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DIY brewing: call the professionals

Tell someone you homebrew and they'll tell you not to.

Colin Campbell and his friends make the very tasty Hirsuite Pursuit black IPA at Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh. Photographs: Stewart Attwood
Colin Campbell and his friends make the very tasty Hirsuite Pursuit black IPA at Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh. Photographs: Stewart Attwood

Grim recollections of beer-flavoured paintstripper. Hazy student parties. Exploding bottles. Terrified pets. Fousty pints. Stomach cramps and sickness. The shakes, the shame and angry wives.

These horror stories hail from the dark ages, before the craft beer revolution. Nowadays, the popularity of New World hops, new styles and better kits mean homebrew, generally, comes out drinkable, and, occasionally, nice. Thanks to an ambitious husband-and-wife team, however, DIY beer has taken a leap out of the home and into the brewery.

The brew-it-yourself concept kicked off in micro-breweries in the US and Australia, but it was Steve and Jo Stewart of Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh who brought it to the UK. Jo says: "You make your own beer using our facilities, ingredients and expertise. Your brew ferments and conditions under the watchful eye of our brewers and in our temperature-controlled stores. When it's ready, a few weeks later, you come back to bottle it, label it and take it away."

Today I am here with my home-brewing buddies George, a swimmer, Jamie, an Orcadian, and Alan, a new dad. As we arrive, a hip young lady is picking up a keg for a party. We give her a hand but she declines to give us the address of the party. Doesn't like the cut of our beards, clearly.

We wander into the cool shop/bar/reception area. The decor is industrial metal, rough woods, veneers and shelves of bottles. It's populated by hip young staff and hip young customers (we fit right in, obviously). On a wall, chalkboard menus bookend a display of 18 shiny beer taps.

We're invited to try one. This proves difficult. I'd tried and loved Hop Jock, Radical Road and Cascadian East. Others such as Raspberry Stout and Watermelon Wheat are unknown. There's a carrot-and-coriander too. We try a variety. Glasses are swapped, beards stroked. You could spend an afternoon going through the list.

But we soldier on, and head into the brewery proper. It feels like hallowed ground. Emily Gray, who manages the bookings, says something about helping ourselves but her words are lost in this temple of polished metal and pipework, hissing steam, and the punch-you-in-the-face aroma of hops and malt. Shiny vats run the length of the hall, each one containing thousands of litres of maturing beer.

Bags of malted grains and hops rest on pallets. Hoses stretch along the floor. Staff stomp about in blue boiler suits and yellow wellies. It's part-factory, part-lab, part-Breaking Bad.

There are three large tea urns, one simmering. There's a sink and bar area. Shelves of malted grains. Bottles, gadgets and scales, barrels, glasses. More beer taps. This is our home for the next few hours.

"Did she say we can help ourselves?"

Emily nods. "It's all part of the Craft Beer Kitchen experience." It's like the voice of God, but a wee bit lacking on the omniscience: obviously doesn't know who we are. We're suddenly very, very thirsty.

We meet Bruce Smith, our brewer. Introductions are attempted, but we're stuck on the "help yourself" remark and nip back through for a refill.

We meet Bruce again. He seems patient. Introductions are made and beards are compared. His job title is Innovations Brewer, and his job is to run the Craft Beer Kitchen and develop new recipes, for which he is paid. "Sounds like you've got the best job in the world," I tell him. He tells us he's only 24. Our reply is unprintable.

Bruce, still patient, asks what we want to brew. It's a simple question, but the answer isn't. There's a list of options, from pilsners to saisons, IPAs to porters, though people do come here with their own recipes and ingredients. Raspberries, gooseberries, dandelions, cocoa nibs. There's nothing you can't brew here, though Bruce says he draws the line at chillis. "We had one crowd who wanted to brew with chillis. I told them they could, but that it'd taste rubbish."

We bodyswerve the chillis and the dandelions and opt for a Black IPA, winning an approving nod from our brewer. It's not something any of us amateurs have tried making before, and can, warns Bruce, be tricky. "It has more elements and complexity than most other styles. Balance is key, both between the dark, sweet and roasted malts, and the bitterness and aroma of the hops."

Bruce explains the process. "We've some water simmering away." He points to the fat shiny milk churn steaming away. "We're going to add lots of malt extract, some light, some dark. Then we'll bring that back to the boil and start adding our hops.

"When you brew from scratch you start with malted grain" - grain soaked to start germination, then drained and warmed to stop it - "and it's then mixed with water at 65C for an hour, so the enzymes in the grain can convert the starches into simple sugars, which the yeast can then ferment. The liquid that's left is called wort, and is the main component of beer.

"Malt extracts are condensed versions of this. Light, medium or dark malts depend on the type of grain and how much of a roasting they got prior to mashing. A dark roasted grain, for example, gives a darker malt extract."

To all-grain homebrewers, starting off this way might seem a cop-out, but it saves a few hours, and the difference in taste, I'm assured, is marginal. Such is the set-up here that you can, of course, start from scratch.

We add the extract - like runny Marmite - to the simmering water, stir it in, and wait for it to come back to the boil; ample time for a refill. Then we add our first dose of hops - 25g of Mosaic - which will boil for an hour and add bitterness.

At this point, most customers have a brewery tour. But we go for a refill and interrogate Bruce. He's a trained physiotherapist, but found his calling when he heard about the MSc in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt. While doing the degree he was picked for the elite Natural Selection Brewing course, a partnership between Stewart and Heriot-Watt. He must have stood out, because Steve Stewart asked him to set up and run the Craft Beer Kitchen.

Inspired, we decide we're going to build our own nano-brewery. I've some attic space. Or George's shed. Alan's got a basement. Maybe get an RV ... Bruce, poor guy, is very patient with us.

After 45 minutes of boiling, and a few refills, we add Galaxy hops. This will give fruity, tropical flavours. Then 15 minutes later, we take the wort off the boil and chuck in a mix of Mosaic, Galaxy and Cascade to ramp up the aromas and flavours.

Then, suddenly, after an hour of standing about, chatting, refilling glasses, dreaming about beer kits, there's a flurry of activity. The yeast is made ready. The wort, all 80 litres of it, is passed through a heat extractor and syphoned into two large 40-litre fermentation vessels. It's time to pitch (add) the yeast. This is when the miracle of fermentation starts. It feels genuinely spiritual and creative and beautiful, so we have another beer.

With nothing else to do for now, it's time to say goodbye to our beer as it's taken away to ferment and condition. Like sensible brewers we call it a day and head straight home. We don't go out with the Stewart's guys to a beard-friendly Edinburgh boozer called Holyrood 9A. And we certainly don't disgrace ourselves. And when, a couple of weeks later, George and I return to bottle the beer, we do not feel slightly sheepish. At all.

Any feelings of embarrassment, had they existed, which they don't, are dispelled as we try our beer. It's a gem. It's potent and fruity with the bitterness spot on. There's tropical, stone-fruit and liquorice notes; and its character changes as you journey through the glass.

We try our beer again. It's still amazing. Even Bruce seems pleased. "I think it's pretty awesome," he says. For the next few hours we pour the beer into bottles, cap and label them. It takes a long time. Stewart's offer a label-making service, but we had ours done by Herald & Times graphic artist Damian Shields, who often carries a beard.

Emily, Jo and most of the staff pass by and ask us if we like our beer. "Are you kidding?! It's awesome." A few say "well done", but it's Bruce who deserves the credit.

Stewart Brewing is the first place in the UK to offer this kind of facility, but others are following, including the new Drygate brewery in Glasgow. Stewart's has welcomed seasoned brewers, students and novices, stag and birthday parties, groups of friends wanting to mark moments in their lives. Last month a couple came in to brew a beer for their wedding day.

This is a good time for beer, and it feels, in this corner of a small brewery on the outskirts of Edinburgh, that this is where a new generation of brewers will be innovating with flavours and styles and techniques. It's also a haven for hobbyists and newcomers like us, people who simply want to come and create a homebrew that tastes, well, not like homebrew.

Brew days at the Craft Beer Kitchen at Stewart Brewing cost from £160 to £240. Visit stewartbrewing.co.uk or call 0131 440 2442.

For Colin Campbell's beer blog, visit twistedmouth.blogspot.com.

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