After the dark ages of the 70s, when massive breweries ruled our public houses and poured substandard products into our glasses, the great British pint was decidedly on the ropes. Once the most celebrated brewing nation in the world, we were reduced to enduring mass-produced keg bitter and weak lager. Little wonder us binge-drinking Brits developed such a contemptuous attitude towards beer.
Forty years on, a demand for quality and taste has seen a revolution in craft beers, fuelled by drinkers dissatisfied with the bland and ordinary. The seeds of this revolution were sown at small brewers like Sussex’s Dark Star. From a tiny cellar under Brighton’s The Evening Star Pub, this micro-brewery began supplying other local pubs and beer festivals. It was quickly realised there was a market for quality beers created with love, ingenuity and imagination. Then Gordon Brown gave a healthy tax break to small breweries in 2002, sparking a surge of interest in the perfect pint.
There are more breweries in the UK now than at any time in the last 70 years; from proper Pilsners to zingy India pale ales, the nation is going mad for craft beer. Countless home brewers across the country are trying to recreate and improve upon their favourite tipple. Now Bison Beer Crafthouse has teamed up with Home Brew Depot to start Brighton’s first all-grain beer brewing school.
Now you can learn how to make your own craft beer, under the careful supervision of a master brewer. So for one bright Friday afternoon, despite the work piling up at our office, we ventured down to embrace this ancient art.
Conveniently enough the school is held at The Fishbowl, mere feet from the Bison Beer store. We’re warmly welcomed by Josh from Home Brew Depot. He walks us all through the home brewing process end to end, explaining the equipment and ingredients clearly. From the quality of malts to the source of the water, the variables involved in brewing your perfect pint are diverse and numerable.
We sample a range of beers with different strengths and origins, Josh pointing out what distinguishes each and how this is achieved. Even for me, someone in the steely grip of the major brewers since short trousers, the explanations of how the different tastes connect are easy to understand. I might even be developing an appreciation for decent beer.
Then the science and magic come together; it’s time to brew. Everything starts with barley, which has been malted – a process yielding a wide range of fermentable maltose sugars. We’re presented with a vessel of this, which we soak in hot water to rapidly convert the barley’s starch reserves into sugars. After a 60-minute wait and some more beer tasting, we start to ‘sparge’. This involves repeatedly passing water through our brew, plus a basic level of maths. Then the mixture is clarified and transferred to a giant kettle. Here we stir in some bittering hops and bring it to the boil.
Whilst our creation is reaching boiling point, it’s time for some lunch. This is provided by The Fishbowl’s impressive kitchen, which arguably offers the best fish and chips in Brighton. As you’d expect we sample more beer. After our tasty lunch, we let our work cool to 20 degrees, add some aroma hops and take a sample. At this point we check the brew’s gravity, obtaining the first indication of how strong it will be.
The final task is to name our creation. We opt for labelling ours ‘Gentleman Caller’ due to its smooth qualities, firm body and being my idea. Finally I’m presented with my own Brew Bible, which includes the recipe we just used. Spin forwards a little over two weeks, and I’m picking up the fruits of my labours – a deliciously rich and lively porter ale (though you generally take it home on the day to let it brew at home!). A subsequent drinking session made all the more satisfying by my hand in its brewing.
With versatility, ingenuity and innovation, British craft beer is putting power back in the hands of the consumers, both challenging and delighting the nation’s palettes. With complex flavours ranging from citrus to coffee, there’s a pint for everyone. But if you can’t find your perfect fit, you can simply brew your own.
The Bison Beer Brew School takes place every Saturday, at The Fishbowl, 74 East Street, Brighton BN1 1HQ. Prices are £89.99 per person (includes lunch and beer).