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.

Homebrew in the community

Being a bit of a homebrew enthusiast myself, I was intrigued when I heard that Sheffield’s On the Edge Brewery was having one of its own beer festivals in a community centre just a mile away. On the Edge Brewery is the passion of one man who has taken homebrewing to a level where he can supply casks to pubs and organise his own mini-festivals to publicise his produce. The brewery’s fifth birthday was a perfect reason for a celebratory festival and so Tom, the brewer, prepared nine pins (four and a half gallons) of different beers and set-up in the hall of the Old Junior School in Sharrow. This was an unmissable opportunity for me to experience a very inspirational venture, and, of course, taste a few beers.

Walking in to the old school hall I was struck by the really good atmosphere. There was very much a local community feel about the place, with groups of all ages and families with children all enjoying a relaxed night out with good beer……and cake. Being a birthday celebration friends of the brewery had baked a range of lovely cakes to give a party feel to the evening. Unfortunately, we’d been slow getting over to the festival and missed the early evening pie and peas, which was quite a shame as it’s always such a perfect accompaniment to beer.

My wife and I tried almost the full range of beers. My wife having those advertised as wheat beers or ‘spicy’, whilst I kept mostly to the variously hopped pale ales but making an exception for one of the dark offerings.

Tom, and his partner Lu, were great hosts and I could see everyone, like us, really enjoyed the evening. Tom was also good enough to give me a few useful homebrewing tips which I’ll be thinking about next time I set about a brew.

Whilst, I really admire Tom’s brewing skills and passion, I came away from the festival a little sad that I hadn’t found a bitter beer in his range. On the Edge Brewery appears to follow the widespread trend towards beers with little bitterness but heavily hopped for ‘fruity’ flavours. I know this is a national trend/fashion but it seems to be one that is particularly prevalent in the Sheffield area. Elsewhere in this blog (Me? I’m not bitter) I write of the lack of good bitter beers in Sheffield, and it is a real concern for me. That being said, I don’t want to detract from the obvious skill and enterprise of Tom and On the Edge Brewery. I look forward to the next mini-festival, and I suggest any Sheffielders reading this should do the same.