THE first person to consume alcohol was almost certainly a primitive and hungry hominid who found some fermenting fruit lying around a tree and ate the lot.
Having taken to walking on two legs only recently, he or she might have found returning to all fours suddenly seemed appealing.
The following morning will have brought a life lesson right up there with “sticking paw in fire really hurts”, and so began our love-hate relationship with alcohol.
For all but the last thousand years or so, brewing was mostly done at home. Now, thanks to increased pub prices and politicians’ threats to hike tariffs in the shops, more and more of us are going back to the old ways.
The old image of the home brewer as a woolly-hatted madman hunched over a bucket of something unpleasant in the corner of a shed has been banished.
“You can achieve results as good as or better than anything you can buy in a pub,” a man called Ken Thomas told me.
“When the recession started, there was a large surge of interest. I think one of the important things about it was that at that time people still had some money in their pockets as well, so they were able to invest in equipment and set themselves up.
“Now there are still a lot of newcomers but I’d say sales are pretty level.”
Ken and wife Fran run Arkwrights in Highworth, which specialises in selling whisky to a global roster of connoisseurs, but they also sell a great deal of home brewing and home wine-making equipment. The sector is booming. One supermarket chain recently reported 70 per cent growth in the sector over a year, and national newspapers have run headlines such as: “Cash strapped beer lovers spark home brewing revival.”
The numbers at the bottom of the balance sheet are attractive, especially if you’re tired of getting only a handful of coppers in change every time you hand a £20 note over a bar for a modest round of drinks.
The other attraction for the home beer or wine maker is that they can control all aspects of the process, fine tuning everything from alcoholic strength to the basic taste. They can create red, white and rose wines of all styles, and beers ranging from mild ales to stouts so dark and powerful that they’re best approached with extreme caution and a silent prayer.
Like many specialists, Ken and Fran can set newcomers up with everything they need to make their own beer or wine. For the beer enthusiast, about £70 buys a fermenting vessel, a pressure barrel, malt extract, yeast, sterilising materials and assorted other items needed to produce five gallons. There are cheaper options in certain supermarkets and chain stores, but Ken and Fran refuse to stock them, saying they’re substandard. “The first batch works out at about £1.75 a pint,” said Ken. “After that, because you already have the equipment, it can cost as little as 29p a pint or about 63p if you buy the best ingredients.”
It’s a similar story for the beginning wine maker, with the first 30 bottles costing a total of about £70 and subsequent ones rather less.
Beer can be ready in as little as a fortnight and wine in as little as seven days.
There are more advanced techniques for the true enthusiast, such as making one’s own malt extract for beer and adding terms such as “sparging the wort” to one’s vocabulary, but the essential principles are within the grasp of anybody.
The basic ingredients, including malt for beer and grape concentrate for wine, as well as sugar, are placed in a fermenting vessel with water and yeast and left for however long fermentation takes. The yeast feeds on the sugar and turns it into alcohol. Sugar content at the beginning determines alcohol content at the end; a little sugar means less potency, while a lot can produce rocket fuel. The beer or wine is then either bottled or – for beer only – put in a pressure barrel.
It’s very simple and open to a lifetime’s worth of experimentation and refinement.
“It’s a growing part of our business,” said Ken. “Interestingly, there are people who come here for home brew equipment and end up buying a bottle of whisky as well.”
It’s worth mentioning that spirits are one thing beyond the scope of the home craftsperson. Distilling them is not only illegal but also carries risks ranging from producing toxic alcohol to blowing the house up.