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Thursday, 18 February 2016

Strange Brew

Back In Time For The Weekend Episode 3

Giles Coren drinks home brew
Watching Giles Coren savour a pint of Rob’s home brew in Episode Three of Back In Time For The Weekend the other night brought it all back. I think it was down to the slightly cloudy, pale, urine-like appearance (the home brew, that is) which looked so authentic I could actually taste the stuff.

Boots Home Brew bitter had a kind of thin, floral, and well, bitter flavour. We used to make plastic-dustbins full of it in our shared house in Leeds. One housemate, Nick, always urged us to make it as strong as possible in his own inimitable way:

“Get some f---ing sugar in. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like as long as it gets you p----d.”

Front room 1974

Here it is in two views of our front room in 1974, red plastic dustbin fermenting away in the left hand corner, filling the house with a farm-yardy, malty, yeasty smell, fag packets on the mantelpiece, empty bottles underneath the television. That dimple pub-glass on the chair arm is mine, just like Giles Coren’s, and I’ve still got it. It’s indestructible.

Most of the time we bought the Boots brown ale kit. The darker the brew the more drinkable it was. Bitter was fairly nasty. Lager was beyond disgusting. Brown ale was passable. Stout had too much of a roasted dandelion and burdock flavour. Going by the numbers of Newcastle Brown and Strongbow bottles in the photograph, it looks to me like we were fast running out and desperate for the dustbin to get a move on. Just a small number of bottles, the ones with red plastic push-on tops to the left of the hearth, are yet-to-be-consumed home brew.

Brewing in plastic dustbin

We used to sterilise and rinse the bin, dissolve the malt extract and add sugar and yeast to make the ‘wort’, check the specific gravity with a hydrometer and then leave it to brew. You knew it was ready when the specific gravity fell to below 1008. It then went into sterilised bottles (we had a large collection waiting to be sterilised) which were sealed with the red push-on plastic tops, taken down to the cellar to finish off, and stood in three groups: mine, Nick’s and Brendan’s.

There were usually around thirteen bottles each. As fermentation came to an end, the pressure in the bottles slowly increased so that sometimes the tops would blow off to discharge the contents all over the cellar wall and floor. If this happened with one of your own bottles you could try to get away with swapping it for an undischarged one from someone else’s pile, but the sticky mess left behind tended to give you away. In any case, Brendan put a stop to this practice by marking his bottles with secret symbols.

You were supposed to leave them in the cellar for at least a couple of weeks to clear and mature, preferable longer, but Nick and Brendan had invariably drunk all theirs well before the couple of weeks had passed, leaving only mine left. They would then, of course, start on mine. Rarely, if ever, did I get my full share. They thought it funny I would try to hold out for two or three weeks in the belief that it would make it taste better.

There was always a layer of sediment at the bottom of the bottles. It was almost impossible to pour undisturbed: hence the cloudiness.

Brendan’s party piece was to shake a bottle while sealing the top with his thumb, and then, continuing to maintain the seal, to put the neck of the bottle and his thumb in his mouth. Only then would he release the pressure. I swear you could see the back of his head balloon out like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. 

Although the brown ale kit was best, it never came close to the real thing. I can thoroughly recommend a bite of Cadburys flake mixed in the mouth with a swig of Newcastle Brown.

The inclusion of image from BBC television programme Back In Time For The Weekend, Episode 3, is believed to be fair use. It is a low resolution image taken from a small part of one frame from the programme.


  1. It was quite the craze in the 1970s, wasn't it! I remember our airing cupboard constantly being full of brewing equipment and yet I don't remember the stuff ever being brought out to be drunk - maybe that was a grown up secret thing for when us kids had gone to bed, or maybe it was as tasty as Reggie Perrin's son-in-law's concoctions!

    1. We got into wine making a few years ago using Wilko's kits (the elderberry is quite reasonable). But we found ourselves drinking far too much of the stuff and it was never as good as a £5 bottle from the co-op.


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