What's your poison?

Drink - Victoria Moore on the enduring ferment of home-brewing

The last time I drank home-brewed anything was at college. My then boyfriend managed to have enough energy left over after our relentless quarrelling and the strange version of Royal Hunt of the Sun that he was directing to make eight grisly bottles of cherry "brandy" with a kit that he bought, I think, from Boots the Chemist. It is hard to be nostalgic about the nights we spent among the sallow ethnic drapes of his basement room, swigging something that resembled Benylin (though it wasn't nearly as nice) from mugs that could have done with laser surgery to remove the crusty build-up round the rims.

But people often asked for seconds, and his cherry brandy was, I recall, a remarkably economical way of escaping the distasteful state that is sobriety.

Home-fermented wines and beers are very cheap, partly because there's no duty to pay on them. At the bottom of the market, with a kit that uses fruit extract rather than fresh grape juice, you are looking at little more than 50p for a bottle of wine.

With all the gloomy talk of a coming recession, I'm nervous that home-brewing might be on the brink of a comeback. "Oh yes," says John Betts of Johnson Home Wine Supplies in Worthing, Sussex. He is not trying hard enough to keep the cheeriness out of his voice. "We do look forward to a recession because you get a whole new breed of people coming to the shop. Most people interested in it now are the early retirees, with plenty of time on their hands. But when times get hard, we do very well."

Fermenting at home to make a drink with any significant alcohol content was not made legal until 1963, when the Conservative chancellor Reginald Maudling gifted it in his Budget. I have no idea why he lighted on this particular munificence, but it is a matter of public record that Maudling was a man whose actions were unhampered by good taste. A few years after his 1963 Budget, he unsuccessfully attempted to become the Daily Telegraph's wine taster of the year. The trouble was that the 16 wines he was required to taste were of rather good quality. "Usually I drink everyday plonk, the cheapest I can find," the chastened former chancellor explained after his failure to cover himself in glory.

Whatever, Maudling had paved the way for thousands of kitchen boilers across the land to spend the winter months cluttered up with demijohns and plastic buckets filled with rotting dandelions and elderberries. In case gathering the fruit was too much trouble, manufacturers were quick to develop and import easy-to-use kits. The industry boomed. In 1979, a Birmingham vicar caused a storm in a chalice when parishioners complaining about the quality of their communion wine discovered that their reverend was brewing it himself.

"At the peak of interest, which was probably in the early Eighties, Boots devoted about 20 square metres of floor space in larger stores to home-brew kits," says one former employee. Some canny operators made their millions from the boom. Now the giants have moved out of the business and there are only about a hundred small shops across the country that deal purely with supplies for fermenting wines and beers. But if home-brewing - which is still extremely popular in Canada and Australia, where duty is very high - is not exactly all the rage, its devotees are no less ardent. "I give a lot of talks about it," John Betts tells me. "There are plenty of wine-making groups across the country. Mainly old folk."

And would these old folk have palates that think Sauternes goes nicely with fish, chips and mushy peas? "Some of them have still got sweet tastes. There are those who wouldn't know what a bottle of table wine is," Betts concedes.

But he swears to me that by using a good-quality natural grape juice, you can, for around £1.80 a bottle, produce wine that will rival a vin de pays-standard Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for which you'd pay about a fiver off the shelf. In the interests of sanity, I haven't laboured over a home-brew kit. But in the event of a recession, I may have to.