Make do and brew

Tackling lockdown boredom with homebrewing.


For many, the biggest danger posed by lockdown has been boredom; and we’re past the panic buying of pasta and bog roll, our own personal stockpiles as big as the mountains at the entrance of every supermarket. Now the panic has passed, we’re picking-up something far more useful: self-sufficiency, baking bread and brewing our own beer.

Until the late 19th century, homebrewing was commonplace across the UK, but a law passed in 1880 imposed a tax on all beer and required you to have a license to brew at home. The law was abolished in 1963, at which time there were fewer than 300 licensed homebrewers. By 1978, with the restriction lifted, that number exploded to an estimated two million.

The 1970s was a heyday for our make-do-and-mender, partly due to the government increasing beer duty and your pint of homebrew costing about a sixth of what it would down your local pub. The boom of the hobbyist was short-lived and, by the late 80s, the market all but collapsed. The only thing left of that era was the memory of beer, ranging in quality from almost palatable to downright nasty, and you were doing well to avoid any ill effects or a life-evaluating hangover. 

The global financial crisis of 2007 was the catalyst that once again fired the appeal for cheap beer. Where disposable incomes shrank, the desire for imported and interesting styles stayed the same, so the hobbyist experimented with Belgian styles, and drew inspiration from the likes of Sierra Nevada and Stone who accelerated the US craft beer revolution.

In recent years a number of things have had a positive impact on homebrewing: education, access to professional standard materials, and competitions. Competitions took the hit first, with all major events for 2020 being cancelled, but it’s the strong community that will see it through lockdown and beyond. 

Homebrewing is no longer a solitary hobby and is much more community driven. Sarah Pantry, who organises the Welsh National Homebrew Competition, reminds us that it’s the flexibility to experiment and enjoy the process: 

“Homebrewers are looking to get more involved with each other at events and homebrew clubs, brew together in person or during the current lockdown situation, virtually brew together in livestreams and online groups,” she says. “There seems to be a burning desire to share what people have made with others and look to share advice and knowledge.”

The logistics of coordinating thousands of bottles to a single location is a challenge at the best of times, so Sarah has already set her mind to finding a solution to the current problem:

“In place of competitions for this year, I’ve set up where we will pair up some homebrewers with experienced judges so they can get some qualified feedback on their beer to help them improve it ready for when competitions do return. I do not doubt that next year we will see people even more eager to enter competitions when they do start back up.”

Next year we will see people even more eager to enter competitions when they do start back up

Chris Tazewell is Sarah’s counterpart, and organiser of the UK National Homebrew Competition, which took place in February. However, the competitions have been crucial in helping to create the community that won’t see them down for a moment longer than necessary, because they’re not just about scoring. Chris and his judges do what they can to help the brewers improve:

“People can actually get proper feedback, not only the feedback of what’s wrong but suggestions as to why they’re getting a particular flaw, and suddenly people start making better beer because they learn what’s going on in terms of the chemistry,” he says.

“That’s one of the things we do with the competition, we give feedback in a very constructive way, we’re not just saying this is terrible; if it is terrible, you have to say it diplomatically, but you’ve got to say these are the problems with this beer, this is where something has gone wrong and this is what you’ve got to look at. Social media has made things a lot easier because a lot more people are using forums and things so they can actually feed into it.”

Darren Oakley is the Chairman of the London Amateur Brewers, and he says that adopting technology for meetings has been hugely beneficial, and even when face-to-face meetings are possible, will be a part of the club’s future:

“Recently the Zoom meetings have worked really well. Traditionally we meet in Bermondsey in London and the venues are brilliant but they’re not great for giving presentations, they’re always noisy, always crowded. Whereas in Zoom you are literally sat in your home, you’ve got it on the screen in front of you, you can hear everything. 

“It doesn’t take away from the good parts of meeting in person where you can discuss faults, because that is a big part of what the club is about, helping each other improve their beers and their techniques. We’re definitely going to continue the online stuff after we can meet in person as well because we do have a few members dotted around the country, some abroad as well.”

The connection that technology brings has helped members of other clubs meet where they might never have done before. The Scottish Craft Brewers have members all over the country. According to Vice President Malcolm Cruickshank the new way of living for now has benefits:

“The one thing that’s positive is that we’ve had a few folk we’d never normally get to a meeting because they don’t live in Edinburgh or whatever, so we’ve had folk from different parts of the country that have managed to join in. We’ve got members in Shetland down to the Borders, so to be able to contact them, keep in touch with them, and actually speak to them and be a club we’ve got the digital aspects we had already but now finding ourselves better at it.”

In the 1970s home brewing was partly financial necessity and a substitute for going to the pub, but today it’s all hobby and striving to brew the best possible beer.

Even the brew shops have not been spared from the stockpiling frenzy.

Martin Rake, normally the General Manager at The Malt Miller in Swindon (job titles are on hold as all are mucking in with milling, picking and packing), says they’ve had a massive increase in the number and size of orders since lockdown with a 78% jump in new customers and nearly 50% more orders between 23 March and 11 May.

Initially they suspended order placement for six days to catch up with the influx, and are now back on track, and like many other shops have had to put restrictions on ordering of supplies like malt - that take time to prepare and pack - to set times each day.

“Some suppliers have like us risen to the challenge and made adjustments, lots of them have been amazing helping us to manage the increase in demand and we’ve managed to keep most in demand products in stock for our customers. We have however had to adapt and restrict the sale of certain items that have more involvement from ourselves to produce and finish these as we can only process so many items per day whilst keeping our staff safe.”

Business planning has been key to meeting customer needs. While weekly imports of fresh yeast from the US have continued without complication, they have had to adapt, partly due to the global pandemic but also due to Brexit on the horizon.

“There have been a few products that we had supply issues with, those from Italy were impacted for a few weeks but supply has resumed as they move out of lockdown. Importing from the Far East had some delays which was understandable but it only added a few days to those shipments. 

“The cost of freight has increased, especially air freight, so some items we would fly over from the US or from the Far East, this at the moment is cost prohibitive to do so we’re having to plan further and order more in advance to get them on the slower routes. And of course currency fluctuations, but thats something we’ve learnt to deal with whilst trading through the uncertainty that Brexit brought. This is something many companies in many sectors will be experiencing and it's just a challenge we have to work within.”

Like in the 1970s and the rising taxes, so the financial crisis of 2007 turned a hobby into necessity. But today there is a difference. 

Gone are the days of homebrewing as a way to have a cheap drink.

Gone are the days of homebrewing as a way to have a cheap drink. Now you have access to equipment and ingredients on a par with professional breweries.

Passion, community and that “burning desire”. Despite so much uncertainty the community of brewers, suppliers and the clubs are taking the challenge in their stride as it all boils down to their shared love. It’s tinkering with a few key ingredients, like a musical instrument - Django’s guitar, or Miles’ trumpet - simple tools of the trade but so unique in another’s hand. 

It’s a community of geeks who look after each other and that tinkering spirit - the equivalent of nipping out to the shed, up to loft or just commandeering the kitchen table - knocking together a solution to the problem is what they do, and that’s the bright future of homebrewing.

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