Shane Raymond drops his first piece for This Greedy Pig, taking a look at Ireland’s beer homebrewing scene against the backdrop of the recent Homebrew Beer Festival at Bodytonic’s Beatyard festival.
There’s a lot of bearded men setting up the national homebrew festival. As they calibrate the pressure on kegs of ale they joke about how much their weekend hobby has changed from drinking beer to cleaning down surfaces and sterilizing kitchen equipment. There are people, and my girlfriend may be included as one of them, that would find this scene borderline erotic.
The festival consists of a cabinet converted into a bar in the back garden of the Bernard Shaw. Visitors help themselves from the seven taps crafted into the woodwork which pour out some of Ireland’s oddest ales, lagers and ciders with funny names like Opus Pocus and Weiss As Nice. Enthusiasts will tell you that as soon as you need a name for a beer it becomes hard not to think in puns. Mexican beers become Michael Cera-veza, an IPA becomes the Hoppy Mondays and adding malted wheat to the brewing process opens up possibilities like Miami Weiss, Three Weiss Men or Grand Theft Auto: Weiss City.
This mini-festival has been set up by the National Homebrew Club, an umbrella organisation for local and specialised brew groups, representatives of which can be seen walking around with t-shirts saying ‘Beoir’ and ‘Capital Brewers’. Most of these clubs meet up about once a month to share brewing tips and a taste of each other’s beer.
The two recurring rules of homebrewing seem to be ‘throw away the instructions provided’ (often done with a visual flourish at classes) and ‘keep a record of everything that’s been done to the beer’. You want to avoid your past mistakes and recreate your happy accidents. The third rule of homebrewing involves topless men beating each other up in basements, but I’m not allowed to talk about that.
From the beer-tasting notes of Declan Carey, publican:
“That’s what homebrew should be, really strong shit you’ll never try again.”
It’s not unusual to feel a little ripped off when you first open your homebrew starter kit. You have, after all, bought a bucket. It’s only after brewing for a while that you realise that the bucket was the important part, all the fancy gadgets are superfluous. Brewing traces its lineage to an 8,000 year old culinary accident and, for homebrewers, the technique hasn’t progressed much since (beyond the addition of sanitary standards).
To make alcohol you take a big bucket of sugary water, and add yeast. That’s it. For wine you make your sugar water from grapes. Cider uses apples and for whiskey you have to distil it at the end. What makes beer ‘beer’ is that you trick barley or wheat into half-sprouting before throwing it in water to take advantage of its sugars.
Yeast are micro-aquatic mushroom people who eat sugar and piss alcohol. When you put them in a bucket of ‘wort’ – that’s the sugary barley water (pronounced wert) – they eat and multiply until you have 20 litres of living liquid that slowly metabolises itself into a higher ABV, all the while audibly belching out carbon-dioxide. At some stage there’s too much life and not enough sugar and everything goes the way of a cautionary tale about climate change or DIY plumbing: the yeast are unable to live in the environment they’ve created and drown in their own excreta. The survivors adapt to eat the corpses of their fallen and produce strange chemical compounds that stink up your beer and make it undrinkable. In modern yeasts this doesn’t happen for months and bottling the beer removes it from the cycle of famine and cannibalisation while keeping enough live yeast to carbonate and change the character of the beer. It’s always worth giving a bad beer a while to ferment; yeast tends to clean up its own mess and in time will usually leave you with a decent drink. Besides, the type of person who will give up on a beer would pull the plug on their own child.
From the overheard tasting notes of a homebrew enthusiast:
“It tastes like a Hedgehog. Earthy. A bit cheeky. Spiky.”
In theory, it’s far cheaper to brew beer then to buy it, but the theory is bunk. Homebrewing boomed during the 1980’s recession when wine become popular due to continental holidays but still flaunted a high price. I’m told that, to avoid legal complications arising from laws against poitin distilling, grape fruit concentrate was sold with a label that said: “Warning: don’t do the following or it will result in this grape concentrate turning into alcohol…”. It’s a good story, but probably never happened in Ireland except as a joke.
It was in this atmosphere that homebrewing developed a bad name. Unconcerned with taste, people advised each other to store their grape mix in the warmth of the hotpress. This produces alcohol faster, but at massive detriment to taste. Overheating is now one of the most common ways that homebrews get accidentally ruined, except in Ireland where sudden heat waves are… you know. You live here.
Nowadays, if you made the same brew over and over again with no variation, you can get the price of beer down to about 30 cent a pint. However if like most home brewers your main interest isn’t saving money, you’ll inevitably incorporate new equipment to create experimental beers (some batches of which will have to be flushed), not to mention hand-pulls for your home bar. It’s a slightly pricey hobby, offset by the fact that it gets you drunk.
The homebrewing festival started at noon on a hungover Saturday morning with few people showing for the free beer. As the day goes on, word spreads and the place becomes packed. Discounting young kids and the beardless, men become the minority in the crowd. Queues form. It’s notoriously hard to measure alcohol content and many small breweries do the roughest of estimates relying on mobile phone apps, but on average the marked ABV at this festival floats in around 8%. This is strong beer and people have been drinking since noon. There is something embarrassing about admitting that one my favourite drinks of the day was an evening Becks from the bar tap – after all the pistachio, nut and chocolate flavours, this was a beer that tasted of almost nothing at all. Fuck flavour.
From my own beer tasting notes:
“Beer is good. good. good. Good.”
First Published by This Greedy Pig in November 2013,
The article can be found on their website at: http://www.thisgreedypig.com/home/food-drink/the-first-rule-of-homebrew/