Homebrewing in the UK (2013/14)

Warning:  this is a long post, and was intended to be posted in time for Boak & Bailey’s Beery Long Reads.

Roughly this time last year, I wrote about “homebrewing in the UK”.  It’s my opinion that the boom-and-boom of homebrewing is symbiotic with the general surge of interest in beer.  Look around and you will see more independent bars and off licences; more breweries, more homebrewing competitions, some beer on the TV; a bigger selection of beer in restaurants. It’s a veritable beer bonanza out there.

2013 was another good year for homebrewing, and 2014 is already full of promise.  Not to discount the hundreds – if not thousands – of folk who quietly go about brewing alcoholic beverages in their kitchens, bathrooms, sheds, basements and garages – but there is a growing number of brewers who are interested in having their brews critiqued, or taking their beer to the next level.  From experience, I have found that this can be an anxiety provoking step, a step into unknown and sometimes unfriendly territory.  However, when you ask for someone’s opinion of a beer that you have lovingly created, you should be prepared for the ugly truth.  The good news is that it’s possible to learn from even the clumsiest of comments.  Several more homebrewing groups have formed over the last 12 months, and I can recommend them as a safe place to pour and share your beer, and be guaranteed at least one useful piece of feedback.  A step further on from this, there are local/regional brewers who support homebrewing, and who periodically offer an incentive for homebrewers to compete.

Unless you were out of the country during February, you will not have escaped the giddy anticipation of the announcement of the Craft Beer Company’s National Homebrewing Awards.  You can read more about it here, and from the winner (Andy Parker).  Andy will be brewing 20BBLs of his American Red beer, with competition partners – Dark Star Brewing Co during 2014.  If that wasn’t big enough news, then you only need to look at Siren Craft Brew ‘s competition  run in partnership with transient Swedish outfit, Omnipollo.  They announced their winner, Mike Bates, who convinced the judges with his English hopped 4.5% abv Saison.  Unsurprisingly, Mike knows a thing or too about beer, educating himself on a daily basis through his work with the fabulous House of Trembling Madness, York.   I hope some of the resulting beer will make its way back to Yorkshire!

There have been other competitions, notably the UK National Homebrewing Competition (not to be confused with the Craft Beer Co) over the last couple of years, and all of which have shown initiative and helped to demonstrate the shift in homebrewing honours; from ghastly ‘beer’ born from the airing cupboard; to commercial accolades.

So, that was my take on the UK’s homebrewing  scene, rather a long introduction, but one that hopefully leads nicely to what other people think.  I contacted a number of folk who are interested in homebrewing.  I approached all of the respondents with the same question –  that I am interested in the apparent growth of interest in homebrewing…and seeking any observations they might have; and where they see homebrewing ‘going’”.

Here’s what they had to say:  

Phil Lowry writes CAMRA’s  homebrew column in BEER magazine.  He also brews at home, sells beer for a living at beermerchants.com, and founded the London Brewers’ Alliance.

“[the growth in homebrewing] is really parallel to the growth in interest in the provenance of what we consume.  Food, clothes, electricity, you name it, I think we’re being more conscientious about what, and who we deal with.  I think beer, being that we can make it “easily” at home, falls in the easy to do, early steps bracket.  Then add grow your own, and, all the other things we can do to be better at living.   It’s just the weird, obsessives like ourselves, and our friends who take it further to the extremes.

But, I think there’s interest, whether it’s growing, as fast as we perhaps perceive.   I do think it’s [a case of] more people coming out of the woodwork, that “coming out of the closet”, is acceptable, for want of a better analogy.  

There are of course a few have-a-goes who fall beside the way side,  but, ultimately yes, there is a growth, parallel to the growth in interest in beer.  The great part, is the authenticity and quality are entirely in you the brewers’ hands.  We’re in good times, I just hope that convenience doesn’t trump “home made” in time”.

 James Kemp, formerly of Fullers, Thornbridge and Buxton, and now working for SPL International, and describes himself as – among other things – a “homebrew geezer”.

I see homebrewing in the UK at a decisive point, there is massive potential for homebrewers to be at the forefront of the beer revolution that’s occurring in the UK, there are breweries popping up all over the place and let’s be honest – where are the new wave of head brewers going to come from if not from homebrewing ranks? Already I see a short supply of quality commercial brewers in the UK, who’s going to fill that need? I think it’s time for the homebrewer to step up, the same way that the homebrewer in the US stepped up.

There is some absolutely fantastic homebrew being brewed out there, I recently had a conversation with a beer retailer who said “you’ll get better brewed and packaged beers at the national homebrew comp than you will from the majority of commercial UK breweries”. 

Obviously there is also some extremely dire examples, but often that’s a reflection on the amount of misinformation the brewer has to disseminate.  Homebrewing literature is shockingly dated and contradictory, this is where I think the homebrewer is being held back and ultimately where the brewing industry as a whole will be held back.

This is where I come in I guess, I’m using my experience in the industry to cut through the rubbish and give a little back by advising and helping anyone that wants to make good beer”.

Robert Neale is a keen homebrewer, and owner of online homebrew & micro brewery suppliers – The Malt Miller. 

Since The Malt Miller site went live in May 2010 we have seen a wholesale change in the appetite of the all grain home brewer. Home brewers were brewing mainly because it was cheaper, and although that is still part of the market we are now finding that most of our customers are brewing at home because, outside of the major cities, they find it hard to purchase the beer they want to drink.  Being able to supply exciting new varieties of hops, malt and yeast from the US, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere, the exact same ingredients that the famous “craft” breweries are using has been key.

As it stands we have 6800 customers registered from all over Europe and that is growing daily.  To keep up with demand we now employ three members of staff along with myself, and send out an average of 50 orders a day. Business has come a long way from selling a few packets of hops through an internet forum!

Graeme Coates is an award winning homebrewer; 2012 National Homebrew Champion, which netted him a brewing ‘holiday’ with none other than Norwegian outfit –  Nøgne ø

I’ve been homebrewing and competing a while now – in my view there’s been an enormous change in the hobby which has been visible from not only the competition side of things but also through aspects of social media, forums, blogs etc. The hobby is growing, there’s a continued increase in the availability of new ingredients (the recent experimental hop varieties a good example), and there seem to be more competitions taking place being run in conjunction with brewers and bars alike.

In earlier years the majority of the entries in competitions I entered (eg Sutton) seemed to come from the English Pale ale styles – APAs were few and far between, and rarely did you see a beer over 1065. The change started in Skipton (2010?) where the categories didn’t help out the judging when an enormous number landed up in “Speciality” (with this being split into “Belgian” and “non-Belgian”!) and I think we’ve seen continued expansion from homebrewers since, many have gone on to do it commercially too.

And you know, I’m almost feeling a little left behind in some respects with some of the ideas that people are coming out with – and much of this is being reflected in the way some of the commercials are heading (and probably for good reason as many are/were homebrewers themselves and inspiration runs two ways here).

Where are we going in the next year? I think there’s increasing numbers of homebrewers trying their hand at (intentionally!) sour beers – Ali [Kocho-Williams – now owner of Seren Brewing Co.] won the UKNHC (UK National Homebrew Competition) with a Straight Lambic in Sept 2013 – the variety of “additions” to beer (as debateable as some might sound seems to be a current trend, and I doubt the need to experiment with ever hoppier beers (with emerging hop varieties) is going to stop soon.

The only thing I’d add is that I’d not be too quick to wish away the homebrewing of low ABV bitters and good traditional lagers within the homebrewing fraternity – they are wonderful categories to really test and hone your brewing ability, as there is often nowhere to hide… (but that suffer enormously from stereotypical “twigs” and “lager is piss” descriptors).  Simple recipes can offer great flavour just as much as a complex one after all… Can I really stick my neck out to hope for the year we see the UK Homebrewer embracing the malty dunkel, the crisp German Pils and the flavoursome well brewed and perfectly balanced English bitter…?” [you just did, Graeme!]

 

Homebrewers Kevin Head, and partner in crime Jono, kindly added some thoughts from the perspective of homebrewers relatively new to the hobby, and therefore relatively untarnished by their peers!

“[First Jono's thoughts] Making beer was something that I’d wanted to do for a while but I hadn’t got round to it. I guess fatherhood and drinks in the pub were things that brought us together but it was probably our respective wives that suggested that we were both keen to make some beer and that we should get together to do some brewing.  It’s somehow much more acceptable to spend 4 hours making beer at home than going out to the pub for the same amount of time – at least if kids wake up there’s still the possibility of being useful at home! The internet has been a huge help in finding out the basics and having an Edinburgh resource like Brewstore has made sourcing and sense-checking ingredients a much easier process.  I think the homebrewing “movement” isn’t just one thing, but the two main factors to me as an outsider looking in are probably the general tightening of purse-strings around the country over the past few years (along with the realisation that you can make decent alcohol without spending anywhere near as much per beer). 

My personal motivations are that I feel that this is a lost art within my family – I can’t imagine that with a farming background on my mum’s side of the family that there wouldn’t have been beer being brewed in the farmhouse, and I feel sad that those skills and recipes are something I’m having to relearn.  I’m a fairly experimental cook and having tried my hand at making cheese, chutney, jams, pickles it was only a matter of time before I needed to try something else new.  

In terms of resources I’ve found BrewToad useful for looking at other people’s recipes as well as the BrewMaster software for trying to make our own. I’ve listened to a few episodes of the Dr. Homebrew podcast and although it’s very US based (and I wish there was a UK version) I’ve learned a bit from there. The main resource has been my brewing partner Kev and just doing some kit beers, then experimenting with changing kits slightly, working hard to get the process right then moving up to doing Brew In A Bag. It’s an exciting hobby to have started and I personally feel like this is something I’ll be perfecting for the rest of my life!

[and a few words from Kevin]  In terms of anything additional/extra [to Jono’s words], I guess I have a bit more of a ‘beer geek’ background than Jono and there’s definitely something aligned to that which is really appealing.  Children, wife on maternity leave, etc. has severely curtailed my previous beer spend and the potential for making cheap(ish), quality house beers is a big, big incentive.  I also have pretty arbitrary, self-imposed price limits just now (no more than £3 on a 330ml bottle and £5 on a 500ml… devastating huh?!) which mean that some of my favourite beers (strong ales, imperial stouts, barley wines) are borderline inaccessible.  Not wanting to walk before we can run, but I hope to build up towards being able to make my own versions of these big beers one day.

Building up, or the urge to escalate, is something that I’m already finding is a massive and almost irresistible urge.  I’m already seeing that there’s something really compulsive about this homebrewing lark.  Whether it’s around quality, ingredients, batch size, brew day frequency or equipment, the desire to scale up appears to be a strong one.  (In other words, popping a Cooper’s kit brew on just doesn’t quite cut it anymore!).  I’m still committed to trying to brew quality, inexpensive beers for my own drinking, but can see that keeping things simple won’t be easy and certainly won’t be every time.

Oh and sharing!  Sharing and giving away beers you’ve made yourself is a great feeling.  I reckon it’ll be an even greater feeling as the beer continues to improve over time.

The final comment I thought it was worth making is how welcoming, supportive, generous and helpful I’ve found the hom brewing scene to be.  Whether through Twitter, or the monthly club run at Brewstore (our ‘LHBS’), people have been nothing but inclusive and giving of their time, knowledge and expertise.  My early impressions are of it being a genuine community which is a really positive and open place.  It seems, with a bit of investment of time and energy, anyone can begin to feel part of that community very quickly”.

London Amateur Brewers – Peter Hughes is the LAB Chairman

You’d be right about the growth of home brewing in the UK. We’ve experienced huge growth in the last few years. When I joined LAB in 2009 we were a small group of about 15 people who would meet in a small upstairs room at the Wenlock Arms.  Since then we have seen a lot of new members come into the hobby and we now have 40 – 50 members regularly attending meetings at our current and larger home, The Draft House (Tower Bridge).  We’ve also seen some of our members move into pro brewing, some starting their own breweries and some getting jobs as brewers.  LAB has also been lucky enough to participate in and contribute to important brewing trials, most recently trialling experimental hops given to us by Dr Peter Darby at Wye Hops. I think what’s significant is home brewing’s contribution to the new wave of modern brewers starting up in this country.  The Kernel & Weird Beard were born out of LAB and some of the other exciting London brewers made their start as home brewers too”. [Peter also referenced an article written by Mark Dredge, for Zymurgy Magazine about the link between London's Pro and Amateur brewers – most definitely worth a read, and is an article that I have referenced before].

Manchester Homebrew Group’s – Ed Grimley

“Much like craft brewing, the home brewing scene has exploded in recent times. The number of people taking up brewing at home is astounding and incredibly exciting to see. New people turn up every month to our meetings who have taken the jump into all-grain home brewing and are very keen to learn more. Home brew clubs are popping up all over the country: the number of people willing to share hints and tips is endless, everyone is so happy to help one another out.

We’ve held tasting competitions and there have been some real crackers, I’m always surprised by the originality and creativeness of home brewers. You have anything and everything your imagination can think of to play with, and no commercial issues that naturally hang over professional breweries.  I’ve seen all kinds of beers: from strange flavour combinations to downright crazy ideas! It’s impressive and exciting to see what people can come up with.

I have rarely sampled a ‘bad’ home brewed beer.  Gone are the days of home brewing meaning cheap and disgusting brown beers, it’s now about a real craft and passion to create a beer just as good as one you’d drink in a pub or bar. Here’s to the future!” 

Last, but not least, Andy Parker – Award winning homebrewer, most recently crowned Craft Beer Co. UK Homebrew Champion; and aspiring Pro-Brewer with Elusive Brew Co.

If attendance at the London Amateur Brewer meetings are anything to go by, then home brewing definitely increased in popularity in 2013, perhaps reflecting the resurgence in commercial brewing. Some people brew at home to save money but others have designs on brewing commercially. I think the bulk of home brewers fall somewhere in between however, wanting to brew quality beer purely as a hobby with less of a focus on cost and more on producing the best quality they can. That’s what drove me to start brewing at home – a desire to recreate the commercial beers I enjoyed but couldn’t always get hold of.  It was once I started blogging and tweeting my experiences that I really started to learn.  

The feedback and engagement I got from fellow home brewers and professional brewers really helped me improve my process and the results got better and better, which drew me further in and encouraged me even more.  The online engagement soon spilled over into real life and I’ve met and am now friends with many other brewers”.

(Update: 19/03/14) Darren Shaw, homebrewer and blogger of homebrew at Urban Chicken Homebrew.

” ‘It’s the most expensive way to save money on beer’ – a statement I read last year and it’s certainly true.  Homebrewing is no longer about buckets of brown beer in airing cupboards and creating cheap pints of ‘the strong stuff’, people are brewing to specific styles and taking pride in what’s being created.  The art and craft of homebrewing is emerging, rather than it’s sole purpose being to create a budget beer.  However, on basic, homemade kit, great beer can be brewed.

My enthusiasm for brewing stems from an interest in the technical side, and the creative aspect including producing the artwork for my labels.  All aspects of homebrewing can be aided by really good online brewing communities (Twitter, YouTube, forums etc.), with people always willing to share information and ideas.  Beer swaps – not many people live next door to a fellow homebrewer – provide a good way to get feedback and sample the creations of others around the UK.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to get involved with two local breweries; The White Dog Brewery as part of a CAMRA ‘brew off’ and Muirhouse Brewery to create a collaboration brew (Dumb Cluck, a 5% Stout brewed with Cascade) which went to the Robin Hood beer festival in Nottingham, The Brewery Tap micro pub in my home town of Ilkeston and a few other pubs around the area.

This year I intend to increase brew lengths after the process of upgrading my kit but in the mean time a converted cool box and a plastic boiler are doing the job just fine!

I can see the scene continuing to grow in 2014 with even more people getting involved with the addictive hobby that is homebrewing”.

 

As this is already a long article, I won’t say much more, but I would like to thank all of the contributors.  I felt I could have asked so many more people, and would still have gained additional insights into the current homebrewing scene.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment.

5 thoughts on “Homebrewing in the UK (2013/14)

  1. Really interesting post (I skipped my bit!), thanks for pulling it all together. Lots to think about there and great to hear about the issue from a range of different perspectives.

  2. A superb post that sums it up for me. I’m only on my 5th all grain brew (with my brew buddy) but I can see 2014 being really exciting for Home Brewers. I’ve been on twitter since 2008, but I can honestly say I’ve had the best recent six months of conversation just from adding a load of super friendly and helpful home brew enthusiasts!

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