So, can you tell us how it all started for you?
I have had an interest in good beer since a trip to Belgium in my early twenties opened my eyes to a world beyond fizzy pale lager. Since then, I became a craft beer enthusiast (or bore depending on who you ask) and as I learned more about the beer and the people who make it, I was struck by how many started off brewing their own. Whilst I had no ambitions to make beer commercially myself, I did like the idea of brewing my own. After a little research, and with a birthday coming up, my wife bought me everything I needed to get started. That was in April 2015 and I’ve not looked back.
What was your first brew and how did it turn out?
Although most (probably sensible) advice I got was to start off learning the process with extract kits, I decided to try BIAB. Ever since my honeymoon in California, I have had a soft spot for West Coast style IPA so I decided to start there. I didn’t have a recipe as such, I noted on a board in a Brew Dog bar the hops and grains used in Dead Pony Club; then used this information to adapt an IPA recipe I found online.
It was neither scientific or methodical, so I was amazed that it actually resulted in a drinkable beer. I overshot my gravity completely and ended up with a beer somewhere around 7%. The colour was slightly luminous and judging against my more recent efforts, it was slightly rough around the edges!
Were there any mishaps / funny moments along the way leading to now?
I’ve had my fair share of mishaps if I’m honest. The first time I used an immersion coil for cooling, I set it up and left it for a couple of minutes whilst I pottered around. When I came back, the inlet hose had disconnected and was snaking around the kitchen soaking everything. In the end, I had about an extra litre of wort than I was expecting, but apart from a lower ABV than I was hoping for, the beer wasn’t too bad in the end. The hose clips have since been reinforced and all cooling since has been done under close supervision!
Are there any pieces of equipment that you are looking to buy soon, or are converting for the future?
My brewing set up is low tech, I am still doing BIAB. I like the simplicity of a big steel pot and a bag, I’m still figuring out fairly fundamental things like water chemistry but may look at a more complex set up in the future.
Away from “brew day” equipment, my project for 2018 is to build a keezer home bar. My wife was somewhat bemused when I asked for a chest freezer for Christmas but she humoured me and went along it. I am teaching myself joinery and carpentry as I am going along so it could end up running into 2019.
Bottle or Keg?
I have bottled up until now but like 99% of home brewers, it is my least favourite part of the process. I bought a pressure barrel for a beer I brewed for a friend’s party and it was nice to not have to bottle. My keezer project was largely born out of a desire to move away from ever having to bottle again.
What is your go to recipe or signature brew?
That’s a tough question. I’ve brewed quite a few different beers in the two and a half years or so I have been doing this, and never brewed the exact same one twice. The one I keep wanting to go back to however is an Earl Grey IPA. It was a fairly standard IPA base recipe, mostly MO with a little crystal, hopped with citra, a bit less than I would normally use. The day before, I steeped a whole box of loose leaf tea in five litres of spring water, refrigerated overnight. I’d not tried cold brewed tea before and was surprised how little tannins infuse. At flame out, the cold tea was dumped straight into the wort. After fermentation was complete, instead of dry-hopping, I put in another load of tea wrapped in a muslin. The bergamot flavours really complemented the citra, and the additional bitterness from the tea leaves worked well, without overpowering the beer.
What is your schedule for a typical brew day?
Brew days are generally a Saturday or Sunday. My wife is very supportive of my hobby, although she likes to make herself scarce when I’m brewing as she isn’t overly keen on the smell from mashing. We also have a toddler running about the place so she will take him out and leave me to it. I keep my kit in the garage so the first order of the day is to get everything together to wash and sanitise. I’m not the most organised of people so this can take some time. I get my water heating up and then maybe do some housework. I have only ever done single step mash so once the grains are in, I will again try and find something productive to do. Once mashed, I then wrangle the cats out of the kitchen. For the boil, I have every window including the patio open and the cats don’t go outside, a missing moggy would not go down well. I usually get the hops ready at this point and then I’m on with the boil. After that, it is pretty straight forward cooling with the immersion coil, racking the wort into a bucket, then the tidy up before ringing my wife to tell her it is safe to return.
What do you love about home brewing and the industry in general?
Even after doing a good number of beers now, I am still fascinated by the process of fermentation. I have a degree in Biology so am au fait with the science, but I am nevertheless amazed when I go from a murky soup to a clear, sparkling beer, it feels like alchemy!
Aside from the process, I love the community that you can be part of. There is a truly global network of likeminded people who are so generous with their time and willing to share their experience to help you. There is such diversity, from people who love nothing more than brewing up a turbo cider, wine makers who ferment what they forage in hedgerows, through to people with vastly complex multi-vessel digitally controlled set ups. Yet there is no hierarchy or snobbery between these sub-groups. The UK Home Brew Community Facebook group is a great example of this, and a rarity of an online forum with very little conflict and no trolling.
That generosity of spirit is can be found in the industry as well. I have found many commercial brewers who are more than happy to share their knowledge with us amateurs and don’t jealously guard their trade secrets.
Are you attending any festivals / competitions in the coming months?
I’ve not ventured into the competition world yet. I have been wanting to hone my techniques but I would welcome some objective feedback away from friends and family. I am hoping to get to the my local CAMRA beer festival in Larbert near Falkirk in April for some inspiration. I need to go early this time, last year I was turned away as there was literally no beer left by 6pm on the Saturday!
What are your plans for the future and where do you think the industry is headed?
I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing really. I have learned a lot over the past three years but I think I’ve only just scratched the surface. I think my techniques have improved with greater attention to things like water chemistry so I would like to revisit previous recipes and judge my progress.
Where the industry is headed is another tricky question. I think much more people are turned on to good beer by the rise of small breweries which has caused macro breweries to up their game to a certain degree. It is encouraging too that a number of the bigger retailers are stocking decent selections of craft beer though, and doing so on a local or regional basis. It seems to be attracting people who haven’t previously drunk beer. I’ve spoken to lots of people who have been wine buffs but have found themselves falling for craft beer. I think that has helped to drive the increase of more complex styles available, and maybe people are changing their habits too, drinking fewer, higher strength, more complex beers in a sitting. I myself am still more of a fan of a good session beer but I’m sure there will be a good balance found as trends come and go.
I do worry somewhat about a beer bubble forming though. There are so many people taking the plunge and setting up microbreweries, that I wonder how sustainable the numbers are. I am by no means an expert on beer economics, I just don’t know whether the appetite for good beer may drop off at any point. I remain committed however to do my bit in keeping the industry in rude health for now!
Are there any breweries that you admire for what they are producing?
Tryst Brewery is my local brewery in Larbert. They do a fabulous traditional IPA called Raj and a proper Scottish 80/- called Drovers. Also not too far away from me is Fallen Brewery, which was set up in the disused Kippen Railway Station, doing some modern style beers, lots of hops going on. Finally, I would highlight Brew Shed in Limekilns in Fife. The guy who runs this was a home brewer who recently stepped up to commercial production, albeit on a small scale, making very small batch beers from his shed. He does modern beers but some really interesting historic beers he has resurrected from old recipes.
Finally, what is the name of your “one day” brewery?
Rose and Thistle, a nod to my Lancashire roots and my adopted home North of The Border.
So there you have it, another interesting interview with a homebrewer – a big thank you to Steven Jones for giving up his time. If you fancy being interviewed please feel free to get in touch.