The craft beer revolution and the art of the homebrew

Once an important differentiator, ‘craft beer’ is a term that’s fast becoming ubiquitous. We talk to some of the beer revolution’s guiding lights, and find that the best way to keep it craft is to do it yourself

The art of homebrewing

Back in 2010, I interviewed a couple of twenty-something Scottish guys who were starting to become notorious in the brewing world. They called out the large beer conglomerates that dominated the brewing landscape for drowning the country in rubbish beer, and were equally scathing about CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, whom they saw as beardy and resistant to change. They made staggeringly strong beers and put them in bottles embedded in taxidermied animals because that, too, was bound to piss someone somewhere off. They were, obviously, BrewDog.

They also told me to call what they were making 'craft beer' – not real ale, or bitter, or microbrewing, but craft beer. Ridiculous as it sounds given its ubiquity now, it was the first time I'd heard that term used, and there's little doubt that BrewDog played a big role – possibly the biggest role – in bringing it into widespread use in the UK. Now you can barely walk past a pub that isn't claiming to sell craft beer (whether it actually does or not), and you're guaranteed to have at least one friend who's suddenly become a walking encyclopaedia of obscure Belgian beer styles.

Unsurprisingly, then, BrewDog's founders James Watt and Martin Dickie see themselves as protectors of the UK craft brewing scene. Last December, when UK craft-beer stalwart Camden Town Brewery was bought by AB Inbev, the largest brewer in the world, for a reported £85m, BrewDog immediately delisted Camden Town beers from its bars. That followed the acquisition of Greenwich-based Meantime by SABMiller (itself soon to be bought by AB Inbev for £71bn) in May 2015. The BrewDog team made their feelings very clear in a 22 December blog post entitled 'Nailing our colours to the mother fucking mast'. "We are going to live and die by what we believe in and the values we hold true," it read. "We are not doing this for money, we are doing this because we love craft beer."

We are not doing this for money, we are doing this because we love craft beer

So to prove it, in February BrewDog launched a project called DIY Dog, in which the recipe for every single beer they've ever made was made available to anyone who wanted to use it, but particularly homebrewers. After all, where does the craft-beer torch burn stronger than in the garages and kitchens of hobbyists and brew-it-yourself-ers?

It's in this spirit that I decide to give it a go myself. Armed with a kit from Clapham beer shop We Brought Beer and made by US small-batch brewing pioneers Brooklyn Brew Shop, I set aside a Sunday to make my Chestnut Brown Ale (they also do a kit to make BrewDog's Punk IPA, which, given the context, I should probably be using. But I'm not.) The concept's simple – the kit includes just about everything you need to make about a gallon of all-grain beer – that is, beer made from proper ingredients rather than a tin – from scratch. In very simple terms, conventional beer is made by extracting sugar from a starchy grain using hot water, then fermenting the resulting sugary liquid by adding yeast. Hops (the flowers of the hop plant) are added for bitterness and flavour. That, basically, is it – and that, basically, is what you do with the Brooklyn Brew Shop kit, on a much smaller scale than both commercial breweries and traditional homebrewing. It's perfect if, like me, you want to have a crack at making your own beer but don't have the space or dedication to go big.

James Hickson of We Brought Beer

James Hickson of We Brought Beer

When James Hickson opened the first We Brought Beer store in Balham, it was mostly to sell craft beer, but he also "wanted to introduce a homebrew element to it". That's exactly what he's done, with Brooklyn Brew Shop kits and ingredients, and a homebrew club that meets once a month. Though he admits he hasn't brewed much recently, Hickson has been brewing on and off for 7 or 8 years, and made the move from large-scale homebrewing equipment to the Brooklyn kits about three years ago. "It was such a performance every time," he explains, "so I wanted to do it on a smaller scale. It felt the same as when I was using a big kit – you're using actual grains and hops – but on a much more manageable scale."

'Manageable' is about as ambitious as I'm prepared to be. I spread myself and the kit out in my kitchen and set about making my beer, with a notepad on hand so I can write down any observations (read: cock ups). I won't go into the detail of how it's done – there's a vast amount of information available online – but essentially if you can bake, you can brew. Though the notepad goes out of the window almost instantly, by the end of the day I have a one-gallon glass demijohn full of what I'm hoping will become beer, and it feels good.

Soon afterwards I chat to Charlie Shaw, one of the founders of South London's Gipsy Hill Brewing Company, which makes some of my favourite beers. He started out as a homebrewer in 2012, influenced by craft breweries like Beavertown and Kernel, and says he realised pretty quickly that he wanted to take his hobby further. "Not to say homebrewing wasn't a means to an end anyway," he tells me. "It was great and I really enjoyed it, but I was really interested in the beer scene and everything that was happening with it, so I thought [homebrewing] could lead to another career."

After getting experience under his belt at Hackney's Five Points, he and co-founder Sam McMeekin got the keys to what would become Gipsy Hill in January 2014. Seven months later they'd made their first beer. I ask him about the challenges facing craft breweries that, like Gipsy Hill, want to both grow in size and keep making a great-tasting artisan product. "It's something we've thought about quite a lot," he admits. "I've always found the word "craft" a bit icky, but actually I've grown into it more – I think it's important to set this part of the industry aside. When people say things like 'hand-crafted' I think, 'well, it's not exactly made by hand.' Let's reserve that term for people like sculptors. We're looking at more advanced setups to make things much more automated so you are, necessarily, moving away from the 'craft' thing, but all I think should matter is quality."

For most homebrewers, though, it's more about the process – and, more importantly, enjoying the end product – than taking beer making to an industrial level. Posy Parsons runs St Albans-based small-batch homebrew kit supplier HomeBrewtique with her business partner, Australian Claire Russell. Hailing from Boston, MA, Parsons found she wasn't able to get the kind of beer she was used to when she moved to the UK, so she set about making her own. The pair developed HomeBrewtique because they felt other all-grain small-batch kits weren't as good as they could be. "We wanted to brew small batches and try loads of different styles, without taking up the whole house with equipment and bottles," she says. "We both have small kids and love doing lots of things besides just brewing beer, so we didn't want it to take over our lives. For that, small-batch beer is great."

It's also, as Parsons discovered, a great way to understand more about the beers you're enjoying in the pub or from specialist shops like We Brought Beer. "You get really intrigued by the flavours you're seeing and it makes you appreciate where those flavours come from," she tells me. "I think it works side by side. As you get more into your brewing, you become more of a beer snob, in a way."

Some brewing terms seem intimidating but really it's just water and grain

After a few weeks, and a few more steps, my beer is bottled and ready to drink. Have I created a masterpiece? Do I need to find an industrial unit to help bring my beer to the masses? Er, not quite. I pop the cap off and a geyser of foamy beer spurts into the air; I've over-carbonated it by misjudging the amount of sugar (or, in this case, honey) I added before bottling to give it some fizz. "It's a common mistake and it's hard to get right," Hickson tells me, "but we've had samples from professional brewers where they've got it wrong."

I'm relieved, and also pleased. Once it settles, I taste the beer and it's actually not bad – in fact it's pretty good, and absolutely worth the effort. "It's not as hard as some people think it is," says HomeBrewtique's Parsons. "If you start to research it you might find some brewing terms that seem intimidating, but really it's nothing more than water and grain."

Exactly. And for the record, if any multinational companies want to buy me and my nascent brewery, I'm totally open to offers. That's me nailing my colours to the motherfucking mast.