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Wednesday, 1 September 2021

New Month Old Post: Strange Brew

Back In Time For The Weekend Episode 3
(first posted 18th February 2016)

Giles Coren drinks home brew

Watching Giles Coren savour a pint of home brew in Episode Three of Back In Time For The Weekend brought it all back. I think it was down to the slightly cloudy, pale, urine-like appearance (the home brew, that is, not Giles), which looked so authentic I could actually taste the stuff. Boots Home Brew Bitter: it had a kind of thin, floral, and, well, bitter flavour.

We used to brew plastic dusbins full in our shared house in Leeds. One housemate, Nick, would urge 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 pissed.”

Front room 1974

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

Most of the time we bought the 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 a roasted dandelion and burdock flavour. 

Going by the numbers of empty bottles, it looks like we were fast running out and desperate for the dustbin to get a move on. Just a small number, the ones with red plastic push-on tops to the left of the hearth, remain to be consumed.

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. 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 to one of your own bottles you could try to swap it for someone else’s, 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. They would then, of course, start on mine. Rarely, if ever, did I get my full share. They thought it hilarious that I believed holding out for two or three weeks 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 didn’t care. He just used to drink the sediment as well. He didn’t want to waste it. His party piece was to open a bottle, put his thumb over the top to seal it, and shake it up. He would then put both the neck of the bottle and his thumb in his mouth and 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. If you like cocktails, I can thoroughly recommend a bite of Cadburys chocolate flake mixed in the mouth with a swig of Newcastle Brown.

30 comments:

  1. What a slob you were. Happy days of feature wallpaper around the fireplace and a good gas fire emitting lovely NO2 to lull us to sleep.

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    Replies
    1. Probably similar to most other shared houses at the time.

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  2. Home brew has improved a lot. Back in the 80s when I was unemployed my partner and I used to get a kit once a month, brew up in a bin and then transfer to a pressure barrel. When it was ready we'd hold a party since we couldn't afford to go to the pub

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    Replies
    1. I've been tempted to try more recently, but decided to go for wine instead. A few years ago I made several demijohns of Wilkos elderberry, which isn't bad at all, but last time I looked the kits had become rather expensive.

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  3. Great story. Did you have central heating to keep the beer at a warm and even temperature? I tried to make beer once in the 90s with a kit, a total failure. There was no danger at all about tops being blown off bottles. There was no danger of poisoning at least, as it wasn't drinkable.

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    Replies
    1. The house was heated by two gas fires, one of which is in the picture. We also had electric blow heaters. I would guess that in 1974 only about a third of UK homes had central heating, and along with 40% of other households, we had no fridge or washing machine, and domestic freezers were almost unknown in the U.K.

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  4. Everybody seemed to be into home brewing and wine making in those days. Kits from Boot's were a standard Christmas present for young men. You don't hear much about home brewing these days. Most home brewed beer I ever tried was disgusting.

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    Replies
    1. You must have had the lager or bitter which truly were awful. The brown ale and stout were a lot better, although I didn't really like stout.

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  5. Disgusting. You boys were total slobs!

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    Replies
    1. Do you mean us or the beer or both were disgusting? I disagree all ways.

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  6. Replies
    1. The brown ale really was drinkable if you like it.

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  7. Oh Tasker - student days - nothing like 'em.

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    1. We weren't students, though. Actually, we weren't as well off as students who got pretty good grants in those days.

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  8. This post is a picture of youth! These days around here "craft brews" are the big thing. There are many restaurants and bars that specialize in their own special brews.

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    Replies
    1. I bet they don't make it in plastic dustbins and have bottles with push on plastic tops. Health and safety!

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  9. A mate at engineering college (1968) said they were distilling pure alcohol.
    *It's basic vodka, it's no lighter fuel,* he said.
    He'd get legless thanks to a technician in the chemist lab.

    In The Smugglers Inn, Scotstoun, I was offered illicit high-proof whisky. That way lay blindness as well as madness.

    Women working at our whisky bond had miniatures in their knickers.
    The law-abiding were content with home-made scrumpy + gooseberry wine.

    Alcoholism is a mood disorder and a social malaise everywhere.

    I was reading a biography of novelist Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man) by Michael Shnayerson.
    Shaw was a family man and his friends were worried about his drinking.
    They asked him if he had thought about stopping altogether.
    *I can't,* he said.
    Haggerty

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    1. I am reliably informed that it is less risky to fractionally freeze out the alcohol - fewer impurities that way - although I feel sure you know that already.

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    2. I used to purchase a litre bottle of Absolut vodka at Duty Free and never gave it a thought: the chemistry interests me now.

      I like your gas fires and the patterned wallpaper.
      Perhaps I shall redecorate one room of my home in the style of the 1960s.
      Instead of home brew I can have half a dozen bottles of German Baltic stout, on sale at an indie booze shop in Kelvinbridge.

      My father liked his stout and English bitter: I wish I could treat him now.
      Haggerty

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    3. Someone, before it became a rented house, must have taken pride in the brown wallpaper and feature wall, and the new fireplace. In 1960s style it was quite nicely done. And I remember the room as being comfortably homely, despite the front door opening straight out on to the street (you can just make it out in the mirror on the left). At one time there may have been a partition wall making a corridor between the front door and the door to the stairs and back room. Nowadays, landlords would reinstate it, make all the rooms self-contained with mini-cookers so they shared only the bathroom, and cram in another couple of residents. It was good friendly accommodation for a group of young single blokes.

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    4. Doors that open to the street lend the house a different dynamic.
      The hallway is a liminal space, boundary + threshold.

      The wallpaper, gas fire, Brown Ale Kit and dimpled beer glass belong in an era when not everyone had a colour television.

      *The Forsyte Saga Interview Feature* (YouTube) is a documentary about the making of the black-and-white miniseries which held the nation spellbound. Kenneth More, Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter.

      Kenneth More was the ideal Father Brown which I have on DVD, but that was in colour some years letter.
      Chesterton liked his beer and sausages and I wonder what he would have made of the Sixties.
      Haggerty

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  10. Could it be that the offspring of you 1970s makers of terrible beer have now turned to making the 'craft' beers we see today?

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    1. Would that be because they think they can do better or because they can't tell the difference?

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    2. Can't answer that because I have only ever drunk stout, which I like for its sweetness. But obviously having lived with a beer drinker I got to see many 'craft beer' places.

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  11. Love the old pictures, but this doesn't make me particularly eager to try home brew. LOL

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    1. I wouldn't want to, either. There are some very nice bottled beers around these days.

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  12. I do not know and probably never will the flavor of roasted dandelions. The product of all breweries large or small, commercial or home-made, has always looked and smelled to me as though it had been through a horse first. I am not attracted to it. Actually, I am repulsed by it. Guess I wouldn’t be a good Brit.

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    1. It was like strong dandelion and burdock fizzy pop (have you never had that?) but with a slightly burnt edge. I imagine you are an Islay drinker. If so you probably would have like it.

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  13. I used to make my own too. Won second prize in the Liverpool Show back in the 60s. I was pretty pissed off being beaten by the President of the British Wine and Beer Making Association (or some name like that). I thought he should have been ineligible.

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