Published on March 4th, 2020 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Home on the range
Beer can be made on the kitchen cooker – and the results are astonishing, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
When it comes down to beta acids, yeast rehydration, mash pH adjustment and cereal adjuncts, there is not a lot of difference between a home-brewer working in his or her shed and a time-served individual in charge of a 20-barrel brewhouse. There’s the scale of operation obviously, and a trillion commercial implications, but the depth of knowledge that the “hobby” brewer has accumulated should never be underestimated – and neither should their results at the end of the day.
I wrote this – or something akin to it – after five minutes in the company of the North East Home Brew Club which meets regularly around Newcastle to share best – and admittedly worst – practices, alongside anecdotes, recipes and general bonhomie.
“Basically, we meet once a month to drink beer and have fun,” says Paul Crowther, one of the club’s founders. “We share the beer out that we’ve brewed since the last time and get ideas for the next one – and talk about our equipment, that sort of thing.”
The club alternates venues from The Town Mouse micropub in Newcastle to Anarchy Brew Co taproom (Walkergate) with newcomers and old-stagers always welcome. Virtually every beer sampled on the night I joined them at The Town Mouse was superb with a variety and quality that would delight any professional brewer. It’s a loose-knit group, with no club rules and regulations other than the willingness to taste, encourage and learn. Enthusiasm for beer and its myriad ingredients comes high on the list, plus the ability to mash, ferment and condition in tight spaces such as kitchens, garages and sheds – plus the blessing of “significant others”.
Collaborations with the likes of Newcastle University’s Stu Brew brewing facility are fertile grounds for both parties, resulting in superb products like an American Brown Ale that earned high praise commercially.
Paul Crowther has collaborated with Ouseburn Valley-based Out There Brew Co with a Salted Caramel Milk Shake Porter and will have by now created the special Imperial Stout that he was so enthusiastic about when we met.
It’s a two-way set-up. “Tuesday is usually quite a quiet night so it’s good to have them here as they drink our beer once they’ve sampled their own,” says Town Mouse owner Jon Sibley.
There were a dozen or so home-brewers present vastly outnumbering one very attractive young lady who appeared to be more than equal to the task. First out of the Tesco carrier bag was an extremely bitter single hop ale (6.0% abv) which has been calculated at 60 IBU (international bittering units). People who know care about such figures.
Trying to guess what’s in the beer is also part of the fun – plus it’s a real learning process (a beer laced with tequila, for instance, was described as “pretty awful” – and that’s from the guy who brewed it). All appear to enjoy Belgian beers and strive to attain that level.
Paul Crowther says: “There used to be only three or four of us but it’s taken on a momentum and we’ve got a lot more members now. It’s really good to have a great turnout.”
A hand reaches into another carrier bag and brings out little jars of flavourings with chemistry flasks and beakers full of what I don’t know. We’re talking ingredients now and it turns to a 23-litre batch of beer containing 30 grams of wormwood, one of the ingredients in absinthe that has given the spirit its hallucinatory reputation. “It was awful,” says club member Eddy Thomas, whose brewing interest came via foraging. “The worst I’ve ever had. Just awful.”
Then a little game with three sample glasses of the same beer using two different yeasts. We had to choose the odd one out. I’m not sure how I did on that one but it’s very interesting what yeast can do to flavour. We sampled parsnip mead created by merging wine and mead recipes then left for up to three years, which was much more palatable than it sounds. Then carrot “whisky”, elderflower something or other (particularly fragrant) and blackberry and elderberry concoctions, plus beer racked onto honey. It’s about astringency, colour, aroma, flavours and the ever-present attention to detail.
The permutations are endless with sessionable beers through 7.5% abv experiments to 11% abv barley wines and even further up the volume scale. Following one of those tastings, one of the group – Matt – had to sit an exam the next day. He failed.
Each member of the group is good-humoured and self-deprecating about what they’ve brought along for the night – but they needn’t be. It’s often said that there are great similarities with the way commercial brewers and home brewers work – “only they use bigger buckets”.
The North East Home Brew Club is an educational and a fun way of learning about beer, no matter your level of expertise. Here, try some.
*The next North East Home Brew Club meeting is on Friday March 13 at Anarchy Brew Co’s magnificent facility at Walkergate, Newcastle (7pm). Check Twitter @NorthEastHBC for info.