the source and quality of the ingredients is completely lost.
For this brew I decided to base it on a recipe which makes a strong ale very similar to Gales HSB (Hordean Special Bitter), a local brew which is sadly no longer brewed locally. To the pale malt (4kg in this recipe) is added a variety of other malts, in this case a small amount of crystal malt (125g) which adds body and flavour typical of real ales and for this recipe a very small amount of wheat malt (60g). These ingredients add the distinctive and complex flavours which give English beers such a wide range of flavours. Very like blending coffees and teas the darker roasts give increasingly strong flavour and darker colours to the brew.
The grains are heated in a tub to 66 degrees C and left to cook for 90 minutes. This process is called mashing and the temperature is quite critical to the best extraction of the sugars from the grains. The resulting sugary liquid, or wort, is then poured off the grains.
But there is still a lot of sugar left on the grains and we don’t want to waste this as it’s full of flavour which will contribute to the character of the beer in a way that just adding a bag of processed sugar can’t do. So the remaining grains are sparged using a fine spray of almost boiling water (the water is known as liquor in the brewing process) until we’ve extracted all of the sugar and flavour.
At this stage I have made a malt extract, but one that is designed to have the flavours and colours I want for the final beer. Before I can ferment it I need to add the remaining ingredients, the hops and sugars and then boil for a further 90minutes.
For this recipe I used East Kent Goldings (60g) and Brambling cross (30g). The hops are another whole subject in their own right, again I can choose where I buy my hops, and I use entirely English hops in my brews. These days a lot of hops are imported so I see buying English hops as a way to support the remaining English hop farms.
As this is going to be a winter beer the recipe includes molasses (100g) and soft dark brown sugar (450g) which will give it a rich flavour and colour.
After boiling the wort is poured off again into a fermenting bin and left to cool overnight until the yeast is added the next morning. After 3 or 4 days the fermenting slows and the beer is racked (or poured into a storage container) to rest before I bottle it. In a few more days it will be ready to bottle and then after a week or so to condition in the bottle it’s ready to drink.
By choosing my own ingredients and paying for the highest quality my beer is more expensive than the typical home brew kits, but even so this brew has cost me less than 20 pounds for 40pints. But it’s not cheap beer that’s driven me to rediscover brewing my beer it’s the difference between making your own bread by hand, instead of using a bread maker – or buying a sliced loaf, the quality and consistency of the result is superb, and I know exactly what is in it and where it came from.
Putting it all together the recipe is
4kg crushed pale malted barley
125g crushed crystal malted barley
60g malted wheat
25 litres of water for bitter brewing
60g East Kent Goldings hops
30g Brambling cross hops
450g soft dark brown sugar
and the OG (original gravity) just before adding the yeast was a shade over 1050
The beer is resting at the moment and in another couple of days I will bottle it – to be ready just in time for Christmas.