It all started as a bit of a laugh. A few people I knew at work mentioned they were brewing their own cider. Home brew had a less-than-glamourous aura lent to it by the bearded bores who I thought made up the enthusiasts. I was youngish and thrusting, a man about town. Not my scene, man. I was also about to get married and frantically saving to pay for, well, a month-long booze-sodden extravaganza of a honeymoon. So brew-your-own cider it was. I'd long since got over my teenage aversion to the stuff, gained as a badge of honour during my 19th birthday celebrations, and the others seemed to be enjoying themselves, though they gave out less self-publicity than Fight Club.
The recipe was the first disappointment. Apple Ale, it said on the photocopied handwritten sheet. Now I'm no expert but that's not cider for starters. All the same, I decided to give it a go. My Dad had made some when I was a kid and my first move was to borrow his brewing tub thing. 3lb of apples were needed for a gallon but that wouldn't last long so I decided to scale up. The barrel whatsit took 5 gallons so that was 15lb of apples. I had a tree at the back of the house and windfall apples that clog up the mower every spring, tapwater was free, I made that 40 free pints. Nothing could stop me now.
My tree's output was less than I'd hoped for. Once I'd collected them all up I was nowhere near the 15lbs required. Dad said my uncle had loads of windfalls in his garden and he'd get me some. The moment I walked in from work and discovered the bin-bag full he'd left in my hallway was more exhilarating than I could previously have imagined. I was hooked. As I prepared to start, I noted that the recipe called for rot to be cut out of the apples before grating or mincing them. Was that before or after they were weighed? To be on the safe side I decided to use the lot, about 25lb, and leave the rot. In the most macho moment of my life I elected not to grate or mince them either. I put them in a bin bag and smashed them up with a 4lb mell on the bare concrete kitchen floor then tipped what remained into the barrel. From then on my concoction was named 'Hammerblow'.
Freed of the constraints of following the recipe to the letter, I was in my element. Bruised ginger? I don't think so. If anything was getting bruised it was me, by my ginger wife-to-be as our bathroom smelled steadily worse with each passing nanosecond. If there was a good side to it, and I had to find one believe me, it was that the wasps who'd been getting in there didn't seem to like it much. Screw-stoppered flagons? Don't be silly, not when there's 2-litre plastic pop bottles lying around doing nothing. I was well into the bottled-and-waiting stage when worrying reports began to filter through from my fellow experimenters. A couple of sheds had exploded when containers had proven unable to hold the mighty Ale any longer. I ran home from the bus stop that day, to be greeted by the sight of grossly distended bottles, liable in my panicked imagination to trigger a chain reaction if even one went off. I felt like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan as I repressed my flight urge and stayed to save my platoon of liquid buddies. Each cap in turn was unscrewed a small amount for a few seconds until the danger had passed. The same routine was necessary every day until it was all gone. Did it affect the taste? Very probably, but not half as much as if it had blown the back door off. And that's not a euphemism.
Perhaps I should have known the enterprise was doomed when I had to throw out the barrel, after the man who'd come to fix the boiler disconnected its backed-up overflow pipe from the toilet waste pipe and unleashed a jet of my own pressurised faeces. “I've got shit in my mouth” wailed the boilerman. “Try shutting it then” I thought as I hid craftily behind him before his thumb turned him into a modern-day Dutch boy at a dyke. The torrent was only eventually contained by placing the barrel over it when the attempt to plug the hole with a whittled-down carrot saw the orange organic stopper smashed to bits on the opposite wall.
Finally the day came to try the cloudy evidence of man's supremacy over nature. It was like turbocharged ginger beer, an acquired taste no doubt but I had 40 pints to acquire it with. I rapidly discovered none of my friends would even try it when I invited them round. Bafflingly they all en masse decided to stick with the Kronenbourg. I've long held the theory that some drinks have a 'magic ingredient' that affects the drinker beyond all relation to its alcohol content. Stella does it for some, Brown Ale has always been my own nemesis, but this matched them all for me. After a slurred outburst in front of a favourite couple my fiancee read the riot act the next morning, though not quietly enough for my liking. It was made clear that if I attempted to drink more than a pint of the stuff in one sitting our future happiness would be compromised. In the end I was reduced to using it to make Delia's Boeuf Bourgignon just to get rid of it. Delicious, but a sad end to a plan that was meant to provide cheap thrills.