6 September 1996

CELEBRATING HARVEST WITH A SPECIAL BREW

Fancy a pint? Then why not have one brewed from your own cereals? Thats now possible thanks to the Great Stour Brewery in Canterbury. Mike Stones reached for his beer glass

ITS 4.30pm on an airless August day. Youve been combining for five hours and youre hot and sticky. Youre thankful harvesting is going well but your throat feels like the sandpaper at the bottom of a well-fed parrots cage. Youd kill for a long, cool glass of beer or lager topped by a light frothy head. Then why not a glass brewed from your own cereals, grown on your own land?

Thats possible thanks to the new Great Stour Brewery in Canterbury. It provides farmers with the opportunity to brew their own beers or lagers using home-grown cereals and hops.

The brewerys managing director Toby Mynott explains the idea: "Its a miniaturised brewery, specially designed to allow people to brew their own beer in batches of up to 100 pints. And because its brewed by customers, theres no customs and excise duty to pay which keeps the costs down to about 40p a pint."

The brewery opened in April after 18 months intensive preparation. It took six months to develop the 14 recipes with help from brewmasters. Today, trainee brewmasters can brew bitters, lagers, stouts, ales, milds, IPAs and porters. After joining the brewery club, people make two visits to the brewery to brew and bottle or barrel their beer with advice to guide them through the various processes.

The first visit lasts about two hours and starts in the preparation room. Before visitors so much as sniff the malt, they are kitted out with brewing coats, protective eyewear and rubber gloves to wear during brewing and bottling.

In the preparation room, the ingredients are precisely measured into one of the six coppers; the traditional brewing vessel. Into the coppers go malt extracts and brewing sugars, then several varieties of alpha and aroma hops including Target, Challenger and Goldings. Then malted grains, including crystal ale, chocolate and roasted barley and wheat ale are added, depending on the beer being made. Later, aroma hops are put in along with Irish moss finings and caramel for colouring.

The ingredients are heated for an hour to produce a brown liquid called wort – the brewing term for unfermented beer. The wort is then passed through a wort cooler which drops the temperature from about 103C (220F) to 18C (65F) for beers and ales and 12C (55F) for lagers.

The wort is pumped into 80-litre (18gal) stainless steel barrels. Yeast is added and the barrel sealed, leaving about 30% of head space to allow for fermentation. Your barrel is then rolled across the courtyard to the fermentation rooms where it sits for a week.

During their first visit, customers can design a label to adorn their beer bottles. "Using our computers you can design a personalised label to celebrate a birthday, or anniversary," suggests Mr Mynott.

Bottling

The fermentation process normally takes a week. The brewery does a specific gravity check to ensure that the beer is ready for bottling or barrelling. Bottling takes about an hour and barrelling about 10 minutes, after which the beers or lagers can be taken home.

Three weeks is normally the minimum time from brewing to drinking. The longer your leave it, the better it tastes, says Mr Mynott. To ensure that the beer is ready to drink as soon as possible, bottles and barrels should be stored upright and left undisturbed.

Brews last for up to 24 weeks in bottles. Since the beers are live, they must be allowed to condition for about 10 days at room temperature – about 20C (68F). In barrels, brews last up to 16 weeks and once a barrel has been opened the contents should be drunk within a week.

After bottling, lagers are returned to the cold store for between 10 to 14 days. After that no further conditioning is needed and the lager can be drunk immediately.

So whats the scope for growers to use their own cereals or hops to unlock the taste of top quality beers or lagers? Theres no better way of toasting the new farming season, according to Mr Mynott.

Barley and hop heads can be saved to make ales and wheat saved to brew lagers. "Any malting barley can be used. Simply send 300g (10.5oz) to us for malting and we will arrange for it to be ready for the first brewing session."

Wheats are used in the making of lagers. Save 300g of a high starch variety such as Riband and send it to the brewery for malting, which involves the conversion of starch to sugars. The malted wheat will be ready for your visit.

But its beers rather than lagers that are in sharpest demand at the Great Stour Brewery. "Our 4.2%ABV bitter is by far the most popular beer. Its full of flavour."

But after gaining experience, designing your own beer can be very rewarding, says Mr Mynott. "Once people have brewed several times they can experiment with their own ingredients and measurements. There are limitless nuances of flavour, bitterness and colour that can be achieved."

At present the brewery has about 450 members. There are six coppers allowing up to six members to brew at any one time. Brewing takes about two hours, allowing the brewery to accommodate up to 18 brews a day. All the cleaning and sterilisation is done by brewery staff.

Membership

What does it cost? There are three elements; a membership fee, the beer itself and the rental or purchase of the bottles or barrels. Trainee brewmasters can become members for between £6.50 to £37.50 depending on the type of membership. Brewing 100 pints of 3.8% ABV beer costs about £40 and bottle caps 1p each. "Its cheaper than going to France to cart back Continental beer and it can be real fun," he claims.

Suggestions that the brewery is little more than a slightly sophisticated version of home-brewing make Mr Mynott fidget with irritation. "No its not! The quality of the beer brewed here is far superior to any home-brew kit. Many people enjoy home-brewing but the fact is that three-quarters of those who buy a home-brew kit never buy another. Thats because they are not satisfied with the quality of the beer they are able to produce.

"We are the only small brewery with the same professional equipment that is used by the big breweries," says Mr Mynott. "We use only traditional brewing methods and ingredients to make real ale or real beer as defined by the Campaign for Real Ale."

And if visiting Canterbury is not practical, send the brewery some wheat or barley and brewery staff will brew beer or lager for you. But duty will be charged on an alcohol by volume basis.

So if your throat is still dry with a little late harvest dust, you could dampen it down this autumn with beer or lager brewed from your own grains. It could at least be a refreshing new use for farm-saved seed.

Saving as little as 300g of wheat could provide up to 100 pints of lager. Barley can be saved to make real ale.

Ingredients are carefully weighed to the half gram in the brew house. The next step is to put them in the coppers or brewing vessels.

Cheers to a new refreshing use for home-grown grain, says the brewerys Toby Mynott.

Bottling your brew takes about an hour.

Getting ready for a good brew. Hops are poured into one of the brewerys six coppers which each hold about 110 pints of beer.

Casting the wort. During this process the unfermented brew is passed through a wort-cooling machine which drops the temperature of the beer from about 103C to 18C.