Office brew: Honey and basil witbier

This month's Office Brew: Honey and basil witbier


The somewhat surprising success of our first home brew took us all by surprise. No more so than our own delightfully ambitious editor, Richard. His proclamation of “this isn’t actually terrible” was an understatement. The smooth, roasted flavours of the traditional, old school English porter came through strongly. While possibly lacking a little carbonation, it’d make a fine cask ale. So much so I’ve snuck a bottle home for my father to get his opinion. He taught me all I know about the CAMRA movement and the importance of good cask ale and, maybe more importantly, standing up for the little man. 

Richard’s martyrdom has not gone unnoticed too, as I now have evidence that we can successfully create a non-poisonous, questionably alcoholic, recreational liquid. So it’s time to get weird...

I love basil. It can be sweet and spicy and can escalate any dish. From traditional Italian cooking to pallette-burning Thai cuisine, it’s an extremely versatile herb. In fact, I’ve been known to grow basil in my flat and chew the occasional leaf while I go about my day. I’ve stopped short of bringing it to the office in a sandwich bag, primarily for legal reasons, but if there was something I feel I can add to the world of beer, it’s unnecessary basil.

Similarly, I love honey. A certain Polish beer stalwart (of which I forget the name) was my first foray into the flavours of honey in beer, and it was incredible. Contrary to advice from our friends at the Brew Store and the difficulty of using honey in fermentation, I decided it was the perfect partner to basil. It’d be rude not to invite lemon zest to the party, so in it went.

In theory, this is not an overly complicated brew but the delicate tastes of honey and basil make it a tricky one to balance. With that in mind, we disregarded the measures and included all the honey and basil we had, roughly 300ml of honey and 150g basil for a 24 litre yield. With regard to hops, thankfully Brew Store are genii in the field. After some deliberation we decided to let the natural flavours shine through by simply using 80g of Saaz, traditionally a lager hop, to give a bit of body and bitterness. 

However, as a throwback to my favourite cask beer, Oakham Citra, we decided to add some floral overtones using 20g of citra hops, dry-hopped no less. Dry-hopping is where the hops are added to the fermentation tank upon cooling (i.e. after the boil). The malt base is deeply complex including vienna malts and malnoidin malts, designed to enrich the honey flavours.

The efficiency of the brew is an indicator of how much of the sugar has been released from the malt. As fairly novice brewers at Beer52, we have been aiming for 70% efficiency. Initial readings look like we hit 87%, meaning this is going to be extremely alcoholic. 

My initial intention of a light, sweet, refreshing and summery drink may turn out to be a spicy, back-of-the-bike-shed moonshine. To me this encapsulates the thrill of home brewing. I also guarantee it’ll be the best beer ever brewed, as it’s my creation. It’s the same reason your friend thinks their weird child is cute as when it’s your creation you love it unconditionally and, sometimes, irrationally. I’ll stop short of starting a brewery in my shed just yet, however.

As I write it is slowly bubbling away in the corner of the kitchen. In around 1 week we’ll be ready to bottle and start the carbonation process. The fine details involved in home brewing, including the seemingly endless amount of sanitising and cleaning, have taken me aback. At our level it’s hard to “just chuck it in”. I’d recommend a very exact, almost boring, brew to start off to give you an idea of what is possible. I’d probably avoid brewing a honey and basil Belgian witbier, but I have some stiff competition coming in the following months from my deranged colleagues, so watch out for that.

Last month’s brew

At long last, it’s time to lift the lid on Croasdale’s Hospital Porter – a straight-up sweet porter and our very first office brew. Initial impressions are that there’s rather less of a head than I’d hoped for, though it looks to be a good colour. On the nose, it’s a tiny bit sulphurous, leading me to suspect it could do with a little longer in the bottle, but there are some nice notes of caramel and coffee in there too. The palate is nicely malty, with coffee and dark chocolate bitterness, and I’m particularly pleased with the smooth mouthfeel and rounded body, which go some way to justifying the low carbonation.

Curious for an expert view, I took a couple of bottles along to the Brew Store, to ask my friend and homebrew mentor Theo for his advice.

“For a porter, a nice round malt flavour and smooth body is helped when served from a barrel or cask,” says Theo. “Secondary fermentation in the bottle can give carbonation, but for a smooth porter this can distract from the malt character. This is a beer that would be lovely if poured from a homebrew pressure barrel, especially with some N2O to give it a creaminess; like the kind of pour you get on Guinness draft, among others. A small addition of precipitated chalk would also help subdue the crispness of the brew, improving the balance. “The most important thing this brew needs is more time. Give it another month and it will really mature well, the whole brew will mellow out.”

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