Beer and Brewing

Beer and Brewing

Beer and Brewing

I've been brewing beer for over a decade now.

Why do I do it when a good beer is only a short walk to the shops away? Well here are my answers to that question:-

  • It's cheaper to brew your own beer than to buy beer as a general rule, although it will cost you more in time.
  • You can make beer that is just as good as commercial beer
  • The world of beer is an incredibly deep one, filled with exotic ingredients, interesting science and ancient history
  • It's very satisfying to make something that you and your friends enjoy
  • You can replicate a beer that you really enjoy

So why did I decide to start making beer? Well it started at University, and as an impoverished student I came to two startling revelations. The first was that I REALLY liked drinking beer, and the second was at the rate I was enjoying it I wouldn't be able to afford food. The solution was to find an alternative method of sourcing beer without breaking the bank. It was fortunate for me that I lived with such good flatmates, and that they were willing to lend a hand in what would become one of my favourite hobbies. In a second stroke of luck I was living with a guy that had experience making his own wines and whiskey. So it was only a few hours into our second year that we decided that we would try and make a beer kit!

Now at this point my experience with beer was very limited, and I'd only sampled a mere handful of the different ale styles that are available. Most of my usual pints were bland commercial lagers, and to be honest couldn't really be classed as 'proper' beer. As we walked to the brewing shop in Aberystwyth ( which has sadly long closed ) I was just excited that we'd be able to make something cheap. When we got to the shop there were a couple of beer kits to choose from, all by either Telfords or Edme. The kit that caught our eye was Telford's Irish Stout - we'd both tried Guinness and knew that we liked it. We bought a barrel ( £8 ), lock ( £1.50 ), bung ( 50p ), the kit ( £8 ) and some Sodium Metabisulphate ( £1.50ish ) and made our way to the pub with our equipment to celebrate. Once we'd got this lot home we'd try making our beer and then the world would be rosy!

Brewing day came and we opened the kit with excitement. It was surprisingly simple, all we needed was a stock-pot, some water, some sugar and the attached packet of yeast. Heat the water, stir in the syrup from inside the kit, dissolve the sugar and bring to the boil. Pour into a clean barrel, add cold water and sprinkle in the yeast. Screw on the top, put the lock and bung into the lid and there we had 40 pints. The kit said we should wait 3-4 weeks before we could drink it.

The weeks past and it was finally ready.....but was it any good?

Well it was.... black.

It was bitter.....

But... it didn't really taste like Guinness, in fact it tasted pretty weak. It wasn't really the horror story that most people will recant when talking about trying out home-brewing, you know the one where it exploded all over the airing cupboard and it tasted disgusting. It wasn't unpleasant, just nondescript, and I'm pretty sure it was probably only 2-3% at the end of the day. It didn't matter though, we were students and we were doing something unique and interesting.

So we made a lot of this particular kit, at one point we made 200 pints of it ready for our return after the holiday break. We didn't even try any of the other beer styles from the same kit manufacturer. It wasn't long however until we started wondering if we could make it better and closer to the beers we were drinking in the pub. Every time we visited the beer shop we noticed that there were other ingredients available below the kits - grains and bags of hops and things. We bought some hops with a funny name and stuck them in some boiling water, a strange greeny-brown liquid came out and it made the kitchen smell funny. We were none the wiser but we poured it into our next beer kit and waited to see what it would taste like.

We'll it wasn't Guinness, but it did taste different from the pure kit. We spent a few months making different varieties with each of the different types of hops. I was beginning to think that the brewing of 'better' beer was beyond the abilities of the layman.

It was in the holiday at the end of my 4th year at University that things started to change. I'd gone to the library with my parents and I sat in the car as there wasn't really anything I wanted to borrow. My mum came back with a book called "Real Ales for the Home Brewer" by Marc Ollosson. I read this with animation, and realised that we'd been doing everything wrong. I still have the book and the first 24 pages contained a brief overview of how brewing worked, but more importantly step-by-step instructions on how to make a beer. This book actually tackled beer making by using grains and cereals, gave example recipes and scientific formulae for calculating sugar and hop extraction. All of a sudden the brewing process had become much bigger.

I decided in my final year that I should really give this a try. I managed to find a mail order company on the internet ( which was pretty new in those days - anyone remember Netscape Navigator? ) and bought £60 of grain.

Everyone in my flat thought I was mad.........until I told them it could make 300 pints of Guinness.

Once I explained the things I had learned to my flat-mates we came up with an ingenious brewing system. The whole process of extracting the sugar from the beer took place in a giant rain barrel that we'd bought from the local hardware shop. I look back at this now and laugh. The barrel was made out of a plastic that wasn't even rated at food grade, so every time we used it we were extracting trace amounts of toxins. Still what's another toxin when you are a student? We'd totally overestimated and it was about 5 times larger than we needed. We insulated it with bubble-wrap and old curtains and we stirred the grain with a broom handle. When it was time to get the liquid out we used the tap on the rain barrel. It would frequently get blocked so it was someone's job to unblock the tap using cocktail sticks, braving the scalding hot liquid was an occupational hazard. Once we'd perfected the technique we made a few ales and set them fermenting in barrels.

This beer was much closer to commercial beers.

Once I'd left University and got a job I thought it was time to invest in some better equipment. Around £200 got me an automatic mash tun and boiler. I started brewing new beers at my new flat in Cheltenham, but unfortunately all the beers I made tasted worse than the old beers I'd made in Aberystwyth. Puzzled I tried different recipes with no avail. It wasn't given much time to work on the problem as my company went bust and I was forced to move to Leamington Spa. The beers I made here were no better and It was in desperation that I tried a brew made only using bottled water. It turns out that the tap water was the problem and from then on I just made beer with bottled water, which turned out to be quite expensive.

Eventually I moved house again and tried another brew with the tap water and this time it was better. I thought the previous house must have just had bad pipes. There was a certain astringency to the new beers I was making though, and I couldn't work out why. Luckily someone bought me "How to Brew" by John Palmer for christmas one year. This book, which I now consider to be my own personal brewing bible held all the answers I needed. Every year since then I've been trying to focus on different aspects of brewing and trying to improve each one. Firstly I decided to switch from bottle to cask ales. The year after that I focused on water chemistry and pH balance. My main goal this year is to improve the quality of my beers by selecting the correct yeast for the job and ensuring that it's sufficiently healthy and aerated to perform the job.

So now that I've got some of the technique working pretty, it's time to make some different recipes. If you, like me enjoy the world of real ales why not give making your own a go?

It's not as hard as you think.. :D