East Anglian brewers’ guide to making your own beer
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One of the nation’s most beloved tipples, it’s no surprise people throughout lockdown have been experimenting with making their own beer.
And today (National Beer Day), is the ideal time to get to grips with the basics of the ancient and delicious art of fermentation say local microbrewers Paul Tonkinson and Jack Snell, alongside craft beer specialist Aaron MacFarlane of Other Monkey Brewing.
“We started out brewing in the basement of our pub, Three Wise Monkeys Colchester, and built our system from scratch, based on the homebrew models and scaled up until we reached our limit on space,” explains Jack.
“We’ve been brewing in the basement for just over four and a half years, and have brewed more than 300 beers.”
While they have since moved from the basement and turned the premises next door into the town’s first microbrewery – they haven’t forgotten their roots, and certainly understand its appeal to the wider public. “We’ve heard many tales of people getting bitten by the brewing bug,” adds Paul.
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If you’re thinking of giving it a go there are a number of options out there for beginners the trio says.
“You can use extract kits, but we much prefer the process of all-grain brewing.”
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All-grain brewing is the traditional method most breweries use. The brewer takes crushed malted grains and converts the starches into fermentable sugar, or wort.
Wort is the liquid from the crushed grains, and contains the sugars and crucial amino acids needed to provide nitrogen to the yeast. This is what kickstarts the beermaking process.
If you choose to opt for extract kits on the other hand, the crushing process has already been done, and the sugars have been concentrated into a dry powder or syrup. This is often the chosen method for beginners due to its simplicity.
Craft beer specialist Aaron, who also works as the restaurant manager at Three Wise Monkeys Ipswich, skipped the extract method when he began brewing, and went straight for the all-grain process.
“It just seemed logical - cleaning and sanitising is a massive part of brewing, and is the foundation for making great beer. I’d suggest beginning with a methodical approach, and start by making ‘S.M.A.S.H’, which is ‘single malt and single hop’ beers,” he says.
Once you’ve decided to make the leap into brewing – you'll need to set up your brewing station. But how much space is needed to start homebrewing, and what sort of equipment will you need?
"If you’re looking to buy a homebrew kit, we’d suggest using a shed or garage with power and plumbing if possible. However, you can use pots and pans in your kitchen if you’re working on a smaller scale,” says Jack.
Typical essentials that all avid homebrewers should have include a fermenting bucket or vessel, siphon tube, stirrer, sterilising powder, thermometer, and of course the all-important ingredients of water, hops, grain and yeast.
Any local brewer will be able to assist you and guide you in the right direction when it comes to sourcing these. Locally, Muntons in Stowmarket sells beermaking equipment online, and Beautiful Beers in Bury St Edmunds is filled with kit too – as well as beers to sample from across the world.
With your equipment and ingredients at the ready, it’s time to start brewing.
“Firstly, you’ll need to mill the grain. We crush various malts to break up the kernels, so we can extract the sugar from the grain. Then you’ll need to mix the crush grain with heated water, in order to convert the starches into liquid. Next comes lautering, which is the process of separating the wort from the crushed grains,” explains Jack.
“During the boil stage, the wort is then boiled to remove any undesirables from it. We also add in hops – these add the bittering profile flavours you’re so used to in your favourite beers. Step five is separation and cooling, where the wort is separated from any lingering malt and hop particles. It is then cooled to a temperature the yeast can thrive in. Next, the yeast is added during the fermentation process – this is where the magic starts to happen, as it converts the sugary wort into beer by producing alcohol.”
Once the alcohol has been made, a number of techniques such as dry hopping, maturation, filtering, fining, carbonation and cellaring can all take place – depending on the style of beer you’re making.
“On the brew day itself, it can take anywhere between six and eight hours, while fermentation can take between four and 14 days, depending on what yeasts you have used. In general, ales take a shorter time to ferment, whereas lagers take considerably longer.”
Jack recommends beginning your experiments with a pale ale or stout.
“These are the two beers are a good starter - they’re very common, so you can always taste if something has gone wrong with the beer.”
“Ales especially tend to suit a new brewer the best. Compared to, say a lager, ales have less demand on temperature control and take less time to ferment and condition. Your beer will be ready to drink before you know it,” adds Paul.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of homebrewing, Jack recommends trying additional flavours to help put a unique spin on your homebrewed concoctions.
“You can add a wide range of different ingredients to your beers - my personal favourites are coffee, fresh vanilla pods or fresh fruit. I normally add them in during secondary fermentation, but you can also add them into the boil stage for sanitation, or post fermentation for maximum flavour impact if you wish.”
One thing to remember though, especially if you’re brewing here in East Anglia, is that water hardness can have an effect on the entire process.
“Water can make a huge difference in the outcome of your beer. We use a filtering process with our water called reverse osmosis, which strips out the minerals and sediment in the water. You can then add various brewing salts to match any water profile you desire,” explains Jack.
“What I would also suggest for homebrewing though is to use bottled mineral water and then add water salts to get your desired pH level. Hard water can be great for styles such as bitters and IPAs, and very hard water can suit stouts and porters, but hard water is often not ideal for brewers to use,” adds Paul.
Once your beer has finally been brewed, it’s time to store it. Paul recommends homebrewers bottle their beer, as it is great for smaller volumes, and allows you to easily distribute your brews to your friends and family.