Brewing beer is great fun. Not only do you save a shedload of cash (can you say fifty pence a pint?) but once you’ve got the hang of things you can start experimenting…
I started brewing at university. Kind of an occupational hazard for a microbiology student. It’s practically homework, when you think about it. Made a few kits, then was given a book… We brewed a Christmas ale from first principles, left it in bottles for the best part of a year before opening it. Yowzah! The first year, it was strong. A lovely, rich, dark, liquoricey ale. Went down a treat. But it kept getting stronger! Second year in and you could have a pint of it at best before you started feeling sleepy. Third year and we were down to wine glasses. I left 4 bottles of it in the flat when we moved out.
Moved to Kent, found a good homebrew shop, started up again. Had to throw away the first 40 pints of cider – Kent water is not good for brewing, especially not the area we were in. Lesson learned, next round we bought a load of water from the supermarket just for brewing. To be fair, we also had to buy water if we wanted a decent cup of tea. Down in Kent we had an abundance of superb local ingredients. Elderflowers and elderberries, the fruit section of Perry Court Farm Shop for strawberries, apples… When we moved here to Shetland we brought the last of the elderflower wine with us.
And then we took a break for a few years.
A couple of years ago we started up again. Just to get back into the habit and skills, the family brewed some kits. Ciders, bitters, a couple of wheatbeers. And we’ve been experimenting with them. A muslim bag of elderflower heads went into an IPA during its first fermentation and resulted in a lovely, light, flowery pale ale. Very nice. But the piece de la resistance has got to be the mead.
I was staying at my sister-in-law’s house, browsing through their bookshelves when I came across a recipe for something that sounded amazing: Barkshack Gingermead. The idea is fairly simple but you’ve a long wait before drinking. 6 months is a bare minimum. People mutter quietly in forums about bottles that are 10, 12, 13 years old. It just gets better and better with age.
As with any mead, you need honey. And lots of it. Root ginger, whatever fruit takes your fancy (we used raspberries, so the resulting colour is a gorgeous pink) and a few other ingredients. Just to add a twist (and because I thought it would work), half the bottles got a shot of a very strong cinnamon tea before being capped and stored. Start to bottling, a month or so. Six weeks maybe. Then the waiting began.
Over Christmas I sneaked a bottle of the cinnamon gingermead open, just to see. Mistake. Far too early. Should’ve left it alone. Last weekend, I opened another one. Now we’re talking! The cinnamon has matured into a nice bite, the mead itself slips down a treat. Can’t wait to see what it’s like this Christmas!
And it’s turned into a nice family industry! My eldest son helps out, sitting on the kitchen units and holding the syphon tube, they all like carrying bottles back and forth from the cupboard, and Thing Two’s getting to be a dab hand with the crown capper. All of this is a useful addition to his skillset when he gets ready to go to university. For the next batch of mead I’m going to get Thing One to do the bottle labels.
One thing you do need, though, is a good local home brew shop. The kits are heavy and expensive to post. We had a good one in Lerwick, but he closed recently. Whenever I visit my parents in Ripon, I go to Drinks Well on the market square and stock up. Hop & Grape do a good line in mail order for the lighter stuff. If you’re lucky, you might find your local Tescos has a home brew section. Hexham certainly did the last time I was there. A lot of my original equipment is stamped “Boots”, as they used to sell it as well. Not so sure they do now.
It’s a very rewarding hobby, and you’re never short of a beer.