Fancy trying your hand at homebrewing? We spoke to Mary Richards, food marketer for Harvey Nichols, about the Ale Mary beer she makes from her Leytonstone home…
Independent breweries may be having a moment in London but Mary’s been whipping up 72-bottle batches of ale for the past few years. She tells us how it all started, and how to brew your own.
The origin’s of Mary’s homebrewing…
“I made my first batch of wine when I was 13 years old. I went foraging and picked fruit: apples, gooseberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, elderberries – then read a recipe in an old book my dad owned and made a really natural wine.
My parents drank it and were like: this is really good! It was amazing watching it bubble away, and creating something like that. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me try it. I called it Hedgerow Wine and it’s gone down in history; they still talk about it now.
Ever since then, I’ve loved making things: ginger beer, rhubarb cordial, elderflower champagne – I’ve been making these sporadically since was young. But my first foray into brewing was two and a half years ago.
It came about because, for some reason, I joined the campaign for real ale and went to a few beer events – this was five years ago. On one tour we went to Brodie’s, at William IV pub in Leyton, and it looked like such a small, manageable operation.
That trip really resonated with me, as I thought: it doesn’t look like you need lots of stuff, it’s not at all complicated. With work, I’d been to distilleries in Scotland and it looked really complicated… this looked easier.
While I was pregnant and we were doing up the house, we continued brewing. I did it when we had no water, no kitchen, no back wall on the house or electricity
I got home and looked online – did some research – then went to Wilcos, where they sell amazing brewing kits. So I bought a big bucket, a kit, a siphon and a capper. That’s all you need. You brew it in the bucket then siphon it off into your bottle and cap it off. It costs £30 all in.
So I did my first brew in the bucket and it bubbled away. You wait until the yeast has eaten all the sugar, so there’s nothing left for it to eat and then you bottle it and cap it. To add fizz, you put a small amount of sugar in after bottling it and before capping it. Then the yeast feeds off that sugar, creating carbon dioxide: and that’s the fizz.
You’re meant to leave it for a certain amount of time but we got impatient and tried it and it tasted really good. From one brew you get about 72 bottles of beer. From then on, it became a bit of an addiction. Every month we’d do a brew – then trade the beers with neighbours.
While I was pregnant and we were doing up the house, we continued brewing. I did it when we had no water, no kitchen, no back wall on the house or electricity. It’s so easy, the only labour intensive thing is bottling, as you need quite a bit of strength.
Washing and sterisiling the bottles is quite laborious. Then you fill them, cap them using metal beer caps that come semi flat, and using a machine you push down. That’s when it becomes strenuous. And that’s when my husband comes in to help.
All the instructions come with the kit. You can add little extra things, like dried orange peel – I’ve heard of other people doing that but haven’t tried it myself. It’s best to choose one kit to start with: pale ale, summer ale – or whatever you like. It’s failsafe; the kits are really easy to use.
There weren’t that many shops to buy equipment locally when I started. My dream is to open a brewing shop for the novice. It would be great. I’d call it Yeast. The idea came when I was baking sourdough loaves, using a natural yeast, and beer with the added yeast.
To homebrew, you’ve got to be interested in the end product, that’s all. Anyone can do it. The only thing that’s gone wrong for me is when I’ve not been exact with the adding of the sugar at the bottling stage, I’ve ended up with a really fizzy ale, or made a lager and not added enough so it’s flat.
It was my husband, Liam, who came up with the name Ale Mary. We were given a load of bottles, and saved lots of our own – so they were all random and different shapes and it looked funny not being labeled so he started calling it Ale Mary, drew me a little beer label and stuck it on when he was capping them.
I don’t think I’ll sell them. It’s a pipedream but at the moment brewing is just a hobby. There are loads of breweries opening up in east London but on a large scale, it’s manually exhausting – you’re dealing with bigger amounts, so you need to be physically tough. I just do it when I want to.
My advice, if you want to homebrew, is to remember that there’s an element of trial and error. It can be disappointing when you’ve invested a lot of time (it takes about a month) and it isn’t quite right.
Also, when you move away from kits and you’re experimenting, it’s hard to repeat consistency. For instance, if you don’t pick elderflowers on a sunny day, it can taste and smell like cat piss. But if you make a mistake don’t be put off.
For homebrewing, you’ll need…
Woodfordes Wherry ale is the beer I’ve had the most success brewing.
And the rest of the kit, which works out at about £35 (and you can use it time and time again):
Sterilising tablets – everything has to be really clean so this is a must
Long plastic spoon – not necessary but handy for mixing in the fermenting bin
Bottle brush – your bottles have to be really clean
Bottles – we didn’t buy any and just used old ones but if you need to buy any these are good (as they hold 500ml each you would need 7 1/2 x packs of 6 for a full brew of 40 pints)
Siphon to take the beer from the fermentation bin to the bottles
Brewing sugar – this is for the second fermentation that happens in the bottle – I have used caster sugar in the past but you can also use this
The kits will vary (and you’ll find instructions included) but these are the three simple steps involved…
1. Cooking the beer
Bring two quarts of water to 160°-180°F (71°-82°C), then remove from heat. Add your beer kit, as per the directions, stir it in. Put a lid on the pot and let it sit for 10-15 minutes on the lowest heat setting. Add the contents of your pot to four gallons of cold water already in your primary fermenter and mix well.
2. Fermenting process
Make sure the wort is at room temperature and then slowly pour it into your fermenting bucket. Sprinkle the yeast directly on top and stir gently to provide some oxygen. Seal the fermenting container tightly and put somewhere cool and dark.
2. Priming and bottling
Put 1/4 teaspoon of sugar in each bottle (this will add the fizz) before siphoning the beer in, leaving an inch or more of empty space at the top. Put the caps on each bottle as you go, using your bottle capper to secure them.
A few weeks later you’ll have your very own home-brewed beer.
Have you ever tried homebrewing? Do you have any tips or things to avoid that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear them in the comment section below…