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...
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:
- Hops: can be any variety, but Goldings, Hallertau, Target or the awesome Fuggles are all good aromatic hops
- Dark spray malt: Any DARK air-dryed malt sugar powder.
- 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.
- Black malt: a rich very dark reddish brown to black malt. Buy crushed if possible to save effort
- Roasted barley. A non-malt barley grain that is roasted to a black colour
- Any decent quality ale yeast (you can use cheaper yeasts as a last resort, even bread yeast at a push)
- 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.
- 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!
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.
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)