Offer someone a glass of homebrew and there’s a fair chance they’ll turn their nose up – perhaps imagining you’re going to serve them a foul-tasting concoction that’s stereotypically the preserve of cash-strapped students.
But drinkers prepared to put their prejudices aside and sample one of today’s homebrewed beverages may actually be in for a very pleasant surprise.That’s because quality kits are now widely available and it’s easier than ever to create a perfectly quaffable brew in the comfort of your own home.
An increasingly popular hobby
The many satisfied amateur brewers who can be found on the internet, singing the praises of their favoured homebrew in online forums, are evidence of the craft’s growing popularity.
In addition to various online communities there are also many clubs dedicated to home brewing – as well as events such as the UK National Homebrew Competition, in which entrants can enter their favourite self-made beer in the hope it will be judged ‘best in show’.
It’s not easy to determine how many people brew their own alcoholic beverages at home, but with one leading manufacturer selling more than half a million of its brewing kits in 2012 alone, the hobby is obviously becoming increasingly popular.
We’re living in challenging economic times and the financial motivations for homebrewing are obvious. Once you’ve bought the basic equipment such as a fermenting bucket, utensils, steriliser, and sugar, a brewing kit will produce pints costing much less than they do in the shop – as Andy Hamilton, author of Booze For Free, explains:
“One of the main reasons that people get into home brewing is cost – when I used to pay for booze it would take a big chunk out of my wages. A cheap kit means that you can make 40 pints of beer for around a tenner.”
Whilst saving money may be the reason many people get into homebrewing, it’s the enjoyment of creating and drinking quality brews that keeps them interested in the craft.
“The hook is often cost but that’s not enough to sustain a hobby. Enjoying drinking concoctions with friends is certainly enough to take it that stage further – it was for me, anyhow, and it’s great tweaking a recipe a little bit to make your booze better year on year,” says Andy.
It’s not only beer that can be made at home. Wine, cider and spirits can also be brewed and different kits requiring varying degrees of experience means there’s something for both the beginner and seasoned homebrewer alike.
A variety of kits
For those new to the craft, pre-hopped malt extract kits are the simplest way to start brewing. Pre-hopped malt extract kits are typically large tins that contain malt extract syrup, which has been pre-boiled with hops to simplify the brewing process. As a boil is not required, preparation of the brew involves simply mixing the malt extract syrup with a kilo of sugar and 25 litres of water in a large plastic fermenter, and then adding the sachet of yeast that comes with the kit.
The easiest way of assembling the equipment needed to start brewing is to purchase a starter kit. The price of a kit starts at around £50 and provides everything you need to start brewing, including a tin of malt extract, yeast, a fermenting bucket, a tap, a bottling valve and tube, a hydrometer, a plastic spoon, and for secondary fermentation either a pressure keg or plastic bottles. A starter kit requires minimal expertise and within a few weeks you should have successfully made 40 pints of perfectly drinkable homebrew.
For more experienced brewers, malt extract and all-grain kits allow the creation of brews that are much more tailored to personal taste.
Malt extract kits contain a concentrated malt extract and require a full boil, with the addition of hops at different times depending on the style of beer being brewed. All-grain kits, which usually include grain, hops, and sometimes yeast, follow a more complicated brewing process in which milled malted grain must first undergo a ‘mash’ to extract the sugars. The resulting sugar and liquids is known as ‘wort’ and must be fully boiled, with hops added at different times depending on beer style.
Don’t forget to sterilise
It’s very important to sterilise equipment before starting the brewing process, or you may risk contaminating your brew. Sterilising powder helps to ensure that all equipment is free from contaminants.
“The best bit of advice for any new home brewer is not to underestimate the importance of sterilising,” says Andy. “Wild yeasts and bacteria are the biggest enemies of any brewer and unfortunately even the cleanest of homes can be teeming with them. There is nothing more upsetting than having to pour away all of your hard work because it tastes like nail polish remover. So always, always sterilise.”
Bottling your brew
Once the ingredients have been prepared they are added to a fermenting bucket, which must be sealed and kept at the optimum temperature for the particular strain of yeast that’s been added to the mix. For lager the fermenting temperature can be as low as 10°C, cider ferments at between 15–18°C, wine around 20°C, and ale between 18–24°C. Once primary fermentation of the brew has taken place, and fermentable sugars have been consumed by the yeast, the brew is bottled and carbonated.
Used beer bottles, flip-top bottles with rubber stoppers and even plastic fizzy drink bottles are suitable for bottling. Each bottle is ‘primed’ with a small quantity of sugar, which reactivates the remaining yeast and carbonates the liquid. Forced carbonation can also be achieved in a pressure keg, using carbon dioxide.
If you’re feeling adventurous or want to save even more money, it’s possible to forego kits and create your own brews from foraged ingredients.
“If you’re making wine out of foraged ingredients you won’t be paying for anything other than the sugar and yeast,” says Andy, who has made brews from a wide variety of flowers, plants, fruits and vegetables.
“Beer kits were not great when I started brewing 20 years ago and I questioned if I could do any better. I remember making some nettle beer and elderflower champagne and both being better – and both were surprisingly easy to make. My experimentation continued and then I started writing Booze For Free and it skyrocketed. I was trying to make booze from almost anything I could get my hands on – parsnips and blackberries, for instance – both of which were very good!”
And finally, are there any ingredients Andy wouldn’t recommend using when homebrewing?
“There were a few that I wouldn’t go back to, such as attempting to make tomato beer – an experience, but not a good one!”
If you want to have a go at making your own homebrew, stay tuned. We’ll have some hints and tips for you later in the week.
In the meantime, visit Wilko’s large selection of beer, cider and wine homebrew kits, accessories and equipment to get all you need.