The History of Home-brewing in the UK

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The His­to­ry of Home-brew­ing in the UK

News, Nuggets & Longreads 6 October 2018: Cask, Cans, Classics

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer in the past week, from cask anxiety to Berlin boozers.

The lat­est Cask Report was pub­lished (PDF, via Cask Mar­que) but for the first time in a few years we could­n’t sum­mon the ener­gy to read it, hence no men­tion in last Sat­ur­day’s round-up. But there has been plen­ty of com­men­tary in the past week and a bit which we thought it might be worth round­ing up:

Mar­tyn Cor­nell – “Why is find­ing a prop­er­ly kept pint of cask ale such an appalling lot­tery in Britain’s pubs”?

Ben Nunn – “[Are] we… head­ing for a world where real ale is, like vinyl, a niche prod­uct – not real­ly for the main­stream, sold only in spe­cial­ist out­lets and usu­al­ly restrict­ed only to cer­tain styles or gen­res?”

Pub Cur­mud­geon – “Maybe it is also time to ques­tion whether hand­pumps can be more of a hin­drance than a help.”

Steph Shut­tle­worth (Twit­ter) – “[We] don’t cur­rent­ly have any reports that are nuanced or in-depth enough for the indus­try to rely on… Cask is a sig­nif­i­cant part of many craft brew­eries e.g. Mar­ble, Mag­ic Rock, Thorn­bridge, but we can’t draw lines as to who is in which mar­ket…”

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 6 Octo­ber 2018: Cask, Cans, Clas­sics”

The Magic Guinness Blend c.1939

Cover of the Guinness brewing manual.

When a colleague of mine told me that her father had been head brewer at Guinness’s London brewery and wondered if I might be interested in seeing his papers, I got a bit excited.

Final­ly, months lat­er, we got round to vis­it­ing to check out what was in her col­lec­tion. Based on a quick audit the answer is: every­thing.

We’ve agreed to take pos­ses­sion of the whole lot, cat­a­logue it, copy bits we might be able to use for our own research, and then help with arrange­ments to have the impor­tant bits tak­en into appro­pri­ate archives.

For now, though, here’s a nugget from the hand­ful of doc­u­ments we brought away with us on Wednes­day night: insid­er info on how Guin­ness gained its once leg­endary com­plex­i­ty at the blend­ing stage.

This comes from a typed doc­u­ment in a plain brown wrap­per writ­ten in 1939 and updat­ed to take account of wartime brew­ing restric­tions. The copy we have seems to come from around 1943 but was in appar­ent­ly still in cir­cu­la­tion in the 1950s.

The first page bears the title ‘The Process of Brew­ing Guin­ness’ and the 46 pages that fol­low offer detailed notes on the basics of beer mak­ing (how hops are dried, for exam­ple) as well as specifics about Guin­ness.

Section header: "making up".

Here’s the sec­tion on ‘Mak­ing Up’:

Beer in stor­age vats [after fer­men­ta­tion] is quite flat and is cloudy and bit­ter and unin­ter­est­ing to taste. Before it is ready for sale it must be ‘Made up’… Beer from say six dif­fer­ent brews forms the basis. These are cho­sen in such pro­por­tions that when mixed with unfer­ment­ed beer (i.e. wort that has been pitched but not allowed to fer­ment) known as gyle, their residues added to the fer­mentable mat­ter of the gyle will give a suit­able ‘Prime’. ‘Prime’ is the fer­mentable mat­ter in beer after mak­ing up just as ‘Residue’ is the fer­mentable mat­ter as the beer enters the stor­age vat. It is mea­sured as the dif­fer­ence between the present grav­i­ty of the beer and its per­fect pri­ma­ry.

In addi­tion to these beers there are added:–

  1. Barm beer: this is the beer which is skimmed off from the skim­mers with the yeast and is sep­a­rat­ed from the yeast in a fil­ter press. It is intense­ly bit­ter but adds very mate­ri­al­ly to the flavour of the flat, unin­ter­est­ing stor­age vat beer.
  2. O.B.S.: old beer stor­age is old acid beer that, like barm beer, improves the flavour of the fin­ished beer although it is itself very unpleas­ant.
  3. Draw­ing: these are residues of made up beer which was not bright enough to put into the trade with­out fur­ther treat­ment. It is exact­ly sim­i­lar in com­po­si­tion to made up beer.
  4. Fin­ings: this is a solu­tion of isin­glass in stor­age vat beer. Only minute traces of isin­glass are required but it brings about the very rapid sed­i­men­ta­tion of all the float­ing par­ti­cles which make the beer cloudy.

All the con­stituents of the make up are pumped into a ‘Rack­ing Vat’ togeth­er and there allowed to stand for 24–48 hours.

So, there you have it. We sort of knew the gist of this but this is the most explic­it expla­na­tion of the process we’ve seen in writ­ing from a pri­ma­ry source, we think.

Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing – Cheap, Fast, Fresh

This mon­th’s host is Dave S of Brew­ing in a Bed­sit­ter and he has asked us to tack­le, in any way we like, the sub­ject of farm­house brew­ing.

We’ll begin this bit of pondering with an extract from an article in the Brewing Trade Review for June 1955 reporting on the collection of the Museum of English Rural Life of ‘absolute unit’ social media fame.

In the home brew­ing sec­tion a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing exhib­it is the equip­ment from a Suf­folk farm­house where this once domes­tic art was prac­tised as recent­ly as 1934. Includ­ed is a mash tub, vat, stil­lions and a heavy old cop­per, the removal of which almost neces­si­tat­ed dis­man­tling that part of the build­ing in which it was hous­es. Oth­er items allied to home brew­ing include exam­ples of malt scoops from Suf­folk and Berk­shire, a Suf­folk mash stir­rer, a Berk­shire horn mug and kegs of var­i­ous size from Som­er­set, Essex and Worces­ter­shire once used by farm labour­ers to car­ry their beer and cider into the fields, par­tic­u­lar­ly at har­vest time.

Inso­far as we’ve giv­en British farm­house beer – or let’s say rur­al beer – a great deal of thought there’s a point hint­ed at here that rings true for us: we reck­on it ought to be quick­ly, cheap­ly, eas­i­ly made, and prob­a­bly drunk very fresh, if not, indeed, while still fer­ment­ing.

That is, like ‘Cor­nish swanky’ which we wrote about for Beer Advo­cate a cou­ple of years ago:

One par­tic­u­lar set of instruc­tions is repeat­ed in var­i­ous cor­ners of the inter­net, usu­al­ly ver­ba­tim, with­out any orig­i­nal source. The ear­li­est ver­sion, post­ed on RootsWeb by some­one called Jan Gluyas in May 1997, calls for boil­ing four pounds of brown sug­ar in five gal­lons of water for 45 min­utes with hops, ground gin­ger, raisins and salt. It is to be fer­ment­ed for around two days and then bot­tled with a sin­gle raisin in each bot­tle for prim­ing.

Or, if you pre­fer pic­tures to words, along the lines of this gin­ger beer recipe from a strange­ly com­pelling YouTube chan­nel which is part explo­ration of 18th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can cook­ing tech­niques, part adver­tis­ing for a firm that sells his­toric kitchen equip­ment:

The Brew­ing Trade Review arti­cle gives details of the slight­ly larg­er scale, more elab­o­rate com­mu­nal brew­ing method of one Suf­folk vil­lage via the tes­ti­mo­ny of an 81-year-old woman inter­viewed in 1950. Even that, though, was fer­ment­ed for a max­i­mum of a week before being drunk, although…

those who liked “young beer”, it seems – or who per­haps found sev­en days too long a wait to quench their impa­tient thirsts – often tapped the casks before the lapse of this peri­od.

But it’s hard to imag­ine any­one mak­ing this kind of beer com­mer­cial­ly viable in 2018 so these days farm­house, as a label, must mean some­thing else. Lars Mar­ius Garshol may have it when he sug­gests that most com­mer­cial beers com­mon­ly labelled as ‘farm­house’ are actu­al­ly “farm­house ales that have been import­ed into the world of com­mer­cial brew­ing, under­go­ing some changes on the way”.

Session #132: Home Brewing Conversations

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

This is our contribution to the monthly exercise in collective beer blogging which this time is hosted by Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site who asks us to reflect on home brewing.

We winced a bit at this one. Over the years we’ve writ­ten about why we love home brew­ing, why we stopped home brew­ing, and why we start­ed again. But we haven’t brewed in ages, or felt the urgent dri­ve to do so. Jon has prompt­ed us to inter­ro­gate our­selves.

Question One: Why is the home brewing kit still in the attic six months after we moved to Bristol?

There are pos­i­tive rea­sons. We’re in a new part of the world with lim­it­ed time off work which we want to spend explor­ing, not watch­ing a pot that nev­er boils. We’ve been busy tick­ing pubs and get­ting to know the local brew­eries. And (this may or may not be pos­i­tive depend­ing on whether you believe it is the job of beer blog­gers to sac­ri­fice their health in the War on Pro­hi­bi­tion) we don’t drink as much as we used to – we only need so much beer!

But there’s at least one poor excuse: we’re still sulk­ing because the last few beers we made were duds. We read the books, we bought the apps, we pro­cured the fan­ci­est ingre­di­ents from the Malt Miller, and we sani­tised every­thing with­in half a mile of our house. Twice. After all that, the beer was still basi­cal­ly crap – a bit rough, a bit acidic, a waste of time and mon­ey.

Homebrewing yeast, book, notes and bottle.

Question Two: So why bring the brewing kit at all?

We had lim­it­ed space in the removals van and got rid of lots of stuff, includ­ing about 150 books, but for some rea­son we kept the boil­er, the mash tun, and the thou­sand bits of eas­i­ly lost cop­per and plas­tic. Clear­ly there is unfin­ished busi­ness. The itch lingers.

It might nev­er get used again – there’s hard­ly a house in Britain that does­n’t have a load of dusty home-brew kit in the back of a cup­board – but it’s good to know it’s there.

If we find a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing recipe in the archives we can at least make a stab at brew­ing some ver­sion of it. (Our last real­ly suc­cess­ful beer was a 19th cen­tu­ry Whit­bread pale ale from Ron Pat­tin­son’s mar­vel­lous book which turned out funky and fas­ci­nat­ing.) If we wake up one Sat­ur­day morn­ing with the urge to brew we could be fill­ing a fer­ment­ing ves­sel by teatime. (Bris­tol has actu­al bricks-and-mor­tar home-brew­ing shops.) And we some­times day­dream about using it to make some mad, strong, beast­ie-rid­dled keep­ing beer for mix­ing with stuff from the super­mar­ket as we’ve done with Orval in the past.

Or maybe it’s just sen­ti­ment. You’d be sur­prised how many mem­o­ries a plas­tic buck­et can hold.