British Brewer

Recreating the perfect British Pint

Archive for the 'Techniques' Category

06 April

Tips and Tricks: Check your hops alpha acid

This tip may seem obvious but I have only just started doing it. If you have a brew you like to make over and over this tip is essential in order to produce consistent quality and taste every time.

I recently re-brewed my Flowers Original Clone (updated the recipe to a Partial Mash).  In the original recipe we used 0.5oz (.25oz for  a half batch) of Target hops. The alpha acid for Target is typically in the 9-12% range. In the original recipe the hops I used had an alpha acid value of ~10%.

So when I came to re-brew 6 weeks ago I noticed my new batch of Target hops were 11%. So I decided to go back to BeerCalculus at Hopville (and my spreadsheet) and recalculate the IBU’s.  At 11% alpha acid for the bittering hops I calculated I needed to reduce the amount of the Target hops from 0.5 to 0.4oz. Good job I did because the ale is in the keg and it tastes absolutely fantastic 🙂



19 March

Tips and Tricks: Straining Wort

Once wort is cooled and you are ready to transfer into the primary it is a REALLY good idea to strain to the wort to separate the hops out.  Historically I have done this by carefully pouring the contents of the kettle through the funnel trying to leave as many hops in the bottom of the kettle as I can.

If you strain the wort the resulting ale will have greater clarity and reduction in bitterness caused from the wort sitting on the now spent hops.  I use a regular kitchen strainer locked into a funnel.  There are also purpose built strainers and screens for those who enjoy convenience. Alternatively you can place hops inside a purpose built container during the boil.

06 March

Hop Bursting

HopsAs those of you who read this blog will know I have been talking about a technique called hop bursting recently. I first tried it back in Nov 2009 whilst brewing my Dog Fish Head 90min without really knowing how the technique worked. I came across it again last week when I brewed Northern Brewers 115th Dream Imperial IPA, which shipped with over 1 lb of hops.  How can you add 1 lb of hops to a 5 gallon brew and it not taste disgusting? I was curious and wanted to find out more, especially given how clean the bottom of boil kettle was where the hops had settled while cooling.

First up lets quickly review the big hop post I did a few back. First thing to remember are the Alpha Acids, these cause bittering and are not very water soluble so require an hour of boiling to fully extract. Then there are the Beta Acids, these are water soluble and actually evaporate if left too long in the water. Beta acids provide the hop aroma and flavour.  The more the beta acids evaporate the less the aroma which is why we have flavour additions with 10-15mins of a boil to go and aroma at 0 mins.

Hop bursting is a technique used to impart massive amounts of hop flavour and aroma by adding large amounts of hops at the end of the boil, typically beginning at the last 20 mins.  Some bitterness will be extracted (use the formula in the hop post and replace the 60 with 15 and play around with the hop quantity and see how much more you would need) so in order to get the same level as a 60 min boil we need a lot more hops. Here is a simple example. In the hop post we calculated the IBU’s for a recipe with a 60 min and a 15 min addition, it was approx 29 for a 2.5 gl batch using 1.2 oz of hops.  What if we want to create a 29 IBU recipe with a big hop aroma and flavour using hop bursting with no bittering hops at the beginning of the boil.

Here is the same formula used in the hop post but this time using 4 additions a 15 min, 10, min, 5 min and 1 (assuming we are a using a generic 4.5% alpha hop in pellet form, same batch size and OG).

First calculate the utilization for each addition

15 min: ( 1.65 * 0.000125^( 1.060 – 1 ) ) * ( ( 1 – 2.72^( -0.04 * 15 ) ) / 4.14 ) = 11.54%

10 min: ( 1.65 * 0.000125^( 1.060 – 1 ) ) * ( ( 1 – 2.72^( -0.04 * 10 ) ) / 4.14 ) = 8.43%

5 min: ( 1.65 * 0.000125^( 1.060 – 1 ) ) * ( ( 1 – 2.72^( -0.04 * 5 ) ) / 4.14 ) = 4.64%

1 min: ( 1.65 * 0.000125^( 1.060 – 1 ) ) * ( ( 1 – 2.72^( -0.04 * 1 ) ) / 4.14 ) = 1%

Next calculate the IBU for each addition given its utilization and add them all together to make the final total.

15 min: 11.54 * ( 0.5 * ( 4.5 / 100 ) * 7490 ) / 2.5 = 7.78

10 min: 8.43 * ( 1 * ( 4.5 / 100 ) * 7490 ) / 2.5 = 11.37

5 min: 4.64 * ( 1 * ( 4.5 / 100 ) * 7490 ) / 2.5 = 6.25

1 min: 1 * ( 3 * ( 4.5 / 100 ) * 7490 ) / 2.5 = 4.06

Total IBU = 29.46

So we have an ale with the same IBU made with the same hops as the traditional bittering method except the hop load is 5 1/2 oz as compared with 1.2 oz giving us an really BIG hop flavour and aroma. Another advantage for homebrewers like myself that do not own filtration equipment is strong hoppy IPA’s can be made without the need for a dry hop addition and all the additional complexities that come along with the process.

So go ahead and try the NB recipe, its a 1 lb of hops for a 5 gallon brew, have no idea how it will turn out but I love the quote on the web site which I will end this post with:

If you serve this beer to a Michelob Ultra drinker, he or she will cry. If life were a 1950s horror flick, this I2PA would climb out of the fermenter and turn on its master. Your dentist does not want you to brew or drink this beer. Sorry in advance about your tooth enamel

13 February

Why age beer? Or why my Fullers ESB clone now tastes great

As readers are by now painfully aware I had some issues with my Fullers ESB Clone recipe.  My first review of the clone came after only 2 weeks of conditioning in the bottle and only 4 weeks since the brew began. A little early methinks.  Well the review gave  low grade, only 4/10 citing poor clarity, overly malty and sweet and low carbonation.  But this is not the end of the story, a week later we get a slightly happier tone in the On Tap Update under “Drinking” citing better mouthfeel and improved flavour. I seem to remember it had cleared also.  What a difference a week makes.  Well 2 weeks on from the original review during a review for a disappointing Wadworth 6X clone (still is disappointing btw) we get great news, I have upped the rating to a 6/10 as the flavour had now drastically improved over the original.

This brings me to the other night, almost 7 weeks to the day from its bottling date and only 2 bottles remaining.  I crack a bottle, carbonation is perfect, flavour is definitely ESB, a really bright beer that goes down smooth.  I have to rate this an 8/10, its good, really good.  So what have I learned from all this. First up, don’t write a review on ESB’s until at least 6 weeks, let beer condition for longer, it obviously needs it. The ESB clone has showed just how drastically an ale can improve over a 5 week period.

So what does happen to ale as it ages?  First of all it depends on how long and where.  Most beers can last for months in a temperature controlled, dark area.  Once a beer has carbonated (typically 2 weeks), it is best stored at 55ºF in a dark room.  Light is the first enemy of aging as it causes a premature breakdown in the hops leading to a skunky, “off” taste.  Over time the hops will naturally breakdown but constant temperature and lack of light will greatly prolong an ales life.  Temperature is the other big factor with aging, a fluctuating temperature can cause spoiling and rapid aging leading to prematurely off beer.  This can and has happened during hot summer months and is why I am seriously considering converting an old fridge for beer storage this coming year.

So, given we have taken temperature and light into consideration what does happen to the various flavour notes?  Aging essentially is a mellower. Hops will gradually breakdown causing strong hop flavours to blend into the malt profile (important for Imperial IPA’s and Stouts, that need at least 3 months), strong caramel and toasted malts subside into subtle coffee notes, alcohol notes become soft tawny port, and the sweet base malt breakdowns into a more complex blend of flavours. This happened with the Fullers ESB, the “overly malty sweetness” balanced out perfectly with the hops, become more fruity with a hint of citrus.

Some beers really benefit from extended aging, something typically synonymous with wines.  Sweet malty beers with a baseline ABV level of 8% often fare well if stored for prolonged periods of time. Barleywines, Imperials, Old Ales, and Browns are good candidates.  A general rule of thumb, the higher the ABV the longer it will age.

To wrap up, I have changed the Fullers ESB clone recipe from version 1.  I still think the 120L Crystal is too much malt and have opted for the 60L instead which will also lighten the colour a little, something I still believe is required. I have managed to acquire the complete hop mix recommended by the brewers website which appears to be working well for my London Pride clone. I have also learned that White Labs English Ale is actually the Fullers yeast strain. So some major changes, it will need one more run before being declared a success but I do know that next time I will definitely be leaving the finished product in the bottle for at least 6 weeks before I crack open a bottle.

10 February


Hops Thought it was time for the next installment in our ingredients deep dive. So far we have covered water and the mighty yeast so I thought it was time to take a deeper dive into one of the more complex and underrated of all the ingredients in ale, hops.  I say underrated because hops do more than just provide the bitter flavour to balance out the sweet malt. Hops also contribute to the aroma and arguably more important have anti-bacterial properties that favor brewers yeast over bacterias keeping beers fresh and allowing a hopped ale to age without spoiling.

I have often wondered how hops came to be used in beer. I have to admit they are not an obvious choice.  Fermentation of fruit and grains has been an activity well documented in history going back into ancient times and I am sure much experimentation was done to improve flavour and longevity, especially given the quality of water and food was not a guarantee.  We take for granted today our near universal access to clean drinking water in the modern western world, something that was not a given for brewers of old.

So I went online and through my history of brewing books and found all kinds of explanations as to how hops came to be used.  In the end I came back to an old faithful (though I don’t think the author, Martyn Cornell, would not appreciate the old bit), my favorite beer history blog, Zythophile.  In a post dated Nov 20th 2009 titled “A short history on hops” Mr Cornell provides a well researched and thorough piece on the hop and its rich history.  I will not try to re-write the piece, I could never do it justice and I would probably make a mistake, something Mr Cornell would get very upset with. He is not only a famous beer historian but a beer myth buster also and not afraid to speak out against inaccurate and lazy research. The one paragraph that leapt out of the page (or browser) was the following”

Book I, Chapter 61, “De Hoppho”, or “Concerning the hop”, says of the plant: “It is warm and dry, and has a moderate moisture, and is not very useful in benefiting man, because it makes melancholy grow in man and makes the soul of man sad, and weighs down his inner organs. But yet as a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer.” (Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), mystical philosopher and healer, published a book called Physica Sacra, which translates best as “The Natural World” (circa 1150).

The author then goes on to note:

What probably kept the usefulness of hops from being discovered for so long is that the bittering, preserving resins in hop cones are not very soluble, and the hops need boiling for a long time, around 90 minutes, for what is called isomerisation

Please read the rest but the above brings us to the most important discussion around hops and brewing, how they work.  Male and female flowers form on separate hop plants. The hops used for brewing are the female flower cluster, which contains many small flowers.  Female hop flowers, also called cones, are harvested in August-September and dried.  The female cones are important because they contain lupulin glands that contain alpha and beta resins and other essential oils used to impart specific aroma and flavour characteristics.  Alpha and beta resins are measured as the % weight of the hop cone and displayed on the packaging as alpha acids and beta acids.

ALPHA ACIDS – contain the chemical agents Humulone, Cohumulone and Adhumulone and are used to impart bitterness, the higher the alpha % the more bitter the hop.  Alpha resins are not very soluble and require at least 60 mins boiling to extract the bitterness.

BETA ACIDS – Beta resins and hop oils are used to impart flavour and aroma.  Unlike the alpha acids these oils are water soluble and will quickly boil off in the kettle so cannot be in the pot for too long.  A hop will impart flavour if boiled between 5-15 mins and aroma if boiled for 1-3 mins.

An important note to brew calculator users.  The hop alpha and beta % used by these applications are averages for a particular variety.  The actual resin % does vary year to year and even crop to crop from the same region.  It is important to note the published %’s on a package prior to use and recalculate your recipe hop levels to ensure you maintain the appropriate bitterness and flavour characteristics.

A well designed and useful bitterness and flavour hop reference chart can be found here with another great reference on creating flavours found here. This chart and others like it can assist us when it comes to decide the type of hops we should use and the quantities and timing during the boil to attain the flavour and aroma characteristics for our final brew.  Experimenting with flavour is an art and something every homebrewer should have fun with. For example if I were to use the above chart to brew a great spicy, citrus American IPA consider the Williamette as your flavour and aroma hop.

While flavour and aroma are part of the art of homebrew, bitterness is more the science.  Bitterness is measured in most calculators and modern recipes in International Bittering Units (IBU’s).  There is debate as to the most accurate IBU formula for small batch homebrews but it appears that most books and online resources use the Tinseth formula created by hop head Glen Tinseth. Measured in parts per million (ppm), if you do not have access to a brewing calculator or just enjoy doing the brew math by hand here is the Tinseth formula for estimating a brews IBU:

IBU = Utilization * ( oz of hops * ( Alpha Acid% / 100 ) * 7490 ) / Gallons of Wort

Utilization refers to how much of the alpha acid is actually used and is dependent primarily on the boil time, but is also affected by specific gravity of the wort and whether the hops used are pellets or whole hops.  I will not use this post to get into a discussion on the use of pellets over whole leaf except to say I use pellets.  In my experience they are easier to store and stay fresh longer.  Typical utilization %’s are in the range of 15 to 25% depending on the length of the boil. Pelletized hops have about 10% more bittering potential than whole hops because the soft resins have been upset and made more available during the pelletizing process.   To calculate utilization using the Tinseth formula use the following (for pellet hops add 10% to the final value).

Utilization = ( 1.65 * 0.000125^( OG of the wort – 1 ) ) * ( ( 1 – 2.72^( -0.04 * Hop Boil Time ) ) / 4.14 )

Taking the Theakston Old Peculier brew I researched last week as an example with an IBU target of 29 and the research indicating the use of Fuggle hops. The Fuggle pellets I have in stock have a stated alpha of 4.5% so using the formula above, the alpha %, the batch size and target OG for the brew of 1.060 I would calculate the following:

Step 1 – calculate utilization for both the 60 mins and 15 min additi0ns (adding an additional 10% for pellets)

60 min: ( 1.65 * 0.000125^( 1.060 – 1 ) ) * ( ( 1 – 2.72^( -0.04 * 60 ) ) / 4.14 ) = 21.14% (whole hops) or 23.25% (pellet hops)

15 min: ( 1.65 * 0.000125^( 1.060 – 1 ) ) * ( ( 1 – 2.72^( -0.04 * 15 ) ) / 4.14 ) = 10.5% (whole hops) or 11.5% (pellet hops)

Step 2 – calculate the IBU for the final brew, you may need to

play around with the hop quantities to get the final IBU right. Remember that higher quantities of later addition hops lead to a more intense the flavour and aroma without adding to the bitterness.

60 min: 23.25 * ( 0.67 * ( 4.5 / 100 ) * 7490 ) / 2.5 = 21

15 min: 11.5 * ( 0.53 * ( 4.5 / 100 ) * 7490 ) / 2.5 = 8.25

IBU = 29.25 (21 + 8.25)

Hope this has helped. I have included a basic excel spreadsheet with the above example.  Have fun, remember to always check the alpha % and adjust your recipe accordingly, research recipes from your favorite brews to see the types of hops used and investigate the websites of your favorite commercial brews as they often post the hops they use and associated tasting notes. Next up the Malt and yes there will be more math.

20 January

Brewing on a budget – Borrowing Yeast

Yeast StarterAs part of the continued deep dive into specific ingredients and techniques (so far we have dug deeper into yeast and reviewed water treatment) I thought a further post on yeast was in order especially given the cost of quality yeast. Its expensive.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on why I brew, its not just the pleasure of drinking high quality fresh ale, or the enjoyment of simply brewing, but also the lower cost of home made ale that stokes my passion for homebrew.  Brewing your own real ale is very economical. I was reminded as I toured the liquor store today and noticed a 6 pack of Fullers ESB on the shelf for $12 (or $2 a bottle), and remembered I have 2 cases (48 bottles) of my own version (though still not up to Fullers quality) in my cellar that cost me approx $4.75 per 6 pack ($0.79 per bottle).  Given I like to use the more expensive liquid yeast from Wyeast or White Labs I find yeast is the most expensive ingredient in my brews. These yeasts have reliable attenuation percentages and produce very consistent results every brew. I have never had a bad batch.  But they are expensive, most being over $6 a packet.  What also doesn’t help is I am often left guessing what type of yeast to purchase for a recipe, e.g. is it a London Ale, London Ale III, or a Thames Valley strain?

But what if I could get the right yeast and pay nothing (except for the one time cost of a single bottle of beer). I could bring the price of a 6 pack of Fullers ESB down to $4 (or $0.66 per bottle) helping my budget somewhat and deliver an even closer match to the original I am trying to clone.

This brings me to the main reason for the visit to my local quality liquor store (as I rarely buy beer except for research purposes), to acquire a sample of 2007 bottle conditioned Fullers Vintage Ale.  As noted in my prior post, I am unhappy with the results of version 1.0 of my Fullers ESB clone.  As part of my research into figuring out how to improve the recipe I have been investigating how to improve the malt, hops and yeast mix.  I have managed to finally find a reliable source for the appropriate hops but got stuck on the yeast. Fullers, like most breweries, is very secretive around its yeast as so much of the flavour and character of the finished ale comes from it.  During my research I was browsing some recipe web sites and found a post on a bulletin board where a homebrewer from England was trying to replicate Fullers London Pride using some yeast grown from a yeast sample he had lifted from some bottle conditioned Fuller 1845 Ale.  Much like homebrew, bottle conditioned commercial beers are naturally carbonated in the bottle using residual yeast and priming sugar leaving a sediment on the bottom of the bottle. The sediment is rich with yeast cells and, with a little care and attention, these cells can be reactivated and grown to be used again in whatever beer you choose. In my case any Fullers clone I might make in the future.

But isn’t all beer sold in the USA pasteurized? I always thought so. So what commercial beers are out there that we could use to create our own free supply of yeast?  The answer appears to be not many.  As a rule almost all imported bottled and keg beers are pasteurized, the reason given to preserve freshness and enhance shelf life (though this point in hotly debated, I can attest to having regular gravity beers in my cellar for months and they continue to improve with age).  Furthermore almost all domestic US bottled beer is also pasteurized though domestic US keg beer is typically unpasteurized and “fresh” (with the exception of the mega-breweries such as Bud who pasteurize everything).  But recently the rules appear to be slowly changing. It is now possible to get imported and domestic bottled conditioned ales for higher gravity brews. I have noted Ringwood, Fullers 1845, Fullers Vintage Ale, and Sam Smiths Organic Ale from the UK and Shipyard Barleywine and Sierra Nevada from the US all available unpasteurized and bottled conditioned in the US market.

So how do we take a sample of bottled conditioned ale and re-culture it for use in your typical 5 gallon batch of homebrew?

  1. First acquire some bottled conditioned ale that matches either the style you are shooting for or from the same brewery that brews the ale you are attempting to clone (chances are its the same strain)
  2. Pour yourself a drink, make sure to save ~20% of the ale bottle, including all the sediment from the bottom
  3. Assemble the following to make a “yeast starter” :
  4. In a saucepan bring to a boil 8 oz of water, add Wheat DME and the hop pellets and boil for a total of 10mins
  5. After 8 mins add yeast nutrient (optional)
  6. Cool rapidly, I partially submerge the saucepan in a sink full of ice cold water and stir vigorously, this also aerates the liquid
  7. Once the liquid is cooled to 80ºF pour into a clean, sanitized flask or carboy
  8. Add the remaining 20% of the bottle conditioned ale, including sediment, from the bottle you purchased
  9. Insert stopper and airlock and keep at a constant 68-75ºF. The yeast should come back to life within 3-4 days.
Yeast Harvesting Materials

The Equipment

Mixing in the Wheat DME

Mixing in the Wheat DME

Source Ale

Pour drink, saving 20%

Yeast Nutrient

Add yeast nutrient after 8mins

Cooling starter to 80%

Cooling rapidly in cold water

Final product

Transfer to flask, add ale with sediment

Once the yeast is active you can either use it or place in the refrigerator to sleep.  Make sure to keep some back to re-culture again for another brew.  Yeast can stay healthy for up to 3 months in the fridge, so make sure to re-culture a batch before 3 months to keep the strain alive or you will just have to go out and actually BUY beer, how does that work with the budget!

Other resources:

  • For a complete list of breweries where White Labs and Wyeast strains originate you can look here.
  • For a list of bottled conditioned ales capable of harvesting yeast go here.
06 January

Old Ale

Theakston Old PeculierI must say to have a liking for “Old Ales”, when I was a young man in England I was partial to Theakston’s Old Peculier. It was, and still is, a warm, malty ale with a big heart and fruity finish. Not a session brew by any stretch, but something to warm the bones on a chill winter night.

The Old Ale has a long history reflecting. not only the history of beer making in Britain, but a glimpse of the social history of the country also.  Back in the 1800’s, before the time of the industrial revolution, stock ales, matured in oak casks, were served as a complement to mild ales, often with the landlord serving the customer a blend of the sharper stock ale with the fruitier, sweeter mild ale to the customer’s taste.  The breweries caught on and began to produce their own stock ales, which became known as “Old Ales” due to the length of time they were conditioned in the cask. Old Ales were also considered the “top shelf” ale with the workers drinking the weaker common or mild ale during the week and then cracking the Old Ale on pay day.

To understand the process used to brew an historical Old Ale one has to understand a little of the All-Grain style of brewing, something I hope to get time for (and money for some neat equipment) later this year.  For our recipes created to date we have substituted the base malt with some form of Malt Extract, e.g. DME.  In the case of All-Grain brews the barley, typically Marris Otter or English 2-Row, are steeped in warm water for an hour or so to extract the sugars. Next the water, now called wort, is drained into the brew kettle (the first runnings) ready for the boil, a process known as “mashing“.  Imagine brewing a cup of tea but instead of using a tea bag in a tea pot you have 100 lbs of grain in a steel mash tun.  As the water is run off many of the sugars are left behind, attached to the grains, so more hot brew water (know as liquor) is used to rinse the grains and allowed to filter slowly into the kettle until enough wort has been collected to begin the boil, a process known as “sparging“. Think brewing a teabag for a 2nd time.

So back to the pre-industrial revolution brewery. To make Old Ale the brewery would take only the first runnings from the mash and brew a really strong, rich, high alcohol, brew (first teabag).  Due to the high alcohol content the ale was left to condition for long periods of time in oak casks gaining almost sour, lactic acid flavour from the continuing fermentation in the cask. The breweries would then sparge the grains with enough liquor to create a second batch of weaker ale, known at the time as “Common Ale”, a process known as “parti-gyle” brewing (the second teabag).  If the first runnings created a particularly strong brew a rinse was used to create a “Small Ale”.  This process is still used by the Belgiums today to brew the Tripel, Dubbel, and Blonde (old, common, small).

Old Ales are still brewed today but using more moden, efficient methods.  The strength and character vary widely with Old Ale filling the gap between brown ales, porters and barleywine including winter warmers, dark milds, and lower gravity barleywines. Some popular brews include Old Peculier, Fuller Vintage Ale, and J.W. Lees Moonraker.

I have brewed the New Old Ale recipe from Northern Brewer, voted my #1 brew of the year for 2009, and a VERY popular drink at my house and with friends.  I plan to investigate a couple more Old Ales over the year, starting I hope with my favorite, Old Peculier 🙂

03 January

Water – the forgotten ingredient

Its funny because homebrew authors and bloggers alike talk a lot about yeast, hops and malt but very little time is given to the ingredient that makes up over 90% of a brew – the water.  Water chemistry has a strong influence on the mouthfeel of an ale and has a big say in the performance of the fermentation and final conditioning of an ale.

Major brewing industries have grown up around geologically favorable sites with the right mix of rock type to filter the water from naturally occurring springs and wells and supply the optimum minerals from brew water.  Areas such as London and Burton on Trent in the UK, the Czech town of Pilsen, and the towns of Dortmund and Munich in Germany have very distinct water favorable to the brewing of specific styles of beer. In John Palmers online reference “How to Brew” he outlines how the water chemistry found in these towns is balanced with the malt and hops to make the distinctive beers such as Guiness and Pilsner.

Pilsen – The very low hardness and alkalinity allow the proper mash pH to be reached with only base malts, achieving the soft rich flavor of fresh bread. The lack of sulfate provides for a mellow hop bitterness that does not overpower the soft maltiness; noble hop aroma is emphasized.

London – The higher carbonate level dictated the use of more dark malts to balance the mash, but the chloride and high sodium content also smoothed the flavors out, resulting in the well-known ruby-dark porters and copper-colored pale ales.

Burton-on-Trent – Compared to London, the calcium and sulfate are remarkably high, but the hardness and alkalinity are balanced to nearly the degree of Pilsen. The high level of sulfate and low level of sodium produce an assertive, clean hop bitterness. Compared to the ales of London, Burton ales are paler, but much more bitter, although the bitterness is balanced by the higher alcohol and body of these ales.

There are two important ingredients found in brewing water.  The first is Calcium which helps create the acid required to balance out the alkaline phosphates in the malt.  Acidity is needed to promote enzyme activity in the wort and to promote flavour, clarity and stability to the finished beer. The second ingredient is Magnesium and important yeast nutrient in small doses.

Most homebrewers do not have access to abundant naturally purified fresh spring water or wells. We make do with the towns best, tap water. Unfortunately tap water can contain ingredients that are not favorable to the brewing process. Chlorine is used to prevent the build up of bacteria in the water supply but in high doses can lead to bitterness in beer and can kill the yeast.The good news is Chlorine is highly volatile and can be removed by simply boiling.

So how do we as homebrewers begin to think about the water we use to brew our ales?  A good first step is to grab a copy of your towns water quality report and check the level of hardness (found in the Calcium and Magnesium levels) and the level of Chlorine. In many cases the answer will be nothing, the Chlorine will come out during the boil along with any other impurities and most town water falls within acceptable levels of water hardness.

If you want to check the pH level of your brew water buy a pH testing kit from your homebrew supplier and check the level of the wort during a boil. I take a sample using a turkey baster.  Make sure the wort is properly cooled to ensure an accurate reading.  An optimal reading is in the 5.0-5.5 range.  If the levels are outside you can use calcium carbonate to make more alkaline or an acid.  The pH levels will only change between 0.2-0.3 during the boil, so you will be all set once the pH in the acceptable range.

For those who really want to optimize the water mineral content to match the style of beer being brewed consult the chart and attached spreadsheet on John Palmers site here.

Given this is the BritishBrewer and we focus on classic British ales is there an effective and simple way to replicate the water of a London or Burton?  The quick answer is yes and I have been playing around with various techniques including adding calcium and gypsum.  But I finally stumbled upon a magical little powder called Burton Salts, containing all the essential minerals in a single package.  The process is simple, for a 5 gallon batch:

  • The night before you intend to start the brew bring to the boil 6.5 gallons of tap water in the kettle, this will remove all the unwanted chemicals and purify the water
  • Add the recommended dose of salts, then check the pH (again ensure the water has cooled). This is a bit of a chicken and egg situation because it is hard to predict the final pH level of the wort once malt and hops have been added.  I find a pH level for the brew water of 5.8 works for me.  Remember to check the wort pH on brew day and make adjustments for your next brew. You can also adjust the pH of the wort by adding more salts.
  • Now boil the water for 15 mins
  • Once boiled leave the water to cool ready for brew day

Water treatment really does make a difference, the brew flavours are sharp and fresh and the colour brighter.  Have fun and over the next few weeks we will begin a review of different malt types and start a series of deeper dives into some favorite British Brew styles, their history and some classic recipes.

11 December

Getting Started Pt 5 – Priming and Bottling

…and drinking of course. As my friend Liz Knox asked for more quotes in my posts I will give them. Given we are about to bottle and store away the fruits of our labors to prepare them for consumption I thought this was appropriate.

Filled with mingled cream and amber I will drain that glass again. Such hilarious visions clamber Through the chambers of my brain — Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies Come to life and fade away; Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. – Edgar Allan Poe (American short-story Writer, Editor, Poet and Critic, 1809-1849)

This is the final post in our getting started series.  I have to say they have been fun to do and have helped me analyze and question my own techniques and process, improving them along the way.  As I noted in the first post of this series, brewing is a journeyman profession.

As with all the other steps in our process I have included photos, again from the Best Bitter I used in both the brewing and fermentation post.  Lets get on to business

Bottling Equipment

Bottling Equipment

Equipment and Additional Ingredients

There are some basic equipment requirements when it comes to bottling beer.

1) Bottles –  You can either reuse beer bottles from brews acquired at the store or go to a homebrew supplier and buy them there.  If you reuse commercial beer bottles make sure they are not screw tops as these require additional equipment not commonly available at homebrew suppliers.

Ensure the bottles are made from dark coloured glass.  Over exposure to bright light can cause the beer to get a skunky smell caused by a chemical reaction in the hop oil from an over exposure to ultraviolet light. Whatever your choice, the bottles need to be cleaned thoroughly and dried before bottling can commence using a bottling brush and some HOT water.

Bottles typically come in 3 sizes, either 12 oz, 16 oz, or 22 oz.  There are others including growlers and wine bottles. The choice is yours. My only advice is to use a bottle that provides enough ale for a single serving.  Remember homebrew ales contain live yeast and a small amount will settle to the bottom of the bottle as part of the priming process. We do not want any of the sediment to get into a poured ale which happens if the bottle is swished around while pouring from glass to glass or placed back on the counter half full, churning the yeast in the process.  So either decant into a jug or pour a bottle into a single glass.

2) Bottle Caps and a Capper – Regardless of the bottle size you choose the bottle tops are one standard size (except the wine bottle) and one standard bottle cap though there are a couple of different varieties on offer. There is the standard pry-off cap, it can come in plain metal or decorated with a logo.  Some commercial breweries sell surplus caps through homebrew suppliers.  The second type of cap is a pry-off cap with a special oxygen-scavenging liner that can help reduce oxidation and staling, especially useful in higher alcohol beers such as Imperial IPA or Barelywine which bottle condition for many months.

Bottle Cappers come in a variety of shapes and sizes from automated to incredibly manual. I use a simple manual twin-lever device with a magnet to hold the cap in place.

3) Priming Sugar – In order to create the CO2 in bottled conditioned beer it is necessary to create a mini fermentation by adding some additional sugar for the remaining yeast to convert to CO2. The amount of sugar is too small to make any real change to the final ABV.

Each ale recipe can have its own priming ingredient and methodology. Typically cane sugar is used, it is easily consumed by the yeast and has no flavour, colour or aroma characteristics once fermented. It needs to be highly soluble and dissolve quickly into the beer. Some recipes call for Dried Malt Extract, or syrup, both which require boiling for 15-20mins and left to cool before adding to the bottling bucket.  Unless mentioned, all recipes on this site will use confectioners sugar, typically 3/4 cup to 1 cup depending on the level of carbonation.  Do not go over a cup or risk some mini explosions as bottle caps are forced off from too much pressure being created in the bottle.  Confectioners sugar is very fine and dissolves easily into the beer.

We also need a bottling bucket, preferably with a spigot, a siphon, racking cane, and a sanitized long wooden or plastic spoon to gently mix the sugar into the beer.


1) After the ale has been in the secondary fermenter, typically for 5-7 days or as instructed by the recipe, it is ready to be bottled.  First assemble the equipment outlined above, if the priming sugar has been boiled, ensure it has been cooled to room temperature before we begin.

2) Next, attach the siphon tube to racking cane.  If any hops or other adjuncts were added to the secondary fermentation it may be necessary to attach a small filter to the end of the racking cane to avoid any particles getting into the bottled beer.

3) Remove airlock from the carboy, insert racking cane and siphon off into a clean bottling bucket being very careful to avoid the sediment sitting on the bottom of the carboy.  I tilt the carboy forward as the beer drains to ensure we get as much beer out of the bottle leaving all the sediment behind.

Ensure the siphon tubing is coiled around the bottom of the bottling bucket and the beer does not splash as it enters the bucket. Splashing causes the beer to aerate. At this stage of the brewing process oxygen is our enemy.  We need a little oxygen to re-invigorate the remaining yeast cells to replicate and consume the small amount of priming sugar, but too much will lead to stale beer. Too much oxygen can also cause the yeast to over produce leaving a lot of sediment and create cloudy beer with a heavy yeast taste, again bad.

Adding 3/4 cup of priming sugar

Adding 3/4 cup of priming sugar

Stir gently to avoid overly aerating the beer

Stir gently to avoid overly aerating the beer

4) Transfer the now filled bottling bucket to the bottling area, mix the priming sugar or solution to the beer and stir very gently so as not to aerate the beer.

Case of 12 oz beer bottles

Case of 12 oz beer bottles

Filling the bottle

Filling the bottle

5) Position empty bottle under the bottling bucket spigot and fill bottle leaving about 1/2 inch open at the top.  Don’t worry about the oxygen in the top of the bottle, the CO2 generated by the priming sugar will force it to the top of the bottle and away from the precious ale.

Place cap on now filled bottle

Place cap on now filled bottle

Place capper over bottle like so

Place capper over bottle like so

Push down on levers, crimping the cap around the edge of the bottle

Push down on levers, crimping the cap around the edge of the bottle

and you are done

and you are done

Don't forget to clean and santize your equipment!

Don't forget to clean and santize your equipment!

6) Put caps on bottle and store in a dark cool place for as long as the recipe states.  Two weeks is usually enough to test a bottle to check for successful carbonation, but I would let the ale sit for a couple of weeks before cracking open the case proper.  Most ales will hit a peak at around 1 month in the bottle, higher ABV ales can rest for months and sometimes years. Yeah sure, not in my house.

Finally, sit back, crack open a brew, and pour (remember one single pour leaving the small amount of sediment in the bottom of the bottle) and quaff down the fruits of your hard earned labor.  Brewing is a fun process, and its fun to discover the flavours, aromas, and colours created by the various combination of hops and grain and the various strains of yeast.

Have fun and please leave comments on the this page about any additional tips and tricks you have found helped you while on your own brewing adventures.

01 December

Getting Started Pt4 – Fermentation

Been taking some pictures during the fermentation process of the Best Bitter we used as the example in the Brewing Day post.  I have taken a picture for each day of the primary fermentation stage, typically a 7 day process.

For most homebrewers fermentation is typically done in 2 stages though it can be done in a single stage or more than 3, depending on the recipe.

1) Primary fermentation is the process by which wort finally becomes ale through the conversion of sugars into alcohol and CO2. This conversion is done by the yeast eating the sugars when given the right temperature conditions, dictated by the strain of yeast we use.  Stopped fermentation’s tend to occur if fermentation temperatures are too high or too low.

An airlock is used to ensure the CO2 escapes and no microbes get into the wort. If the fermentation becomes a little too active the foam can run out of space and blow out the top of the airlock (yuck its messy, see image below and here).  If this circumstance arises the use of a blow-off tube is recommended, preferably before the airlock overflows with foam and crud (the proper term is Krausen).  A blow-off tube is typically a hose attached in place of the air lock with the other end of the hose is submerged into a bucket of water or sanitizer. The CO2 continues out of the hose into the bucket along with any of the krausen.

So when is the primary fermentation complete? In my experience it should be left in the primary fermenter for at least 7 days, even if fermentation appears to be complete.  The only way to determine whether a fermentation has finished is by taking a gravity reading on consecutive days. If this reading stays constant, fermentation is complete. You can try to guess by seeing if the bubbles have stopped or the krausen has subsided but these methods are inaccurate and can be misleading. If you think your fermentation is done, use your hydrometer to make sure. You will need special equipment, such as a “Beer Thief” to safely extract a sample from the carboy.

2) Secondary fermentation is really a misnomer as no actual fermentation occurs during this phase.  It is best described as the “Conditioning and Clearing” phase.  For the complete beginner this phase can be skipped and the ale can move on to priming and bottling (upcoming post). If the ale is to be kegged then this secondary phase is essential to avoid clogged lines.  Secondary fermentation is simply the transferring or “racking” of the ale into a second, clean, carboy complete with airlock and then stored in a cool room away from sunlight.

The primary purpose of the conditioning phase is to clear and bulk age the ale before it is placed in bottles or kegs.  During this phase yeast and solids  remaining from the primary fermentation settle out and the ales flavours begin to mellow and meld together.  In my experience hoppy, bitter beers tend to be a little too bitter if not left to condition for a while.  Flavours also take longer to develop in higher alcohol ales.  Over time the more delicate flavours of the specialty grains will come through and its well worth the extra wait. (Remember patience is one of my 3 golden rules)

Duration of the secondary phase varies by recipe. Some recipes call for an aging to be done at lower temperatures, called “Cold Conditioning”. This process is typical for beers aged over long periods, especially beers with higher alcohol content.  Most basic recipes though call for an additional 7 days in the same conditions as the primary fermentation phase.  It is also typical during this phase to add additional flavours and adjuncts such as spices, fruit extracts and oak chips as well as the process called dry-hopping.

Dry-hopping has become very popular in American Ales, specifically the American IPA. As much of the aroma qualities of the hops are either boiled off during the brew or lost in the primary fermenter it has become popular to add a slug of hops into the secondary.  This process captures the aroma of the hop without imparting any of the bitterness.  Some professional brewers have taken this art to the extreme, creating equipment for straining an ale through hops prior to serving (here).  Simply add the prescribed amount of hops to the secondary, secure airlock, and leave in cool place.

Some brews require an additional conditioning phase but this is rare.  The 90 min IPA I brew is a 3 stage process with the 3rd phase used as a long cold conditioning process.  The beer is racked a 3rd time to remove the ale from the hops used for dry-hopping in the second stage and off the yeast and proteins that settled.

With the end of secondary fermentation we are now 1/2 way through the brewing process for most typical ales.  In our next “Getting Started” post we will focus on priming and bottling before getting down to my favorite section of all, the drinking.