In our previous article, I showed you the basic equipment you’ll need to get started quickly with your first homebrewed beer. If you missed Volume 1, go there now by clicking here.

To recap, I argued for ditching pre-made kits in favor of using malt extract (DME), specialty grains, and real hops. This method is as simple as kit brewing with several major advantages, not least of which is creating truly excellent beer!

Also, a lot of the techniques I’ll be discussing today are 100% transferable to larger volume brews (we’re starting with small-batch brewing to keep things even more simple and manageable) as well as all-grain brewing (don’t worry about that now)..

In today’s post, I’m taking you through several important bits and pieces that will change your newbie status to newbie-who-knows-important-stuff! Let’s get started.

Your first beer style: The English Bitter


For your first super-simple, small batch brew, you’ll be brewing a classic beer style that hails from merry old England: The Bitter.

A Bitter is an ale, one of three types of primary categories of beer. The other two are lagers and hybrids. Generally, the type of beer is determined by the type of yeast being used. Ale yeasts tend to work best at higher temperatures than lagers and produce more fruity flavors during fermentation. This is a pretty vast generalization however, but for now, it’s enough to know that there are many different styles of beer found within each of the three categories.

Being a homebrewer means that you can now access literally hundreds of different styles of beer, rather than the 2-3 styles available from the big brewing giants.

Back to bitters! The Bitter ale style emerged in the early 19th Century and quickly became the most popular beer available on-tap at local taverns and pubs across the British Isles. Although less popular nowadays, there are still excellent commercial examples you can try.

I’d recommend Fuller’s London Pride or Shepherd Neame brewery’s excellent Spitfire ale. For a local example here in South Africa, you can give New Brixton’s brewery’s Bitter a try (to see our recent review of this beer, click here).

Color-wise, Bitters are a rich, amber hue and should be very clear (i.e. you should be able to almost read through the glass once poured). Bitters tend to have a somewhat reserved, clear white head. Carbonation is relatively light in comparison to styles like lagers and blonde ales but still very much present.

Taste-wise, bitters are all about balance, with a slight tip of the scales toward toasty and caramel maltiness. Despite the name, these beers aren’t very bitter, and tend to have more herbaceous, earthy hop notes that integrate well with the malts rather than being dominant.

Overall, a good bitter is a drinkable one: It should go down smooth and easy and be accompanied by good, classic pub food like bangers and mash, fish and chips, or a hearty steak or veggie pie. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

Volumes & Small-batch brews

Recall that to start, you’ll be brewing a small batch of homebrew. Right about now, you may be wondering why we’d be brewing such small batches (3-5 liters / 1-1.5 gal) if the “regular” batch size of most homebrew recipes is around 19 liters (5 gal).

Well, it’s because of all the nifty advantages that small-batch brewing brings to the table:

  • For one, you don’t have to commit to more equipment that is often needed for larger batches (most notably an external gas burner and large stock pot). These can be costly.
  • Also, you’re starting out, so you’re likely to make mistakes and errors along the way. Better to have only 3-5 liters of bad beer to deal with than 19!
  • And finally, because you’re brewing small, your cleaning time is far less and you can therefore brew more often. I find that with practice, you can brew a 4 liter (1 gal) extract with specialty grain beer from start-to-finish in around 2 hours, including clean-up time.

That means you can easily complete a brew after work or early in the morning on a weekend and still have the whole day left ahead of you! Larger batches take longer and require more cleaning (i.e. large stock pots don’t fit in the dishwasher, etc).

Brewing more frequently is the key to learning how to brew better beer.

Another benefit, especially if you can’t lift heavy weights, is that small-batch brewing never requires you to lift anything heavier than 5 kgs (11 lbs).

For this recipe, we’ll be brewing 4 liters (1 gal) of beer. I like this batch volume because it easily fits into small fermentation buckets. Often, these are of 5 liters (1.3 gal) capacity, which leaves a good amount of head-space for your beer to ferment. In addition, medium sized stock pots of 6-9 liters (1.5-2.5 gal) capacity, which are ideal for this batch size, are reasonably easy to come by and won’t break the bank!

While small batch sizes may seem small, let’s consider just how much 4 liters (1 gal) of beer looks like:

If you’re going to use the standard-sized 330 ml (11 oz) beer bottle, that’s around 12 bottles of beer. If you’re using 440ml (15 oz) bottles, this batch will yield 9 bottles and for large pint bottles (660ml), you’ll be bottling a six-pack.

And that’s the other benefit of small-batch brewing: Your bottling time and hassle are sharply reduced. To give you an idea, for a 19 liter (5 gal) batch of beer, you’ll need to bottle a whopping 43 bottles if you’re using 440ml (15 oz) sizes!

A closer look at ingredients

So, what’s in a Bitter?

As I mentioned in the last post, the basis of your beer will be Dried Malt Extract. This fine, extremely sweet powder is derived from Barley Malt, and essentially allows you to skip several steps in the all-grain beer brewing process by providing you with highly fermentable, tasty sugars that your yeast will turn into beer!

We’ll also be adding color and flavor to the beer by steeping a specialty malt, called Caramel Malt in our brew water before we add the DME. Caramel malt is manufactured by stewing different varieties of pale malts.

This process caramelizes some of the sugars in the malt, which gives it a distinct flavor (think caramel-toffee) and color (the ruby-amber hue that we need for a good Bitter).

There are many varieties of Caramel malt, each with different color and flavor intensities. For this recipe, I’d recommend a mid-range malt of around 60 Lovibond (or SRM) intensity (Lovibond / SRM is a measure of how much the malt has been stewed, kilned or roasted – higher numbers = more intense, darker colors).

We’ll also be adding an adjunct to this beer that is popular in bitters as well as many other styles of beer (especially Belgian styles): Golden syrup. I prefer the Lyle’s brand, but any invert sugar syrup will do. Adding this to our brew (at the beginning of our boil) will help to dry out the beer’s finish, add a bit of alcohol to the final product, and also lend some more caramel flavor.

So much for malts and sugars! The other two stars of the show will be hops and yeast.

Hop-wise, English bitters showcase two varieties of hops that are unique to the British Isles (although they do grow elsewhere in the world nowadays): Fuggles and East Kent Golding. These two varieties play well together, and will lend an earthy, herbaceous and slightly floral character to the end-product. They will also provide the beer with a bitter counterpoint to the very sweet malts and syrup.

Finally, we’ll be using an English Ale yeast to ferment our beer. Yeast imparts a lot of flavor to beer, and in this case, the English Ale yeast will lend some slight fruity notes (not to mention the alcohol and carbonation!).

To start with, I’d recommend working with dry yeast, since it’s easier to use and not as vulnerable as liquid yeast to poor storage practices. Any variety of English Ale yeast is fine, but I quite like the Nottingham Ale yeast produced by Lallemand (although Fermentis’s English Ale S-04, Imperial’s Sovereign, and others will do well).

There are two more ingredients in our beer recipe that I haven’t covered yet. The first is part of a class of ingredients known as finings. Finings are materials used in the clarification of beer. A crystal clear beer is a thing of beauty. Some styles do call for more hazy appearances, but the majority of beer styles ought to be clear. And finings help you with that.

The finings you’ll be using for your first beer is called Irish Moss. It’s derived from algae and you’ll add a pinch or two to the boil. Irish Moss helps clarify beer by binding to larger proteins in the wort and dropping them to the bottom of your kettle (i.e. stock pot).

The final ingredient is your brewing water, of course! Brewing water composition is a complex topic and one that I won’t bore you with here. But for now, it’s important to make sure that you don’t have too much chloramine or chlorine in your water. These combine with beer ingredients to form chlorophenols, which can make your beer taste overly phenolic or similar to band-aid plasters.

So, for your first brew, either use mineral water or filter your tap water with a carbon filter. If you know that your home water supply has very little chlorine added, it should be fine as well. But in most cities around the world, chlorine and chloramines are added to the public supply for safety reasons.

One water I’d avoid using is reverse-osmosis (RA) water. The RA process strips away minerals that are needed in brewing, making RA water unsuited for the average homebrewer.

Your recipe shopping list

In preparation for brew day, here is the full list of ingredients we’ll be using to brew our Bitter, s get these ready for next week!

Old Reliable English Bitter (4 liter / 1 gal batch)

In this recipe, don’t worry too much about getting the exact ingredients (i.e. any English Ale yeast or Crystal malt will do). Just try and stay within the ballpark, and you should be fine.

Something you should not compromise on is the hop variety (although if you can only get East Kent Goldings you can substitute the Fuggles and visa versa) and the DME. Using syrups won’t work for the quantities listed.

You will need:

  • 425 grams (15 oz) of Dried Malt Extract
  • 51 grams (1.8 oz)of Caramel / Crystal Malt (60 Lovibond)
  • 63 grams (2.2 oz) of Golden Syrup
  • 13 grams (0.5 oz) of Fuggles Hops
  • 5 grams (0.2 oz) of East Kent Goldings Hops
  • 5 grams (0.2 oz) of Dried Yeast (English Ale)
  • 6.5 liters (1.7 gal) of brewing water
  • Irish moss finings (you’ll need about a quarter of a teaspoon)


From the above you ought to see yet another advantage of small-batch brewing: You don’t use a whole lot of ingredients! For instance, my local homebrew supplier packages hops in 50 gram packets, so one packet lasts me several small-bath brews. Bonus!

Final Thoughts

For this first beer you’re about to brew, remember one critical thing and never forget it: Beer wants to be made. It’s real easy to get lost in all the technical aspects of brewing. The equipment, the terminology, the biochemistry, the engineering. But this one thing remains the same. Beer is both simple to make and (sometimes) terrifically complex. But for now, just remember that it wants to be made and you’ll be fine!

People have been brewing beer for thousands of years. I’m not exaggerating. Recipes for beer have been found etched on the tombs of Babylonian and Sumerian kings and queens. And these folks didn’t have refrigeration, or micron filters, or gas burners. Or the internet for that matter! So I think you’ll be fine.

And that’s it for styles, volumes and ingredients!

You now know a lot more about beer and making it than before (I hope!), so next week I’ll be taking you through the actual brew day when we look at Volume 3: Method. If you’re following along, now’s the time to go get equipped and buy ingredients for the big day!

See you then!


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