Taste Scene

Michael Devlin

Hoppy days in lockdown

“This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the Lord intended a more divine means of consumption. Let us give praise to our maker and glory to his bounty by learning about… BEER.”
– Friar Tuck, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Back in April last year, before all this corona-madness kicked off, myself and a group of friends trekked up to The Walled City Brewery in Derry to partake in the Homebrew Academy and all things considered, it was a great day. We learned all about the alchemy of fermentation, we talked about beer, we ate a majestic lunch (with a beer) and then we drank more beer – lots of beer. A great day. We also learned about ‘beer bombs’, the result of home-brewing malfunctions and possibly the worst thing that could happen to a home-brewer. But sure that would never happen to me, right? Wrong.
Part of the course too, was an actual brewing of beer and at the end of the day we all left the brewery with several litres of the juvenile beer we’d helped brew and moreover, we had strict instructions on what to do with it, upon our returns home. The big plastic flagon was to be installed in a cool spare room (ideally at 18˚C), in complete darkness and we weren’t to annoy it – or sample – for one week. At that juncture, when the yeast had finally stopped its magical converting of the sugars into alcohol, we would decant the brew into dark bottles with a teaspoon of sugar (which gives a homebrew its head) and these would be capped and returned to the darkness of the spare room for two further weeks.
Thereupon, we would have a very decent homebrew, or that was the thinking anyway. Unfortunately, for me at least, things didn’t turned out quite as planned.
Instead of decanting my beer into a number of bottles, I took the executive decision to decant all of my beer into a single large growler, which as those in the know will understand, is a very large bottle which craft beer enthusiasts use for refills at off-licences which offer draught sales. I pictured myself announcing to the family, “I’m just going to get a beer here,” and then landing into the living room with a gi-normous bottle which holds three litres.
However, after my beer had been decanted into the growler, it was placed in a darkened section of the utility room. All was well until one evening I was returning home from work and my mobile rang. It was Herself. She goes, “Your beer has exploded.”
Luckily and in hindsight, there was no-one in the utility room when the beer bomb detonated but that didn’t stop the explosion smashing tiles, spraying fermenting ale all around the room and generally wreaking sticky havoc. Had the growler been sitting on the worktop, I wonder even now if the force of the explosion might have put the windows out. Small mercies.
Picking shards of growler glass out of tacky beer that evening, I resolved there and then that this would be my one and only foray into the world of beer making. Some things are better left to the experts, I reconciled. No more bombs. I’ll stick to being a discerning consumer, with bags of Tayto for good measure.
And then my brother went and bought me a brewing starter kit for my birthday in February. 
And then lockdown arrived.
“Wow! Now, that’s what I call a beer!” I slurped in delight. To be precise it was a single hop IPA (India pale ale) and in this case the variety of hop was Simcoe and it had fruitiness and lots of pine-y undertones. And better still, I had brewed it myself.
That first pint was savoured like nothing I’d savoured before. Ice-cold and frothing and with a cool, lingering bitterness, I polished it off and immediately poured another, sticky growler shards already a fading memory.
Fashioned by way of a beer kit from the good people at Mangrove Jacks, this single hop IPA has been a game changer in my world and since that first pint, I’ve been brewing almost steadily (albeit with lots of advice from my brother Paul and a friend named Rory) as lockdown continued and the world spun on, ever erratically. 
I simply could not believe the quality of the stuff I was producing from home and at a fraction of the cost of a craft beer. Honestly, some of my brews were better than what I’ve paid upwards of three quid for in an off-licence and notwithstanding my time and effort, each of my pints cost about 30p to make. AND… the efforts required to make the brew only add to the appreciation.
Another main point to emphasise when it comes to home-brewing, is that with a little care and attention, it’s a deceptively simple process, especially if you’re using a pre-prepared set of ingredients within a ‘kit.’
As Rory put it at one point, “It’s really just washing up with benefits.” And he’s right. So long as all the equipment – the bottles, the brewing bucket, taps etc – is super-clean and you stick to the plan, nothing can go wrong.
“Hi, Smartypants Devlin, what about the exploding growler?”
The best theories on that initial brew (RIP) was that there had been a hairline crack in the growler that I hadn’t spotted, or that I’d decanted into the bottle before the initial fermentation had completed. Personally, I’m thinking it was the latter, but whatever the case, that growler was the start of a learning curve which went from tragedy to success like a beer-fuelled rocket.
At the time of writing, I’ve just bottled my fifth brew (an American double IPA) and to a pint, they have been an unqualified success. Using various kits purchased in the main from suppliers, Get Er Brewed in Randalstown, the beers have been so good, I can’t really stop talking about them.
“Gone shut up about your stupid beer,” is an oft-heard phrase in my world.
I also have an experimental cider brew on the go as of Saturday and so far, things are looking peachy – or apple-y, if you know what I mean.
Neither am I alone with my new-found brewing prowess at this time of lockdown. 
It seems many more beer fans have taken to the brewing bucket during this enforced isolation.
“There has been a massive move to home-brewing.” James Huey is the master brewer behind The Walled City Brewery and a man who agrees that it was probably decanting too soon which killed the growler (RIP).
“You can see on the homebrew sites that they just can’t keep up with demand,” he continues. “One of them has stopped taking orders altogether. They just couldn’t cope. The likes of Get Er Brewed are working with a week’s backlog.”
Before speaking to James, I actually rang Get Er Brewed to get their take on this explosion of home-brewing (and I also wanted to enquire when the Mangrove Jacks kits will be back in stock) although, ironically, they didn’t have time to chat to me.
James adds, “We’ve started brewing again too but even we’re having bother getting some of our supplies. Most of the big things like grain are all right but something small like a type of sour yeast, trying to get that you might be looking at a three week wait – it’s a nightmare.”
Although as troubling as it can be digging out certain ingredients, James adheres to the hypothesis that this move to home-brewing is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, whereby the more people brew at home, the more momentum craft beer gains and the more people start homebrewing.
“I think it’s great,” he laughs. “And it makes sense too. If you’re stuck in the house and you can’t get out for a pint, why wouldn’t you make it yourself?
“It becomes kind of addictive after a while too, especially if you have a couple of different brews going at the same time.”
Now that’s an idea! Then I could share some of the produce with local brewers who’re doing the same thing.
Or, I could just drink two different beers at once!
• 1 set of ingredients included in a kit
Follow the instructions on the back of the pack.
Note: You’ll also need a brewing bucket and bottles but the good people at Get Er Brewed will be able to sort you out with that. 
If they have time, that is.

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