There is usually plenty of enthusiasm among homebrewers
for “big” beers. Many of the recent trends in
homebrewing have pursued versions of existing styles
with more alcoholic strength and requisite flavor presence
to them (example: Double IPA), and there’s been
an ongoing dialogue on such subjects within the Maltose
Falcons’ membership. This is certainly appropriate.
From one perspective, we might expect this in our
market-driven culture with its ever-present hype, where
“more is preferred to less” as the economists would
say. The strong ales and lagers are more impressive
than the average brew and make great special-occasion
beers, and we do our share of celebrating with the assistance
of such imposing creations.
Yet, the lower-alcohol styles are really an area where
homebrewers can control their own drinking destiny
and create marvelous beers. Among the most impressive
of these are the Bitters and Mild Ales of the Real
Ale tradition in Britain. The tradition is one of smallbatch
hand-crafted brewing by independent breweries,
just as the recent trend has been in various regions of
the United States. In general, though, the British have
a concept of beer that is less powerful in its alcohol
content than what we have come to consider the
“norm.” Ah, but this is an area where less may actually
be more! Let’s look at the particular virtues of “small”
- Less alcohol in the beer means you can drink more
of it. This makes it easier to control your intake and
maintain your health and good behavior, while still enjoying
- Most homebrewers are impatient to drink what they
have brewed. Bitters and Milds generally set up within
a month, sometimes in as little as two weeks, so you
don’t have to wait very long.
- A beer that doesn’t develop as much alcohol doesn’t
require as much yeast to yield a successful fermentation,
so less yeast needs to be to grown up for the
- With a bit of concentrated wort boiling, you can
make more volume of beer on your system with a small
beer than you can when making a stronger beer.
- A small beer can be made successfully from the second
runnings of a lauter, so you can get two beers from
one brewing session and still get your “big” beer.
- While they lack the refreshing carbonation ‘sting’
and smooth (some would say absent) palate presence introduction to homebrewed beers for the uninitiated, as they are easy to drink, not intimidating, and therefore
comfortable to encounter. Brew beer, win friends and influence people!
Alright, enough of the arguments in favor. Here are
some keys to crafting a successful small beer:
- Water treatment helps a good deal in creating British-
style Bitters and Milds. The minerals found in many
water sources where British Real Ales are brewed provide
an important aspect to the flavor and texture,
helping the beers to taste more full and rich than would
be the case with softer water. Many tap water sources
already have a pretty detectable load of minerals, notably
calcium, carbonate and bicarbonate, and a number
of “brewing salts” are available to experiment with.
One of the most valuable is calcium chloride, which provides
the benefits of calcium ion for the mash and flavor
while also contributing chloride ion which helps to
impart a sense of fullness. The pre-packaged “Burton
Water Salts” are also useful, but note that these contain
mainly gypsum (calcium sulfate) and epsom
(magnesium sulfate) and in much concentration will impart
a distinctly dry, acidic cast to the beer; also, the
sulfates promote hops and thus they are best used with
beers that will have some residually sweet maltiness to
the flavor in order to balance the flavors.
- Authentic British malt sources are best, even for the
base malt to be used. Pale malts such as Maris Otter
are typically high-yielding and provide a complex flavor
of their own. As a result only a very small fraction of
caramel malt (often less than 5% by weight of the
grist) is used to provide some depth to the malt flavor.
You won’t get the same effect using North American
pale 2-row malt, which is produced primarily for commercial
makers of pale fizzy lagers. Small amounts of
specialty grains and sugar sources can also be used to
good flavor effect.
- Mashing can be simple. Because most British malts
are already very well-modified (converted from starch
to sugar) in the malting process, the traditional British
single-temperature infusion mash at about 150 degrees
F. can be used, with no step-mashing (and even no
mash-out if you’re really lazy). Although this makes a
less purely stable beer, that isn’t a big consideration in
a brew that will likely be consumed within 30 days.
- Select yeast strains appropriate for the lower original
gravities of these beers. Most often you’ll be brewing beers below 1.042 OG and as low as 1.032. As a result you need a yeast that is not a big alcohol producer
but instead has clean complexity to it and settles
out of suspension quickly. There are several strains
now available which work well for these kind of brews;
scrutinize the yeast supplier’s literature to identify those
with complex flavors and lower attenuation tendencies
as appropriate for use.
- Keep a close eye on the fermentation. It will proceed
quickly, with the primary done well within a week
and the secondary needed for only a week or two beyond
that. Then you can package the brew with a fairly
low carbonation level. Bitter and Mild in Britain are
most often served on draught rather than as a bottled
product. They are outstanding ales for hand pump service,
as the “fluff” they get from the nozzle really softens
the texture beautifully, and they just slip right
down your throat!
Here’s a simple recipe for a Boddington’s Pub Ale-style
brew, adapted from Brew Your Own Real Ale at Home,
by Roger Protz and Graham Wheeler. This makes a
quaffable brew with a rather hop-laden palate, but the
hops help it to age a bit longer than most Bitters. I
brewed it recently and served it at both the Mayfaire
and the Southern California Homebrewers Festival.
Forever Brewing Company's Boddington's Bitter
Target yield: 10 U.S. gallons
Target Original Gravity: 1.035
Target Terminal Gravity: 1.008
Target ABV: 3.6%
Malt and adjuncts:
96.5% Crisp Maris Otter British pale malt, 14.25 lbs.
0.5% Black Patent malt, about 1 oz.
3.0% cane sugar, 4 oz., as a kettle addition
Water: tap water, amended with 2 tsp. Calcium chloride
and 1 teaspoon Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt)
Bittering Hops: Boil for 60 to 90 minutes
30 IBU total for bittering, including:
14 IBU Fuggle pellets @ 5.1% Alpha Acid (A.A.), about 1.4 oz.
10 IBU East Kent Goldings pellets @ 5.7% A.A., about 1 oz.
6 IBU Whitbread Goldings pellets @ 7.1% A.A., about 0.4 oz.
Flavor hops: Add for the last 15 minutes of the boil
0.2 oz. Northern Brewer or Northdown pellets
0.3 oz. Bramling Cross pellets
0.6 oz. East Kent Goldings pellets
Yeast: Possible choices:
Wyeast 1275 Thames Valley Ale
Wyeast 1968 ESB
White Labs WLP002 English Ale
Mash crushed malt in water (1.25 quarts per pound or
similar ratio) at 150 d. F. for 60 minutes. Then lauter
and boil with hops and sugar adjunct as indicated, finally
cool the wort and pitch the yeast.