It’s About Time You Tried: Home BrewingBy Sophie Eastaugh
The first thing that hits me when I arrive at London Fields Brewery is that I’m the only woman. The second thing is the large number of beards.
I’m here for a master class in home brewing, the ultimate way to upgrade a makeshift hobby into a connoisseur’s craft. There are 10 beer lovers at the session, which runs every week and is booked out three months ahead. Along with craft beer, home brewing has exploded in popularity. What caught on in the 70s as a cheap way to get pissed has grown into a lifestyle – YouTube channels, local home brew clubs and online forums are feeding a market worth £25m a year. C21st home brewers aren’t content with producing pints of tangy fizz; the emphasis now is on quality and provenance, which is why we’re here to learn from the experts.
Our teacher Toni starts by giving us a beginner’s explanation of the brewing process. Under a railway arch, the brewery is filled with giant fermenters and mash-tuns – mixing containers to you and me. This is the first of an intriguing set of brewing vocabulary I’m about to learn, so I’m grateful that Toni’s lesson assumes no prior knowledge. Beer comes from four ingredients: malted grain (usually barley), water, hops and yeast, which are carefully nourished with time and temperature.
Toni gets us into pairs, since brewing involves a lot of pouring, stirring and calculating. We each have a workstation in the brewery’s warehouse, a line of equipment tucked between vacuum-packed hops and palettes of beer. The first step is the mash; mixing the malt with 10 litres of 66 degree water. This warmth must be maintained, so we’re using insulated cool boxes with taps in the base.
I pour in the water as my partner Tim tips in the malt, before stirring it with a spoon as long as my arm. It forms a porridge-like consistency and smells just like Ovalmaltine. “Make sure all the grain is wet and there are no malt balls,” says Toni. “Sometimes the grain is wet but the balls stay dry – a bit like meatballs but malt balls.” The Milan-born brewer is bouncy and fun, quick to dismiss our complicated sheet of instructions. The mash must rest for an hour so we troop off to the bar. It’s midday and we’re in a brewery, so I choose a pint of 4.2% Hackney Hopster. This isn’t going to be too hard after all.
It’s time to sparge. This isn’t as dirty as it sounds – sparging is rinsing the grain with more water to extract maximum sugar. Tim and I put in 10 more litres of hot water before siphoning off the stewed liquid at the bottom. We circulate the remaining liquid to steep it in the sugars; this is what makes the booze. Another round of sparging and the wort – unfermented beer – is ready to go. We drain it and pour it into a big metal pan over a burner.
Once boiled, we add the hops, a plant from the marijuana family that gives beer its bitterness. This explains the heady, pungent smell as we stir it into the swirling liquid. We leave it to boil for an hour while we head off for lunch; a chance to drink more beer, eat jerk chicken burgers and chat to my fellow brewers. Everyone but me has had several goes at home brewing and almost all of them were given the class by their wives or girlfriends. I’m enjoying being one of the lads.
Feeling slightly woozy after a late night and a pint of 6% Shoreditch Triangle, I return to the warehouse for the bottling. Our brews are bubbling nicely, dark brown infusions in a lab-like row. We add a second cup of hops, this time to add fruitiness to the flavour. Ours is American hops, which is said to be more aromatic than its British counterpart. Ten minutes later, we cool the mix by pouring it through a heat exchanger, a set of tubes that passes cold liquids over hot, like a radiator. The cooled wort – it still isn’t beer – flows out into sterilised plastic bottles known as demijohns. All that remains is to add a sachet of yeast at home, then five days of fermentation until home brew glory.
We finish off with another beer – a half this time – standing smugly in the bar with our demijohns at our feet. It’s been a satisfying and sociable day, leaving me with a bounty I can’t wait to offer my friends. I’ve also got a new understanding of what makes beer, fuelling a deeper appreciation of a favourite tipple. Now I just need to work out how to get 10 litres of liquid home on my bike.
Need to know:
The Home Brewing Masterclass runs every Saturday from 11pm-4pm at London Fields Brewery, 365-366 Warburton St, E8 3RR. It costs £95 plus booking fee, which includes beer, lunch, all equipment and 10 litres of brew to take home. Visit their website for more information.