How we made our first beer (that is officially safe for humans)

Hi, Mike here.

A year ago, if you'd approached me asking if I wanted to sparge with you or collect your vorlauf, I'd have politely declined on the basis I'm married.

Don't get me wrong, I'd have been flattered. But those wild days were over.

Little did I know that, just year on, I'd not only be sparging with anyone who would let me, but I would also be climbing inside another man's tun to give it a good scrub.

There's a point to all this (beyond proving you can make anything sound filthy if you try hard enough); that is to illustrate how little I knew about beer before I joined Robbie on this beery adventure.

Of course, I liked beer. A lot. I've tried most different versions of it. But I never understood it. And like anything, when you take time to understand something it slowly morphs into something else entirely.

I thought beer was, by and large, just beer. Yes, there were variations on a theme (lager, IPA, stout, etc) but it was just liquid in a can.

I certainly didn't see why I should pay anything more than bottom-to-middling dollar for something that has been mass produced since around the time Noah called the animals in, two-by-two.

But I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, any fool can make beer (and many have, including us). But getting it right - crafting something special - takes time, patience, and a serious attention to detail. It's part science, part art form.

I learned some of this in Robbie's kitchen, where he showed a considerable natural talent for beer making.

Yes, he tried to blow up Blue Van Man on the motorway with an exploding beer bottle and, yes, the way we lugged gallons of boiling water about in a tea urn would have made a health and safety inspector weep. But, in the end, no one died. Nor were they maimed, disfigured or in any other way affected by our Frankenstein-esque efforts.

And, most importantly of all, the beer tasted good. Really good.  So, it was time to turn to the pros.

Stepping happily into this breach was Mike, the Head Brewer at Docks Beers.

Mike from Docks Beers

He helped us perfect our recipe, based on what we wanted it to taste like, look like and how strong we wanted it to be. (You can watch all of that here.)

He also took us through the process of making our pilot beer – the beer that will shortly be available for sale (sign up to our mailing list to get first dibs on it.)

This was all done on Docks' pilot kit, but the process is basically the same no matter how big your set up.

As he strode about the brewery, hefting sacks, stirring potions, pressing buttons and measuring volumes, I also asked him a lot of questions and took a lot of notes.

I didn't write down what we said, so here's a dramatic reimagining of our conversation (you can watch a wee film about it here):

Brewer Mike (BM): So this is the barley... it's already been steeped in water so it germinates, dried in a kiln and broken down in a mill before it gets to us. Let's get that in the mash tun.

Other (ignorant) Mike (OM): How heavy is the sack? Wow, that's heavy. Mash tun, you say?

BM: Yes, this is the container where were going to create the wort by pouring hot water over the malted grains.

OM: It's very shiny.

BM: Yes, most of the time you spend brewing is cleaning up. If everything isn't super clean then your beer is likely to fail. When you're making thousands of litres, that's a big deal.

OM: Point taken. So then, wort... that's the malty sugar water that comes out of the malt, right?

BM: You could call it that. So now we're going to heat the water to 65 degrees...

OM: What happens if we don't get the temperature right?

BM: Then we won't get the beer we want. It's all about the sugars we get out – the sugar level determines the alcohol levels we'll get. So let's drain out the wort–

OM: The sugary water?

BM: Yes. We'll collect that over here so we can sparge.

OM: Oh, behave...

BM: That just means pouring more water over the malt to make sure all the sugars have been released. OK, so that's all the wort out that we need. Let's measure the sugar.


OM: Why have you got a lightsaber?

BM: It's a refractometer. It measures the gravity of the wort. By that I mean we're measuring the density of the liquid to work out how much sugar we've got and so how strong the beer will be once it's fermented.

OM: The Force is strong with this one.

BM: Now let's boil the wort and get the hops in.

OM: And they add...

BM: Bitterness, aroma, and flavour.

OM: Just what I was going to say. And we're boiling the wort because...?

BM: Boiling sterilises the beer and releases the hop flavour. It also removes proteins to make the beer a little less hazy. We'll add more hops in pellet form in a week or so–

OM: And that's dry hopping?

BM: Your're catching on.

OM: Fast?

BM: I wouldn't say that. Now we need to leave that to boil for an hour or so, then we're going to cool the wort so we can add the yeast.

OM: And that turns the sugars into alcohol, right? I remember that from an advert.

BM: Yes, and into carbon dioxide – the bubbles in your beer. Now we need to leave it for a few weeks to ferment. We'll keep an eye on it and when it's ready  we'll bottle it and let it mature for a couple of weeks. Then it will be ready to drink.

OM: Are you going to leave it under your stairs, like Robbie?

BM: Probably not. Now, the hard part. It's time to clean up. Mike? Mike? Where has he gone?

Our currently untitled Pale Ale

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how you make beer. Although, if you fancy doing it yourself I recommend not listening to this Mike and going and finding your own Professional Mike, like I did.

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