It’s a great time to be a craft beer lover in the UK, as we are home to over 2000 breweries. But while many of us have enjoyed a bottle in our lifetimes, it’s easy to overlook the sheer skill and precision that goes into creating a craft beer from scratch.
If anyone knows anything about craft beer, it’s Ben Richards, a beer sommelier from Devon. Having worked with River Cottage and the BBC, Ben’s passion helps him discover new and exciting breweries in the South West and beyond.
Here, he talks about what it really takes to create a craft beer from planting the hops right through to tasting the final product.
Have you ever wondered what it takes to brew a beer from scratch, to create a pint using only home-grown ingredients?
I have. So at the start of 2017, I took on an unused, rubbish-strewn allotment in Devon to see if I could brew beer using just the barley, hops, yeast and water that came from the plot.
From the planting of the first ingredients in January, right through to the end-of-year bottling and tasting, here is my journey.
Growing ingredients for craft beer
Having cleared the rubbish and weeds in early January, the first ingredient to be planted was the hops.
These are important as they provide the beer with aroma, bitterness and antibacterial properties.
I built a large, central pole on the plot, strung lines from the top to the ground and, at the base of these, planted four different varieties of hops: Fuggles, Golding, Perle and Cascade.
This then gave me a few weeks to prepare the beds for the second ingredient: barley.
Barley is critical to brewing – without the sugars it provides, the yeast cannot make alcohol during fermentation. I hand-sowed an organic variety, waited, and two weeks later the first shoots began to emerge, albeit a little unevenly.
Without a spring, stream or well on site, I had to collect, filter and store my own rainwater (the third ingredient), before turning my attention to arguably the trickiest element of all, the yeast.
I enlisted the help of friends at the University of Exeter and, after collecting samples from fruits, plants and insects on the plot, they were able to isolate and identify two different strains.
Harvesting ingredients for craft beer
Come the end of August, it was time to harvest.
But it hadn’t been an easy journey. The storms that battered Devon in July nearly wiped out my entire barley crop, while weeds, aphids, rabbits, pheasants, and even a rogue bull, all tried their best to hamper my efforts.
Despite this, a day of hand-picking, threshing and winnowing the barley left me with just under 8kg of grain.
And a week later, my hop harvest yielded more than enough for the final brew. There was a predictable surplus of water.
After drying and freezing the hops (a form of preservation), I had the barley malted. By November, it was all ready to brew.
Brewing craft beer
When it came to brewing, I heated up the rainwater, soaked the malted barley for an hour and then drained off the resulting sugary liquid.
This was then boiled and the hops added. After another hour, the liquid was cooled, before adding the yeasts.
Eight days later, the beer was bottled. This was followed by a three-week wait to see whether my year’s efforts were worth it, or not.
Even before opening the first bottle I had already worked out that this was probably the least economically viable beer ever made.
In fact, had the many experts that helped with the growing, brewing or accompanying podcast charged for their time, I would need to sell my 15 litres of beer for just over £1,000 per pint to break even.
Craft beer: The final product
Finally, the first bottle was opened and evaluated by an international beer judge.
The results were surprising, to put it mildly. Not only was the beer very drinkable and without technical faults, but it was a totally different style to what I had expected.
I had anticipated a classic, English bitter but instead the allotment yeasts provided spicy, clove and banana fruit aromas. The beer poured hazy with a thick white head – all characteristics of a classic, German wheat beer.
And the name? After days of consideration and procrastination I realised I had to name it after the allotment, the space from which all of the ingredients came: plot 10S.
Ben Richards is an accredited beer sommelier and the creator of Growing Beer. When not growing or collecting the ingredients needed to brew he can be found hosting tastings and events throughout South West England or spending time with his family in Devon.
You can find out more about the project or listen to the whole series of the podcast at growingbeer.co.uk. All images in this post are credited to Ben Richards.