The UK is in the midst of a home brew revolution, with an ever increasing amount of youngsters taking up the hobby. I’m a part of that. A few short years ago I knew next to nothing about making your own beer at home but now I’m tweaking recipes and sharing tips with friends.
There are a number of factors that people like to cite; the recession, a reaction against the ubiquity of tasteless lagers in the supermarket and the increasing influence of the US craft beer movement. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The UK’s leading supermarket chain Tesco reported a staggering 70% increase in sales of kits and accessories in 2012, so home brew is popular, but this also coincided with a rise in micro-breweries. The 2014 Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) Good Pub Guide puts the number of breweries at 1,147 – a 70 year high. This is despite the economic downturn (and some argue the smoking ban) where traditional pubs have been closing up and down the country.
Influence from the USA
There seems to be a move towards quality, craft and flavour and this is thanks in no small part to the huge rise in US microbreweries. My friends and I went travelling down the West Coast in 2010, and quickly felt very foolish in our old, wholly inaccurate, attitude that American beer was all about bottled lager like Budweiser or Miller. We were greeted with all manner of different craft beer unique to the local area. Hair of the Dog Brewing Company was a particular favourite when we were in Portland.
Moving back to London, the influence soon began to seep over from across the pond. Roll up to any trendy bar in the capital and you’ll be greeted with Brooklyn Lager or Nevada Pale Ale on tap – something you wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago.
We’ll often take a Saturday night stroll to craft beer specialist bar Brew Dog in London’s Sheppard’s Bush. A quick look over the menu reveals that the prices aren’t exactly rock bottom, but the place is still buzzing with twenty-somethings enjoying a drink with friends and clamouring to get a go on the Star Wars arcade machine. Brew Dog is a Scottish brewer founded in 2006 and has since raised millions in several rounds of crowdfunding investment.
The Rise in Home Brew
This shift towards a desire for quality, good tasting beer has helped to fuel the on-going home brew trend. Competitions are springing up and becoming very popular. Graham Nelson won the 2014 Great British Home Brew Challenge and will have the privilege of seeing his 5.9% IPA mass-produced by a brewery in Derbyshire. It’s how the new generation of home brewers strive for quality that sets them apart from the hobbyists in the 1970s. Homebrew kits 30-40 years ago featured boil in the bag ‘instant’ kits which would end up tasting dubious at best. It’s now increasingly easy to source yeasts, hops and malts to use.
The London Amateur Brewers is an association of 200 brewers in the city. Chairman Peter Hughes spoke to the Guardian in the UK about how modern home brewers are always happy to experiment and take risks, often achieving such great tasting beer that many are quickly going on to set up their own micro-breweries. Evin O'Riordain at the Kernal brewery is one such home brewer who made the leap from amateur to professional microbrewer. With the mood post-financial crisis, it seems only fitting that the ‘start-up’ entrepreneurial spirit would have an affect on the beer world too.
Supermarket price war
The economic climate has also triggered a supermarket ‘price war’. Since 2004, beer duty increased over 50%, with the average pint in a pub now costing £3.06 (around $5). Twenty years ago, the average pint was £1.26 (around $2). Supermarkets cater to the masses with cheap mass-produced lifeless larger which means there’s a gap in the market for a demographic who wants something a bit different. If you don’t want to compromise on taste, then home brew is a good alternative to the supermarket, which is why they’re even starting to sell kits, which was once a niche product.
With so many beginners, there are some differences with the current approach to home brewing in the UK when compared to the USA. Look at any home brew store in the UK and the kits that dominate the shelves are the two can kits made by the likes of Muntons and Woodforde’s, as they are much easier to get started with than the traditional home brewing technique of cooking a mash. This is in contrast to home brewers in the USA who are more familiar with using grains and hops to complete a recipe.
Despite the differences, it’s clear that on both sides of the Atlantic, a change in attitude has occurred and there’s a youthful, artisan, entrepreneurial spirit that has invaded home brew. The old stigma from the 1970s that home brewing was all about saving money and making something that tasted pretty awful is gone. The hobby is accessible thanks to advances in technology and a cultural shift. The ripples of the movement in the USA have crossed the pond to help get people brewing in the UK.