Much has been written about the rising number of home bakers driving the yeast market in their quest to make breads and sourdough starters during the pandemic, but there is a second group of lockdown hobbyists responsible for the surge in sales – home brewers.
Since its launch in 2013, Get Er Brewed, one of Ireland’s largest home brewery and microbrewery supplies stores, has seen sales jump from around €36,000 to around €6m last year. During the lockdown, orders for homebrew kits increased fivefold.
“It was crazy,” says Operations Manager Jonathan Mitchell. “We had people packing orders 16-18 hours a day, seven days a week – and it wasn’t just us. I spoke to other suppliers and they said every home brew shop across Ireland and the UK does the same.”
Interestingly though, unlike many lockdown projects (the self-penned novels and notions of a sunken garden seating area) that died a death after restrictions were eased, it looks like homebrewing may be here to stay.
“When restrictions were lifted, order volume went down slightly, but we’ve seen it come back,” says Jonathan.
Inspired by happy memories of her father brewing mead himself, Co Dublin’s Laura Holmes, 40, saw lockdown as an opportunity to try it herself. “I bought a book, that is Brew it yourself by Nick Moyle and Richard Hood and figured, if I can follow recipes for food, then surely I could,” says the IT guy.
She ordered a brewing and winemaking kit online for €78 and started with a lager. “It worked out well,” she says. “I gave away a few bottles to friends and family and everyone seemed to enjoy it.”
Since then, there’s been a cider, and a Tempranillo wine is aging in the 18-degree bathroom in the apartment she shares with her partner, and another box of ingredients is waiting to be placed on the balcony.
An elderflower wine was less successful, as was Laura’s first attempt at stout. “It ended up tasting like soy sauce, but I’ll try again and next time I’ll get it right.”
The mistakes don’t bother her. “The joy is in the process,” she says, which was especially true during lockdown. “It was therapeutic because you can kind of get lost doing it, especially with all the disinfecting. It helped take my mind off everything that was going on during that scary time. But I’ll definitely keep doing it. It’s very interesting and you learn a lot.”
A Geterbrewed.com The winemaking starter kit costs between €35 and €125. “Vine-growing kits vary in quality and can suit all budgets, from €1.50 per bottle, which is comparable to a €7 bottle bought in a store, to a €5 bottle that comes with a 30 euro bottle in your shop is comparable -License,” explains Jonathan.
Home beer making falls into two categories: extract kits vs whole grain brews.
A simple beer extract ingredient kit can make a pint for around 36 cents (and a 23 liter batch), comparable to paying €5 for a pint of similar quality at a bar. Whole grain brew is significantly cheaper to produce, though initial kit costs are higher with all-in-one brew systems starting at €420 and quality beer starter kits starting at €75.
Having invested over €500 in equipment and created his own microbrewery man cave from Wicklow, Wicklow’s Justin Rea, 60, it’s no surprise he’s also not planning to turn his back on his lockdown hobby now that life is changing normalized.
“I’ve had a lot of lockdown projects, but the home brew was one that I just enjoyed so much,” says Justin. Working in energy efficiency and most projects abroad, he saw his work shift to a three-day week during the lockdown. The chemical, electronic and mechanical side of the home brew process attracted him as a stimulating project to work on in his spare time.
“There’s a technical appeal to the whole setup of homebrewing,” says Justin, who has since insulated the space in his shed with a thermostat-controlled heater so his beer can be kept at a precise temperature. “But you don’t have to go that route. You can buy an all-in-one shower set that does a lot for you. I just wanted to do it the more traditional way.”
This is a big part of the appeal of home brewing, according to Jonathan.
“There are so many different levels to get into,” he says. “We have customers who don’t mind spending a few thousand for a kit that looks like a mini brewery in their home, or there’s the basic kit of a fermenter and essential paraphernalia that costs between €50 and €500 can.”
Customer demographics are diverse. “A lot of college students would brew with the basic beer kits, then there’s a lot of highly educated people — lawyers, barristers, doctors — we’d see them ordering the high-end winemaking kits,” says Jonathan. “It seems to attract a lot of people from IT – maybe they like doing something practical if they’re stuck in front of a screen all week?”
It doesn’t take a lot of space – his wife Deborah makes wine in their utility room – or time, as some wines are ready in as little as seven days and beers in at least two weeks.
Jonathan believes a key factor in the success of the hobby is that there has been a massive improvement in the quality of what can be made at home.
“My parents were homebrewers in the 1980s and I’ve tried quite a few of them and it was horrific!” he says. “But modern winemaking kits are of very, very good quality. You can see they have invested millions in the technology used to develop the concentrate. People are now making wine at home for maybe €2.50 for a bottle that would cost €15 in the store.”
He believes the rising cost of living will only encourage more people to try. “Traditionally, we’ve found in the industry that during a recession, when things get tight, people turn to home brewing for cost reasons. With the cost of living rising anyway, I think we’ll see more growth over the next few months.”
A bottle of wine still makes it into the shopping trolley, but beer is now off the shopping list for Mick Casserly (52) in Galway.
“When the minimum price per unit came, it was game over, we just don’t buy any more beer,” says the electrician. “I’d much rather drink my own stuff now than buy that stuff.”
But while there is an economic benefit, it was the social aspect of home brewing that attracted Mick to the hobby during lockdown and still appeals today.
“I’m not a big fan of social media but I’m on Facebook and that’s where I found most of the groups like Homebrew Ireland and Connacht Home Brewers,” he says.
In his twenties Mick had dabbled in home brewing. “But the things I was doing back then were really simple,” he says. “When I realized that there are groups and communities sharing recipes, hints and tips online, that was absolutely brilliant. Thanks to that advice, the beer I make now tastes like beer you would pay good money for in the pub.”
He has since met up with fellow brewers to swap bottles and given away his ginger beer, pineapple beer and honey mead to friends and family. “My wife joked that I should set up a booth at the front gate.”
Justin agrees that it’s the social aspect of sharing a brew that’s satisfying.
“That was one of the aspects of the lockdown that I struggled with, ending up with these 20 liter batches of beer and no one to drink a lot with,” he says. Now his Aroha Ale – Justin is originally from New Zealand and the name is a Maori name for love and family – is a regular drink offered to his three grown children, their friends and others when they drop by the man cave for a game of pool .
Even if the Tempranillo in the bathroom goes well, Laura says she’ll still buy wine, but she looks forward to hearing family and friends’ thoughts on her latest vintage.
“Homebrew is definitely not something I would rely on,” she says. “It’s more about trying, that’s nice, and there’s just something special about making something and sharing it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s bread or beer.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/designer-drinks-but-at-a-fraction-of-the-cost-meet-the-homebrewers-crafting-their-own-top-shelf-products-41521247.html Designer drinks – but at a fraction of the cost: meet the home brewers who create their own world-class products