There are certain things every young man should have achieved by the time they are 30, various research on the Internet and suggestions from friends revealed some interesting goals:
- Spend a night in a police cell
- Lick the terminals of a 9v battery
- Make a million pounds
- Do something illegal
- Use a whole roll of gaffer tape in a day
- Poo outdoors
- Kill your own food
- Appear on TV
- Jump out of an aeroplane (with parachute)
- Running with the bulls in Pampalona
- Make money on the stock market
- Stop saying “I want to be a…” and start saying “I am a…”
- Learn to surf
- Lose a week’s salary in a casino
- Hotwire a car
- Write a novel
- Live on a desert island for a month
- Drive across a country
Some of these I can happily say I have achieved, others I have little or no interest in. I think we all have our own personal goals as to what we wish to achieve by 30 and one of mine was to make my own booze.
My family has, both past and present, quite an affiliation with Alcohol. My father used to make all manner of brews when I was a child and to this day I believe he has perfected his winemaking skills (still waiting for the recipe!). My Brother works in the drinks industry in conjuction with some of the top brands. His company, Bamboo (http://www.eventmixology.com) has done extremely well in the UK and is now taking the USA by storm.
So I felt that it was my time to get involved, I would stop being a consumer and switch to producer. How hard can it be? Harder than I thought, making your first brew is quite a struggle, rather like those first few tentative metres on a bike with the stabilisers removed. Once you have the basic understanding of the principles of beer production and have your first batch done, confidence is boosted and you feel you are ready to tackle the next challenge…cider, mead or wine. The most satisfying thing about beer compared to the others is that you don’t have to wait long to sample it: a month tops!
Beer is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in the world dating back as far as the 6th millennium BC, it appeared in Europe around 300 BC amongst the Celtic and Gaelic tribes. Traditionally beer is made from, as many of you will know, Malted grain (starch), hops (flavour) and yeast.
First the grain is malted by being soaked in water (called Wort), which starts germination, malting grain produces enzymes that convert starches in the grain into fermentable sugars. Hops are then added to the Wort, the bitterness of hops balances the sweetness of the malt and produces flavour and aroma (citrus/herbal/floral) depending on hop type, as well as this, the citric acid found in hops acts as a preservative agent.
The yeast is then added to the hop-flavoured Wort. The yeast metabolises with the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide, yeast also contributes to character and flavour. Before the beer is barrelled, finings are usually added which clears the beer so it doesn’t have a cloudy appearance. Finings are often made from seaweeds rich in gelatin (caragheen) and even isinglass (found in the swim bladders of fish).
Now it was simply a waiting game, once my delightful Sussex hops were ready I could commence with my first steps into the world of brewing. It turned out September 20th was the day on which my hops were harvested, my brother and I went down to Sussex and stripped the hops straight off and into a string bag for drying.
The first thing I noticed when picking them was just how sticky they were, the hops seemed to exude what looked like pollen in the clefts between the hop’s ‘petals’. It did not surprise me to find out that hops are part of the Cannabinaceae family, that’s cannabis to you and me. In its early stages, individual budding hops have fine white hairs, indicating it is female, these eventually turn brown, in much the same way as cannabis buds. The leaves also bear a resemblance to cannabis leaves.
Many people often dabble with the hop’s more notorious cousin during their university career. Mine was no different, due to the market prices of cannabis being at a premium, my friends and I took it a step further after a lost weekend in Amsterdam. We returned with a packet of ‘Big Bud’ seeds and a book that touted itself as the ‘indoor grower’s bible’. The set-design company I worked for kindly (and unknowingly) donated a high-powered flood light, the university art department provided sheets of white card and my desktop fan came in fairly useful along with a timer switch. After much deliberation, soil types, light cycles and methods of making our plants female (turns out a bit of nitrogen and blue light is the way forward), we made the perfect little home in an upstairs cupboard for two plants. 4 months later, the fruits of our labour were cut, dried and consumed. It turned out we had done a very good job, I suppose this was the ‘something illegal’ tick on the things-to-do-before-your-30 list!
Back to more legitimate activities, I now had everything to make my homebrew. I wont go through a detailed process of how the basic kit works except to show the differences. This kit doesn’t involve making a wort or adding hops. A large tin containing a pungent treacle-like substance is warmed and poured into the well sterilised 5 gallon bucket. Add 6 pints of boiling water, 1kg of glucose powder and give it a good stir. Top up with cold water, stir again, add a water treatment tablet, place on the lid and leave for 4-7 days at 18-21C.
Obviously with a first attempt, things don’t always go to plan. Firstly, I had no hydrometer to take a reading of the sugar content at the beginning, if I had then I would be able to work out the beer’s alcohol percentage when fermentation was over. Secondly, our cellar is a consistent temperature, a colder one than what it should have been…the beer took about 14 days to finish fermenting. I had visions of a beer being produced that tasted like the devil’s urine after a bender on absinthe, but you learn from your mistakes…
After a unusually long fermentation period, it was time to put my hop harvest to good use. But how? It turns out once fermentation has taken place, the beer is much more stable and unlikely to be spoiled by any bacteria present in the hops.
Adding hops after fermentation is known as “dry-hopping” and has some interesting benefits. By not boiling the hops, they don’t impart any bitterness yet they do contribute floral, fruity essence to your beer and a more intense ‘hoppy’ flavour. Such commercial breweries that apply dry-hopping to their beers include Youngs, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and IPA.
Two days of soaking my hops in the beer with finings (to clear the brew) and I was ready to begin bottling. I bought 25 PET plastic bottles (basically a Schweppes Tonic water bottle) from the same website the rest of my kit came from. I would have preferred glass bottles, next time I think I might buy a couple of crates of the Grolsch pop-cap beers, have a party and save the bottles. Each of my bottles held about 2 pints, to each bottle 1 teaspoon of sugar was added, the beer was siphoned in, sealed and left in a warm place for 2-3 days and a further 14 in a cool place (the cellar). I must point out it is crucial before bottling to make sure the beer HAS finished fermenting, 3 days of consecutive readings with a hydrometer (at less than1008) will confirm it has, otherwise your bottled beer will turn into mini timebombs capable of soaking anything in close proximity.
The moment of truth.
In much the same way the first joint was rolled from our University harvest 10 years ago, I poured out my first glass of Homebrew. It had cleared up nicely and certainly smelt like a good bitter. The first taste was quite strong, very hoppy with wonderful floral tones, the harvest had done good! The second taste was certainly much better than the first, pretty soon the glass was empty, so I poured another and another two after that. Four pints later, my mild daze was evidence enough to convince me my beer had an adequate percentage, not rocket fuel, but quite potent (5%?) all the same.
I was overjoyed that my first brew was actually very drinkable and didn’t cause any stomach issues as some dodgy pints sometimes do. I have learned a hell of a lot about how to make beer, but I feel I have only just brushed the surface. An art that has been changing and developing over thousands of years is going to take years if not decades to fully understand on an unprofessional level. Am I going to buy a micro-brewery and take it to a professional level like Mr Morrissey and Mr Fox? No, best of luck to them though! I am content to continue making my own out of a big 5 gallon bucket! Keeping it simple and playing around with different ingredients is an extension of my cooking, I want to move onto some wild ingredients and possibly make beer the traditional way.
When it comes to naming a homebrew, I think provenance should take centre stage, Ardingly ale didn’t sound too inspiring to me, so in the tradition of some of the West country cider brands, Weston’s Hopping Mad was born!
This was probably the best £30 I have ever spent, with superb results. With winter closing in, the festive season approaching and the media constantly reminding us we are in recession and suffering a credit crunch, I can tell you exactly which my next £30 will be heading…oh and I may have forgotten to mention that 5 gallons is about 40 pints!