A Very Ancient Craft
Beer, Mead and so on
No book on making wine at home would be complete without a chapter on making beer at home. Beer is traditionally the Englishman's drink and Englishmen have been drinking it for a very long time indeed.
Originally called ale, it was made by fermenting an extract from grains; wheat was used as well as barley. Various herbs were used for flavouring, but the favourite was nettle. Each family made their own ale if they were self-supporting. For those who worked on the squire's estate ale was made by one of the workers, not only for the family but also for the estate workers. When taverns came into existence they made their own ale too, and it was hundreds of years before breweries were developed.
During the Roman occupation hops were imported for favouring, but hopped ale, which is commonly called beer, did not become popular with the local inhabitants until the beginning of the fifteenth century. By this time Henry VI had granted a charter to the London Guild of Brewers in 1437 to control the making of beers for sale. Brewers had, however, been in existence on a commercial scale for some 200 years before this and it was because of the wide variation in quality and price that control became necessary.
The process of malting barley had also been learnt. The grains were soaked and stored in a warm place until they sprouted and were then roasted. The first action reduced the starch to a more easily fermentable sugar known as maltose, and the second made possible variations in flavour, obtained by roasting the grains for a longer or a shorter period. Malting has steadily improved as science has found out more about the chemical changes that take place. Malting is now a carefully controlled process involving a precise amount of humidity at exactly the right temperature for the correct length of time. Roasting too makes the different grains, for light ale at one end of the range of beers and for stout at the other, the grains for stout being roasted until they are a deep brown/black.
The more inquisitive brewers could also notice a difference in the water available in one neighbourhood and that available in another. London became famous for its stout, where the softer water gave an advantageously smooth finish to this black beer. Burton-on-Trent, on the other hand, became famous for its light ales and bitter beers because the many mineral salts found in the Burton water added a crispness and refreshing tang to the beer.
In the entire country ale or beer was almost the only drink for the common people and it was drunk at breakfast as well as at other meals, although it must be said that the alcoholic content was very low indeed, especially so of 'small beer'. Sometimes mead would be available for a special drink, and for the better-off people wine would be drunk at the evening meal. But this was the picture before the introduction of tea, coffee, cocoa and so on in the eighteenth century.
Beer is just as easy to make today as it has always been. Indeed, it is undoubtedly true to say that better beer can now be made in the home than ever before. No licence is at present required to make beer at home, although you must not sell beer without a licence. Although not strictly comparable with wine, it has the distinct advantage in that it can be made and drunk in a fortnight. It does not appreciably improve by being kept: for more than a few months and indeed tends to go off after a while, because there is insufficient alcohol and acid in it to save it from deterioration.
Commercially the grains are soaked in water at 1500F. for about half an hour and then this liquor is drained off, whilst fresh hot water of the same temperature is slowly sprayed on to the top of the grains for the next four hours, As this steadily soaks through to the bottom outlet it extracts all the fermentable sugars and proteins. Hops are then added and the 'wort' as it is now called is boiled vigorously for an hour to extract the hop oils and flavours and to pasteurise it. The wort is then strained through the hops and cooled rapidly to 65 ° F. so that an active yeast can be added and fermentation started without delay. A frothy head soon appears and after a few days this changes in character and colour and is skimmed off. The beer is then filtered and poured into casks. Some additional hops and sugar, called priming, are added and the cask is bunged down and allowed to stand for a few days before being distributed to the public houses. Here it is again allowed to stand for a few days so that the hops and yeast can settle. The beer is then drawn off clear and bright and with a good 'head'.
It is possible to imitate this process in the home with the aid of a thermostat and heater of the kind used in a home aquarium. The malt and water are poured into a plastic bucket or tub, the thermostat and heater are put in, connected to the mains and switched on. After six hours the wort is strained off the grain and is boiled with the hops, then cooled and yeasted. Fermentation takes about five days, scum being skimmed off when it changes appearance after about three days. The fresh white puffy head takes on a dirty, darker and more solid appearance.