Monday 17 April 2023

Looking back (part eleven): home brewing

Home brewing was very big in the 1970s. Not because drinkers wanted to recreate exotic brews they'd tried on their travels, No. The reason was much more prosaic. Price. People just wanted cheap beer.

Despite what some might tell you, home brewing was never illegal in the UK. It just required a licence. It was pretty easy to avoid paying for a licence, if you put in a bit of effort. But, even as late as 1960, over 1,000 such licences were issued. In 1963 such licences were abolished, meaning home brewers no longer technically needed to buy a brewing licence.

"Until 1963 there were two kinds of brewers’ licences: that for a Brewer-for-Sale and that for Brewers other than Brewers-for-Sale, e.g., farmers brewing for their own and their employees’ consumption. The latter were abolished (with some small exceptions) in 1963."
"1971 Brewers' Almanack", page 64.

Of course, home brewers were included in this group, too. In some parts of the UK, notably the West Midlands, home brewing remained popular well into the 20th century. I wonder how many farmer were still brewing for their own use in the 1960s? Do any still brew today? This was a very long tradition and, at the start of the 19th century, such domestic brewers accounted for a considerable percentage of beer brewed in the UK. Particularly in England.

Me and my brother started brewing around 1972. We kicked off in the classic way: buying Geordie beer kits from Boots. I'm not sure why, but Boots was the main source of home brewing ingredients and kit. Any decent-sized branch had a section dedicated to home brewing.

We shifted through the gears quite quickly. Moving from kits to buying malt extract, hops and grains to steep. But malt extract always leaves a strange tang. The best extract beers we brewed were Stouts where the roast from steeped grains covered up the funny taste.

Soon we moved up another level. One of the classic pieces of kit for early all-grain brewers was a burco boiler. Intended for washing clothes, it was easily converted to use as a mash tun. With a plastic dustbin as fermenter, we were fully kitted out.

Initially, we bottled everything. In the old returnable half-pint and pint bottles. Onto which we hammered crown corks. Quite a lot of work. We were always careful to ferment all the way out in primary, then add sugar to each bottle for secondary fermentation.

The range of ingredients available was pretty limited. It wasn't too mad with malt. You could get pale, crystal, chocolate and black malt. Hops were much worse. Mostly not sold by variety, but just as generic "hops". From what I can recall, they seemed to be, logically enough, English types. Probably mostly Fuggles or similar.

The yeast sold at Boots was similarly vague in origin. But there was a way of getting commercial yeast. The simplest to acquire was Guinness, as it was bottle-conditioned at the time. Just drink most of the bottle, then top up the dregs with malt extract or sugar and a little water. Stick some cotton wool in the neck and leave it in the airing cupboard for a few days. Hey presto, lovely yeast for pitching.

And Guinness yeast was really good. It was easy to get a started going and it fermented really well. One of the best yeasts I've ever used.

Another source of commercial yeast was cask beer. All you needed was a lemonade bottle and a funnel. Buy a pint of cask beer in the pub, decant it into the pop bottle. When you get home, add half a teaspoon of sugar and wait a couple of days. When a layer of yeast sediment had developed and the beer was carbonated, you could drink the beer and then make a yeast starter from the dregs.

After a while, we got hold of a five gallon cider barrel. Off-licences often used to sell draught cider back in those days, served from such a small plastic barrel. It made life much easier, doing away with all that bottling mess. Though you needed to drink the beer fairly quickly. A week to ten days was about the longest it would last.

I can remember having a barrel of Mild my brother brought up to Leeds towards the end of my first year at university. The very hot summer of 1976. We sat drinking glasses of iced Mild on the balcony of my student flat in North Hill Court.

We also took advantage of Newark being a brewing and malting town. My brother got hold of a sack of pale and a sack of mild malt from one of the maltsers. And from Courage we bought half a dozen wooden firkins at some ludicrously knock-down price.

We were all kitted up, finally. We just had to drink nine gallons in a week or so. Not such a problem, as we brewed session-strength beers, mostly. 

Brewing licences 1881 - 1969
Year ending 31st March Brewers for sale Other brewers - not for sale Total
No. Duty paid £
1881 16,798 16,798 71,876 88,674
1890 11,364 11,364 25,281 36,645
1900 6,447 6,447 12,734 19,181
1910 4,512 382,253 7,006 11,518
1920 2,914 226,745 2,999 5,913
1930 1,418 228,146 12,513 13,931
1932 1,286 205,291 11,139 12,425
1934 1,197 151,338 10,746 11,943
1935 1,144 161,461 10,170 11,314
1936 1,103 173,011 9,767 10,870
1937 1,027 177,319 8,345 9,372
1938 946 188,138 7,791 8,737
1939 885 194,751 7,081 7,966
1940 840 205,567 8,115 6,955
1941 810 198,952 5,349 6,159
1942 788 225,486 5,120 5,908
1943 757 237,040 4,234 4,991
1944 741 239,638 4,024 4,765
1945 703 249,637 3,734 4,437
1946 680 255,863 3,512 4,192
1947 648 248,690 3,224 3,872
1948 625 240,265 3,073 3,698
1949 602 229,913 2,998 3,600
1950 567 212,902 2,673 3,240
1951 539 201,909 2,406 2,945
1952 524 199,122 2,225 2,749
1953 501 199,893 2,015 2,516
1954 479 197,056 1,758 2,237
1955 460 192,395 1,523 1,983
1956 426 192,956 1,396 1,822
1957 416 192,387 1,412 1,828
1958 399 198,331 1,317 1,716
1959 378 191,053 1,189 1,567
1960 358 196,675 1,055 1,413
1961 336 208,378 1,029 1,365
1962 317 219,781 909 1,226
1963 304 218,711 901 1,205
1964 295 222,365 295
1965 274 232,469 274
1966 246 233,480 246
1967 243 237,954 243
1968 281 4,437 281
1969 210 3,321 210
1881 - 1960 "1962 Brewers' Almanack", page 67.
1961 - 1969 "1971 Brewers' Almanack", page 64.


Anonymous said...

My dad started home brewing in the early 80's when he was made redundant. Boots kit, plastic barrel. He liked their strong bitter kit which I recall brewed 10 pints less than their standard bitter kit, so possibly the same kit with different instructions! It was pretty good stuff, dark and malty with a south of England head. I was allowed at 11 or 12 to make up a bitter shandy but the amount of lemonade I used was sometimes suspect. My mum made wine at the same time, Boots kits, and it was awful. There were home brewing shops a plenty, all slightly hippy and Good Life in my memories.

Jerome said...

My mother's father was a home brewer. His father emigrated from West Prussia in the 1890s, and taught his son how to brew. My own father, who was used to only American light lagers, told me once that grandpa's beer was too malty, sour, and bitter. I would have loved to try a pint.

Anonymous said...

Try to track down H.L.Mencken's stories of home brewing during Prohibition. He was a big advocate of German-American beer and had some interesting descriptions of how he tried to get by during dry times.

arnie moodenbaugh said...

I brewed malt extract beer in the US from about 1972 to 1985. We initially had only one or two domestics available on the west coast that had a full flavor, so price wasn't the determining factor for us. We started brewing with the available British extracts (usually Munton and Fison, an exception was cheap Blue Ribbon dark from the supermarket), some malt grain for steeping, US compressed hops, and various dry yeasts. I had one advantage over you, having been given a cast iron gear-operated crown capper that my Grandfather had used for fruit wine during prohibition. Hammering resulted in broken bottles.
I agree with most your comments about the taste of extract beer, with a dark beer being better than pale or amber types. My homebrewing friends brewed very good grain-based beers by the early 80s, but I didn't upgrade my hobby.

Bribie G said...

I was a big home brewer in Cardiff in the early 1970s and there were a couple of proper home brew shops. Similarly my dad in Newcastle.

However before the advent of the Internet if you lived outside big cities in regional or rural areas you had poor access to equipment and supplies.

Tom Caxton became huge in the 70s and even had TV Ads "at 6d a pint you can afford to throw some parties". It's still around. I remember the kit of hopped wort would come with yeast and a big plastic bag that fitted into your plastic dustbin. Syphoning was the tricky part.

Considering the dire state of most keg beers and lagers it turned out very palatable indeed.

Later my local shop started stocking crushed pale malt, an improved range of yeasts such as EDME, and we started getting hops like Hallertau and Saaz, and together with Dave Line's "Big Book of Brewing" I bought an electric bruheat boiler, a picnic cooler as a mash tun and a couple of pressure barrels. That was in 1976. Sadly Dave died very young but he set many people down the rabbit hole where we brew today!!

Anonymous said...

My paternal grandfather homebrewed in the 1980’s here in Ireland.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post as always Ron my paternal grandfather here in Ireland homebrewed in the 1980’s though these days he has mostly moved onto wine except for the odd bottle of pale ale.
As for farmers brewing beers three of the breweries here in Ireland Heaney, Brehon Brewing and Ballykilcavan brewery are farm breweries all three do lovely stouts and red ales.