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How to make dark English ale

Picture of How to make dark English ale
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This recipe produces a mean, dark, strong English Ale. It is easy to make and is based only on ingredients that don't need mashing. All the malts and malt extracts used here can be simply boiled to extract flavour. 

This recipe is for people who love dark ales and just want to get on and make it. If you follow the steps, this method is more or less foolproof. I've been using this method for over twenty years with minor variations and they all have worked out just fine.  I've included a basic method, plus a few tips on how to pimp it up for varying strengths and flavours using sugars, malts and hops in differing quantities.

Yum yum yum...
 
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Step 1: Ale-making basic ingredients and equipment needed for this recipe

Strictly speaking ale can be made from simply malt, water and yeast, but it is extremely unusual not to use hops. There are historic disagreements over the difference between ale and beer in the UK. It is widely accepted that ale is a term used to designate higher quality beers, with better ingredients and higher strengths and beer used as an ordinary term for anything else, BUT really it is not that important here - let's just brew...

Ingredients

In this recipe the following ingredients are used for all variations and can be bought in homebrew shops, or off the web for home delivery:
  1. Hops: can be any variety, but Goldings, Hallertau, Target or the awesome Fuggles are all good aromatic hops
  2. Dark spray malt: Any DARK air-dryed malt sugar powder. 
  3. Dark non-diastatic malt extract (this just means the one that doesn't have enzymes in that would only be needed for mashing) - this is mainly because distatic extract can be more expensive, but don't worry any malt extract will work.
  4. Black malt: a rich very dark reddish brown to black malt. Buy crushed if possible to save effort
  5. Roasted barley. A non-malt barley grain that is roasted to a black colour
  6. Any decent quality ale yeast (you can use cheaper yeasts as a last resort, even bread yeast at a push)
Optional ingredients
  1. Brown sugars: Adding sugar increases strength. You can use more malt if you like a good malty taste. I find it slightly too much if it is all malt, but it depends on your tastes. Sugar is also cheaper than malt and less strongly flavoured, so is subtler. You can also use white sugar if you want, which has no real flavour.
  2. Wheat Malt: This is optional and is only added in small quantities to help create a thick head of bubbles if you like that. It should be used sparingly as it tends to make ale cloudy and has a slightly sour taste, which is not to everyone's tastes.
Shown here are various typical examples of most of these ingredients. Brown sugar doesn't need a picture!

Modifications

This is where the fun starts. You can follow this recipe and it will work OR you can adjust the proportions. For example, if you like dry beers, you can adjust the ingredients by reducing the amount of malt you use and increasing the amount of brown sugar proportionately. Malt has some sugar that cannot be fermented, so it always adds a sweetness. Sugar does not. The yeast will ferment all of the sugar.

You can also add more or less of the dark malts and add in seasonal flavourings like ginger and nutmeg at Christmas, or you can reduce the sugar to make a weaker beer and add less hops to make a traditional mild. I sometimes add a pack of dark roasted coffee to give it a caffeine kick.

Equipment

Mainly you need:
  • a 5 gallon (22 Litre) food grade plastic fermentation bin. These are cheap new, and dirt-cheap second hand BUT if second hand they need to be well sterilised to be on the safe side.
  • A means of sterilisating equipment. I use a dilute solution of sodium metabisulphite (Na2S2O5) . It's cheap for about half a pound which will last you 10 years or more. You can use scaldingly hot water though if you want, or if you are VERY good at rinsing (like REALLY REALLY GOOD) use domestic bleach, but this is not recommended. If you don't rinse it enough your ale will taste disgusting.
  • A hydromoter to check the specific gravity of your ale, which tells you how much sugar has been fermented and so on. Not essential, but without one, you always end up guessing about the brewing process and you'll have to trust other people's instructions. If you want to brew stuff, a hydrometer is a sound investment. It'll give you info that will make it easier each time.
  • a large boiling pan. Ideally you need a 3 gallon pan at least. You can boil in smaller pans, but you may have to boil the ingredients in batches
  • beer bottles or a pressure barrel
  • thermometer (optional)

Step 2: Making a yeast starter

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Brewing any ale or beer involves two simple things. Making a strongly flavoured sugary solution (the wort) and then fermenting it with a yeast. Sugar is a preservative and any strong sugar solution can rather ironically inhibit micro-organisms. All this really means is that if you add yeast directly to your wort, it may not do anything. This is not good.

Making a yeast starter minimises this risk. It just means getting your dried yeast started with a dilute sugar solution, until it's frothing away. This allows the yeast to breed and be active enough to get to work on the work.

You can use any weak sugary solution. Just add the dried yeast, cover (to keep vinegar flies out) and leave in a warmish place for at least 2 hours, but preferably 4 or 5. You can add yeast nutrient if you want, but you don't really need to for ale.

After a few hours in the warm, the yeast comes foamily alive. It should be cloudy and visibly moving with all the carbon dioxide being released. At this point it is ready to add to the wort, which will need to be cooled down, before you can add the yeast.

The reason for a yeast starter is to get a strong yeast culture established. At this stage the yeast is both feeding and multiplying. Brewer's yeast needs air to multiply, so do NOT cover it with a tight seal. That increases the amount of oxygen it can access at least a little bit. The more it multiplies, the more likely your ale is to succeed. This is why you don't just plonk the yeast in the wort. It needs to get woken up and to increase the culture. Adding yeast directly usually will eitehr not work or will work so slowly that in the meantime other airborne micro-organisms may get in and cause spoilage.

Step 3: Boiling up the basic ingredients

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To make ale, you make a wort (lushly flavoured malty water) and ferment it with yeast. In this recipe, the wort is simply the liquid produced by boiling up the malt, barley, hops and sugar as required. The yeast is added later.

Basic proportions (for five gallons) are as below...
Weight conversions are rough equivalents. It is not crucial that they convert exactly. Brewing is satisfyingly tolerant of approximation.

4lb/1.8kg dark malt extract
1lb 2oz/500g spray malt (dark)
2lb 4oz/1kg dark brown sugar
9oz/250g crushed dark malt
9oz/50g roasted barley
2oz/60g Goldings hops

Add all ingredients into a BIG pan (3 gallon is good, but you can boil up in batches in smaller pans if necessary) with at least one and a half gallons (7litres) of water and bring to the boil. You must stir this continuously until all the sugar is dissolved or it will collect and burn on the base of the pan, which can totally waste the whole brew.

Boiling is important for several reasons in beer-making. It destroys enzymes, sterilises the wort, causes proteins to coagulate which would otherwise cause haziness and of course, is how the flavours from the ingredients are extracted. It is often recommended to boil wort for an hour and a half, but three quarters of an hour is usually the most it needs, in my experience.

Once boiled, the wort needs to be strained to get rid of the bits. 

Step 4: Preparing the wort

After boiling the ingredients up in the pan, there will be a delicious black sweet liquid. This is the basis of the wort.

First though, two things need to happen:
  • All the solid grains and hops need removing
  • The wort needs to be diluted to the full 5 gallons.

Straining

The grains are pretty easy to strain off. This can be done using a cloth, or using a fine sieve. Here I'm using various kitchen sieves and trying to pour accurately. Note the use of locking grips to keep the sieve in position.
I more usually peg a muslin cloth over the barrel for super fine straining, but it really isn't that important as long as the big bits are removed. Any fine sediment will settle out later anyway.

Diluting

After straining, the remaining wort is still much too concentrated and needs to be diluted down to make up the full 5 gallons. This is easy. You can do this with clean cold water, or if you want to be extra careful, you can do it with boiling water. This reduces the chances of any spoilage, but is a bit over the top for beer. 

The main reason to use hot water as well as cold would be if you wanted to get the wort to a correct temperature for yeast in the fermentation, but this is only important if you have a well established yeast starter ready. If not, then use cold water ans leave the wort in a normal warm room. It will settle to the ambient temperature overnight.

One important detail is that although generally one tries to keep air out of the brew to prevent spoilage organisms getting in, you do need to beat the wort at this beginning stage, just prior to fermentation. This is to get air in that allows the yeast to continue multiplying.

Step 5: Checking the original gravity

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This step is important, but does require a hydrometer. Using a hydrometer is optional, but is highly recommended. It is what you use to measure the progress of fermentatoon and tell what is actually going on. If you choose not to use one, you are having to trust that the recipe will work and you will have to do some guessing later about when to bottle.It also would mean if a fermentation stop

A hydrometer is basically a calibrated glass float that you put into a liquid to tell how dense it is compared to pure water. It floats at a different height depending on the density of the liquid and you just read the calibration to check the density of your wort. Sugary water like wort is more dense than pure water, so before fermentation the hydrometer will float more easily and the reading will be higher.

The comparative density of liquids to water is called the specific gravity. Look it up if you need to know more. Here you just need to know that calculating the difference between the 'original gravity' of the wort (the starting specific gravity) and the final gravity is how you calculate how much sugar has been converted into alcohol. Roughly speaking, the conversion rate for beers and ales is 

% alcohol = (original gravity - final gravity) / 8

Actually it is not linear and it is slightly different. You can look this up using charts, but I use a factor of 8 and it is near enough.
The chart shown here is kindly plonked on the web at distillers.tastylime.net/library/Fermentation-chart/fermentation-chart.htm
Respect to them.

Anyway, the main thing is to make sure you record the original gravity before you add the yeast to start fermentation. Write it down, along with the date.

This recipe should give you an original gravity (OG) of about 1055 to 1060. It will normally ferment out to about 1010, so a drop of 45 - 50, which works out thus:

for OG 1055...
% alcohol = (original gravity - final gravity) / 8 = (1055-1010)/8 = 45/8 = 5.6%

for OG 1060...
% alcohol = (original gravity - final gravity) / 8 = (1060-1010)/8 = 50/8 = 6.3%

Having said all that, you may find the OG varies a bit. This happens. It is affected by temperature, exactly how much you dilute it by and so on.

Step 6: Fermentation

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Fermenting wort makes ale. Simple as that. This is what it is all about.

To get started, you need to add your yeast culture to your prepared wort, but first you must check it's not too hot!

Yeast gets comfy between 68 and 72 °F (20 to 22 °C), which is more or less normal room temperature. You can go a bit either way, but too high and you will retard and eventually kill the yeast. Similarly, as the temperature gets lower, the yeast will slow down and will eventually stop working.

You can use a thermometer, but dipping a (clean) finger in is good enough. If it feels comfortably warm, it's probably fine. If it is slightly too hot or cold it doesn't matter. The wort will settle at the temperature of the room you have it in. Assuming the room is at a normal warm temperature, the yeast will be happy. This is one reason why ale brewing is quite easy.

As mentioned in a previous step, when you add the yeast starter, beat it in well so you can see air bubbles - it's good for it to get it aeriated to help the yeast multiply.

Step 7: Checking fermentation has completed

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Fermentation of an ale of this strength tends to take between one and two weeks, depending on how well the yeast starter gets going, and the temperature and so on.

You can always see quite clearly when the fermentation has got going, as there is a big foaming head on the wort! However, it is not so obvious when it has finished. After the first after 4-5 days it slows down quite a lot, and as the fermentation rate slows down, the time it takes for yeast to finish converting the remaining sugar varies quite a lot.  This is where the hydrometer comes in.

By taking readings at least every other day you can plot the rate of fermentation. The decrease will start quite rapidly, then will tail off. Once the yeast has used up all the sugar it can, the reading will not change. This means fermentation has finished.

This usually happens at specific gravity of about 1010. The reason that it is not lower is because there are some sugars in malt that yeast cannot ferment. This is what gives beer its slight sweetness. The amount of sweetness is controlled in malt production so that certain types of malt have a higher or lower proportion of un-fermentable sugar. This is one of the ways professional breweries craft their ales.


Step 8: Racking off after fermentation

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Once the Hydrometer readings have stopped going down and have stayed the same for a few days, it is save to say the fermentation is finished. NOTE the yeast is not all dead. It has just run out of food andhas stopped. However, it is still be capable of fermenting more sugar.

As soon as the fermentation appears to have stopped, the ale should be moved to a cold location. This will retard any yeast further and will help the ale to clear. All the suspended particles that have churning round in it during fermentation will settle to the bottom and after another 2 or 3 days, it will be ready to store, either in a barrel or by bottling.

After leaving to settle for a few days, the ale should be siphoned off. This is called racking. The ale can be siphoned straight to the barrel or casket, but it is better to rack it off to a temporary barrel and then store for 2 more days to clear properly.During this time keep tightly covered with the lid (or cling film if you want)

Siphoning is easy to do, and just requires a little care to avoid getting gunky sediment in towards the bottom of the barrel. 

NOTE - it is important to keep the siphon end where the ale is coming OUT under the surface. Do not let it flow into the ale from a height or spout down causing bubbles. At this stage, the aim is to allow as little air as possible into the beer. Letting air in creates a risk of spoilage later.

Dry Hopping

After the first racking, it is worth considering dry-hopping. This just means adding in some hops to give a fragrant edge to te ale. This can create a great, bitter, aromatic pungency.

Step 9: Storage - Barrel conditioning or bottling

Once you have your finished beer, it needs to be sealed so that it won't go off. It also needs to be primed with sugar to give it some fizz to liven it up and give it a head. There are two ways to do this. Storing in a barrel or bottling. Barrel storage is much easier, but you do need a pressure barrel for this, whereas bottles are freely available. Having said that, bottles need a crown cork tool to seal, but these are cheap enough. Of course, if you have the resealable Grolsch type bottles, it's easy peasy.

The amount of sugar needed for priming is about a third to a half teaspoon of sugar per pint (500ml). 

Barrel storage

This couldn't be easier. You simply siphon the ale into your barrel, which has been suitably primed. The amount can be calculated as above. If it is 5 gallons, you have forty pints so that is 15 or twenty teaspoons of sugar. You will normally have lost a bit of volume due to the racking and sediment, so the volume will be usually less than 5 gallons, so adjust accordingly. Do not add more sugar than this. Once added, then close the barrel cap, making sure it is on tightly. The pressure that builds up is quite considerable, so the lid needs to be on tightly.

Once filled and sealed, the barrel should be moved to a warm place for at least 3-4 days, preferably a week. This allows the low levels of yeast time to get started again on the new sugar you have given it and produce the carbon dioxide needed for the fizz. After a week or more, the ale is ready and can be drunk.

Bottling

Bottling is done in the same way, but instaed of putting it all in one barrel, you put it in individual bottles. Assuming pint (500ml) bottles, you need a third to half of a teaspoon per bottle. Leave about half an inch of air in the bottle. Cap with a crown cork. As when using a barrel, the bottles need to be stored in a warm place for about a week at first. This creates the fizz.  After that, move the bottles to a cool place for storage. Again, the ale should be ready after about a week.

Labelling

Obviously, labelling is an optional extra, but does add a certain something to an ale. For each brew you make, it will have a distinct colour and flavour which may deserve naming. You might also like to brew beer as a celebration. That is so much better with a gratuitously delightful label.

Step 10: Cheers...

The finished ale is dark, rich and always more satisfying when you know you created it.

Here are some examples created using this recipe. All delicious :)

HAppy brewing...
AndyGadget1 year ago

I think I made my last 'proper' brew quite a few years ago and more recently I've been using kits, but your recipe and great instructions makes me want to dig out the baby burco from the loft and get started doing it from the raw ingredients again.

Which of the commercial brews would you say your recipe most tastes like?

(My photo is a rather lively bottle of Black Nasty, thoughtfully cropped by the Instructables editor.)

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rosemarybeetle (author)  AndyGadget1 year ago
Hi
That one looks good even if a little foamed over. Good name too.
Mine tends to something like Theakston's Old Peculiar but not exactly. Usually you can get it more like your favourite by upping or lowering the hops (bitterness) or malt to sugar ratio (sweetness/ dryness and maltiness)
If you like Guinness, try putting a hot poker in it. You get a super fine head that way
rosemarybeetle (author)  AndyGadget1 year ago
Hi
That one looks good even if a little foamed over. Good name too.
Mine tends to something like Theakston's Old Peculiar but not exactly. Usually you can get it more like your favourite by upping or lowering the hops (bitterness) or malt to sugar ratio (sweetness/ dryness and maltiness)
If you like Guinness, try putting a hot poker in it. You get a super fine head that way
which variation of the recipe yielded the extra dark head?
rosemarybeetle (author)  kakashibatosi1 year ago

Hi there.

To be honest, I can't remember which batch this was, but it does vary a bit. If you up the crushed barley and black malt it will get slightly darker. The malt extracts and spray malts also affect it. Having said that, this may be exaggerated by the exposure of the image. All good, but subtly different :)