Climbing the 16th century stairway up to “The Great Hall” at Christ Church I wasn’t sure what to expect. I could sense the years of knowledge, intelligence and culture leaching out of the walls.
As I entered, the porter whispered to me, “They just started telling drinking stories.” Not quite what I envisioned, but I was there to listen to Andy Hamilton talk about his book, Booze for Free.
The stories put everyone at ease and soon questions were flying as fast as the home brews were being passed around.
His face lit up like a man who found the secret to life as he told of his beginnings.
“I like foraging, I like gardening, I like drinking, I like home brewing- can I get away for a year doing this?”
He went on to explain how easy brewing is, demonstrating as he spoke. Mixing up sugar, hot water, orange juice and yeast in an old water bottle, giving it a shake, “wait five days and you have your first brew.” Of course it might not be the nicest thing you have tasted.
As he spoke a vial came my way, a dangerous combination of 50 chillies left to steep for 3-6 months in vodka. The gentleman across from me had the “nerve” (or inanity) to taste a drop, resulting in a bright red face, tearing eyes and heavy panting for the next few minutes.
The thing that intrigued me was how simple and inexpensive it all was. Brewing is no longer a combination of tubes, copper vats and fires. You can get something tasty from hacking down a few Himalayan balsam plants along the river. It is also environmentally friendly, using species that choke native wildflowers.
He stresses the importance of local land and plant knowledge when you start foraging. It is best to have a good relationship with the land owner so you can make sure no nasty chemicals are sprayed. Take a local foraging walk with a guide and double check your collections on websites or books.
Rosemary Cleaver from Hops and Vines (www.hopsandvineshomebrew.co.uk) in Witney is full of great advice. “We are coming up to Elderflower season. Pick them on a sunny day when you can smell that lovely perfume.” She adds, “Just bash on with it, it’s easy and produces such good results.”
Matt Ford from Headington Homewares (www.headingtonhomewares.co.uk) in Oxford recommends buying a starter kit. “They retail around £25. These are the basics, but as with all hobbies you then have the scope to develop your brewing to fit your own tastes.”
Matthew Hicks from the Oxford Brewers Group goes onto talk about the boom in home brewing. “Many people start off wanting to brew cheap beer,” Soon they become interested in the recipes and designing beers. Those people are members of the Oxford Brewers Group.
To join, visit www.oxfordbrewers.com. They meet once a month at the Lamb & Flag in St. Giles. It is free to join and they accept anyone interested in making great beer.