The History of Home-brewing in the UK

Do It Yourself

This arti­cle first appeared in issue 9 of Hop & Bar­ley mag­a­zine, a home-brew­ing spe­cial pub­lished in 2018, and avail­able to buy at £10 from the web­site.

Before 1963 if you wanted to make your own beer in Britain you either had to pay the government for the privilege, or do it secretly, thanks to the lingering effects of Victorian legislation.

In 1880 Prime Min­is­ter William Glad­stone, seek­ing to appease the farm­ing lob­by and urgent­ly raise mon­ey, replaced the long­stand­ing malt tax with a duty on the fin­ished prod­uct – beer. As a side effect, house­holds that brewed their own beer for ‘domes­tic use’ (that didn’t sell it) were sud­den­ly sub­ject to reg­is­tra­tion, reg­u­la­tion and inspec­tion, and were required to pay for a licence.

This didn’t stop home-brew­ing alto­geth­er, espe­cial­ly not in cas­es where it was part of com­mu­ni­ty life, as at Blax­hall in Suf­folk where, accord­ing to the rec­ol­lec­tions of one elder­ly vil­lager, almost every house­wife brewed her own beer before World War I. They shared equip­ment and formed a ‘yeast chain’ with each woman col­lect­ing yeast from whichev­er of her neigh­bours had brewed most recent­ly. [1]

But as the 20th cen­tu­ry wore on, and peo­ple were dragged into court for mak­ing beer at home with­out licences, home-brew­ing as a vital tra­di­tion all but dis­ap­peared. Offi­cial num­bers sug­gest­ed that by 1961–62 only 250 peo­ple in the entire coun­try had licences to brew beer at home. [2]

Of course there was plen­ty going on with­out licence behind closed doors and one 1963 news­pa­per col­umn described a home brew­er ‘who wish­es to remain anony­mous for obvi­ous rea­sons’ run­ning a sub­stan­tial brew­ery out of his garage to which ‘the Cus­toms and Excise have nev­er found their way’.  [3]

The cost of inves­ti­gat­ing and pros­e­cut­ing hard­ly seemed worth the effort which is why, on 3 April 1963, Con­ser­v­a­tive Chan­cel­lor Regi­nald Maudling announced the abo­li­tion of the 1880 law, with its ragged Vic­to­ri­an trousers, in his bud­get speech to the House of Com­mons. On the day of Regi­nald Maudling’s announce­ment, the garage home-brew­er men­tioned above drank a toast to the Chan­cel­lor, rais­ing a mug of his own strong ale. Free­dom, at last.

Reginald Maudling.

The imme­di­ate result of this lib­er­al­i­sa­tion was that home-brew­ers began to share advice and infor­ma­tion more open­ly. There was a flur­ry of news­pa­per columns and books such as H.E. Bravery’s 1965 pock­et guide Home Brew­ing With­out Fail­ures which epit­o­mis­es the make-do-and-mend approach of the time. Need a fer­ment­ing ves­sel? Use a plas­tic dust­bin. Need to dark­en your beer? Why not use gravy brown­ing. (Not as mad it sounds – it is essen­tial­ly caramel.) Some of the recipes seem by mod­ern stan­dards rather off the mark, such as a mild made entire­ly with crys­tal malt and demer­ara sug­ar, but they under­line part of the essen­tial appeal of home-brew­ing: vari­ety, quirk­i­ness, the abil­i­ty to make a beer exact­ly to your taste, and know exact­ly what is in it.

On British high streets home brew­ing ingre­di­ents and equip­ment, which had long been avail­able but with a furtive under-the-counter rep­u­ta­tion, became eas­i­er to buy, more wide­ly adver­tised, and more con­ve­nient to use.

In 1966–67 Edme, man­u­fac­tur­ers of malt extract, sold 300 tons to UK home-brew­ers – enough to make mil­lions of pints of beer. In 1969 the same firm launched pre-hopped malt extract on to the mar­ket, mean­ing that any ama­teur with a buck­et could pro­duce about 40 pints of beer for less than 18 shillings, some warm water, and fif­teen min­utes work. [4]

By the 1970s there was a home-brew­ing boom under­way, fuelled by the Good Life do-it-your­self ten­den­cy and adver­tis­ing cam­paigns on TV and in news­pa­pers, among oth­er fac­tors.

By 1978 the Mir­ror was esti­mat­ing that there were more than 2 mil­lion home-brew­ers in the UK and it was suf­fi­cient­ly main­stream to war­rant the celebri­ty taste-off treat­ment in the same news­pa­per, with Alvin Star­dust among oth­ers review­ing and rat­ing home-brew kits. [5]

Alvin Stardust
Adapt­ed from Wiki­Me­dia Com­mons, CC BY-SA 33.0

All this came, of course, with a healthy dose of moral pan­ic: there were scares over home-brew alco­holics; over the risks of dri­ving after drink­ing home-brew of inde­ter­mi­nate strength; over cas­es of poi­son­ing sup­posed to have been caused by home-brew; and, of course, over the risk posed to pubs and the ‘prop­er’ brew­eries by this grow­ing trend. And there was prob­a­bly some­thing in this last point: every time the gov­ern­ment put up beer duty, sales of home-brew­ing equip­ment and mate­ri­als grew. After all, why pay 60p for a pint when you could make one at home for 10p and, in many cas­es, find that it tast­ed bet­ter? Or at least more inter­est­ing, and prob­a­bly stronger.

It was also in this decade that some of the first seri­ous, ded­i­cat­ed beer writ­ers emerged from the world of home brew­ing. Dave Line, for exam­ple, was an elec­tri­cal engi­neer from Southamp­ton who first got into wine-mak­ing with his wife, Sheila. He was inspired to make his first beer by an adver­tise­ment run in nation­al news­pa­pers by Guin­ness which rather smug­ly chal­lenged home-brew­ers by pro­vid­ing a recipe for pro­duc­ing 2.5 mil­lion pints of its famous stout. Line reverse-engi­neered the recipe and lat­er pub­lished it under the name ‘Rom­sey Stout’. His first book, The Big Book of Brew­ing, was released in 1974. ‘You can steal a man’s wife, burn down his house, sack him from his job’, he wrote in it, ‘but nev­er should you deny him the right to sup good ale.’ With his infor­mal style, rebel­lious ten­den­cy and rugged prac­ti­cal­i­ty, Line chimed with the val­ues of the young folk who made up the bulk of the CAM­RA-led real ale move­ment of the 1970s. He died of can­cer in 1980 at the age of 37 but his books are still in print today and, indeed, if you go to your local hard­ware shop, you’ll prob­a­bly find dusty copies there next to the wine-mak­ing kits.

From the same era came Old British Beers and How to Make Them, the flag­ship pub­li­ca­tion of the Dur­den Park Brew­ing Cir­cle, for which Dr John Har­ri­son plun­dered his­toric brew­ing logs, reviv­ing inter­est in dead or dying styles such as porter and Vic­to­ri­an-style India pale ale (IPA). That too is still in print, with many revi­sions.

Home brew­ing was more influ­en­tial in the US craft beer move­ment than in Britain’s micro-brew­ing boom of the 1970s and 1980s but that isn’t to say it wasn’t influ­en­tial at all. Take David Pol­lard, for exam­ple, who found­ed a micro­brew­ery in Stock­port in 1975. He, like many of the oth­er ear­ly micro-brew­ers, had been made redun­dant from one of the big nation­al brew­ing firms, but he was also a home-brew­er and ran a home-brew­ing shop in Stock­port from 1968. Anoth­er influ­en­tial fig­ure, Bren­dan Dob­bin, who pio­neered the use of ‘New World’ hops in British brew­ing, learned the ropes in his stu­dent rooms in Belfast using Dave Line’s books for guid­ance, before going on to study for­mal­ly at Heri­ot Watt in Edin­burgh.

By 1982, home-brew­ing was such a big indus­try in the UK that pub­li­cans began pres­sur­ing gov­ern­ment to tax and restrict home-brew­ing. This wasn’t suc­cess­ful but it didn’t mat­ter because, in 1986, the mar­ket col­lapsed under its own weight and most high street shops ditched their home-brew­ing ranges.

Some of those mil­lions who had tried their hand in the 1970s and 80s gave up, per­haps real­is­ing that the beers they pro­duced, though unde­ni­ably cheap, were also often nasty. Peo­ple of a cer­tain age will rem­i­nisce, and not fond­ly, about Dad’s buck­et in the air­ing cup­board and the foul, far­ty, headache-induc­ing brews it pro­duced from tins of goop and sachets of extract, with bags of cane sug­ar to boost the ABV.

Peo­ple are not real­ly inter­est­ed in brew­ing their own drinks at home these days’, said the CEO of one home-brew kit man­u­fac­tur­er in 1989. ‘It’s messy and time con­sum­ing.’ His com­pa­ny turned to the man­u­fac­ture of cat lit­ter. [6]

Diehards, of course, kept at it, and with greater care and exper­tise than ever. More and bet­ter books were pub­lished (espe­cial­ly in the US) and spe­cial­ist shops thrived, sup­ply­ing not only extracts but also whole grains, whole-leaf hops, and ever more sophis­ti­cat­ed equip­ment. In 1995 James McCror­ie found­ed the UK Craft Brew­ing Asso­ci­a­tion, a seri­ous-mind­ed organ­i­sa­tion that avoid­ed the term home-brew­ing because, as he told us in 2013, ‘it had come to mean, in Britain, a can of crap and a kilo of sug­ar’.

Then, with the rise of the inter­net, a sec­ond and more sus­tain­able boom began. Online mes­sage-boards pro­vid­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for brew­ers to acquire recipes and advice, while mail order stores meant that any­one could eas­i­ly access spe­cial­ist ingre­di­ents and equip­ment with a few clicks. The inter­net also made it eas­i­er to organ­ise com­pe­ti­tions and social gath­er­ings.

From around 2007 two oth­er fac­tors kicked off a new home-brew­ing boom. First came a glob­al finan­cial cri­sis which made cheap­er beer appeal­ing; and, sec­ond­ly, there was grow­ing excite­ment around craft beer. If back then (like us) you want­ed to drink crazi­ly hopped, crazi­ly strong Amer­i­can style IPAs, brew­ing your own was cheap­er and more fun than buy­ing imports. It was also by far the eas­i­est way to try obscure styles such as, say, Gose or Rauch­bier.

For many in this peri­od home-brew­ing was an invit­ing route into com­mer­cial brew­ing – so many, in fact, that these days it feels quite unusu­al to read a craft brew­ery ori­gin sto­ry that doesn’t begin with a plas­tic buck­et.

  1. Grandmother’s Brew’, Alan John­son, Brew­ing Trade Review, April 1954, pp.100–103.
  2. Free­dom to Brew Beer’, Birm­ing­ham Post, 4 April 1963, p.1.
  3. A Toast to the Chan­cel­lor’, Finan­cial Times, 5 April 1963, p.14.
  4. About the House’, Shirley Lewis, Guardian, 2 April 1969, p.9.
  5. Cheers!’, Mar­garet Jones and Alas­dair Buchan, 23 Octo­ber 1978, p.9.
  6. Tyro Keeps Brew­mak­er Afloat as Home-made Beer Mar­ket Goes Flat’, Michael Clark, The Times, 8 May 1989, p.26.

7 thoughts on “The History of Home-brewing in the UK

  1. when I moved to the Mid­lands in the ear­ly 1990s, home­brew was still a thriv­ing hob­by. The Black Coun­try espe­cial­ly was well pro­vid­ed with shops and clubs and one of the last spe­cial­ist home­brew shops in the region is still going at Low­er Gor­nal. Was this pas­sion for mak­ing beer inspired by Sarah Hugh­es, Hold­ens, Bathams, Ma Par­does, High­gate and Banks all of which were brew­ing beer in the heart of res­i­den­tial areas? Or could these brew­eries be a ready source of small quan­ti­ties of brew­ing sup­plies. When brew­ing moves out of town, so do the smells and the con­cept of craft. Wak­ing up 5 days a week to the smell of boil­ing wort must inspire some and brew­ing exper­tise from brew­ery work­ers must have been read­i­ly avail­able in pubs for the price of a pint. I also seem to remem­ber an enter­prise in the Mid­lands where semi- pro­fes­sion­al brew­ing kit was avail­able to “hire”.

    1. There was a one in west Lon­don (Acton I think) in the mid-90s: you made an appoint­ment to go and use their kit. I think it was part of a chain, aimed at cor­po­rate func­tions – team build­ing etc., but don’t think it ever took off.

  2. As a for­mer (very for­mer) brew­er at home, I found this an inter­est­ing read and would just note that books on the sub­ject con­tin­ue to be pro­duced. While it might seem a tad counter intu­itive that CAMRA, as a Pubs Cham­pi­on, pub­lish­es books that encour­age home drink­ing, there are cur­rent­ly three titles in print on their web­site. Gra­ham Wheel­er seems to have tak­en on the Dave Line man­tle (I wish I knew what I did with his books!) and I can think of at least three out of print titles by oth­ers that remain of inter­est, hold­ing a val­ue close to their cov­er price despite their age.

  3. As you say, the main fac­tor behind the rise of home-brew­ing in the 60s and 70s was rel­a­tive cost. What caused it to decline was the rise of at-home drink­ing in gen­er­al, which in the 1980s led super­mar­kets to start seri­ous­ly pro­mot­ing and dis­count­ing canned beer. Home-brew beer might have been much cheap­er than that in the pub, but it was­n’t that much cheap­er than super­mar­ket cans, not to men­tion the time and effort involved. The remain­ing home-brew­ers were those inter­est­ed in qual­i­ty, not cheap­ness.

    1. Yeah, and also the arrival of a wider vari­ety of beer in super­mar­kets at the same sort of time.

      As a stu­dent in the ear­ly 80s in Brum, I was co-founder of the uni­ver­si­ty’s Real Ale and Home-Brew Soci­ety. Brum being rather a beer desert, at least in terms of taste and vari­ety, unlike the Black Coun­try, we did quite a bit of home brew­ing. Indeed there were 6 of us who lived togeth­er and pro­duced 120 pints per week (3 x 5 gal­lon fer­men­ta­tion bins) – we were pop­u­lar beyond our wildest dreams. Our orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion was based on Boots Pre­mi­um Bit­ter kits, which had a rather decent yeast which we har­vest­ed and re-pitched. We also used extra malt extract instead of sug­ar, and exper­i­ment­ed with fur­ther hop­ping, includ­ing some dry hop­ping. We had 2 pres­sure bar­rels (mine plas­tic, the oth­er one alu­mini­um) that we used with­out exter­nal gas – did­n’t need or want it – and the rest was bot­tled in 2 litre plas­tic bot­tles. We exper­i­ment­ed on oth­er brews in glass one gal­lon demi­johns – a friend came up with a black­cur­rant ale by adding Ribena ini­tial­ly, which was actu­al­ly rather nice – not a mil­lion miles away from a plum porter, although more a strong brown ale than a porter. And I had bought some books, includ­ing Dave Line’s “Brew­ing Beers Like Those You Buy”, which first of all got me mak­ing a ver­sion of Old Peculi­er, and then got us on to full mash. I also got a book for 50p from some health food shop about brew­ing ales with­out hops, so we tried var­i­ous Sax­on and Eliz­a­bethan-style ales with odd herbs and, well, botan­i­cals.
      We exper­i­ment­ed with oth­er yeasts – try­ing to make a cul­ture from White Shield bot­tles, Guin­ness bot­tles and so on; and get­ting yeast from Black Coun­try brew­ers.
      It was a fun time, and I think I learned a fair bit about beer, and it cer­tain­ly opened my mind to dif­fer­ent flavours – not all good ones! Not every batch was suc­cess­ful…
      But after we left, I’ve nev­er had as much suc­cess. Thirsty mouths con­cen­trat­ed minds, but the semi-indus­tri­al scale actu­al­ly made the brew­ing process a lot eas­i­er. Hav­ing plen­ty of time as stu­dents like­wise – much hard­er to brew con­sis­tent­ly if there’s only one of you, and you’ve not nec­es­sar­i­ly got the time to do it. And any­way, if you’re work­ing, you can afford to buy the stuff, espe­cial­ly from super­mar­kets, and espe­cial­ly if there’s sud­den­ly a wider range avail­able – often more inter­est­ing than the pub serves.
      I would love to get back into it, and pro­duce some­thing at the more inter­est­ing end of the spec­trum. Per­haps I’ll dig out my books.

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