As a teenager, my first introduction to home brewing and winemaking came from the parents of some of my friends. When I was around at their houses there would be bottles of foul looking and smelling mixtures bubbling away, doing all sorts of magic and my friends would just ignore them. It was the two Davids, David G and David B, whose parents were into this. David B’s father was a musician, an organist, and he played professionally around the clubs. This meant he was often out in the evenings and so we would go around, listen to music and play cards. He lived off Harehills Lane, near Pete’s house and we would walk up and enjoy a quiet evening, listening repeatedly to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ which was never my favourite album. The lounge, hallway, cupboard under the sink and kitchen were full of demijohn’s and bottles that had been corked. I don’t think we ever drank any of his brews or wines, but the same can’t be said about David G.
It just so happened that my aunty knew David’s mum as they both worked in the police offices when they were young. Dave was my port of call on a Saturday afternoon. He was always up to date on new music and we would sit and drink his homebrew. His house was similarly decorated to David B’s, with demijohns and fermenting bottles of beer, but the difference here was that Dave’s dad allowed him to brew his own. Never let it be said that I was fussy, as I was quite happy to share Dave’s beer. He would pull off the crown cap, and carefully decant the beer into two glasses. He had to be careful as there was a layer of yeast at the bottom of each bottle, and that had created the fizz and the head on the beer. His bottles were large and at least a pint and there was none of this modern trend towards light beer in his house, these were knock your socks off beers. He would put on his latest albums and we would try whatever brew he had made. I can still remember the heavy taste of hops, barley and yeast. You just couldn’t escape the taste of yeast. It always started off jovial enough, but bit by bit the alcohol had its effect. I think he never opened more than three, but to be honest I had lost count long before then. I do know that when we ran out, we then poured from the bottles with only the yeast dregs at the bottom. You could almost chew the drink at that point. Sunny afternoons became quite sparkly after the damage was done, and to make matters worse we would head off out for a night in a pub afterwards.
I could never keep up with the volume and Dave would get quite upset, as he had hollow legs and could just open his throat and pour in down. I suppose the advantage of home brewing was that it was much cheaper, but that it was also a hobby. There was a homebrew specialty shop on the row of shops that were part of the Clock Cinema. I remember that near the homebrew shop was an aquarist shop with fish tanks and a myriad variety of cold water, tropical and saltwater fish. The homebrew shop became my favourite as it was near to my mother’s house. When I was first married and bought a house in Wakefield on Pinder’s Heath, I would visit my mum at weekends and I bought my first wine kit. It had everything that you needed apart from the demijohn, bubbler valve, bung and plastic tubing. It was to produce a gallon of wine and the first kit was a light white. I was quite excited as I got it all home and added the ingredients. There was a thick gluey mixture that had to be mixed with boiling water and sugar and then allowed to cool. The bottles had to be sterilised and when the mixture was at the right temperature, the yeast was added. There was joy at the first ‘blullop’ noise as yeast grew and produced a bubble of carbon dioxide. The dull brown liquid looked far from promising, but before long, several weeks, the fermentation slowed and the wine cleared. The big day was when the wine was syphoned out into bottles. The bottles were sterilised, corks and corking machine purchased and despite a mouthful of raw wine, it was with real pride that I had seven or so bottles of clear, fairly colourless white wine.
After my first vintage was ageing, I started on my next and bit by bit I began to produce quite a collection. Of course, like all hobbies that are fun, you need to purchase more and more equipment, buy books to improve your craft, buy fancy labels and then have to show off your skills. I remember quite a library of books; nowadays I’d just use the internet. There were books such as Scientific Winemaking. Who could not be attracted by such a snappy title? The major change was that kits were for beginners and real winemakers would go into the fields and pick fruit to turn into wine. Elderberries, elder flowers, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries were obvious, but parsnip, oranges and almost any plant could be used. There were some exceptions and I was told Lilac shouldn’t be used, but that is not the case. As in the hit song, Lilacs can be used to make wine as it is not poisonous. Elkie Brooks had a big hit with it, but Jeff Buckley also sang it. It was written in 1950.
I was really getting into it and the house began to fill with a range of wines. Unfortunately I had some failures, some so-so wines and some that were fantastic. I used parsnips to make what was supposed to be a sweet dessert wine, but it was an abject failure and ended up down the drain, but the strawberry was fantastic. It was simple: two kilos of strawberries, picked from the fields a short walk from the house, two kilos of sugar, and that was it. Add water, yeast and sit back! It was a delicate pink and by accident was slightly sparkling. When I finally opened one, it had a heavenly aroma of fresh strawberries, a fizz and look of a Mateus Rose, but a delicate flavour that was all of its own.
My friend John’s brother in law was a science teacher and he gave me some recipes for a fine Reisling using elderflowers. He was into winemaking and bought a piece of land near Temple Newsam open-cut coal mine. He planted a vineyard and for many years it was the most northerly vineyard in the UK. His wines became quite popular and eventually he gave up his teaching job and ran the winemaking and vineyard which is still thriving. Laventhorpe Vineyard is now well established and very well respected. Just shows how some hobbies can become a successful business. We would laughingly call it Chateau Swillington, but who’s laughing now? It has been running for over thirty years.
Finally, I decided to splash out and bought a pressure barrel. The barrel was plastic and it could hold a lot of beer or cider. I can’t be sure, but I think it was five or ten gallons. I decided to try a cider kit and it was quite a simple process and the beauty of the barrel was that you could pour directly from it without losing the fizz and without the yeast being disturbed. It took a few weeks, but eventually it was ready for drinking. I am not quite sure what I expected.
I wasn’t a total novice as I had drunk scrumpy in a tiny, ancient pub on a cliff-edge near Durdle Door in Dorset. This was during a Borough Road College Geological Society trip. These were subsidised piss-ups trips for students that had a bit of geology thrown in. This was in 1975, and we visited the pub for lunch and decided to return in the evening as there was a band playing. My friend Phil wanted us to try scrumpy, which was locally produced fairly rough cider. It was usually cloudy and my friend kept saying, “It gets your legs!” I had no idea what he meant. There were fourteen of us in a minibus and we got tables, ordered scrumpy and sat and chatted. The pub was fairly packed and the band consisted of two guitarists who sang. They were called ‘Odd Socks’ and they were brilliant, or at least I think they were.
The scrumpy just tasted like flat apple juice and went down really easily. A pint and we were quite cheerful, a second pint and we were joining in the selection of Beatles’ songs and other favourites. It was only when I got up to go to the loo that I realised what Phil meant. My upper body seemed fine, but the brain was struggling to control the legs. Walking was a real issue, but I managed it and returned, but slowed a little with the cider. At the end of the night, we struggled back onto the minibus. The driver hadn’t been drinking and we were winding down country lanes. We hadn’t got far when someone in the back said they were going to be sick. The driver pulled over and the victim struggled out and was very ill. Unfortunately, this had the effect of making most of the rest in the back queasy and they had to get out and joined in being ill. As luck would have it, a police car appeared with flashing lights and a policeman got out and spoke to the driver. ‘Are they alright?” he said to the driver. “They will be soon. I just have to get them back to the camp site.” “Just get them there safely, sir!” With that, he got back in the car and drove off.
As a result of this experience, I was interested in what my cider would be like. I poured a glass for myself and my wife and it was really good, so good in fact that we had two pints of the stuff. That was it! It was deadly. It was just so easy to drink. We were both teachers and the next day we had to work and I have experienced a hangover, but I’ve never woken up and still felt drunk. Not my finest moment, and I did learn from the experience and somehow we both managed to work the next day.
This didn’t stop me home brewing, but I never made the cider again. I stuck to lager and that was a much safer option. When we moved to Australia, I got rid of the gear and never bothered again. Here it was similarly popular, but the cost of alcohol and wine in West Australia is cheap, so there was less reason to. Now I don’t really drink very often, and despite the heavy drinking culture that used to be the case, random breath-testing is a deterrent and beer sales per capita have dropped in recent years.
You man have noticed that there is a button at the top where you can listen to the tale as a podcast. It is my voice and I hope you can still catch the Yorkshire accent after living away for thirty-two years.