Confidence and Competence in Brewing

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“Relax. Don’t Worry. Have a Homebrew.” What a lifesaver that phrase was in my early days of brewing! Getting started in this hobby can be a nerve-wracking business. First are all of the (rightfully) important warnings about sanitation and proper temperature for yeast pitching and whatever. Then come all of the smaller warnings about water chemistry, boil volumes, specific gravity, and the rest. If a novice brewer spends more than a few minutes browsing any homebrew forum, they are quite likely to spin themselves into a panic over every last detail. And heaven help them if they run across the most die-hard low-oxygen brewing proponents!

Yet, as long as you master the very basics, you can make some pretty passable beer. All of those other details can come later, with practice and experience. Brewing becomes a genuinely relaxing process, passing the threshold from slightly stressful exercise that produces a fun product to a fun exercise that produces an excellent product.

Just the other day, as I was brewing a pilsner, I thought…”Hey! I really have confidence in brewing now!” Much of this comes from frequent practice. I know my system. I can throw in a new technique without too much disruption in my brew flow. I know my ingredients. If I can’t find one particular ingredient for a recipe, I feel confident in making appropriate substitutions. I’m getting much stronger in self-critique, and have had my critiques validated in formal competitions. Speaking immodestly, most of my beer is pretty decent, and some of my beer is pretty darned excellent.

To truly enjoy brewing, don’t try to master everything at once. Focus on the big picture, and dial in the details over time. Brew by brew, work on your craft and develop your knowledge base. It takes time, but we all have the potential to be confident and competent brewers!

Are homebrew experiments scientific?

e3ce2-20151107_180604As a professional scientist, I absolutely love any opportunity to meld the art and science of homebrewing. The intersection of chemistry and biology with the senses of taste, smell, touch, and sight creates endless hours of enjoyment. Even more so, I love playing with ingredients and processes to explore this beer landscape.

I’m not alone in this passion for the scientific side of homebrewing, either–two particularly prominent efforts (among others) have a solid hold in our brewing culture. The first of these is Experimental Brewing, by Denny Conn and Drew Beechum. In addition to a great website, they host one of my favorite brewing podcasts. Their mode of experimentation is to recruit IGORs (Independent Groups Of Researchers) who brew parallel batches of beer to test brewing hypotheses. The other major player in the world of homebrew experimentation is Brülosophy. This brewing team regularly investigates single variables (e.g., yeast pitch rate or addition of gelatin finings) of relevance to homebrewers, examining what (if anything) matters for your typical 5-10 gallon batch.

Over the past year or so of following these efforts, I have found some great value and food for thought in all of their experiments. The associated podcasts and blog posts pose interesting questions, and often challenge the received wisdom of homebrew tradition. Yet, the scientific side of me often wonders: Is it really science?

The short answer to this is, in my opinion, both yes and no.

Homebrew experiments are often scientific in that they propose hypotheses, design procedures to test the hypotheses, and collect data for later analysis. This is certainly necessary for science, but it’s not entirely sufficient.

I should preface my explanation on this latter point by saying that my opinions here are not intended as unthinking criticism of some really great homebrew experimentation. I love and appreciate what others are doing. That said, I do notice that the work is sometimes misused or misinterpreted within the broader homebrew culture. Some basic scientific safeguards could help to maximize the value of homebrew experiments and minimize confusion. So, my post is less about breaking down the current “system” (if it even really is a system) and more about what we can add to improve the value of homebrew experiments. Even more so, it’s about how those of us who read the “exbeeriments” should interpret them!

  • Expand the brewing scenariosAs is readily acknowledged by most brewing experiment writers, results of a particular experiment are really only applicable to those experimental conditions. For instance, if you find that there is no difference between a 20 minute and a 60 minute boil for a stout, the results probably shouldn’t be extended to a blonde ale. More experiments at a homebrew scale are needed!
  • Emphasize limitations. This follows pretty logically from the point immediately above. I think that most of the brewing experiment write-ups out there do this pretty well, so it’s more of a caution for those who read and try to apply the results.
  • Record methodology in detail. Brülosophy sets a high bar for this, and is able to do so because their brewing is done typically by a single person. The IGORs do good work, but the distributed nature of the brewing means that a lot of the details on their brewing setups and techniques aren’t immediately available. Different brewers often have very different techniques. Unfortunately, this can raise a lot of basic questions about experimental results and interpretation. Experimental Brewing did a great episode highlighting differences between brewers’ techniques and how it affected an experiment related to bitterness. This was indeed illuminating!
  • Pair sensory perception analysis with laboratory analysis. The aforementioned Experimental Brewing episode did this really well, in terms of evaluating differences in IBU yields across different recipes and setups, as did a Brülosophy exbeeriment related to loose vs. bagged hops in the kettle. This approach really helps to nail down the interpretation of results (especially for those related to bitterness), although I also admit it is potentially expensive.
  • Engagement with the brewing literature. There is an ocean of literature from the commercial brewing world, much of it published in formal scientific journals, yet this is rarely if ever incorporated into the homebrew world in any meaningful way. There are reasons for this, of course…for instance, much of this literature pertains to giant commercial brewing setups and cannot be transferred confidently to the homebrew scale. Also, much of the literature is technical and paywalled, so might as well not exist for most hobbyists.
  • Peer review and formal publication. Is it time for a Journal of Homebrewing Science? If there is a single thing that would improve homebrew experiments, it would be formal, independent peer review and a mechanism for publication of these reviewed results. Comments on blog posts do provide one form of review, but this is not always reflected by modifications in the experiments or changes in interpretation of the experiments. If I were to be really ornery, and I suppose I am because I am writing this post, I would suggest a multi-step peer review process handled by an independent review or editorial board for brewing experiments.
    • Design the experiment, and open it up for input.
    • Modify the experimental design as required.
    • Run the experiment.
    • Write up the results, and open the write-up for review.
    • Following the review, revise the write-up accordingly.

Overall, I love the experimental approach to homebrewing. I think it illuminates some really interesting facets of our hobby, and helps brewers to be more and more thoughtful in their technique. We’re now at the stage where we can push things to the next level–so let’s do it!

2016’s Homebrew Highlights

An Archaeopteryx-linked beer requires the appropriate glassware.I’ve really enjoyed the past year of homebrewing–lots of fun recipes, techniques, and achievements. Here’s are some of the highlights:

  • Favorite Batch
    • Olde Persica Porter
      • This was my first time brewing with smoked malt, and wow! It ended up as a deliciously balanced and flavorful beer, definitely in my personal Top 10 list.
  • Least Favorite Batch
    • Gingerbread Winter Warmer
      • This was one of those “good in concept, not as good in results” brews. Thankfully, I only had two gallons of the stuff (even if my spouse really likes it). I did bottle up a few for aging, so we’ll try again in a year.
  • Experimental Recipe with Most Potential
    • Citra Wit
      • I enjoyed so much about this beer, but it missed out a bit in the areas of mouthfeel and citrus aroma. A little more fine-tuning, and this should be an awesome recipe.
  • Most Fun New Style/Recipe to Try
    • Thumbspike Saison
      • This was my first attempt at a saison, and the results were pretty fine. My dry hopping was maybe a little out of style, but another saison is definitely in the cards for next year.
  • Best Technique Added to Repertoire
    • Lagering
      • I’ve brewed a few lagers and pilsners this year, and really like the new challenges and opportunities that these styles bring. Lagering my beer has opened up a whole new world of styles, and I want to make the the focus of 2017 for me! I’ve already acquired an additional fermentation chamber to be devoted just to lagering.
  • Most Frustrating Technique/Tool to Master
    • Decoction mashing
      • I initially had this on the “best technique” category, but decided to place decoction mashing here instead. The main issue is mastering the temperature rests–there is enough fall-off in temperature as I remove the decoction that it has been tough to hit the target temperatures later! I’m getting closer, but still have some work to do here.
  • Best Ingredient Added to Repertoire
    • Vienna Malt
      • I bought a bulk sack of this earlier this fall, and have made it the centerpiece of a few brews (including, of course, Vienna lager).  It’s really grown on me as a flavorful base malt, particularly for pale ales and IPAs. After American 2-row, this is my new favorite!
  • Favorite Book
    • Brewing Classic Styles
      • This book by Zainasheff and Palmer is becoming a really handy reference guide whenever I build recipes. The recipes in here are simple, don’t generally use crazy ingredients or techniques, and have both extract and all-grain versions. The broad variety of recipes is pretty handy, too. I’ve been referencing this one a lot since it arrived at my house!
  • Other Milestones
    • First Zymurgy article
      • At the beginning of the year, I had a “Brew Year’s Resolution” to pitch an article for a major homebrewing publication. Success! (and another article on the way in a few months)
    • First homebrew medals
      • Although my first few competition entries didn’t hit the mark, I achieved gold earlier this year. I can’t say I’ll enter every competition that heads my way, but the learning experience up to this point encourages me to try some more.
    • Planting hops
      • I planted four hop bines (two each of Cascade and Nugget), and got some good leafy growth. Hopefully cones are in the cards for year two!
  • Overall Stats
    • I brewed 29 batches this year–not too shabby!

2015’s Homebrew Highlights

My beer of the year, Citra Blonde Ale

Looking back, 2015 was a banner year for my brewing. Speaking immodestly, I produced some excellent beers. Just as importantly, if not more so, I really stretched myself in terms of new styles and techniques.

  • Favorite Batch
    • Citra Blonde Ale
      • This blonde ale nailed every single aspect–in fact, I might say it is one of the best beers I’ve brewed over the years.
  • Least Favorite Batch
    • I didn’t have any batches that totally went south, but I did have some that were just not quite where I wanted them. My Live Long and Porter was squarely mediocre, as was my attempt at an Old Speckled Hen Clone. The former was mostly a result of recipe–the latter was, at least in part, the need to age for way longer than I was willing to give it.
  • Experimental Recipe with Most Potential
    • Pannotia White IPA
      • I’ve done two iterations of this recipe now, and each time have dialed it in just a little closer to my overall goals. One more, and I think I should have it where I want it! This is my “brew to watch” for 2016.
  • Most Fun New Style/Recipe to Try
    • Berliner Weisse
      • I’ve long been hesitant to brew a sour beer (and truth be told, I think that sours are a bit overdone), but I couldn’t pass up a chance to try kettle souring. It was super easy, and the result has been pretty tasty!
  • Best Technique Added to Repertoire
    • I tried a lot of new things this year (different hopping schedules, session IPA’s, kettle souring, brew-in-a-bag, and oaking, to name a few), but I think the biggest addition to my toolkit has been kegging. I absolutely love the convenience–so much less scrounging, scrubbing, and sanitizing–and it also makes hosting people easier (no more piles of bottles on the counter). I’ll admit that the “cool factor” of a few taps on-hand is nice, too. It’s nice to be able to just have a few ounces if that’s all I want, rather than committing to a full 12, 18, or 22 ounce bottle. A win all around!
  • Most Frustrating Technique/Tool to Master
    • I would say that mastering my refractometer has been among the most frustrating aspect of brewing this year. It is a handy little tool, but wow, is the scale off major time. It took quite a few iterations and the development of an instrument-specific equation to get it to the point where I feel comfortable with it.
  • Best Ingredient Added to Repertoire
    • I have to say that WLP400, White Labs’ Belgian Wit yeast, is probably one of the most enjoyable strains to work with, in terms of quality of the results. I’ve used it in both of my White IPA batches, and I’m hooked.
  • Favorite Book
    • Hands down, it’s Gordon Strong’s Modern Homebrew Recipes. Every single recipe I’ve tried or modified from there has been excellent. It has also helped me to really think about my process, and the effects that process can have on each batch (e.g., late hopping, adding dark grains at the vorlauf, etc.). A close runner-up is Mastering Homebrew by Randy Mosher. Not only is it informative, but it’s got the best (and most helpful) graphics of any homebrew book I’ve seen yet. Strong’s book has pushed my technique the most, but Mosher’s has solidified the basics the most. They are a good duo of publications!

Advice for the New Homebrewer

This post is intended as a “sticky note” for friends, acquaintances, and general internet inhabitants who ask how to get into home brewing. It is based on my own personal experience and opinion. If there is anything that home brewers are, it’s opinionated. So, you may hear drastically different advice on some points (e.g., extract versus all-grain), but I suspect most would at least partly agree on what I have to say here.

My starting assumption here is that the reader is at least passingly familiar with basic terms such as “extract brewing” or “all-grain brewing” or “sparging.” If not, a quick internet search will turn up better definitions than I could provide.

General Advice

    • “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Home Brew.” I really like Charlie Papazian’s philosophy. Papazian is in many ways a founder of homebrewing culture, and his book “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing” is a legitimate classic. Although I’ve since learned that the corners of some content in the book are a little outdated or have better alternatives, Papazian’s “Relax” mantra is a healthy one to keep in mind. Most minor mistakes in brewing (and even some major ones) won’t completely kill a batch of beer! As I tell friends who are just starting out–“The worst thing that usually can happen is that you will get beer.”
    • You will not get Bud Light style lager through 99% of all home brewing efforts. If that is your goal, you are far better off just picking up a case of the cheap stuff at the store. The light American lagers–despite their bad reputation among beer snobs–are technically quite difficult to achieve by most homebrew setups. That said, you are not restricted to just stouts and porters. You can fairly easily make a really tasty blonde ale, for instance–light, refreshing, and quite achievable!
    • If your intent is to save money on beer, find another hobby. In terms of raw ingredients for a batch, yes, you might save money in the long run. But once you factor in time and equipment, this is not by any means a money-saving proposition. Quite frankly, there are better ways to save money–like cutting back on your beer drinking.
    • You know what your own tastes are. Trust them. If the beer tastes good to you, it’s good beer. That said, do be open to constructive critique from those who have practiced taste buds. As a corollary to that, though, remember that we all pick up on different things in beer. Beware relentlessly negative tasting critiques from beer snobs. There are always those who will find fault no matter what; learn to identify them and (politely) ignore them.

  • The goal is not (or isn’t always) high alcohol or maximum hoppage. Those things can be nice in some beers, but get boring after awhile. There is an unfortunate “macho” philosophy prevalent among some home brewers (and even some craft brewers) that the goal is to create the highest alcohol beer that will provide maximum buzz, or the most bitter concoction, or the funkiest Brett brew. This isn’t healthy, nor is it fun, in the long run. Good beer comes in all shapes and sizes; I’ve had great beer with almost no hops character, and lots of hops character. Likewise, I’ve had great beer with 3.2% abv, or 9% abv. Variety is the spice of life.
  • There is a tremendous amount of BS masquerading as brewing advice on various internet forums and websites. There is also a tremendous amount of good knowledge out there. As a scientist, I am a little frustrated at times by the uncritical eye cast towards brewing techniques. I get the sense that there is a vast world of scientific knowledge out there, but it doesn’t often percolate down to home brewers. So, use a bit of common sense when incorporating new techniques into your repertoire. As I said in the intro–home brewers are an opinionated bunch, for better or worse.
  • Start small. You have no idea if you will give up on brewing after two batches, or if you’ll still be brewing strong ten years down the road. Thus, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to drop $1,000 on equipment right from the start. You should be able to brew your first batch of beer for around or under $100 of equipment and supplies.
  • If possible, brew with a friend before committing. If you have a friend who is a homebrewer, ask if you can “ride along” for one of their brewing sessions. It’s a good way to see how the process works. That said, be aware that your friend may have good habits, bad habits, cheap habits, expensive habits, or unnecessary habits built into his or her work flow. Just because they do all-grain with a massively complex sparge setup doesn’t mean that you have to also. Or, if they use iodine-based sanitizers without proper dilution or rinsing, you may want to do something a little different.
  • Start with extract brewing. It requires minimal equipment investment as well as requires the easiest technique. It’s a good way to get your feet wet (or end up completely immersed in the hobby!).
  • Both extract and all-grain brewing can produce good (or bad) beer. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages, but with care and experience both can produce excellent beer. If you spend your entire career doing extract, and get excellent results, yay! Don’t let all-grain snobs get you down.
  • Take good notes. You will never regret this. What worked in your process? What didn’t work? What did you change from before? What were the starting and finishing gravities? It is hard to improve (or maintain high quality) if you don’t know what happened.
  • You will not get perfect beer at first–but you will almost certainly get drinkable beer. As you learn and practice your technique, your brews will nearly certainly improve.
  • If the beer tastes funny, wait a week or two or three before tossing it. I’ve made a few batches that improved drastically after a few weeks of maturing. Time doesn’t fix all ills in brewing, but it sure can mitigate most.