DIY beer is giving craft breweries a run for their money. Joe O’Shea meets the makers.
Once the undrinkable slosh that haunted the student parties of the 1980s, home-brewed beer has undergone a hi-tech revolution. And the best DIY beer is now giving the craft breweries a run for their money.
For many, homebrew may still be associated with sugary, soapy “lager”, fermented in plastic buckets bunged in the hot press for two weeks, with a none-too-subtle bouquet of old socks and an after-taste of greasy Tupperware.
However, the craft beer craze has inspired a new generation of home-brewers, using professional-grade equipment, sophisticated recipes, and hi-tech innovations such as blue-tooth, apps and remote control to monitor and adjust the brewing process even from their work-desks.
Homebrew has become a creative passion for a new generation of DIY beer lovers. There are as many as 80 basic brews, the variations are endless, and the hobby is even starting to lose its ‘Beardy Blokes In Sheds’ image.
Kellie Dawson, president of the National Homebrew Club, represents the new face of homebrewing. A relatively recent convert to the cause (largely influenced by her husband’s passion) she’s become something of an expert and an evangelist, as well as a certified competition judge.
“Yes, the beardy blokes in sheds thing! Well, there’s still quite a lot of that, but it’s not necessarily bad!” says Kellie.
“We do get all sorts of people, from every kind of background. For myself, my husband started brewing again at home and it was a case of ‘well, if he’s going to be spending all his spare time doing this, I might as well get involved’.
“But once you do get into it, you find there’s a great social scene. It’s people who love creating great beers, who love to share what they do, talk about it, learn more skills as they go along — it’s just really creative and a lot of fun. And of course, the end result is lovely beer to drink and share.”
Sharing brews does seem to be a big part of the scene, and quite a few home-brewers will do special orders for parties, dinners and even weddings.
Drew Ruttle is an expert brewing hobbyist with a sophisticated set-up in his home in Cork city centre. And his brews are very popular with family and friends.
“I’ve done a few batches up for friends’ weddings and given bottles as presents. They always seem to go down well, I think people appreciate when it’s something you’ve made yourself, it’s very personal,” says Drew.
“I’ve got a friend who grows his own organic veg, we’ve swapped beer for spuds and carrots, so we have our own little barter economy going.”
There have been some setbacks — the special batch of pale ales bottled for a good friend’s wedding proved to be a little over the top when it came to carbonation, with some pretty spectacular results.
“People were popping the corks and there were fountains of beer exploding, but the bride’s dress didn’t get splashed and it was a case of lesson learned,” says the home brewer and secondary school teacher.
DIY brewers do share horror stories — such as batches left in hot presses that have exploded under pressure — giving every item of clothing and bed-linen a brewery-like aroma that can never quite be washed out. The combination of heat, gases, and liquids fermenting under pressure has also led to sheds going airborne in the past. But these days, it is usually a much more controlled process.
Drew has gone pretty deep into the tech side of things — his set-up looks like a miniature craft-beer brewery with gadgets very much to the fore, alongside special mixing and fermenting vats in high-grade stainless steel.
His main piece of kit, for making the initial brew, came from New Zealand, looks like it should be bolted on to the side of a space station and cost €650. But that has been by far his biggest expenditure, and he’s now making 20 or 40 litre batches of gorgeous craft beers that work out at around 50 cents a pint.
“The tech is amazing — a lot of the brewing process is controlled by an app. It can get very high tech, but you also have to use a lot of creativity when it comes to the ingredients,” he says.
So what’s the big attraction? Apart from the price of 50 cents a pint for beer that can match up to pretty much anything the craft breweries put out.
“I’ve tried a good few hobbies down the years, music, photography, I’ve been big into them all. But with homebrew, you can be as creative as you want, it’s a process that takes time and you are always learning, but it’s the only hobby I’ve had where you end up with 40 bottles of great beer,” says Drew.
The hobby is really catching on. The National Homebrew Club alone has almost 1,500 members registered on its forum, with 20 affiliate clubs all over the country. Regular home-brew meet-ups, events and competitions happen in most parts of the country at least once a month, and thousands of Irish home-brewers are active online, sharing tips, comparing brews and spreading the word.
Mick O’Toole, an IT specialist who has been brewing for nearly five years, is part of the growing all-grain movement that starts with the most basic step, grinding the natural grains that will form the basis of the brew.
“It’s a really creative outlet. You’re making something from scratch, learning, improvising, and coming up with new ideas as you go along. It’s also very social — you’d be surprised how popular I’ve become with my neighbours.
“I’ve work colleagues I’ve made wedding beer for, every Christmas my folks have people round so I give them a keg with the gas set-up and everybody can enjoy my beer. It does appeal to my geeky side and it tends to attract people who are into tech and gadgets, with my set-up I can control it from wherever I am.
“The equipment that’s available now has come way down in price, it gives you amazing control over the whole brewing process, probably as much as you would get in a commercial brewery.”
The Kildare-based beer-creator says it’s never been easier to get into home brewing.
“Lots of people are drinking craft beers now, their tastes are becoming more adventurous. Once they find out that they can achieve the same sort or results by brewing themselves, making great beers for very little money, it gets very attractive,” he says.
The craft beer revolution has changed Irish attitudes to beer and seen an explosion in the number of small breweries in Ireland, with around 72 currently brewing, up from just 15 in 2012.
The small-batch, highly-creative flavour approach has in turn inspired a new generation of hobby brewer in a way that a previous generation were inspired by TV chefs and cookery books to start making Thai curries or Moroccan tagines in their kitchens.
Home-brewing, once the byword for barely drinkable “beer”, has become a fun, social and creative hobby that delivers a refreshing, sharable result.