How Britain became hooked on homebrew
With more home brewing kits flying off the shelves than ever before, we ask why the ‘brew it yourself’ revolution has taken British drinkers by storm.
Each week in Britain, an average of 20 pubs shut their doors. In a world of post-recession austerity, many clearly believe that beer has become a luxury that is too expensive to justify in their daily lives. However, the home-brewed beer industry is fizzing in popularity, and with new kits being released every week, the demand for this home-based activity shows no signs of going flat.
Home brewing beer is an age-old tradition. Ales were brewed at home well before the dawn of the Great British Pub, and it is a practice that will inevitably prevail long after every one of our remaining 48,000 locals call last orders for a final time. But why has this ancient homespun industry seen such a renaissance in recent years, and can home-brew ever taste as good as the casked ales and barrelled beers of our boozers?
To those uninitiated in the art of home brewing, thoughts of cloudy brown slurry probably spring to mind – crusty demijohns and old bathtubs in basements holding barely potable swill. But, in reality, the home brewing business has been refined of late, and now sells itself on simplicity, with the kits becoming increasingly easier to use.
Historically, the biggest booms in Britain’s home-brew market have come during post-war decades. Individuals nationwide were financially forced to produce their own wine, cider and beer – and the first home-brew kits meant they could do this at a fraction of the price of pints in the pub. That these cheap alternative tipples not only made economic sense but were also simple to make meant that they were adopted by drinkers the length and breadth of the land. And so, up until the late seventies – the age of Tom and Barbara Good’s infamous ‘peapod wine’ – self-sufficiency in the alcohol department was all the rage.
However, the closing decades of the 20th Century bore witness to the rise of the supermarket bargain multipack and the low-cost pub chain. As a result, Britons’ collective desire to ‘brew it yourself’ diminished; during the eighties, nineties and noughties, home-brew was largely left to the mercy of sandal-wearing, organic-eating enthusiasts (hemp ale, anyone?).
But our latest economic downturn seems to have rekindled Britain’s obsession with home brewing beer. There was an overwhelming increase of interest in the home-brew sector back in 2009, and the market has been expanding ever since. Andy Janes, the Marketing Manager of industry giant Muntons Homebrewing, reports a threefold increase in beer kit sales since 2008.
“It was the recession and the credit crunch,” explains Janes. “People were faced with one of three choices. Either drink less, choose a cheaper alternative, or make it yourself. And they picked the last option – we’ve trebled in size over the last six or seven years.”
New drinkers too are learning the craft of brewing; the growing range of kits and refinement of brewing techniques have introduced a whole new generation to this homespun science. University student Declan Hague says “the main reason I decided to brew my own beer was for the experience. There’s something quite satisfying about experimenting with different flavours in order to perfect your very own beer.”
“You’re never going to achieve the quality of a premium ale,” he continues, “but rather than detracting from the experience, I feel as though that’s part of the appeal – at the end of the day it’s a labour of love. And, of course, there’s no other beer in the world like it, so turn up to a party with a bottle of homebrew in hand and it’ll never fail to go down a treat!”
Nick Moyle, industry expert and co-author of new home-brew bible Brew it Yourself, believes that the increased money being pumped into the market has allowed companies to refine home-brew kits to such an extent that the beer being produced is almost professional-grade. “Back in the day, the range you used to be able to buy from Boots was rather limited,” says Moyle. “You’d get your brown ales, your bitters and maybe the odd stout, but these days there’s tons more choice”.
Moyle, who co-wrote his new book with craft brewer Richard Hood, equates Britain’s newfound love of home brewing with other homespun fads, most notably the ever-rising baking craze. “There has definitely been a revival in craft industry of late. I mean you only have to look at the success of The Great British Bake Off to see that we’re harking back to those vintage days of self-sufficiency. The vintage mindset is very appealing these days”.
The brewer is right. As crazes in fashion and décor increasingly echo past decades, and the words ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ act as go-to selling points for products, surely it makes sense that these largely days-gone-by practices have once again pervaded our everyday lives. Britain has seen an estimated 33pc rise in home bakers since the economic downturn, and the home-brew sector is enjoying similar growth.
In this freshly-brewed new Britain, fermenting nicely in a mix of exciting and pioneering beers, fewer people are reaching for a can of Carling Black Label when kits for everything from Strawberry Pale Ale to Dark Chocolate Stout are on the market. And that’s just the pre-mixed, ready-to-brew kits. The more ambitious brewers are freely experimenting amongst themselves, concocting brews with flavours that would never be considered by even the smallest of commercial breweries.
Nick Moyle and Richard Hood’s Brew it Yourself includes instructions for brewing pumpkin ale and liquorice stout; eccentric recipes showing a public shift towards more challenging and exciting flavours.
Described as a “creative industry” and “almost an art” by Moyle, home brewing has transcended its penny-pinching origins. “You don’t necessarily want consistency when it comes to home brewing, you just want something that’s unique, that’s your own. So there’s no point getting overstressed striving for top brewers’ quality. It’ll taste better than what comes out of a can because you made it yourself”.
So, although the worrying rate of pub closures hints at the end of a British obsession with ale, the home-brew boom tells a very different story. With prices as low as 50p a pint, and the added incentives of both ‘I brewed that!’ pride and flavour customisation, home brewing is a phenomenon that very much appeals to the financially astute part of our brains but also our increasingly more diverse, alternative and creative culture.