Max’s No Nonsense (well, not very much) Guide to Brewing

... everything you might need to know about malt, hops, yeast and the drinking habits of aphids.

Brewing beer at home is not difficult and can be extremely rewarding. The results of two or three hours’ work and a modest financial outlay can be several gallons of fine ale which friends will admire and which is available in the garden shed whenever you fancy a quick pint or three.

Basically, there are only four essential commodities involved in the making of beer: malt, hops, water and yeast.


Malting is a process whereby grains of barley are allowed to germinate and then roasted alive whilst in the prime of life, the first flush of youth even. This tragic event, however, produces an eminently fermentable substance, which is the basis of all beer. Malt turns to alcohol; it also gives body and flavour to the beer. Household sugar, which some people use as well as malt, also produces alcohol but contributes nothing to the flavour of the finished brew; it is normally better to use malt only unless you are working to a very tight budget or you want a very strong beer without too much heaviness.

Brewing beer from grain malt is a complicated procedure requiring precise temperature control and one which only the most dedicated home brewer would attempt. Fortunately, very acceptable results can be obtained using malt extract. Personally, I prefer to use malt extract syrup, which comes in light or dark varieties and in several sizes of tins and plastic tubs; it is also available in powder form.


Hops, the flowers of humulus lupulus, give a beer bitterness and have preservative qualities. Until the middle ages, English ale was brewed without hops and the introduction from the Continent of the “Flemish weed” provoked much resentment at the time. However, in retrospect it was undoubtedly a sound move, for without hops there would be no bitter as we know it, just a choice of milds ranging from insipid to treacley.

Hops can be bought in the form of pellets or liquid extract, but there is no point in using these when whole hops are readily available and easy to use. Dried whole hops are normally sold in 4 oz or 8 oz bags. Look for a fresh, greenish tinge and a tendency for the flower heads to remain intact; avoid excessively brown and powdery ones. The two main traditional varieties are Goldings, generally used for bitter, and Fuggles, with a softer flavour more suited to milds and old ales, but nowadays brewers have access to a much wider range of European and American hops.


With what appears to be a hopeless optimism or wishful thinking, water is known in the brewing trade as “liquor”. Different types of water have subtle influences on the flavour of the beer (for example, the water of Burton-on-Trent is particularly conducive to the brewing of bitters and pale ales), but this is probably of little more than academic interest to the average home brewer. For our purposes, water comes from the tap unless you are fortunate enough to live near the Malvern hills or somewhere else where fresh spring water is freely available.

The combination of water, malt and hops before fermentation is known as the “wort”. Home brew kits usually take the form of a highly concentrated wort to which water is to be added, but why bother with these when, with hardly any more effort, you can make your own wort and know exactly what is in it?


Yeast is a lowly life-form which has nevertheless evolved an amazingly useful characteristic - the ability to manufacture alcohol. Two basic types are used in brewing: one is an extremely vigorous strain which works at the surface of the wort, enjoys a warm environment and is used for traditional English beers which it can ferment out in about a week; the other is a more lethargic animal which lurks at the bottom of the vessel, doesn’t mind the cold so much and will produce a lager-style beer in a month or so.


The essential equipment for the home brewer amounts to one vessel for each of the three stages of boiling, fermentation and conditioning, i.e.:

i) Something in which to boil the wort. You could use a very large saucepan - an extremely large sucepan, perhaps an army surplus saucepan with a capacity of at least 2 gallons - on the hob, but the ideal thing is an old wash boiler, such as a Baby Burco. This has sufficient capacity and is designed for the action of boiling water with solid matter in it, which is exactly what is required.

ii) Something in which to ferment the wort. A purpose-made plastic fermenting bin with lid is inexpensive and there is no obvious substitute.

iii) Something in which to store the beer. Unless you want to bottle all your beer - a very time-consuming business - a plastic barrel is the thing to get. You do not need a CO2 injector however, enough natural CO2 should be given off to keep the beer in good condition. If you do want to bottle the beer, the bottles with old-fashioned stoppers (eg. Grolsch or Newquay Steam beer) are the most practical as well as the most decorative. Screw top cider bottles would be a possibility. Otherwise, if you want to use ordinary beer bottles, you will have to invest in a crown corking device and a supply of fresh crown corks.

You may also consider purchasing a hydrometer which measures the specific gravity of the brew. This varies according to the proportions of water, fermentable material and alcohol; thus the original gravity (OG) gives a rough indication of the final strength of the beer (an average bitter is around 1035-1040), while checking for a final gravity of around 1005 will show conclusively that fermentation has finished. A hydometer is by no means essential though. [When reading the OG, do ensure that the wort has cooled to about 55°F which is the temperature at which the hydrometer is designed to operate. Specific gravity decreases as the temperature rises. A few years ago a friend of mine made a legendary brew called Plumber’s Mate which had people quite literally flat on their backs, usually on the snow outside his front door. It later transpired that the claimed OG of 1070 (a very respectable figure by any standards) had been read while the wort was still hot: a true reading would probably have been nearer 1100!]

In addition you will need a sterilising agent such as sodium metabisulphite or one of the proprietry sterilising solutions. Always clean, sterilise and rinse your equipment before use and pay particular attention to barrels and bottles. If you plan to ferment your beer in the shed or garage during colder weather an immersion heater is a good investment, as it keeps wort at a suitable working temperature for the yeast. A length of syphon tubing, optionally with a filter at one end and tap at the other, will make the transfer of the beer from the fermenting vessel to the barrel easier. All these items are available from home brew shops. You will also use various pieces of standard kitchen equipment such as a wooden spoon, collander and measuring jug.

A mystery solved

Have you ever wondered where greenfly go during the Winter? This was never a question which vexed me unduly, but one which I may have pondered fleetingly whilst wielding the malathion spray or indeed whilst not needing so to do.

One February afternoon, entering the shed with a pewter pot to draw a pint of ale (the first for a few days as it happened), I noticed a curious dark stain on the shelf beneath the barrel. Picking up a rag to wipe it away, I suddenly perceived that it was moving - a faint but agitated, seething motion. On closer inspection, the heaving mass proved to be a host of hundeds of the family aphidaea wallowing in a small pool of beer created by a few drips from the tap.

This revelation caused me to put down my pot and stare in wonderment. So this is what the little blighters get up to when they are no longer to be seen chomping their way through the roses or performing massive displays of aphidean solidarity on the broad bean plants? They take refuge in the shed where not only are they protected from the worst ravages of the elements but, if they are lucky, they can spend the entire Winter in a state of permanent inebriation, no doubt to emerge in the Spring with renewed vigour ready for the first assault on the tender young rosebuds, or if they don’t make it at least they die happy.


Max’s Basic Brew

A bitter of more or less than average strength, having an OG of around 1040 - 1045 (about 4.5% abv).

To make approximately 40 pints:
5-6 lb dark malt extract
6 oz Goldings hops
5 gall water
ale yeast

All the ingredients except the water should be available from a reputable home-brew shop. Bring about 2 gallons of water to the boil in a wash-boiler. Tip the malt extract in slowly, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon; make sure it does not stick to the bottom of the boiler and burn. Adjust the heat until the wort is boiling, not too vigorously but more than simmering. Tip the hops in, extracting any thick stalks and foreign bodies, and stir until they are thoroughly waterlogged. Boil gently for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Allow the boiler to cool down for an hour or two.

Meanwhile sterilise the fermenting bin, rinse it and put about a gallon of cold water in it. Position the bin on the floor beneath the boiler, standing it on some old newspapers. No doubt you will come across several fascinating articles which you somehow managed to completely overlook when you originally read the papers, so allow plenty of time for this. Place a sieve or collander over the bin (unless you have a very large one, it will probably be necessary to support one side of it with the wooden spoon or some other suitable implement). If the tap of the boiler functions well, without getting clogged with hops or spraying the wort over a radius larger than that of the fermenting bin, then drain the wort out this way; otherwise do it by dipping with a jug initially and then by cautiously tipping the boiler. Top up the bin with more cold water, pouring it through the hops in the seive in order to extract the last traces of malt therefrom.

The liquid in the fermenting bin should now be comfortably warm to the touch; if it is distinctly hot, leave it a little longer. Take out about half a pint in a jug, sprinkle a sachet of yeast onto it and stand the jug in a warm place. Within half an hour the little yeasty beasties will have multiplied prodigiously and produced a good head of froth on the surface. Pour the contents of the jug back into the fermenting vessel and put the lid on. Try to keep the fermenting wort in a reasonably warm place. If you have to keep it in a shed or outhouse during cold weather, it is worth investing in a home-brew immersion heater. You will probably find that during the first day, fermentation has been so vigorous as to cause a large quantity of unsightly brown scum to overflow the top of the fermenting vessel. This is where the newspaper comes into its own. It is also the reason why spouses who banish the amateur brewer to the shed should not be argued with too vociferously, ideal as conditions in the airing cupboard may appear at the planning stage.

De Profundis

This is a strong, dark winter brew with an OG of about 1062 (6% abv).

To make approximately 40 pints:
8 lb dark malt extract
1 lb black grain malt or roasted barley
7 oz Fuggles hops
5 gall water
ale yeast

Proceed exactly as for the Basic Brew, adding the black grain malt or roasted barley to the wort just before the hops.

De Profundis should be left to mature in the barrel for at least two months, preferably three. You may consider bottling it if you wish to use the barrel for a lighter brew in the meantime. Alternatively, you could condition it in the barrel and then run off a few pints into bottles for long term storage, leaving the remainder in the barrel for more immediate consumption. In the bottle it should keep for several years and will probably mellow with age.

Neu Vod’nás

This is a continental-style bottom fermented brew about 1050 OG or 5% ABV. The name (pronounced something like “Nay-ooh Vodge-nash”) comes from “Neu vod’nás vpoku šeni” (Lead us not into temptation) from the Lord’s Prayer in old Czech; in the wonderful setting by Leos Janacek these words are sung with great vehemence by the second basses.

To make approximately 40 pints:
7 lb light malt extract
1 lb granulated sugar
7 oz Saaz hops
5 gall water
pilsner yeast

Note that this recipe uses light malt extract instead of dark. There is little difference between the two and using the wrong variety will not affect the flavour of the beer in the slightest. To English eyes a black lager or a pale golden old ale might look a little odd in the glass, but most Czech breweries produce both light and dark lagers - indeed the famous U Fleku brews only the dark variety as it has done for 500 years. You will probably find the light malt in a tin with a dark label and vice versa (the makers presumably being driven by the same perverse logic that has persuaded spark plug manufacturers for many years to prefix the numbers of long-reach plugs with “N” and normal ones with “L”). Saaz hops are a Czech variety in origin, but any good home brewing shop should be able to supply them.

Proceed as usual, adding the sugar at the same stage as the malt extract. This beer will take longer than the others to ferment, on account of the the bottom working yeast, but keep the bin well covered and check the gravity daily after two weeks or you may find that the yeast has given up and some undesirable organism has taken over, forming a white, scummy growth on the surface. [If this happens to a brew, all may not be lost; it may be possible to save it by syphoning off the bulk of the liquid from underneath and discarding the top two or three inches, but it is far better to avoid the situation by scrupulous hygiene and careful monitoring.] The Neu Vod’nás can then be put in a barrel, primed with a few tablespoons of sugar, and left for a few weeks in a cool place (This corresponds to the continental practice of “lagering”) before bottling. Prime again at this stage with a good teaspoon of sugar per pint bottle and leave the beer for a few more weeks. It should be served lightly chilled.

There is a variation known as “Ale zbav nás všeho zlého” (Deliver us from evil) for those blessed with supreme machismo or irretrievable stupidity. At the bottling stage simply add a single green chilli pepper to a few of the bottles and leave them for several months before consumption. While this creates a beer of an uncompromising and formidable nature, it does rather prevent it from serving its purpose as a cooling refresher to be drunk during the summer.

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