The Bootleg Days

By Mike Challis (a long time home-brewer from Dartmoor, UK)   aka Coffin Dodger on The Homebrew Forum

My Dad started it all the day he came back from the 1955 Motor Show at Earl’s Court excitedly waving a piece of paper. ‘Look what I’ve been given’ he said, ‘a recipe for making beer at home!’ ‘I thought that was illegal’ said Mum. ‘Well it is really, but the chap who gave this to me said it’s fine as long as you take sensible precautions, and always call it ‘homebrew’ and never ‘beer’.’

At 21, I had not the same enthusiasm for beer as my father, but read the carbon-copied page out of interest.  Ingredients to make 5 gallons of Pale Ale: 3 x 2lb jars Malt, 1 x 1lb tin Golden Syrup, 4 x 2lb bags Granulated Sugar, 3oz Hops, 2oz Baker’s Yeast.  A recipe for Brown Ale was identical, except for the Golden Syrup being replaced by Black Treacle.  The scant instructions said to put the hops in a muslin bag, and boil everything except the yeast up in as much water as possible for half an hour.  When cool remove the hops, tip the rest into a glazed earthenware bread crock, make up to 5 gallons with cold water, and when at blood heat or cooler cream up the yeast and add that.  Put somewhere warm, skimming off any dirty yeast with a wooden spoon, then after a week siphon into pint beer bottles containing a teaspoon of sugar. Leave at least a fortnight before drinking.

It all seemed simple enough, and Dad decided to have a go.  We had an old bread crock, which Mum used to lay up eggs painted with waterglass during the war, and 40 bottles were collected from a pub for the price of their deposit.  Both malt and hops were kept by Boots the Chemist, the former to feed to growing children, and the latter kept in a pharmacy drawer alongside senna pods and the like, it being used to make hop-tea for purifying the insides of the elderly, and helping them sleep.

Dad’s contact had impressed on him that he shouldn’t buy the malt and hops at the same time, in case some busybody suspected he was making beer, and reported the matter to Customs and Excise.  In fact it was better if two different people bought them, so Mum was sent off to buy the malt – with instructions not to get the type with cod liver oil added – and Dad sauntered in later to get the brown paper bag of hops.

I kept a low profile that evening while ‘The House Smells Like a Brewery’ scenario was played out, but the whole family was united next morning, gazing in awe at the tentacles of brown flecked foam rising from the crock, reminiscent of a scene from the Quatermass Experiment. The end product could best be described as ‘an acquired taste’.

Once around the sun found me living in a boarding house in Huddersfield, while training to be a draughtsman at David Brown’s gearbox works.  The landlord was a keen wine maker, and hearing of my Dad’s new hobby said I could use his large cellar if I fancied having a go myself.  Beer having moved up a notch in my interests, I borrowed Dad’s bread crock when home for Christmas, to mother’s delight and his insistence it was back by Easter.  Following the instructions to the letter the first brew was drunk – no, that should read ‘forced between clenched teeth’ but the next and last went down the drain as it was vinegary.  With no mention of sterilising this wasn’t surprising, but the episode provided the Brownie Point of being able to say my first brew was in 1956.

Another two trips around the sun, and I was living the life of O’Reilly in the five star accommodation of the Officers Mess at R.A.F. College, Cranwell.  The Air Ministry, in its wisdom, had selected me to teach Thermodynamics to the cadets, a subject they weren’t interested in and that I had almost failed at Manchester University.  As the pittance paid to a National Service junior Officer barely covered his bar bill, I decided to have another crack at brewing.  Under the cover of darkness a different bread crock, an electric cooking ring, a Dixie can, and all the ingredients were smuggled up to my room, and late that night clouds of steam bearing a strange heady aroma, permeated through the bachelor quarters of the Mess.

Knowing what I know now my beer must have tasted pretty awful, but when you are under twenty five you don’t drink beer primarily for the taste.  In other aspects it was rather too successful however, and it wasn’t long before I was summoned to appear before the PMC – the President of the Mess Committee.

‘The Mess Rules expressly forbid Officers to take alcohol into their rooms’ he said stiffly, ‘and I have had a complaint that noisy parties are being held in your quarters late into the night’.

‘But no alcohol is taken into my room Sir’ I said honestly. ‘It just sort of occurs there!’  He thought about this for a moment, then said ‘That’s the best excuse I’ve heard in a long time. Keep the noise down like a good chap, and if I should find a couple of bottles of your beer in my car tonight we’ll say no more about the matter.’

With Her Majesty paying for the electricity, the biggest outlay was the cost of the malt.  As I was now brewing weekly to keep pace with demand, it seemed sensible to buy this in bulk from a brewery, and the nearest was Holes in Newark.  Driving over one day – I was working teacher’s hours – the brewery worker seemed surprised that I wanted to buy some malt, but after looking furtively around as he pocketed my thirty bob, he reappeared with a small sack of what looked like large bird seed, not the drum of sticky brown liquid I was expecting.  Boiling six pounds of this stuff up in the next brew in place of three of Boots jars was a disaster, and it was not until fourteen years later that I realised why.  The rest of the sack lay under my bed until I was demobbed, and as far as I know may still be there.

You cannot make homebrewed beer when the home in question is a 50ft Motor Cruiser, that had once been a steam-driven Admiral’s Barge, moored in the middle of the River Yealm – especially if you are sharing it with the younger daughter of Cranwell’s Senior Technical Officer, a Golden Retriever puppy, and a pregnant cat. Trust me on this, and if you rhyme the name of the river with ‘ram’ and not ‘realm’, you’ll sound like a Devonian local.  Consequently the bread crock was only brought back into service in 1963, just after Reginald Maudling had taken some of the fun out of home brewing by making it legal in his April budget.

Up until that time the only thing I had read on the subject was my Dad’s clandestine recipe. I had no idea there were different types of hops and yeast. I had never heard of OG’s, alpha acids or wort, and didn’t realise that ‘malt’ is really a verb – the ‘bird seed’ I’d rejected being malted barley.  If I wanted to progress from making ‘homebrew’, and start brewing beer at home, a lot more knowledge needed to be acquired. Luckily for me, and countless others, there were some expert ex-bootleggers out there, and they were just starting to write books on the subject, mostly published by Amateur Winemaker magazine.

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