A home brewed revolution
Is home brewing still a ticket to fans and fortune?
Saturday 02 July 2022
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Kelham Island, Cheshire Brewhouse, Swan’s Brewery… Just three examples of the several British breweries which closed their doors permanently in the spring of 2022.
Looking at the state of the beer industry, it’s genuinely pretty bleak out there, with rising costs and diminishing returns for producers attempting to make an honest living. A life making and selling beer is not a simple one at the moment, but one people persist with, because at its core, beer is a delicious thing that brings many of us great joy.
And you’ve got to have hope, which in these turbulent times is worth grabbing onto wherever you find it. When it comes to beer, “hope” can be as simple as a great pint of bitter down the local, sharing a nice bottle of gueuze you’ve been saving for whenever with some good friends, or a cold pint of lager on a brilliantly sunny day.
Or perhaps that lingering sense of optimism is not found in a pub, or bottle shop, but in your own kitchen at the end of a mash paddle, or a MacGyver-ed together sparge arm. I’m talking, of course, about homebrewing, a passtime that’s been popular in the UK since germinated grains were soaked with warm water, and—thanks to lockdown causing a surge in hobby activity over the past couple of years—is now arguably more popular than ever before.
Homebrewing has also birthed some of the most exciting breweries to have opened in the UK over the past decade. Take a look at Berkshire’s Elusive, or London’s Pressure Drop as just a couple of examples; from simple origins these are nationally renowned, deservedly award-winning modern breweries.
It’s in my own search for hope that I’ve turned my attention to homebrewing—not in the literal sense (I prefer to leave beer making to people who are actually good at it) but at the wealth of talent up and down the kitchens, and garden sheds of the land.
Could it be that these humble abodes are home to the next generation of UK breweries?
“Given the remarkable access to equipment, ingredients and knowledge homebrewers have now there's absolutely no reason why they shouldn't be able to produce professional [quality] beer,” beer writer and host of the Craft Beer Channel Jonny Garrett tells me.
Founded in 2012 by Garrett and friend Brad Evans, the YouTube channel has since become an increasingly popular go-to source of entertainment for beer lovers, with its videos ranging from travelogues, to exploring beer faults, different styles, and everything else in between. However, as with all of us, lockdown meant that the Craft Beer Channel could no longer travel to, and share experiences of wondrous beer destinations like they had in years past. But that wasn’t all Garrett was pining for during those challenging months…
“I was so desperate for a pint of cask ale that I decided to brew a Best Bitter and serve it on handpull at home,” he says. “The response to the video was unlike anything we'd ever made, not so much the views but the enthusiasm and emotional connection from those who watched.”
Garrett was one of many who decided to turn their hands to homebrewing as a way of keeping themselves busy during the pandemic. Northern Ireland-based beer ingredient supplier Get ’Er Brewed services homebrewers and professionals alike, but during lockdown demand from hobbyists surged, as co-owner Jonathan Mitchell tells me.
The response to the video was unlike anything we'd ever made
“The uptake in demand has been enormous since Covid hit, we measured it as a five fold increase. The demand for quality ingredients has been driven by brewers at home wanting to brew the same, or better, than they can buy commercially, [and] home brewers want access to the same quality ingredients the professional brewers are using,” he says.
Since broadcasting his first brew day, where Garrett attempted (highly successfully I might add) to recreate the lush Five Points Best Bitter, The Craft Beer Channel has invested heavily in its homebrewing content, reflecting the demand from its audience. He’s now built “The Brew Studio” in his back garden, where they now produce regular, insightful, candid videos about the homebrewing process. They’ve also collaborated with several breweries, from the aforementioned Five Points, through to the illustrious Russian River, of Santa Rosa, California. With viewing numbers typically in excess of five-figures, the popularity of this content—and homebrewing in general—is plainly evident.
“We were surprised by how invested people were in the stories,” Garrett says. “There's a lot of homebrew content out there already, but few of them show any personal challenges or development. We wanted to show as much of the genuine homebrewing journey as possible.
On a recent stop in one of my favourite beer establishments, South Manchester’s Station Hop, I was invited to sit down and join in with the monthly meeting of the local homebrew club. Established in 2017 by Amanda Finch and her partner Chris Buxton, the bar has become a go-to for folks seeing some of the freshest, and most exciting local beers, as well as plenty of interesting stuff from further afield. It’s fair to say I’m used to getting a tasty pint or two here, but I had no idea what to expect from this eager group of homebrewers, or a clue as to what they’d actually been brewing. Was I about to be bombarded with a range of homemade pastry stouts, and beetroot saisons?
There needn’t have been any trepidation, as what the group had largely been attempting was their own, dialled in versions of classic styles, including Hefeweizen, and Bock. Not only that, but the quality was impressive to the point that I would have happily paid good money for several of the beers I was tasting.
“The main thing I've noticed since starting the club is how much the members have benefitted from attending the meetups and chatting on our Whatsapp group, all learning from each other,’ Buxton tells me. “The standard, in comparison to now, was pretty low to begin with. Seeing the improvement of each homebrewer has been the best part of it.”
One thing the members of this group have in common is that, by-and-large, they seem pretty content to keep it as a hobby. Although one, Dave Foulger, set up Ventile Brew Co. in the nearby suburb of Reddish in early 2020. Another keen Manchester homebrewer who recently decided to take his aspirations out of the kitchen and into a commercial setting is Simon Goodier, who along with friend Ali Combes founded Steelfish Brewing Co, which jumped the shark from hobbyism to professionalism in March 2021.
“I don't think there's anyone out there who, passionate about a particular hobby or pastime, hasn't had the thought or a conversation about trying it out commercially or professionally,” Goodier tells me. “In the case of a homebrewer I guess the initial question is ‘can I sell my beer ?’ This is the question we asked ourselves over a beer on a park bench during the height of the COVID pandemic and national restrictions.”
Combes and Goodier had been homebrewing for several years and met while attending the Chorlton Homebrew Club, also in South Manchester. Both of them have seen success in regional homebrew competitions, and have had the opportunity to muck in on brew days at commercial breweries.
They began brewing professionally in early 2021 using the 100 litre kit at Beer Nouveau, based on the Aptly Temperance Street, to the south of Manchester Piccadilly station. Brewing happened weekly, and soon they’d concocted around 21 different beers, over 33 brew days, and although some went into small pack, the majority went into cask and keg and was supplied to local bars, including Port Street Beer House in the Northern Quarter, and Reasons to be Cheerful in the South Manchester suburb of Burnage. They’ve since moved their itinerant operation to Ventile, where the equipment is around three times the size. According to Goodier about 80% of their output goes into cask, while the other 20% is destined for keg.
“At the time we heard comments referring to us as 'Manchester's smallest cask forward brewery' which I'm not sure we ever got truly validated. However it was a casual title we were quite proud of,” Goodier says. Steelfish is now one of several new breweries in the North West to have been born out of a passion for homebrewing, including Sup North Brew Co, Libatory Brewing, and the aforementioned Ventile. Evidence, perhaps, that despite the number of pressures and closures the industry is experiencing, it's not dampening folks’ ambitions to take their brewing hobby to the next logical step.
“The homebrew community here in Manchester is not only very supportive but also a deep and eclectic source of reference and inspiration,” he adds. “I would recommend anyone new to homebrewing or who has been brewing for years to find out when their local club meets and pay them a visit.”
One way in which homebrewers are able to establish themselves and potentially make that leap to professional brewing is through competitions. Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing is a great example, who after winning the National Homebrew Competition held by pub chain The Craft Beer Co. in 2014, was given the chance to brew one of his recipes commercially with Sussex’s Dark Star Brewing. Elusive, which still brews on a modestly sized five-barrel kit, is now widely regarded as one of the best small breweries in the UK, and is about to celebrate its sixth birthday. An example if ever there was one, that there is still room in the British brewing industry for those with good ideas and great recipes.
Emma Victory and Chris Taylor are both keen and talented homebrewers, and have been brewing for over a decade—Taylor also brewed professionally for a stint at Weird Beard Brew Co. when it was based in West London. While the pair aren’t harbouring desires to launch a commercial brewery of their own, they have invested a lot of their free time judging at homebrewing competitions, giving them a broad view of the range of undiscovered brewing talent out there in the UK.
They both reiterate what Goodier told me about how supportive the homebrewing community is, and namecheck folks like Simon Pipola, who founded the BrewCon homebrewing convention. They also give a shout out to retailer The Malt Miller (especially as they have worked to downsize the volumes you can buy ingredients like malt in, meaning brewers don’t need to find space for various 5kg sacks of speciality grains in your pantry.)
But they are wary of giving advice to people inspired to turn pro. It’s an increasingly difficult market after all, and perhaps more challenging for newcomers than it has been for the past two decades.
Not everyone wants to break into the brewing industry to be a millionaire
“If you’re thinking of starting a brewery you’re going to be competing with the likes of Lost and Grounded and Burning Sky, who have way more experience and skill and are much more likely to get the capital investment to back their business,” Victory says. “Many breweries are having a hard time and/or going out of business. It's a crowded field and you’ll struggle to stand out. Not saying we will never see another Elusive Brewing. But the lie of the land is quite different now.”
However, the evidence suggests that despite these challenges, people aren’t being swayed from pursuing their dream. Not everyone wants to break into the brewing industry to be a millionaire either—for most it's a lifestyle choice, which, despite its inherent challenges, remains appealing. And let's not forget that one of the well regarded small breweries in the UK, The Kernel, originally came from a homebrewing background. Because of this, it still feels to me like there’s an awful lot of untapped potential out there.
“With the scene at its biggest and most talented, I think there are definitely some new breweries incubating,” The Craft Beer Channel’s Jonny Garrett says. “Many of the breweries I consider the most interesting in the UK at the moment are owned by former homebrewers, because to be a homebrewer you have to be curious and excited by process. If the craft beer scene needs anything, it's fresh and inclusive ideas about beer.”
Cover photo: BrewCon | Header photo: Craft Beer Channel
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