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Getting brewing right the first time, and every time

As you may know from adverts, there are four ingredients in beer: water, yeast, hops, and barley. Even though we know it only has these four ingredients, we still think brewing must be complicated. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

Yeast is a single-celled natural fungus that has been around since before the dinosaurs. Hops are a flowering plant from a very common family. Barley is a cereal – a grass that produces grain. Including water, all four things are very easy to find almost anywhere on the planet, barring deserts and arctic zones. The first beer was brewed sometime around 5,000 years ago, probably around the same time the first bread was made (it uses the same ingredients). The first beer probably made itself, when a slushy dough was left out too long and started to ferment.

It’s amazing how many people love beer but don’t know how to brew. It’s a bit like enjoying driving but having no idea how an engine works, or loving curry but not knowing how to make a sauce and boil rice. I suspect that many potential homebrewers try it once and are unsatisfied. Following an unsuccessful brew involving accidents, terrified partners or housemates, a raw, wrong-tasting beer and a nasty headache after trying it, we’ve thought: “I’m not doing that again.” I have done this myself, and forgotten about brewing for ten years as a result.

Fair enough. But this doesn’t tally with what we know: it’s a very old, very simple process. Given that there’s very little that can go wrong with beer, how can us modern humans possibly get it wrong?

There are three reasons, listing the commonest problem first:

  1. Time. How long did you brew for?
  2. Ingredients. How good are they?
  3. Sanitising. Is your equipment clean?

1. Time. How long did you brew for?

So many “bad” homebrews are different from professional beers in only one important way: too much yeast still in the beer. This is the “homebrewy” taste people complain about. Time and patience allows the yeast to settle, but many follow the instructions (“your beer will be ready in 2-3 weeks!”) and end up dissatisfied. 4-5 weeks, with the beer in the fridge, cellar or anywhere cool for the last week, will allow the yeast to consume by-products and settle out, maturing the beer.

2. Ingredients. How good are they?

There are many good beer kits out there, but also some not so good ones. As with anything else you get what you pay for. For a small price increase you can get a superior kit that will taste as good as many bottled or keg beers.

3. Sanitising. Is your equipment clean?

This is the least common but most dangerous problem as bacteria in the fermenter can kill the batch and make all that patience pointless. Any kitchen steriliser – such as Milton – will prevent this, and leave your kit smelling reassuringly clean. Follow the dilution instructions and don’t use scented bleach unless you want your beer tasting pine-fresh.

Speaking from experience, I can say that making a decent beer was definitely key to my going back and doing it again. In a short time I was making beer that most people – myself included – would be happy to be served in a pub. I was also saving money; after buying the kit (around £25-30 if you reuse your own pop bottles) I was making beer at a cost of roughly 50p a pint. While brewing is simple, the beers you can make are limitless. A few additional purchases and some inventiveness (and inventions) have equipped me with a fine mini-brewery of my own. The making of around eight batches of beer per year for the last three years has also given me the knowledge and the ability to teach others, which I’ll be happily sharing on this blog.