Brewing a Best Bitter
By Tim Chandler
The pursuit of a Best Bitter got me into brewing beers at home. I was fascinated with cask ales when I visited England. Watching and hearing pints in a pub get pulled was a completely new experience. The clean biscuity aroma just slid down the pallet. The low carbonation and slightly chilled beer was so tasty and so drinkable. However, I was left with the realization that I may never enjoy this at home. Well, maybe not.
My First Attempts
My early attempts started with reviewing online recipes and experimenting. I just started brewing so I was focused on the basics; recipe, sanitization, and record keeping.
My recipes created good ales but they did not hit the style I was looking for. My ingredients were right but I was overly generous with flavored malts and hops. I paid no attention to water minerals or pH. The aroma of the hops was too upfront and the biscuity aroma and mouth feel were too strong.
Dialing in the Process
My approach was to understand the contributions of pH, water chemistry, and ingredients. With each brew, I got closer and learned more.
To me, these 4 areas are vital to making a great Best Bitter.
1. Water mineral profile
Lactic Acid 1 ml/gallon was added to bring the pH down to 5.4. Camden tablets were added. I focus on Calcium being about 120 and the S:C ratio being balanced. If I raise the ratio to a 1:2 it does not seem beneficial. In my case, I added Gypsum (5g) and CL (3g). Don't try to replicate these numbers without understanding how CA, CL and SO contribute to your beer.
2. Malts and hops
I stopped using adjuncts like sugar to raise the alcohol. The flavors and aromas were coming from hops and malts. Over the years I went from 75% base malts to 95% base malts. Marris Otter is a beautiful biscuity malt that should shine through this beer. These ingredients produced a 10-gallon 5% ABV beer.
3. Mash pH and Temperature
If your mash is too high you will get a maltier beer that is less drinkable. Adding lactic acid to get your pH to around 5.2 to 5.4 gets the most from your malts. A slightly higher mash temp at 153 to 154 is ideal to pull more maltiness.
I’ve made this beer with several English ale yeasts from Lallemand, WYeast, and WhiteLabs. The ester profile I wanted is earthy with a hint of fruitiness. With maturation any of these yeasts work to produce good beers, however, the Whitbread Yeast stain underpitched (1 pack for 10 gallons) delivers more of the esters that are so important to this beer. To me, this yeast along with the base malts delivers the heart and soul of this beer.
My Best Bitter
Several brew sessions brought me to the conclusion this beer is about getting the most out of your base malt and yeast. The hops and the flavor malts are there to support the beer. Here is my process.
Stage 1. Mash
Before you mash in I recommend using a mash calculator to understand the amount of lactic acid you need to make sure your mash pH is about 5.2 to 5.4. Much of the mash conversions happen within the first 15 minutes so measuring your mash's pH and then adjusting is too late. Trust the calculations and keep good records. Measure your mash pH for adjustments to your next brew day.
Stage 2. Sparge
I fly sparge to create the desired amount of wort for the boil. I aim for the high side and create 30% more wort than what I plan to keg or bottle. This 30% is lost due to evaporation, trub, and equipment.
Stage 3. The Boil
I do a 60 minute boil with bittering hops added at the beginning and flavor hops at 10 minutes remaining. I lose about 1.5 gallons to evaporation. My boil is medium to low to prevent the darkening of the wort. Hops get added using very large mesh bags and are pulled from the wort when cooling starts.
Stage 4. Pitching the Yeast
Using a counter-coiler I reduce the temperature down to about 80F (27C). During this cool down I’m aerating the wort and creating a whirlpool to keep the trub in the center of the kettle. During fermentation, I connect the fermenter to the kegs I will be using so the kegs are purged of O2. I transfer to my fermentor and pitch the yeast at 72F (22C). I then set the fermenter to 68F (20C) for the duration of the fermentation. As I hit 68 attenuation I raise the temperature of the fermenter by 2 degrees C. After no signs of fermentation, I let it rest for 2 more days at 72F (22C). At this point I avoid O2 or air touching my beer.
Stage 5. Kegged / Maturation
Doing a closed transfer from the fermenter to the kegs is ideal for maintaining freshness. Once in the keg I pressurize the keg to about 3 PSI and refrigerate for 3 weeks at 57F (14C).
Stage 6. Serving
Ideally, you would want a Beer Engine to serve your beer. If this is not possible I would recommend placing this beer on tap with 2 PSI and serving at 58F (15C).
This pursuit of a Best Bitter has taken many experiments and has been rewarding. If I could leave you with any words of advice, take good records on your brew day. Being able to look back at your history will help you dial in great beers.
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