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.

References
  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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