In times of crisis, we must make the most of what we have. No resource should be left untapped, no production capacity left unused. It is for these reasons – and please don’t tell her – that I’ve turned my absent flatmate’s bedroom into a brewery.
I expect she will complain about the slow march of the yeasty stench into her soft furnishings, but the reality is that this was an inarguably logical decision based on a set of unique conditions. First, we’ve had a spare room ever since Romilly, the absent flatmate, fled London pre-lockdown; second, with all this time at home, there’s no better time for the three of us still in the house to start a wholesome personal project like manufacturing large quantities of cheap beer; and finally, it’s harder than usual to buy shop beer and literally illegal to buy a pint from a pub. Let the mountain come to Mohammed; let the land flow with milk, honey and home-made Pilsner.
Brewing kits are pretty straightforward in that they tend to come with all the equipment and materials you need, from the little bag of yeast sprinkles to the massive plastic bucket referred to, rather grandly, as a fermenter. What’s less straightforward is getting hold of such kits, given how popular they’ve become during lockdown.
There’s hardly a home-brew kit to be seen on Amazon. Most independent vendors have also sold out of at least one kind of kit, and some have disabled online ordering because they can’t keep up with demand. Home Brew Online (home-brew-online.com) told me that over the first weekend of lockdown they’d received eight times more orders than usual.
I found a kit via Hamstead Brewing Centre, which has been supplying Birmingham with home-brew kits for 36 years. They, too, are several times busier than usual. “When the pubs closed,” says Chris Hogg, the manager, “a lot of our existing customers got in touch. We had a lot of people digging out their equipment and asking for starter packs, and a lot of people ringing up for the first time.”
In theory, it’s quite simple. You put your malt, which is a thick syrup derived from cereal grains, into your fermenter. You mix in water and add yeast, which ferments the malt, and hops, which add flavour. Leave it somewhere warm for a few days – five to seven according to the instructions for our gluten-free Czech Pilsner-style lager – and when your hydrometer, a device that measures a liquid’s buoyancy, suggests the fermentation process is complete, your beer should be ready to bottle.
“It can go wrong quite easily,” warns Kat Drinnan, of Edinburgh Homebrew Club. A stray bacterium can ruin the taste, so she instructed me to ruthlessly sterilise my equipment. “Temperature is important too,” she said, “but if you follow the guidance it’ll turn out OK. If it doesn’t taste right, try again.”
Drinnan has been home-brewing with her partner, Jimmy, for seven years. They started “when the craft beer boom was happening”, she says. “We were drinking interesting beers and wanted to make them for ourselves.”
Since then, Drinnan has upgraded from “very basic plastic kit” to “slightly more impressive stainless-steel stuff”. She and Jimmy plan to open their own brewery, but with the economy in deep-freeze, they’ve had to pause the project.
At the same time, Edinburgh Homebrew Club’s Facebook group has swelled in size. “I think with everything that’s going on, people are looking for something that they can put their mind towards and get something back from,” says Drinnan. “Brewing is something that we have been doing for thousands of years and I think people appreciate the slow nature of it.”
They might also appreciate home-brewing’s potential for creativity, she adds. “You’ve got access to all the malts and hops that the commercial brewers have, so you can make a beer as good as your favourite. If you love an IPA but wish it tasted more bitter, or of mangoes, then that’s what you can have!”
I have no such ambition for my first home-brew. My giddiest dream is simply that it be drinkable. At the time of writing, its destiny is unclear: I’ve left it to ferment in Romilly’s bedroom, and it’s not until today that I’ll start molesting the brew with the hydrometer.
Despite the putative simplicity of the project, and despite the home-brew centre’s idiot-proof compilation of every item I’d need, I fear that it won’t be warm enough in the house, or that an errant microbe will have crept in, or that the lager will be ruined in another unanticipated way. But it is good fun. The kit may have looked clinical, but the process felt sensory and organic from the moment the brown, gloopy malt plopped into the bucket. The more I stirred the mixture, the more invested I felt, irrespective of the gently malodorous scent it produced. It was like cultivating a plant, or raising a baby, except you can tip it down the sink if you don’t like it.
Crises are revealing, and what we have learnt about Britons from this home-brewing stampede is that our national character is less bulldog than boozehound. With this in mind, I’m sure Romilly will forgive me the stinking of her room. Pandemics are thirsty work.
Kat Drinnan’s advice for new home-brewers
Pick a beer you love and find a recipe online to replicate it. You can compare colour, taste and aroma when your replica is finished.
It’s fairly simple to do your own research online. Don’t get too tempted by the super-shiny stainless stuff – a plastic fermenter is fine for a beginner.
When you’re mashing and boiling, it’s going to smell during fermentation. But when the smell goes away you know you’re doing good.
Join your local home-brewing club on Facebook. If something’s wrong, they’ll help you. It’s the nicest community I’ve been a part of.
Some basic guidance
1. You’ll need malt, yeast, hops and water; an enclosed vessel in which to ferment the mixture and something with which to stir it. You’ll also need a thermometer, hydrometer and some kind of steriliser.
2. Beginners are probably best served by buying the equipment as an all-in-one starter pack. Many sites have sold out, but at the time of writing it is still possible to buy kits such as Hamstead Home Brew’s Deluxe Equipment Starter Pack (£37.50). Buy your beer ingredients at the same time in the form of a beer pack (mine was £24.99 and came with malt, yeast and hops).
3 . If you want to spend a bit more, try an automatic, stainless steel-clad contraption such as the Maischfest Boiler Mash Kettle (klarstein.co.uk, £209.99 if you sign up to the newsletter for a £10 voucher). Or wait for the BrewArt BeerDroid’s imminent arrival on UK shores – it has its own app, which means you can monitor your beer’s progress from afar.