Brewing your own beer successfully

If you’ve read previous articles on this site, such as ‘Me?….I’m not bitter’, you’ll know that I’m not altogether satisfied with the selection of beer styles that are generally available across my home city of Sheffield. Modern equivalents of traditional bitter beers are not as good as they ought to be, especially given the current enthusiasm for real ale brewing. So, to provide a enjoyable drink when I want an alternative to the readily available hoppy pale ales in the Sheffield pubs I’ve found I need to brew it myself.

I dabbled with homebrew when I was a lot younger without any great success, but a few years ago when I decided to leave my day-job for more satisfying pursuits I looked into commercial brewing as an option. I attended a Brewlab ‘Start up Brewing’ course (similar to their current ‘Professional Craft Brewing’ course), and although being an extremely good course it did show me that setting up a brewery might be a step too far. Despite bringing me to my senses as far as taking up brewing as a business, the course did give me a good grounding in much of what’s important in actually brewing beer. So, last year I decided to set about homebrewing seriously and use of the experience of the Brewlab course, and its excellent documentation, as the basis of my procedures and recipes.

Anyway, enough preamble, I’ll describe, in bullet points, my process and highlight some of its strengths and weaknesses.

  • I use a Peco Mashing/Boiling Bin to heat the water (liquor), and as Sheffield has very soft water I treat it with calcium sulphate (gypsum) and, sometimes, calcium chloride to suit the type of beer I’m brewing.

  • I believe the main reason for my recent success with homebrewing is that I now use our Coleman Coolbox as a mash tun. This very effective coolbox is great at keeping its contents (the mixture of malted grains and liquor, called ‘wort’) at 65ºC to 66ºC for the 90 to 120 minutes needed to mash successfully.

  • I have an improvised false bottom and straining bag to help when it comes to draining the mash tun back into the Peco Boiling Bin for the boiling phase. Sparging is very rudimentary so this is certainly an area for development.

  • Boiling with the bittering hops takes an hour and a half. I use Irish Moss (seaweed!) towards the end of the boil to help clear the beer. Just before the boil ends I add extra hops to add flavour and aroma. These flavouring hops are left to do their work for ten minutes after the heat is switched off.

  • The resultant wort is drained into a fermenting bin and cooled as quickly as possible (another area for improvement). Once cool (below 25ºC ) I add the yeast (at the moment I’m using a packet yeast called Safeale S-04).

  • I keep the fermentation bin in a room where the temperature only varies between around 16ºC and 20ºC. Fermentation takes about four days during which time a lively, yeasty, head grows and then subsides.

  • When fermentation has slowed to the extent that the yeast head has disappeared I syphon the beer into a conditioning bin that can be sealed with an air-lock. The beer stays in the conditioning bin (at a cool room-temperature) for from a few days to a week or so depending on how quickly its specific gravity is approaching the desired level.

  • After conditioning I syphon the beer into a sterilised pressure barrel where I carry out a final check on the specific gravity prior to adding a small amount of priming sugar solution. Once the beer has been primed I syphon a small amount back out of the barrel into four to six sterilised pint bottles. The barrel and bottles are then sealed and stored in a cool (but not cold) room. I put a very small amount of carbon dioxide into the top of the barrel to sit on top of the beer and stop it being in contact with oxygen whilst it creates its own conditioning carbon dioxide.

  • I check the beer in the barrel after a day or two to ensure that conditioning pressure is not leaking (and re-seal if it is). Then I leave the beer for a week or two to develop fully (longer if possible). I leave the bottles for at least three to four weeks to ensure they have conditioned well. In reality I leave the bottles until the barrel is empty in case I’ve been slow brewing a replacement barrel and have nothing left to drink!

This article is very much an overview of my brewing process. In this ‘Home Brewing’ section of my blog I intend to expand on some of the detail areas of the process, the recipes I develop, and the ingredients I use. The next article on ‘Home Brewing’ will focus on the choice on malt and hops, and how they are balanced in recipe formulation.

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