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To beer or not to beer?

Hello! It has been a year, so I thought that it was probably about time that I updated my, er, weekly diary. And it has been a bit of a year.

You will have noticed that last year was rather lovely, which was just the thing to help put the misery of the previous two years firmly in the rear view mirror. As the sun beat down relentlessly on the fields and the valley changed from its traditional verdant hue to an alarming straw colour, and the trees started to lose their leaves, the vines were the only thing around here left standing in their appropriate colour.

And I'm going to tell you all about that in a future instalment, because this week, we are going to talk about beer, which is a bit of a liberty in a wine diary, written by a winemaker on a website for a wine estate if I'm honest. The path that lead us to becoming beer producers has that authentic Huxbear redolence to it, so bear with.

Trigger Warning: I'm going to talk about the pandemic a bit.

Do you remember at the start of the first pandemic when everyone went a bit bonkers and started stockpiling pasta, rice and, inexplicably, toilet roll? You know what else they started stockpiling? Beer.

One week into the first lockdown, the intrepid Lucy went off to the supermarket for her weekly run of the gauntlet and returned home with the slim pickings that remained on the shelf, four miserable cans of beer! Four! This was peak lockdown, a time when no sane person should be forced into an abstemious lifestyle. Granted, I had plenty of wine, but a) I'm supposed to sell some of it and b) I was extremely unlikely to make it out of the other end of lockdown on a diet of wine alone. Something had to be done – and as I wasn't in any danger of developing a taste for tap water during our mandatory isolation – I would have to become a producer of beer, and as I have some experience wrangling yeast, how hard could it be?

Quite hard. Almost nothing is the same as wine making. We had some experience making beer from those funny little kits in the dim and distant past – okay, it's not that long ago, but before people used to shout at each other on the internet, so it feels like a lifetime ago – but that's a little bit like painting by numbers; I was certain that we could do something better ourselves. So we bought a big pan, a small book about brewing, some grain and a couple of packets of hops.

I did initially imagine that the ingredients would take a quick look at the – these days pretty full – winery and see that we obviously meant business, that we were experienced at making alcohol happen and just fall into line. Not so.

For a start, one must select the ingredients with the intention of producing something, as opposed to the polar opposite in wine. Once you have carefully selected the varieties of vine that you are going to buy, you are pretty much at the mercy of the season at that point. At the end of it, you work with what you have for good or ill. Beer requires you to put a collection of things together, which start as the viable component parts for beer and use your abilities (or lack thereof) to turn them into something drinkable. In this respect, there really isn't anywhere to hide for a brewer, whereas our winemaker might point an accusatory finger at the heavens, or more likely, the chap who looks after the vines.

I was about to start talking about the production of beer at this point, but this probably isn't really the forum for it and with an extensive two years of experience, I'm probably not the man to tell you either. I also don't have one of those massive beards that brewers all seem to have, so I'd probably feel like a total fraud even if I had been shown how to brew at my father's knee.

I'm going to be completely honest here, the first beers were not great, but as the stock levels of beer in the supermarket improved, so did the quality of our beer. As we were allowed to see friends, we poured some of it down them and received increasingly encouraging responses. After an exhaustive examination of a range of beers one evening, we appear to have had the idea of making beer as a side line. Very long suffering readers of previous incarnations of this journal may have spotted that this bears a striking resemblance to how we, ahem, decided that we might fancy having a vineyard. Can one ever really decide anything on the receiving end of a gallon or so of beer? That's more or less a philosophical question I suppose.

This was the start of the path that lead us to extending the winery over the last few weeks – principally to increase our storage capacity for the sparkling wine and install a hot and cold room (more on this in future) – but also to allow us space for a small brewery, for your correspondent is now Devon's newest licenced brewer! If you are wondering at this point what the practicalities of being a licensed brewer are, it means sending a drawing of your building to the government and them telling you how to pay them tax.

In the process of all of this extensive drinking practice, we alighted on a pale ale that we both really like, and this weekend we shall be laying the ground work for the brewery and knocking out the first batch of Huxbeer. Amazing what you can talk yourself into after a few pints, eh?

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