Having investigated the cult of amateur craft brewing during the final third of a journalism degree, it was inevitable that my curiosity would eventually get the better of me. Letting these curiosities simmer at the back of my mind for a good six months, it was upon returning home from university, with little more than part-time employment to occupy myself that I began to casually browse the internet for home-brew recipes.
With a friend already well-versed in making wine, mead and anything vaguely medieval, he was naturally intrigued by my growing interest in the hobby. It took a little while to convince him that I was interested in brewing a beer you’d find in a good pub rather than something you might see in Robin Hood, but after mentioning the idea I'd had to flavour the beer with the raspberries growing in my back garden, he was soon eager to lend a hand.
Sourcing the goods
Shunning the starter kits that Wilkinson now sell – a knee-jerk reaction to having spent many a miserable evening stacking their shelves as a Christmas temp – we settled on the process known as extract brewing. More sophisticated than kit brewing, the use of concentrated malt skips out the fiddly processes of ‘mashing’ the grain, but allows you to retain control over the hops, yeast, sugar and any additional ingredients.
Malt extract comes in tins weighing in at 1.5kg. Open it up and you’re greeted with a sweet smell – a sticky, golden brown syrup with the instantly familiar taste of malt loaf. It’s not exactly the easiest item to acquire and in this case it meant chugging along the A3 in a spluttering Nissa Micra, frustratingly circling the one way system of Aldershot town centre before having to ask a man named Baldy (he wasn’t even bald) for directions in a pub car park full of Aldershot fans.
Standing on a trading estate, surrounding by car garages and cash and carry outlets, the Aldershot Home Brew Shop looks strangely like a scout hut. It’s only small inside, but with shelves loaded with demijohns, hops, grain and dusty bottles of organic ale, it's like a treasure trove for the budding brewer. With only a vague idea of the ingredients needed for the beer – now christened as the Raspberry Ripper – the staff were happy to point us in the direction of a light malt extract, a small sachet of ale yeast and a pouch of citrusy Amarillo hops to compliment the raspberries.
Surveying the ragtag ensemble of kitchen equipment lined up along the worktops, the electronic scales and small tubs of chemical sanitiser, it looked like something out of a Breaking Bad episode. Trying to create a sense of structure amidst the chaos, we set about covering the kitchen cupboards with yellow post-it notes mapping out a plan.
We started by measuring out 1.5 litres of water. After heating in a large saucepan, we poured in half of the malt extract and stirred until dissolved. Topping up the pan with more water, we weighed out three quarters of the hops – 15 grams in this case – whilst the wort (the technical name for unfermented beer) slowly built its way to a boil. After throwing in the hops, we then added half a kilo of raspberries and stirred some more.
Continuing to boil the wort – now a deep red colour – for around 45 minutes, we added the remainder of the hops as a finishing touch. Submerging the pan into a sink full of icy water, we then poured the cooled wort through a rudimentary strainer made by strapping a sheet of muslin to an industrial-sized bucket used for holding cocoa powder with a belt.
We poured the cooled wort through a rudimentary strainer made by strapping a sheet of muslin to an industrial-sized bucket used for holding cocoa powder with a belt.
The waiting game
Having added yeast and sugar, we left the concoction to ferment in the sanitised plastic bucket for two weeks. Its appearance – like tomato juice with a chocolaty scum on top – was a little worrying. We strained the beer again to get rid of the sludgy yeast sediment and siphoned it off to ten bottles, adding a teaspoon of sugar to each one before hammering on (literally) the bottle caps. We then waited another two weeks to allow for secondary fermentation to take place. This timeframe wasn’t necessarily planned, but walking back from the pub one Saturday night, already five or six beers deep, it felt like a perfect time to crack a couple of bottles open.
The initial hiss heard when beheading the first bottle of its cap was an indicator that fermentation had actually worked. Even better was the glorious sight of white froth which foamed up when the ruby coloured beer hit the bottom of a pint glass.
Nervously raising the glass to my lips, I had no idea how it would taste. Instantly, I got the raspberries – fruity and pungent. Then came the bitterness of the hops that lingered at the back of the mouth. In all honesty, it was as good as any beer I’d ever tasted and a hundred times more satisfying. Admittedly, it was a little cloudy for an ale, but in terms of flavour and strength, it couldn’t be faulted.
Now able to speak about home-brewing from experience, I can testify that it's a craft that can only be learnt from actually doing it. You hear about the science behind making beer but in this case, we didn’t even bother with a thermometer. Like making a chilli, a soup or a good pasta sauce, you start off with the essentials, you bring the liquid to a boil and gradually add ingredients to create flavour. Of course, you have to take sterilisation and fermentation into consideration, but if you appreciate beer and have the patience, then home-brewing is something which I can’t recommend enough.