Neil Riddell reports on the pleasure to be found in brewing your own beer with like-minded friends Kris Drever, Tim Matthew, Rory Tallack and Adam Guest.
When I was growing up the words “home brew” conjured up images of an unpleasantly acrid liquid or those amiable folkie guys who sang about trows.
But these things change. The craft beer movement has really gathered pace, with dozens of brilliant little breweries springing up all over the country in the past five years or so, and in most major cities you’ll find specialist outlets selling top-notch kits for those who want to have a go at making their own.
Last year a group of us – Rory Tallack, Kris Drever, Tim Matthew and myself – decided to give it a try, and the Amateur Fiddlers’ Association was born.
We’d all recently become dads for the first time and, while our days of late-night partying aren’t altogether finished, they’ve certainly become fewer. This was a way for everyone to get together socially at a time of the day more conducive to a lifestyle revolving around small children, to play some tunes and, eventually, sample our own wares and indulge in our shared love of beer.
After a bit of research, we invested in the necessary kit for extract brewing. The main things required were: a boiler to make the brew; a chiller to cool it down; and a large bucket in which the fermentation takes place prior to bottling. Various other implements and measuring devices were included to aid the process.
Being a scientific novice, I would direct those seeking a detailed technical explanation of said process towards a good brew-it-yourself book or one of the many how-to online videos.
On a bright, breezy Sunday afternoon in late April we gathered in Selivoe on the west side, where Tim lives with his wife Floortje and their (then one-month-old) beautiful baby daughter Tove.
Essentially, the basic method involves steeping some grains, boiling the liquid for an hour and adding different hops at different times, cooling it down and “pitching” some yeast.
Soon we had a plastic bucket full of pale brown liquid bubbling away while Shetland fiddle tunes rang out from the steam-filled porch. The brewing process resulted in a pleasing malty odour pervading the rest of the house for several hours – well, Floortje says days – afterwards.
By the afternoon’s end, the bucket was bound for a cupboard (it’s important to get the storage temperature right) to start a fortnight-long fermentation, while Tim’s beloved collie Belle lapped up the discarded malty juice with panache.
Midway through May it was back to Selivoe to prime (add sugar to) and bottle the mysterious liquid, followed by more days waiting for the finished product. Most brews are drinkable in a week or so, though carbonation can take a while to complete and the taste tends to improve over time.
No one really knew what to expect, but you can imagine our delight when – after weeks of suspense – the first batch, an American pale ale, turned out to be not just quaffable but downright delicious.
Each brew tends to yield around 22-23 litres of beer, enough for around a dozen bottles apiece costing a mere 40p per bottle.
We were so pleased with our debut brew AFAAPA (Amateur Fiddlers’ Association American Pale Ale, to give its full title) that it created a tension between the desire to drink it all down and the urge to dish out sample bottles to beer-loving pals.
AFAAPA even received an on-stage endorsement from The Unthanks when they played Mareel earlier this year.
Both Kris and Tim have extensive touring commitments with the weird and wonderful LAU, while there have been a whole bunch of baby birthday parties to attend, so beer-making get-togethers have been fairly ad-hoc this summer.
But we have managed to turn out four batches to date. Number two, Slippery Hammer, was a personal favourite – a highly refreshing German-style wheat beer.
It derived its name from the problems encountered in bottling. The capping device that came with our kit wasn’t really up to the job, so Tim improvised and created his own, vastly superior version. We’re fortunate to have one of the world’s more practical-minded people among our number.
The third brew, an amber/summer ale called Welcome Guest, was the first to feature the metaphorical fingerprints of our new fifth member – Yorkshireman and Shetland Times scribe Adam Guest, back from a short stint in Aberdeen.
Next up we’re planning to experiment with mashing our own grain and making a Belgian-style saison (a light, fruity ale). Other ideas include a Christmas ale and revisiting some of the earlier brews with a view to perfecting the taste. Who knows, we might even try selling it someday.
We’d all thoroughly recommend giving brewing your own a try. It’s a rewarding hobby socially, educationally and creatively, and once all is said and done you get to drink some really tasty beer for a budget price.