REALLY understanding English beers

Before we start, let me convince you to take absolutely no notice of the idiotic middle class “beer tasting” sites, books and so on.  These people plainly have no idea what goes into English beers, how beer is made, and have no idea at all that English beers are regional and therefore vary enormously.  These people blather on about “citrus notes” and “hop finishes”, despite the fact that they do not know that if you really taste citrus flavours in your beer, it has almost certainly got them from the same place as the “hop finish”, i.e. from the hops.

Comparisons with wine are futile and degrade our own art of brewing.  As for chocolate stouts and other middle class affectations: treat them with the contempt they deserve. These are marketing man’s gimmicks.

So, that’s that.

English- and, indeed, Scottish, Welsh and Irish- beers have localised character.   The Irish favour dry stouts, but it’s by no means the only beer they traditionally brewed.  Irish bitters were rather sweeter than English ones.  London bitters were traditionally more sour than some.  East Anglian beers were traditionally rather dark and headless.  Cotswold beers were quite dark and malty.  Northern bitters using true Northern yeast are, in my opinion, the peak of the brewer’s art, especially when taking into account the trouble this yeast creates.  But northern bitters are drier, more crisp and slightly more carbonated with an obligatory creamy head.  A true northerner wants at least 3/4 inch of head on his beer: don’t listen to CAMRA: the head is essential on northern beers.

Scottish beers are full bodied and often dark.  And Scotsmen tend to go ballistic if there’s even a few bubbles floating on their beer.  Kentish beers, (another excellent example of brewing art), are beautifully hopped and balanced.   And, of course, the Burton style beers are unsurpassed, despite the efforts of the big brewers to ruin them.  If you can get hold of a proper pint of Burton Ale, or Marstons Pedigree, you are drinking highly individual ales with a long history.  Both are beautifully clear and bright, clean tasting and perfectly balanced.  Real brewing history.

The South Wales Valleys tended to prefer lighter ales, such as light ale or mild.  All preferences and styles derive from recent and, sometimes, distant history.  Welsh coal miners and steel workers wanted a refreshing ale, which light ale is.   Burton ale is where Pale Ale took off, but their brewers already had a famous history of making fine, strong, brown coloured ales and even Russian Imperial Stout, made especially for the Russian market and to take advantage of cheap shipping to Russia.  (There was a lot of importing of timber from the Ukraine, but our ships were empty on the outbound journey.  Brewers like Bass took advantage of this, until the Crimean war).

London had many huge breweries, and THE beer in London at one time was a dark, heavy and well hopped- and somewhat sour- beer called “Porter”.  Porter was soured by long maturation, often in vast maturing tanks, tanks so large that dances and parties were held in them to celebrate their opening.  When Pale Ale arrived, the London brewers took a long time to catch up, and hence carried on brewing dark, sourer ales.  One enterprising London brewer upped sticks and went to Ireland and continued brewing Porter, taking advantage of the Irish water and lack of competition.  Guinness eventually became Europe’s largest brewery.

Central to ALL brewing endeavours were the skills learnt the hard way by monks from the Middle Ages up until the dissolution.  To this day, some of the best beers in the world are brewed by European monastic orders, such as Chimay, brewed by Trappist monks.  When Henry VIII broke up the monasteries, many former brewing monks went on to brew for the local lord, and he often built his own brewhouse and sold beer to his tenants.  Hence the plethora of ecclesiastical names for beers (Old Peculier, Bishop’s Finger, Abbot Ale etc.), and the habit of referring to the man who runs a pub as “Landlord”.  At one time, he probably would have been your landlord.

So, hopefully you can see that different localised styles came about, depending on local tastes, local circumstances, local water and yeast and just good old fashioned local tradition.  So, next time you’re in Kent, don’t drink Tetleys or Bass, drink something local, like Shepherd Neame.  And next time you’re in the Cotswolds, drink Adnams or other local beer.  There are plenty.

And for God’s sake, don’t listen to those who know nothing about beer tell you about “tasting notes”.   Buy it.  Drink it.  If you like, buy another.  It’s as simple as that, and what these fools do not realise is that ALL English beer has remarkably similar recipes, but it doesn’t take much to create a very different beer just by using a different variety of hops, or by adding a little black malt or whatever.

Beer has no room for the pretentious.  It always was a discerning working man’s drink, above all, and people in the past really knew their beers.  You could pay them very little, condemn them to hard work and very little else: but you could not make them drink poor beer.  And they knew what was good, without the help of clueless “beer buffs” and their “tasting notes”.  It’s like being told how to see or smell.

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A beginner’s guide to basic beer making equipment

You will find that you will aquire more and better gear as you go on, but you need surprisingly little equipment to brew excellent quality beer: remember, beer has been brewed throughout British history, and with none of the benefits of electricity, sterilising agents or plastics.

Most brewers brew in 5 gallon quantities and, indeed, most recipes are written with this in mind.

You will need:

1. a 5 gallon boiler.

These are readily available from home brew shops (see end of post) or you can press a “Burco” 5 gallon water boiler into service, or even a large, 5 gallon catering pan.

2. at least 1 5 gallon food grade plastic container.  Preferably with a lid.

3. A “grain bag” (also known as a “Sparging bag”) or a perforated “false bottom” to fit your boiler.

4.  A reasonably accurate set of scales.

5. A thermometer.

6. A hydrometer.

Also nicknamed “The brewer’s compass”, this is a vital piece of equipment.  It tells you how much sugar your beer contains, monitors fermentation progress and final strength of the beer.

7. A large plastic spoon or paddle.

8. Sterilising fluid.   Bleach can be used, but also kills yeast, so anything sterilised in yeast must be rinsed thoroughly before use.

9. A 5 gallon beer cask, there are many on the market and some use CO2 injection systems.

There are other, more dedicated bits of brewing equipment in the market, such as insulated Mash Tuns and rapid wort coolers.  However, these are not necessary to produce a decent brew, but can make life easier.




Good home brewing shop near Keighley, West Yorkshire but easily accessible from North Yorkshire.  Also has excellent online shop.  They also sell pre-formulated “beer kits” which contain everything you need to produce proper, mashed beer. Excellent stock of malts, adjuncts, yeast and hops.
Barley Bottom


Another excellent online shop with a wide range of good and equipment.   Hop and Grape sell their own range of very high quality, stainless steel gear.   Expensive, but very high quality.

Hop and Grape


Well, you might have known it, but there is also beer brewing software available.  Some you pay for, but this excellent bit of software is free!  Thanks to Paul at Barley Bottom for telling me about this.

BrewMate is invaluable for compiling recipes or, indeed, formulating recipes.  It lets you simply select your beer style and then select your ingredients, and even lets you see the approximate colour of the final beer.  Hop Bittering Units are shown according to the variety you have selected, and likewise, Specific and Final gravities are calculated according to what malts and sugars you have selected.  Most importantly, your beer’s “balance” is calculated: a balance of 1 (for your style of beer) would be a perfect blend of malt and hop tastes, .90 would mean more malt than hops, whilst 1.20 would mean a much “hoppier” (bitter) taste.  BrewMate calculates costs, final beer strength and helps you calculate the amount of ingredients you’ll need.  Very useful for working out how to substitute one hop for another.  I can’t do without this software.  Check out the recipes on the BrewMate website.

More links and stuff as I find them- check back regularly.

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How hard is it to make beer the correct way?

The answer is: if you are any good at cooking, then you’ll not have much trouble with brewing beer the “correct” way.   Unlike wine making, beer making does not require as much patience, and you can soon drink the fruits of your labours, secure in the knowledge that you’ve done the job correctly and produced a drink every bit as good as- or better- than you’d get at your pub.  And for a small fraction of the cost.

Brewing beer is essentially a 1 week or slightly over process, with perhaps one day of relatively hard work actually brewing the stuff, followed by a period of letting it ferment and, finally, barreling or bottling.   It is not particularly time consuming.  It is, however, extremely rewarding.  Here is a typical “brewing session”:

DAY 1:

1. Wash and thoroughly sterilise everything that may come into contact with the beer.

2. Heat approx 3.5 gallons of water to just over 65 degrees C

3. measure out all the grains (malted barley and other grains, if used).

4. When the water is ready, empty the grains into the water and raise the temperature back up to the recipe’s stipulated temperature (usually around 65 degrees C).  The grain- known as “The Goods”, being colder than the water, will have had a cooling effect.

5. Stir the Goods constantly to remove any dry lumps and keep the temperature as close to that required by the recipe as possible for the first 15 minutes.

6. A lid can be put loosely over the water and grains, (the vessel full of these is called a mash tun).  Leave for a total of 1.5 hours (including the first 15 minutes we spent stirring it).  Check the temperature now and again.

7. Whilst the beer is mashing (as above), heat about 1.5 gallons of water to around 70 degrees C.  (The temperature and amount can vary according to recipes).

8. When the mashing has finished, it is time to strain the liquid (known as “Wort”) from the grains- this is quite a delicate operation.   Many home brewers use a sparging bag, which is a strong bag with fine holes in the bottom.  See my post on “Home Brewing Equipment”.   Using a sparging bag, fit this to another large container and pour the grain mixture into the bag.  Let this settle for around 15 minutes and take care not to disturb it: the grains will act as a filter bed to leave behind substances that could cloud the beer.

9. Open the tap on the container with the wort in and let it run back into the boiler or whatever you intend to boil the beer in.

10. Now, very carefully rinse the grains with the sparging water we heated whilst mashing took place.  There is a temptation to squeeze the sparging bag to extract all the sugary wort, but resist this: it also contains particles we don’t want.  Discard the grain, or find someone who keeps pigs or animals that will eat it: old piggy will be very grateful!

11. So, what we have now is a lot of dark(ish) wort which is sweet.  Now we must add hops to counteract the sweetness.  Hops also add preservative qualities and help to clear up the beer.  Bring the wort to the BOIL, and add hops according to the recipe.  Hops, contrary to popular opinion, are only used in small quantities- check out my “Recipes” section.

12. The boil must be a full, “rolling” boil and for 2 hours.  “Aroma” hops (high quality hops added to restore aroma lost in boiling) can be added for the last 15 minutes, as can, indeed should, “Irish Moss”, which is neither moss nor particularly Irish: it is, in fact, Caragheen seaweed!  It is what brewers call “copper finings” and is used to clarify the beer.  Any sugars called for in the recipe should be added now, too.  I find it best to mix them with a little boiling water, this way there’s less chance of them burning on the boiler element.

13. At the end of boiling time, it is time to strain the wort again.  You can use the sparging bag (after it has been cleaned, of course), but be careful- hot, sweet beer will burn you terribly.  Rinse the hops left behind in the sparging bag with a couple of kettleloads of boiling water.  Discard the spent hops.  I don’t think old piggy would appreciate eating hops, though.

14. Now, it is important to cool the wort as much as possible and as quickly as possible.  This presents the biggest problem for the home brewer: wort is a hot, sweet liquid which makes a perfect home for many wild yeasts and bugs.  It is safe enough once the brewers yeast gets going, but until them, it is vulnerable.   You can buy, or even make, a copper spiral which connects to the tap and the other end outputs into a sink- this will cool 5 gallons of wort in around 20 minutes.  You could also simply fit a lid and place the entire vessel in a cold bath.  This can easily take 4-5 hours, though, or you can leave it overnight.

15. Once the Wort has cooled to 25 degrees C, (do NOT put yeast in at any temperature any higher than that), the yeast can be pitched.  Endeavour to find a source of real, live, brewers yeast of the top fermenting variety.  Some breweries will let you have some.  The packet stuff cannot measure up to the real yeasts: the latter get to work quickly and are much livelier.

16. Fermentation (primary fermentation) will take between 3 and 7 days.  Do not make the error of thinking that “warmest is best”: it is not.  Top fermenting yeast performs best at 18 degrees C.  Any warmer, and the beer will develop off flavours and will not keep.  See my post on “Fermentation“.

17.  At the end of fermentation, (use a hydrometer to ensure this has ended), the beer should already be “falling bright”.  It can then be barreled.

18. When barreling, everything must be spotlessly clean and completely sterilised.  Carefully siphon the beer out of the fermentation vessel into a barrel, ensuring to leave behind the yeast head and as much sediment as possible.  Ensure, also, that the beer comes into as little contact with air as possible.  The presence of air might make fermentation kick off again, causing problems.

19. Many home brewers like to “prime” their barrels with a small amount of sugar, in order to get the beer to produce CO2 and “condition” quickly.  Use priming sugar according to the recipe.

20. Finally, leave it alone once it’s barreled.  Beer can be drunk after  a couple of weeks, but tastes far better after a few.  The rule of thumb is: the stronger the beer, the longer it should be kept before drinking.  Test small amounts periodically, and DON’T be put off by harsh flavours or initial cloudiness.  It takes beer time to mature, and during maturation, harsh chemicals are toned down, and the characteristic hop and malt flavours mellow and yeast settles down.

So, you can see, it’s really one day’s hard work and then a little patience.  Read my other posts for more detail on equipment, recipes, ingredients and methods.

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What ISN’T really beer !

Most people from Britain, at least, will have heard of “Real Ale”.   They’ll most likely associate it with old blokes with beards, woolly jumpers and the pedants and beer snobs from CAMRA.  They’ll “know” that it’s not lager.   They may well believe that it is heavy, turgid and off- tasting dark stuff from the days of the 1990’s short lived “Real Ale Craze”.

None of these things are true.   So what IS and ISN’T beer?

Most commercial lagers as sold in Britain are not “real” beer.   Beer (or ale, if you must) is a drink made from water, malted barley, hops and maybe other “adjuncts” in the form of other grains or sugar.  That lot is then fermented (yeast turns the sugars into alcohol) and it is now that the prime difference emerges:   Most common lagers, all keg bitters, most bottled beer and ALL “Smooth” beers are then pasteurized.  So is almost ALL Guinness.

This kills off any bugs in the beer: but- and this is vitally important- it also kills off any yeast remaining.  Even worse, it kills off much of the complexities of taste in the beer.  To make matters worse, the beer is then usually filtered, which buggers things up even more.  By now,the “beer” is as flat as a pancake and is dead.  You could pour as much sugar as you like in, there’s little chance of it fermenting from any residual yeast.

The beer is then injected, rapidly, with either carbon dioxide or a mix of nitrogen and CO2.  Then- oh crime of crimes!- the beer must be kept in cold conditions, because nitrogen, in particular, will attempt to get out in higher temperatures.

Lager was designed, generally, for lower temperatures, and this process doesn’t harm it as much as it does English beers or Irish style stouts.   But for the latter beers, it is a travesty to allow this to happen.

Drink these, and you are drinking a marketing man’s con trick.

What’s in a word?

They say “smooth”, but they actually mean “bland”.   Guinness makes a virtue out of a glaring fault: such drinks should not be served cold.  Like English beers, 15 degrees C is about right.  Try it with a fresh pint of Guinness.  Use your taste buds properly and notice the depth of flavour.   Serving drinks cold cons the taste buds: it is said that after 2 glasses of cold Champagne, one could serve equally cold, good quality dry cider and few would notice the difference.  Note: warm Champagne is also a serious crime!

But “Smooth” beers are the beer equivalent of cheap instant coffee compared to real, Italian Espresso.  The marketing man tells you that the beer is smooth, and makes a virtue out of the fault of being cold, but such businesses would much prefer us all to drink such rubbish: “Smooth” beers, also known as “Nitro-keg” have a very long shelf life, and like keg lager, there’s no beer keeping skills required in the pub and very little waste.  Yet- and here’s the good bit!- they charge more for smooth beers!

REAL English beers and REAL Irish stouts (the type on a hand pull pump at the pub) are alive.  They still continue fermenting, very slowly, and develop more character as time passes.  We wouldn’t tolerate being sold food that claims to be one thing, but is actually a convenient facsimile for the manufacturer’s profits.   Next time you go for a good cup of Espresso, how would you like it if you believed that they were making it properly, from ground coffee, then using a machine to blast steam through the coffee.  And then you find out that it’s not actually made on the premises, and it’s not actually freshly made, and it’s actually made from coffee powder substitute?

And then they charge you more for it.

And- most importantly- don’t you think you could taste the difference?

I drink and brew real beer not because I have a beard, have a love of knitwear, pedantry or bothering landlords about using sparklers, or attacking them with “beer head rulers” and demanding my hard earned £0.002p back, because that head was 2mm larger than the (southern-centric) CAMRA beer Nazis deem acceptable.

I drink and brew real beer because it tastes better and because it’s a very old ENGLISH and, indeed EUROPEAN tradition.  Yes, lager can be “Real” beer, too.   But very rarely in Britain.

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Why beer kits don’t measure up

Most likely you have tried to make beer from kits.   And you may remember, if you’re in a lucky minority, that it didn’t taste too bad, but not like proper pub beer.  The unlucky majority probably remember how bad tasting it was, how much gut rot and/or hangover it gave them.

So why was this the case?

There are many reasons, but, primarily, bad practices by the novice brewer and often poor or indeterminate ingredients by the kit maker combine to make a second rate product even worse: you can buy beer kits nowadays that will give acceptable results, but rarely like proper beer like you get out of a bottle or from the pub.

Beer kits are mostly malt extract and a few other ingredients and hop extracts in one large can.   Add hot water and often, sugar, boil for 1/2 an hour or so, and that’s it.

Then the real brutal stuff starts.  Novices often put more than the recommended dose of sugar in, believing that this will make the beer stronger.  (It will, but it also makes it thinner tasting and far more likely to inflict a terminal hangover).  They then put the beer in the hottest place they can find to ferment- often an airing cupboard.   This is very wrong, especially if lager is what you are brewing!  English ales and Irish stouts need to be fermented at around 18 degrees C.  True lagers want a temperature of around 5- 7 degrees C.  Their yeasts are fussy like that.   Too high a temperature causes a “racing” fermentation and promote disease from all kinds of other wild yeasts and bugs that would love to invade the beer, too.  It also causes sickly tasting, tainted beer and beer that does not keep.

Cheaper beer kits make the problem worse by relying too much on the addition of sugars, and by using dubious additions to keep costs down, and, even more worryingly, the yeasts supplied are dried and often not the correct kind: Lager yeasts are often provided for English bitters: often, the yeast supplied is not even brewers yeast of any variety.

If you must brew from a kit, then expect to pay more than double the cheap kits.  The larger or heavier the can per 40 pints, then the more likely the kit will not rely on too much (or any) added sugar.  And do not be tempted to add any, either, unless the instructions say so.

Beer kits are no doubt becoming more popular, as pub beer prices become extortionate.  For £25 (at time of writing), one can get good beer kits which, if it follows the rules found on this blog, will give halfway decent results.

But here’s the crazy thing: for around £14, one can brew beer to a standard as good as and often better than the commercial brewers!

Yes, it takes a little more time and is a little more complicated and you will probably need a little more equipment.  But not much more than you’d need for brewing kits.  But the results, if done properly, are more than well worth the effort.  You will be brewing beer to the same standard and using the same methods as have been used for centuries.  Unlike many commercial breweries, you can afford to use top notch, traditional ingredients.

Proper home brewed beer is NOT cloudy, off tasting, headless or hangover inducing pigswill.  This absorbing hobby is cheap, and extremely satisfying.  Ingredients and equipment are easy to come by.  Read on for some top tips and advice.

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So what IS beer?

By beer, I usually mean English bitters, Pale Ales, Milds and Stouts as well as Barley Wines.

Some claim that “Ale” is a more accurate term, but that is not only historically doubtful, but also contradictory, since the same people who claim “ale” is the correct term also usually claim that “beer” meant a weaker drink, and “Ale” meant a stronger one.  Modern beers (and ales, if you must) are almost always far weaker than in the past, and, indeed, lagers are often stronger than some bitters.   Since first finding out what the stuff is, I’ve used “Ale” and “Beer” almost interchangeably.  If we need to be specific, then we name the drink by its style: Munich Lager, Pilsner, Mild or Stout etc.

ALL commonly made beers are made from, at least, water, hops, malted barley and yeast.   That’s whether they are American pale lagers or Guinness: they’ll all contain those ingredients.

Contrary to popular opinion, beer is not made mostly from hops!   By far the greatest constituent is water.  Then malted barley, and by a considerable minority, hops. Check out the recipes section, and you’ll see!

So, what’s the difference between lagers and English bitters etc?

Not a great deal, in the grand scheme of things.  Recipes are really quite similar, although lagers traditionally have less hops, are served colder and are fermented, traditionally, with a yeast that likes low temperatures and which ferments at the bottom of the fermenting vat.

However, it is critical that British drinkers realise that the stuff they get sold as lager is a very, very, poor, sad, washed out and pathetic example of the worst possible sort.  REAL lager type beers, which vary enormously, are just as good as English beers.  “Lager” is more a method of brewing than just one style. Lagers vary in colour from a pale straw colour, to a deep ruby red and even practically black.

English beers typically use more hops and a top working yeast, and, also, a different type of malted barley, called Pale Malt.  Although Lager malt and Pale Malt look alike, there are important differences.

So, our beer is simply malted barley steeped in water typically around 66 degrees C for around 90 minutes.  The resultant liquid is then drained off and the spent grains rinsed to remove any sugar, then the grains are discarded.  Steeping the malt is called “mashing”, and mashing causes enzymes in the malted barley to convert several starches into a few varieties of fermentable sugar.

The resultant liquid, by now called a “Wort”, is brought to the boil.  Hops, in relatively small quantities, are added and the Wort is boiled for around 2 hours.  At the end, the Wort is drained again and the hops discarded.  The Wort must then be brought down to a lower temperature, (for English beers, around 25 degrees C), and then the yeast can be added.

The beer ferments in open vats, typically for 4- 10 days until vigorous activity of the yeast has abated.  The beer can be barreled at this stage, but it is best to put it somewhere airtight and leave it for a few days, to let the yeast settle out.

Fermentation converts the sugars produced by mashing into alcohol.  Most beer needs a while to mature.  But the entire process is much, much faster than wine making and the process is a very absorbing and inexpensive hobby.

Read more for how to “mash” your own, or how to use a simpler but effective method to create your own beers.  Or even how to get the best from beer kits!

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Hello world!

Welcome to Beerbrewedgood.  This is a website to inform those who like beer (real beer, that it) and those who do not know what real beer is on the many aspects of English beer.  This is not a real ale snob’s paradise, nor is it heavily, inaccessibly, technical site.

My intention is to discuss beer (which to most intents and purposes means English bitters, pale ales and milds, although true Continental lagers are fine) and to inform those who have never tried to brew their own just how easy it can be, how to avoid pitfalls, and – very importantly at a time bitter is costing over £3 a pint- just how CHEAP it is.  Example: I can brew 40 extremely high quality pints of slightly stronger than average bitter for £120 less than you’d pay in the pub!

Read on for more…………

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