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A beer recipe: the Unqombothi-inspired ale

Posted in recipes with tags , , , on 17/01/2014 by sangomasmith

One of the weird advantages of living where I do is that when I wanted to be that guy (there’s always that guy) who brewed his own beer, I had access to the most important ingredients right from my local supermarket. This is because, in South Africa, we still have a strong tradition of home-brewed alcohol: ginger ale, pineapple beer and, most importantly, unqombothi (which is sort of an un-hopped ale).


Now, a lot of folks have hangups about the latter because a) it is a poor/rural person’s drink and b) it’s a bit of an acquired taste (cloudy, foamy, slightly sour and gritty). This isn’t helped by persistent rumours about the terrible things that supposedly go into the brew: shoes, old batteries and the like. Or the horror stories about methanol poisoning and cancer; which, like a lot of things, have grain of truth to them. Be careful when storing grain, kiddies. And never drink anything brewed on somebody’s roof.


What isn’t appreciated is that, for all intents and purposes, unqombothi is the ur-brew; the sort of grain-based thing we called ‘beer’ before the advent of hopping, lagering, clarifying and all the rest. And, as I’ve found out, it doesn’t take much to convert this venerable recipe into something that people who’ve grown up with lagers can appreciate. Even better, brewing this beer (your first, maybe) is a great way to get started in beer brewing in general.


So, without further yarbling, here is a full, explanatory recipe for the easiest (or at least cheapest) all grain beer you’ll ever brew.


The Unqombothi-inspired ale:


Ingredients (mandatory):

  • 1kg Sorghum malt

  • 500g maize grain: pap/maize rice/samp/grits etc.

  • 250g brown sugar/treacle sugar etc.

  • 5-20g hops (herbal hops if nothing else is available)

  • 5-20g Brewer’s yeast

  • Sugar for priming


Ingredients (optional and replacement):

  • Clear gelatine

  • 25g molasses

  • 5-20g extra hops for aroma

  • 1kg Other malts – barley, corn, etc. (replaces sorghum malt)

  • 500g Other grains – roasted barley, rice, etc (replaces maize)

  • 5-20g Baker’s yeast (replaces brewer’s yeast)

  • Suitable herbs (replaces hops)

  • Carbonation drops (replaces priming sugar)


Equipment (mandatory):

  • 5-10 litre brewing tub (a plastic or metal bucket of some sort, preferably with a lid)

  • Sieve or straining cloth

  • Large microwaveable dish or stove pot

  • Microwave or stove

  • Large spoon

  • Bottles


Equipment (optional):

  • Scale

  • Thermometer

  • Mashing tub

  • Oven

  • Fridge

  • Ice or freezer blocks

  • Hose

  • Bleach or other disinfectant

  • Lautering tub (replaces sieve)



  • Mashing

    • Take a suitable container (the lautering tub if you have it, your brewing tin or similar if not) and add in the sorghum malt and maize. Now fill it, as far as is practicable, with a 1:1 mixture of boiling and tap water (max volume of water = 5l)

    • Mix

    • Either cover with cloth or place in oven set at 50-65’C

    • Leave for 2-3 hours

    • Explanation: the mixture (called the mash) will use some of the enzymes in the malt to convert starches into sugars. This means that, as the mashing is going on, your malt and maize are slowly turning into food which yeast can use to make alcohol with. The ideal temperature (60-65’C) just happens to be what you get when you add 1:1 boiling and room-temperature water.


  • Lautering

    • After mashing, strain off the liquid by either squeezing it through the sieve/straining cloth or running it through the lautering tin. Reserve the liquid (now called the wort) in the microwaveable dish or stove pot.

    • Explanation: Lautering is just a synonym for filtering. If you’re wanting to use a lautering tin (which can be as simple as a tub with a small hole cut out of it at the bottom) then all you have to do is dump the mash into it, collect the resulting liquid and pass it a few times through until it’s more or less clear. An extra step is then usually added, where (after collecting the wort) you simply add some more 60-65’C water in to the tin to extract the last little bit of useable stuff from the grains. After this the grains are pretty much done – you can throw them away, boil them into porridge or give them to farm animals.


  • Boiling

    • Take the wort and either microwave on high or bring up to a boil on the stove. Once boiling, you then keep it there for an hour. Take care not to burn the wort.

    • Sometime during this process, add your hops to the boiling mixture. If you were only able to get herbal hops (which are usually a hallertau or similar), then this would be done at the beginning (60 min immersion). If you have access to something stronger (higher alpha acid content), then you can both use less and add it in later.

    • Explanation: The boiling step serves a bunch of useful purposes. Firstly, it sterilizes your wort so that other microorganisms aren’t messing your beer up from the start. Secondly, it drives off some of the more potent corn and chip flavours that tend to develop during the mashing step. It also serves to denature some of the proteins in the wort, allowing them to drop out of suspension once the whole thing cools down (which results in clearer beer). Finally, the heat of the boil is what converts the alpha acids in the hops into the bitter beer flavour that we all love so much. This is important in more ways than one, as this bitter stuff also makes the beer more resistant to outside contamination when the beer is brewing. You can (as has been mentioned) substitute certain herbs for your hops to get the same effect (albeit with different flavours), but this is not something that I have personally verified.


  • Brewing

    • Once your wort is boiled, transfer it to the brewing tin, add the brown sugar (and optional molasses) and measure the resulting volume. If it is less than 5l, then make up the shortfall with cold water.

    • Cool the wort as fast as possible. If you have no other options, simply stick the tub somewhere cold and dark (with a lid or cover on). If you have ice or freezer blocks, then make a container of ice-water and dunk the tub in that.

    • Once the wort is cooled down to room temperature you can add in the yeast and the optional aroma hops before sealing

    • lightly seal the tub (the lid or cover should not be airtight) and leave overnight to brew (in a cool, dark place 16-24’C).

    • The next day, use the large spoon (disinfected) to skim the crud off the top of the wort. Give the whole thing a stir to churn up the mixture before re-sealing.

    • Brew for 2-14 days in a cool, dark place (16-24’C)

    • Explanation: cooling the wort is important if you want clear beer, as it forces the denatured proteins out of solution. It also helps to keep some of the more pungent flavours (corn and chip smells, again) out of the brew. Brewing time both influences flavour and clarity of your beer. You can brew to completion within 3 days, but you’ll end up with the best product if you allow the process to carry on for longer. Of course, the longer your beer brews the more chance there is of something nasty getting into it and breeding. Which brings up the next point…


Very important: everything which touches the wort after it has boiled must be clean and disinfected (if at all possible). This includes the brewing tub itself, the spoon, the bottles you will be transferring the beer into, the siphon tube you may use to do it etc. The more obsessive you are about keeping things clean, the less likely it is that you’ll end up with an undrinkable beer that reeks of vomit.


  • Bottling and conditioning

    • Once your beer is ready, you should (if possible) lager it for a day or two before bottling. The easiest way to do this (if you don’t live somewhere reliably cold) is to just lump the entire tub into the fridge (4’C).

    • While you’re lagering, it’s also a good idea to add a flocculant to the beer to drag more stuff out of solution. A simple way of doing this is just to mix up a small batch of gelatine (one quarter of a cup of hot water plus a level teaspoon of gelatine) and add that in a day before you bottle.

    • Once you’re ready to bottle, make up a priming solution (30-40g of sugar dissolved in half a glass of boiling water) and add it carefully to your beer.

    • Allow things to settle, move the tub to where you want to pour or siphon, allow things to settle again.

    • Pour, ladle out or siphon your beer into clean bottles (siphoning works best, but can be a pain to do) and seal. Remember to leave a small air gap at the top of the bottle to provide something for the yeast to work with. You should count on getting around 4-4.5 litres out of the tub before the trub at the bottom begins to get into your bottles.

    • Check that bottles are airtight (invert and see if anything leaks) before storing in a cool, dark place (20-24’C). Allow the bottles to condition for 3-7 days before chilling.

    • Your beer is now ready.

    • Explanation: Lagering and flocculation seem to be the surest way to improve the clarity of your beer, if that’s what you’re interested in. The cold allows stuff to drop out of solution and form a thick, compact layer which you will then invariably stir up or suck up into one of your bottles. Keep this bottle for yourself, or make proper beer bread out of it. The priming bottle conditioning allows the residual yeast in your beer to make some carbon dioxide, which will then give your beer some fizz once opened. If you’re wanting to skip the priming step (which does, after all, tend to leave a residue on the bottom of your bottles) you should look for carbonation drops to add instead. I’d still allow the beer to condition, though, as it’s supposed to help with the flavour



  • ~4% abv (slightly under the lager range)

  • ~20 ibu (in the lager range)

  • ~8 srm (a tad darker than a standard lager)


Summing up:

As you can see, there is a lot of variation in this recipe. If you’re low on equipment, not that worried about clarity or just want something quick then you can skip the optional stuff and have something drinkable in a week. If, on the other hand, your process control is good you can have a very clear, well balanced brew in a month.

The amount of work required in each case is about the same – a few hours for the initial mashing, filtering and boiling, and a few minutes for the rest of the work. The cost is also low – R8/litre (not including price of containers) if you’re buying small batches of ingredients and getting shafted on the price of hops.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Bleach is my go-to for getting things clean and disinfected. A capful per litre of water, with a minimum 15 minute soak, seems to work wonderfully. Just remember to rinse whatever it is you’ve cleaned before using it (especially the siphon tube if you’re using one) as bleach-flavoured beer is probably never going to be popular.

  • Counter-intuitively, you shouldn’t scour plastic surfaces when trying to get them clean. The problem is, apparently, that the scratches you make end up sheltering bacteria and fungi, which then go on to contaminate your beer.

  • Brew with your nose – you can usually smell if something has gone wrong before you bottle, which will allow you to skip the heartache of making all your friends and loved ones gag when they open a tainted brew. It also doesn’t hurt to reserve some liquid at some steps of the process (rousing the wort, bottling) to taste. Don’t be too worried if the taste is rough, though, as brewing and bottle conditioning tends to even out the flavours.

  • Iterate, iterate, iterate. You probably won’t get the first brew right, or the second. Just keep plugging away (hopefully learning as you do so) and it will all come right. And by the time it does so you will probably have a better idea of what you want in your beer. Feel free to add or subtract things to your taste.


Useful links:

  • A brewing calculator, which has become an indispensable tool for me when organising and testing recipes.

  • A wonderful paper on Sorghum malt properties, which includes a methods section that would allow you to make your own.

  • Some more articles on Unqombothi, all from the perspective of commercial brewers

  • An entire site dedicated to hop alternatives and traditional brewing

  • How to make your own malt (barley and corn). Fair warning – you will almost certainly have problems with bacterial contamination on your first few attempts.