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 - 1960 "1962 Brewers' Almanack", page 67.|
|1961 - 1969 "1971 Brewers' Almanack", page 64.|