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Confessions of a home-brew sceptic wife

When some people move to a new area they check out the quality of local schools, the practicalities of getting to work and whether it has shops within easy reach. When my husband and I chose Faversham, the quality of local pubs and the range of breweries in the area heavily influenced our decision. It helps that Faversham really is a charming and unique place to put down roots … but the fact that the local bar staff and landlords were the first to recognise us says a lot for the role of Real Ale in our lives. I love beer.

Still, when Joel spent about half an hour walking around Colin’s homebrew shop on our first visit I admit to noticing a deep sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remember him getting excited about the prospect of us finally having the space to set up a brew, and an approachable local shop owner to help us along. Whilst the details escaped me – I’ve long since learnt the art of listening and not listening at the same time – I knew that this was going to be his new ‘thing’. Rather than be massively excited about the prospect of a store of ready-made beer in our basement, I began to fantasise about the many polite ways I could tell him that homebrew tastes awful and I’d much prefer to go to the pub instead.

I had many reasons for being sceptical. As a young adult, I remember friends and colleagues taking their first step in to homebrewing as a way of drinking large amounts of beer as cheaply as possible. I’d get an invite to a party, drink a pint of something that tasted pretty rank and regret the fact I’d neglected to bring some back-up-ales along. To me, homebrew was shorthand for sub-par beer that’s best-avoided if at all possible. Whilst I knew that their youthful enthusiasm probably outmatched their patience and understanding of how to make beer taste good, I kinda figured that brewing is best left to the professionals.

All of this went through my mind as Joel began to buy the kit he needed, chat with Colin about the best way forward and look up tips and techniques on the net. As the weeks passed, and his brew matured, I mentally rehearsed the nicest way to let him down gently when the tasting began.  Much to my surprise, when he finally poured his first pint – it wasn’t bad. He left it for another week or so and then, when we tasted it, it was actually pretty good. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a far cry from the un-drinkable versions I’d had in my youth. It was very drinkable and pretty cheap. We got through that batch pretty quickly – which was a good sign.

Joel is an engineer at heart, so it’s unsurprising that he approached brewing with a similar attitude. He experimented with different techniques, different hops, malts and ways of getting that all elusive decent head on the beer. He even rented a cider press from the shop as Brogdale were getting rid of the last of the season’s apples. With each brew, end results got better and better. His enthusiasm drew me in and before long I was eagerly making requests for my favourite beers … a good Porter or luxurious Stout.

Our Xmas Beer LabelI’m not so interested in the technical stuff. My head is occupied with other things and I don’t have the time or inclination to listen to his brewing insights with both ears. Irrespective of his brewing process, I really do enjoy drinking the fruits of his labours. Last Christmas, when we were pretty skint, his home-brewing saved the day. The combination of his home brew skills and my design know-how enabled us to make a gift-worthy batch of ‘BatCat Brewery Fig & Tangerine Xmas Stout’. Bottled and labelled with care, recipients instantly assumed we’d picked them up from a local store … not realising it was home made until we told them. Feedback was overwhelming positive and we’ve set a precedent that we’ve promised to continue this year.

Whilst having a brew on tap at home will never replace going to a good pub, it’s great to know that the beer Joel’s making is pub-worthy and be proud to share it around at gatherings and his cousin’s wedding. Plus, relaxing in front of a good movie with a pint (or two!) of his latest brew is a luxury I now take for granted. Yes, I was a home brew sceptic … but that’s a thing of the past.

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Getting brewing right the first time, and every time

As you may know from adverts, there are four ingredients in beer: water, yeast, hops, and barley. Even though we know it only has these four ingredients, we still think brewing must be complicated. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

Yeast is a single-celled natural fungus that has been around since before the dinosaurs. Hops are a flowering plant from a very common family. Barley is a cereal – a grass that produces grain. Including water, all four things are very easy to find almost anywhere on the planet, barring deserts and arctic zones. The first beer was brewed sometime around 5,000 years ago, probably around the same time the first bread was made (it uses the same ingredients). The first beer probably made itself, when a slushy dough was left out too long and started to ferment.

It’s amazing how many people love beer but don’t know how to brew. It’s a bit like enjoying driving but having no idea how an engine works, or loving curry but not knowing how to make a sauce and boil rice. I suspect that many potential homebrewers try it once and are unsatisfied. Following an unsuccessful brew involving accidents, terrified partners or housemates, a raw, wrong-tasting beer and a nasty headache after trying it, we’ve thought: “I’m not doing that again.” I have done this myself, and forgotten about brewing for ten years as a result.

Fair enough. But this doesn’t tally with what we know: it’s a very old, very simple process. Given that there’s very little that can go wrong with beer, how can us modern humans possibly get it wrong?

There are three reasons, listing the commonest problem first:

  1. Time. How long did you brew for?
  2. Ingredients. How good are they?
  3. Sanitising. Is your equipment clean?

1. Time. How long did you brew for?

So many “bad” homebrews are different from professional beers in only one important way: too much yeast still in the beer. This is the “homebrewy” taste people complain about. Time and patience allows the yeast to settle, but many follow the instructions (“your beer will be ready in 2-3 weeks!”) and end up dissatisfied. 4-5 weeks, with the beer in the fridge, cellar or anywhere cool for the last week, will allow the yeast to consume by-products and settle out, maturing the beer.

2. Ingredients. How good are they?

There are many good beer kits out there, but also some not so good ones. As with anything else you get what you pay for. For a small price increase you can get a superior kit that will taste as good as many bottled or keg beers.

3. Sanitising. Is your equipment clean?

This is the least common but most dangerous problem as bacteria in the fermenter can kill the batch and make all that patience pointless. Any kitchen steriliser – such as Milton – will prevent this, and leave your kit smelling reassuringly clean. Follow the dilution instructions and don’t use scented bleach unless you want your beer tasting pine-fresh.

Speaking from experience, I can say that making a decent beer was definitely key to my going back and doing it again. In a short time I was making beer that most people – myself included – would be happy to be served in a pub. I was also saving money; after buying the kit (around £25-30 if you reuse your own pop bottles) I was making beer at a cost of roughly 50p a pint. While brewing is simple, the beers you can make are limitless. A few additional purchases and some inventiveness (and inventions) have equipped me with a fine mini-brewery of my own. The making of around eight batches of beer per year for the last three years has also given me the knowledge and the ability to teach others, which I’ll be happily sharing on this blog.