I've been making beer from kits for a while now and the results are fine, but I don't see it as particularly self sufficient, it's just a way of buying beer more cheaply. I think starting from scratch (all grain) is more work than I want to put in, at least for now, but I recently came across this article by Andy Hamilton in Countryfile, which taught me about an intermediate alternative: Use malt extract but add the flavourings separately.
I hadn't really thought about what the beer kit gloop is, but Andy explains that it's malt extract already infused with hops. I had a look at the ingredients for the
medium difficulty brewing, and the only difference from the kit is the addition of hops. Hmm, I thought, that's one more thing to buy (since I don't know of any hops growing wild around here), but there are alternatives to hops for
bittering ale (traditionally,
ale did not have hops and
beer did, but the meanings have changed now). I've tried this commercial Fraoch and liked it very much, so I fancied having a go at a heather ale. Of course, the sensible thing would be to start with a malt extract plus hops recipe, or at the very least a recipe, and work my way up to experimenting, but that's not my style.
I read up on heather in ale, and learnt that the flowers and tips are both used, but each have different characteristics. The flowers give aromatic notes whereas the growing tips and twiggy bits give the bitter flavours. This makes sense - the tender new growth is most attractive to grazing animals, so that's where plants tend to concentrate bitter compounds. I have a few heather plants in the garden, which just now are covered in flowers and new growth, so this is an ideal time to harvest some.
The bees love these flowers - at least, they would if it was warm enough to get outside - so I don't want to take too many. I hunted around for guides on how much to use and found a huge variation, from a couple of ounces of flowers (only) in 2.75 gallons to 12 2/3 cups (why 2/3?) of flowers and tips in 5 gallons to a pound or more of flowers in 5 gallons. I also considered how much ale to make. It's typically brewed in five gallon batches or more, and I wondered if there was a good reason for this. I typically make wine in one or two gallon batches and it seems to work fine. Five gallons is a lot to risk on an experiment. I found an article addressing this very question, which assured me that there is no reason not to brew in smaller quantities. Reading it also reminded me of the difference between US and UK gallons.
My final question arising from Andy's recipe concerned boiling. The gloop in kit beer is essentially flavoured malt extract and I don't have to boil that, so why should I boil neat malt extract? Has the kit stuff already been boiled? A bit of research found considerable variation of opinion but much of it seemed driven by what seems to me to be excessive concern about contamination. I can't believe there's any bacteria in a sealed jar of 70% sugar solution, so I'm not going to bother boiling it for ages to kill it. There's also some concern that boiling extract for too long can spoil the flavour. I read all I could find, looked at how much (little) heather I had in my garden, considered how cold I was getting whilst cutting it, and came up with the following:Ingredients
- Two 370 g jars malt extract
- 350 g white sugar*
- a couple of handfuls of heather, being 1.75 oz twigs plus flowers that were on them
- water up to about 2 gallons (9-10 litres)
- half a sachet of yeast salvaged from last kit beer
I planned to treat the twigs and flowers differently, so the first job was to pick all the flowers off the stalks. I then weighed the twiggy bits.
There wasn't much of either - only 1/2 oz of twigs at this stage, so I went out and got some more, then put those on to boil while I went out for more, until I had almost two ounces of twiggy bits plus the flowers that came off them. Since I had so little heather, I wanted to extract as much flavour from it as I possibly could, which I intended to do by boiling it to death. The flowers wouldn't stand up to that kind of treatment - it would ruin the delicate flavours - so I poured a little boiling water over them, covered to trap any volatile oils, and left them to stand for an hour or so. The first batch of twigs was boiled in a largeish pan of water for about half an hour, then the hot water added to the malt extract (already in the bucket) and the twigs returned to the pan. I then added the rest of the twigs and boiled the whole lot for another half hour, strained into the bucket, then boiled all the twigs again in more fresh water for somewhat longer - we were watching Dr Who - before adding the final batch of water to the bucket. At some point I also added the water from the flowers, then topped up with a mixture of hot and cold water - all poured through the heather twigs and flowers - until I had roughly two gallons (or possibly ten litres) of warm mixture.
Being in possession of a borrowed hydrometer, I decided to check the specific gravity at this point, to see where my sugar calculations had ended up. More to the point, I checked the potential alcohol content, which is marked on a different scale on the same instrument. I was aiming for 4.5 - 5%.
That would be about right then. Finally, I sprinkled on some yeast** and left it to get on with it. There was a reassuring froth on the top this morning, but what it'll taste like remains to be seen, or indeed tasted.---
* Quantities of malt extract and sugar were calculated in the shop: How much gloop is in the kit? 1.5 kg. That's for 5 gallons, so scale down to 40%... that's 600 g. The jars are 370 g each, so I'll get two of those and reduce the sugar content to compensate (malt extract being essentially sugar). Sugar for 5 gallons is 1 kg, so 40% is 400 g... aim for 300 g... (back in the kitchen by now) oops, poured out too much - how much is that? 350 g. Oh, that'll do.
** Last time I made beer, I made bitter and lager in succession and kept the yeast going from one to the other, so I was able to salvage the sachet of yeast from the lager kit. I like the idea of keeping the yeast going all year, but I'm not sure whether I'll be brewing frequently enough for that.