In the 70s it was all about making cheap beer and saving money. But Britain's new wave of homebrewing aficionados are giving professional breweries a run for their money
It is the kind of accolade most self respecting homebrewers can only dream of. Last week 39-year-old AA employee Graham Nelson was crowned this year's winner of the Great British Homebrew Challenge – one of the country's most popular amateur brewing competitions. The dad of two from Blackpool will see his award-winning creation (an outstandingly good 5.9% IPA) produced en masse by the Thornbridge brewery in Derbyshire, before going on sale at over 60 branches of Waitrose in mid-October.
"When I started homebrewing a year ago I made a conscious decision that I would make my equipment and processes an exact replica of what would be found in a proper brewery," he says. "My philosophy is that it's more important to refine the small details of my brewing technique along the way, than owning bigger or more expensive equipment."
This illustrates why Nelson took the top spot but he was just one of over 200 jaw-droppingly talented amateur brewers to enter this year's challenge, making it the most popular yet. I was lucky enough to judge the competition this year – alongside drink writers Victoria Moore and Jamie Goode – and was blown away by the quality. Britain is in the midst of a homebrew revolution that may just leave some professional brewers quaking in their wellies. "The homebrew market has never been so big," says Greg Hughes, owner of online homebrew shop Brew UK. "It's now worth around £25m and we as a business are growing by 30% year on year. The last time homebrewing boomed like this was in the 1970s but back then it was all about making cheap beer and saving money. Inevitably, the trend died out because people got sick of drinking god-awful ale. But this time around, it's completely different."
What appears to set the latest wave of homebrewers apart from their 1970s counterparts is an unwavering obsession with quality and provenance. Gone are the days of boil in a bag instant homebrew kits and in their place is an ever-burgeoning list of exotic yeasts, rare hops and specialist malts – not to mention hundreds of online forums (this one is brilliant), YouTube channels and local homebrew clubs.
Nelson's attention to detail is by no means rare. Britain's new wave of homebrewing aficionados don't think twice about such expert techniques as cultivating their own yeast strains, ageing beer in old wine casks and even changing the chemical composition of local water supplies. The result? Homebrewers are giving many professional breweries a run for their money.
"We've got around 200 members of our homebrew club and the numbers just keep growing," says Pete Hughes, chairman of the London Amateur Brewers. "The standard of homebrewing is now so good that many people are turning it into a career and setting up their own breweries. This isn't just a London thing; amateurs across the country are turning their hobbies into careers ... Homebrewers generally pay a lot more attention to detail and are more willing to experiment than the pros. In fact the best beer I've ever tasted was made by somebody in their garage – that said, so was the worst."
Five steps to being a better brewer
Buy the right equipment
It's easy and cheap to make beer with just-add-water kits but this isn't proper brewing and chances are you won't be proud of the final results. Instead, invest in an all-grain kit, which is essentially an exact replica of a micro-brewery (but so small it will fit under the kitchen sink). All-grain kits can be bought from £250 and can last a lifetime.
Keep it simple
Beginner homebrewers tend to be an overly ambitious lot and will often start developing their own recipes very early on. Trying mastering tried and tested styles first. That way you'll master the basics of brewing and learn what ingredients go into making a great tasting beer. Then you can start to experiment.
Use fresh ingredients
A beer is only ever as good as the quality of its ingredients. If you buy fresh hops, keep them in the fridge and use them up quickly. If you want to get the most out of your malt invest in a mill and grind it yourself. And if you really want to make a beer to rival your favourite brewery then use wet yeast – instead of the dried variety you buy in packets.
Sanitise, sanitise, sanitise
Ninety per cent of brewing is cleaning. If you don't keep your equipment clean then it's likely your beer will be ruined by infection. Avoid bleach-based sanitisers, which can leave a nasty taste in your beer, and instead opt for a no-rinse brand like StarSan. Anything that comes into contact with your beer during fermentation must be sanitised.
Share and share alike
The best bit about making your own beer is sharing it with others. But don't just give it to your friends and family because they'll just tell you it tastes delicious – even if it doesn't. Take it down to your local homebrew club and be prepared to take some constructive criticism.
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