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Inside London's Secret Homebrewing Club

Based above a London beer shop, the club meets to discuss brewing techniques and swap tasting notes. “You’re making smaller batches than commercial brewers so you can afford to take risks,” says one attendee.

by Chloe Scott-Moncrieff
Mar 7 2016, 11:12am

All photos by the author.

If you were around in the 1970s, you'd remember your dad in the airing cupboard with a massive plastic vat, attempting to brew moonshine ale. The results were probably extremely intoxicating, sloshing about with an ABV of 10 percent. Or more.

Accompanied by moustaches and home-knitted jumpers, the 70s was something of a Dark Age for British food and drink. A time when we unblinkingly ate defrosted Kiev balls, mums quaffed Babycham—and the menfolk drank dodgy homebrew. In today's far more sophisticated world of farm-to-fork eating and Thai fusion street food trucks, it's easy to view the whole thing as a distant, bad taste memory.

And yet, here I am at a secret homebrewing club. Unlike the airing cupboard experiments of yesteryear however, it's producing some extremely drinkable results. Based above London beer shop We Brought Beer, owner James Hickson started the club in October, after concocting hoppy pales ales in his spare room.

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We Brought Beer owner and homebrewing club founder James Hickson. All photos by the author.

Over a glass of Sly Fox (German and Czech hops, if you're asking) before the club meets, he recalls: "This venue was an estate agents. I wanted the downstairs for a shop but then I saw the upstairs, which is what made me take it. I realised it would be great to start something in. I'd been homebrewing for a few years but rarely is there a space for everyone to meet."

Running for four sessions so far, the club is growing a loyal fan base of hop-lovers.

"Some come for cloning," says Hickson. Cloning is when you make a beer identical to a commercial one. "It's a real challenge. You find the recipe online. But often, people do excellent versions."

Others are here to be experimental.

"They go off piste," he says, proffering his current brew in a giant glass vessel, reminding me of school lab days. The potation is alive, cloudy, and fizzing gently. "The yeast has dropped down, that's good. It's going to be in this for two weeks. I stick it in a box."

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As club members start to arrive, the atmosphere becomes charged with an air of rousing beer geekery. Around the long table, I meet Tom Burrows, a 28-year-old physicist. He's got an "all-grain" on the go and has been making beers as a hobby for eight or nine years.

"You're making smaller batches than commercial brewers so you can afford to take risks which commercial brewers can't," he tells me. "They can't dice with huge amounts. They're aiming for consistency. I go on forums a lot and the equipment has got better since the 70s, so you can produce really exciting beers."

His most thrilling result so far has been a unique take on saison, a French farmhouse ale.

"It didn't turn out as I expected it but it was exciting," he says. "It was without the crazy funkiness but with good flavour."

He brought it to the club and everyone loved it.

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Homebrew club attendee Tom Burrows.

At tonight's session, it's mainly scientists squeezed into the cosy room—not much bigger than a few square metres. And there are girls too, a ratio of about one to three, which is a vast improvement on the olden days. Indeed, homebrewer Emma Perfect, a microbiologist, informally runs the club for Hickson.

For Dani Neal, visiting for the first time—and not a scientist—the amount of knowledge flying around the table is awe-inspiring.

"I'm just getting back into this," she says. "I used to homebrew in Australia where I'm from, but it wasn't like this."

I ask if her beer was a human, what would it be—flamboyant, badly behaved, coy even?

"Friendly" she says, but when I have a taste, I reckon it has some balls too.

The room suddenly becomes hushed. This cathedral to hops has seen the arrival of its high priest Chris Hall, eminent beer writer and judge. His sermon is on the critical appreciation of beer. Wearing a t-shirt displaying the text, "Beer Kicks Ass," he starts: "Most of the professional brewers I know were home brewers. I've tasted dozens and dozens of home brews and there are brews that taste better than commercial beers. The only major difference these days between the home brewer and commercial is equipment and access."

Everyone looks exhilarated. Hall is clutching his current bible, Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher. They all scribble it down in their notes.

Perfect thanks him for his tip, reminding the club: "We're doing an IPA challenge next month so everyone bring in your IPAs. Drop us an email so we can incorporate your entries and let us know the kind of IPA you're doing."

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Homebrewers gather at We Brought Beer beer shop, London.
Breaking Bad

Then it's a break and I meet Jamie Dormand, a physicist by day, who tells me he'll be making a "double IPA" for next month's competition. Burrows is still brewing (sorry) about what to rustle up. His notes are covered in formulas, -style.

"I think you can find lots of scientists in homebrewing," he admits. "Although I know an accountant who doesn't stick to recipes and while he has some misses, he's created some brilliant beers." He sounds slightly envious.

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From long lactic-fermented German goses to rare Oud bruins, everyone I speak to at the club seems to have dream drinks they'd like to concoct. Through camaraderie (and healthy competition), many are on their way to producing them.

But as Hall warns: "the most important thing to ask yourself is: Was your beer actually enjoyable? You eventually enjoy the restraint of the simplest delicate and pale lager, as much as the sourest gueuze or impressive stout. There's a diverse spectrum in each one. Let the beer speak to you in some sort of way."

For Hickson, the drink he hopes to one day perfect is a well balanced, 2.5 percent ABV homebrew.

"That's the ultimate challenge."