Making beer is super-easy. Just follow these instructions.
- Buy or borrow a brewery of suitable size and pedigree. I’d recommend something like the Hook Norton Brewery, for instance. It has history, it has charm. Their building looks like something out of Harry Potter, and they are very eager to preserve as much of the original equipment, going back about 170 years, as possible. They are located, surprise, in Hook Norton, a village not far from Banbury. The brewery has been in the hands of the same family for six generations now.
- Buy malt. You can of course grow your own, but at Hook Norton they believe you’re either a brewer or a barley grower. You can’t be an expert in both. So they say it’s preferable to leave the grains to the grain specialists and buy in your malt. You can blend different types of malt in your beer, depending on the style you want to produce. One malt Hook Norton uses throughout its range, in all its beers, is pale ale malt, as it gives richness to the beer. That’s not the one seen in the above photo, obviously. But I think you can guess what black malt will be used for.
- Crack your malt. For this process, serious people will use a grist mill – as seen in the photograph. You also want to mill some of your malt down to the fineness of flour. You might like to know that the mill featured in this photo is the only one of its kind in the whole wide world that is still in use.
- Take a mash tun and fill it up with your cracked and milled malt, and pour hot water over it. Use high-quality water, ideally spring water or something similarly pure. They call this water the liqueur. That may strike you as a rather fancy name, but water plays a key role in the quality of the final product, so it’s not to be dismissed.
- Inside the mash tun, the magic happens. On the influence of the warm water, the starches in the malt are converted into sugar. This is crucial, because it is the sugar that can then turn into alcohol in the fermentation process. What you get in this process is a brown liquid, sticky with the starches and sugars, which we call wort (pronounce as you would ‘word’). In the traditional tuns at Hook Norton, you wait for the water to drip its way through the grains, which can take about 1.5 hours. Then you have to manually shovel out the grains, oh well, it’s tough to be a hard-core traditionalist. But what you get with all your hard work is 2,500 gallons of wort, now ready for fermenting.
- But before we get to the fermentation, something really important needs to be done. Choose your hops. Now hops have become a big thing today. Craft breweries place a lot of emphasis on the hops they use, and market their products with the hop varieties marked on the packaging, as connoisseurs really care. Often multiple hops are blended. Don’t be shy. Use your imagination. Hops are great. They are the life and soul of the beer. They have a light green colour and an unusual floral-fruity smell. Like with your grains, you typically don’t want to grown your own hops. Leave that to the hop specialists.
Hook Norton’s master brewer uses hops from all over the UK, as well as from the USA, New Zealand and eastern Europe. The wort in itself is ‘sickly sweet’, to quote our guide, and it will be the hops that give the beer its bitterness, as well as some other interesting flavour components, such as tropical fruit if, like me, you like that in your beer.
- Move the wort, together with the selected hops, into a copper for boiling. ‘Copper’ is what we call it, but it doesn’t have to be made of copper, though at Hook Norton one of the two coppers they have is actually copper. They are essentially large kettles with a ‘percolator’ in the middle. You bring the wort-hop mix to a boil and let it do its thing for about 1.5 hours. It’s not as simple as that, however. There is an order in which you add the hops here. You should start with the so-called bittering hops. The more aromatic hops should come in later, because with the boiling the aromas easily leave the beer. Once the boiling is over, the liquid is pumped out and cooled down.
- Fermentation! This is when your brown juice becomes beer. On our visit to Hook Norton, we weren’t allowed into the fermentation room as contamination is a huge risk at this stage. Suffice it to say that a beer with 5% alcohol content takes about one week to ferment.
- Pump some CO2 into your beer and get rid of unwanted yeasts using a microfilter. As simple as that. But if you’re producing a cask ale, do leave some yeasts in the beer – they are needed for the flavour.
- The beer is then conditioned in casks. These tend to be rather small in size, much smaller than, for example, wine barrels. The reason is that once a cask is opened, the beer will only keep 3-4 days. For a publican, therefore, it’s better to be able to turn the casks over quickly.
What’s really special about Hook Norton is that theirs is a tower brewery, very cleverly built in a way so that the whole brewing process is gravity-based. Today cutting-edge wineries do the same, in order to keep the process as uninvasive as possible, but Hook Norton was built in the mid-19th century so that was pretty modern for a Victorian establishment. Here is a map that shows how it all works:
We of course finished with some tasting. The beers available on tap included Hooky Bitter, a classic, nutty session (i.e. rather weak) beer; Old Hooky, their flagship beer; Hooky Gold, a very hoppy ale; and Trial No. 1, an interesting lager with an individual character. But my favourite, needless to say, was the Kingmaker Ale, a pale ale with passion fruit, nettle and gooseberry flavours, and with a moderate 4% alcohol. And I got to pour my own beer!