Centennial Post – The Long Road in Brewing

Just over 3 years ago I started this blog. I was struggling with my brewing, but starting to see the light. At that point, I had been brewing for about 3 years, starting with pre-hopped extract in a Mr. Beer. I quickly jumped into all grain with a round cooler mash tun and braid, but still struggled to produce beer that met my high expectations. Then I invested in my Brew-Magic and continued the good fight, occasionally stumbling into a good batch.

Running the Brew Magic with a new RTD thermocouple today

I decided then to start blogging. The Brew-Magic community was (and remains) small and niche, but in need of general (often moral) support. I immersed myself in brewing books and websites, digging deeper than I was comfortable (meaning well over my head in many cases). I was on a mission to figure out how to brew really good beer on this system, but confused by advice from the books, blogs, forums and websites that seemed to illustrate one way to do things. Those first three years, I felt like I was running uphill in sand. I still write like a novice, but I have made good friends through helping folks figure out their systems (as well as their water chemistry).

As this is officially my centennial post (#100), despite a few random ‘throw away’ updates, I thought I would take this time to do a look back at where I was and where I am today. While mostly my point of view, I am hoping this rings true with many experienced home brewers, and encourages those that might be struggling to reset and look at this hobby with fresh eyes. Below are some tips to help you avoid the long and cold road I took to becoming a confident brewer.

TIP: Surround yourself with knowledgeable brewers.

When I started, I was alone and didn’t know anything about brewing. None of my immediate friends were home brewers and I stubbornly stuck to reading instructions and a few basic books to figure things out. The more I read initially, the more I was sure I wanted to dive into all grain brewing, believing somehow that was “REAL” brewing. It took me a few years to develop friendships and acquaintances, and stepping out into a more extroverted world (not really my thing). So I started attending a few Zealots meetings, and jumped into helping to judge beers – where I met and made several long standing friendships.

JKBarrelDay-1479

With the help of mentors, and brewing with a few very experienced and medal laden home brewers, as well as building core friendships with professional brewers, I have been able to refine my processes and skills, iteratively. You need to go into this community with enthusiasm, humility, and be willing to roll up your sleeves. I recommend having wide open eyes, ears, and a closed mouth. Check the ego, ask critical questions, but mostly observe. Good brewers will openly answer your questions, but try not to interfere if you are brewing with them. In fact, be prepared to clean.

BTW, I said knowledgeable and not opinionated. There is a difference. Everyone has an opinion…

Oh yeah, I recommend a community like BrewUnited and the AHA Forum for access to some solid brewing advice without a lot of drama. AHA membership also gives you access to Zymurgy magazine.

TIP: Learn to evaluate your beer.

I was really happy with my first few beers, because I didn’t know any better. Honestly, they were beer-like substances and pretty poor. Judging competitions opened my eyes to a lot of things, fortunately, that I recognized in my own beer. Off flavors are flaws, and it became elegantly clear that even the happy smiles and polite comments I was getting on club meetings were masks for “how do I tell this guy his beer sucks?” About the time I started writing Accidentalis, I started getting to know the local BJCP judges, befriended a few of them, and ultimately a now National BJCP ranked judge and I are very close friends. Still, competing made me a better brewer.

Lay some ground rules with these friends, based in absolute respect and trust for each other. Asking someone who is serious about their BJCP credentials is asking them to carefully and honestly evaluate your beer against an arbitrary standard. Don’t hang over them and don’t badger them. After scoring, read the sheet and taste the beer with them and walk through what they are tasting, listening to what they detect and how they suggest you address the issues. Take it to heart AND be willing to do the same in return. It is an incredibly important skill to set aside your assumptions and personal bias (to the extent possible) and truly evaluate your beer.

BUBalancedDivision_judge-2

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) remains the only formally organized home brew beer judging organization focused on homebrewing (edit – in the US. I just learned there is a similar program in Poland). I appreciate the fact that to become Certified, you MUST pass a series of tests that screen you for your ability to describe what you are tasting, judgement against a written standard and a solid general knowledge of brewing. Pursuing Certification (still pending in my case) has provided me with the critical tools to evaluate my beers.

TIP: Practice and Experimentation makes perfect.

My very first post mused about when I might actually be able to make good beer, and how much practice it was going to take. Practice holds true when dealing with any repetitive situation. Muscle and thought memory are critical in dealing with the million minor problems that creep into a brew day, from a stuck circulation or lauter, to correcting mistimed hop additions, or spilling a couple of gallons of sweet wort on the garage floor.

Learning to use my RIMS system took a lot of time. Now after about 60 batches on it (edit: about 20 batches a year), I know it pretty well. Only occasionally does something happen that I cannot quickly accommodate. Now that I own a second system (The Grainfather), it occurs to me that I am mastering it perhaps more quickly than I did my Brew-Magic. There are lessons that simply transfer, and then there are little bits that do not. Both systems work well in producing beer that I like – and I can now comfortably swap between the two. Mastering your brewing systems takes practice – brew often.

Neil reviewing tasting notes

When experimenting with techniques or recipes, try to change only 1 variable. This allows you to better understand what the impact of that change brings to the glass. Even better, deploy a triple blind tasting test (ala. Experimental Brewing and Brülosophy) to remove your personal confirmation bias in the test.

MOST importantly, I brew with confidence. Brewing is really not about what valve to throw, what temperature to strike, or how many BTUs your burner throws. It’s about mastering your process from recipe creation and inception through to the golden foamy liquid pouring into your glass. Confidence means that you just know that if you do something out of the ordinary, you understand the effect it may have in the final product and the lack of hesitation to make the decision. This takes practice and nothing can replace the value of your first 10, 20 or 50 brews.

TIP: Immersion Learning

Remember that last bit, practice? Learning is also critical. I am a visual learner and reading a book and applying that can be difficult. There are words that beginners boggle at, such as racking or mashing. I actually thought mashing was taking the mash paddle and schmushing the grains together like making cream of wheat. Learning the basics, with clear and concise instruction and slowly introducing new concepts helped. Suddenly I was diving into brewing textbooks, and groking bits and pieces of Kai Troester’s website more successfully, and applying that learning through simple experimentation.

Mash pH Workspace

If there is additional advice I can provide; be skeptical of what you read. Even long established texts can be rife with recommendations that simply are not true outside of a large volume commercial brewery. If you see a concept, experiment with it on your system. It is the best way to learn, to confirm the concept and see it in action. Oh and anything you read here? Confirm it yourself! I am as susceptible to passing along faux knowledge as anyone. Read, Experiment, Confirm.

TIP: Evaluate yourself, your skills and your system regularly

I call this intellectual honesty, and I am sure there are better words for it. On a regular basis, and not just when you have the occasional contamination issue or crappy score sheet, write down what kind of brewer you really think you are, followed by what kind of brewer you wish to be. You have defined a gap and two points that can be connected by a process of improvement.

New gear is hard to get to know. New processes can be frustrating or rewarding. New ingredients can be a challenge to master. These concept areas are perfect for a hard core and intense focus of education, experimentation and refinement. Master them one at a time making small changes as you go. Do NOT fall into the trap of making massive changes.

It is OK to improve slowly but surely. I like to sit and review the last 3-5 brew days, usually with a taster glass of each beer in hand. What worked. What didn’t. What caused a perceived problem? Recipe? Technique? Contamination? How do I prevent leaving a fermenter valve open when knocking out? Identifying the problem and resolution, and establishing a procedure helps these to become part of that brewing muscle memory critical to your confidence.

One of the evaluation challenges tossed to me by a brewing buddy was to brew the exact same recipe 5 times back to back, evaluating the differences and documenting any missteps that may have caused those differences. It was tough. I got sick of my house APA but I learned a whole lot about my impatient and reactive brewing habits. That became a core focus for me… planning for any of the usual issues and resolving them without panic (or prolific profanity).

Finally, I feel like I have control in my brewery and the confidence to approach certain techniques in the brewery and to move easily between a variety of systems, from the cheap and easy cooler mash to a RIMS to the Grainfather. I have people around me that will provide honest and blunt feedback on my beers as I refine my recipes. I have solid cleaning and sanitation and packaging routines. I know to prepare adequately to ensure my brew day goes as smoothly as possible and have strategies in hand to deal with the many little things that can go wrong. Am I a great brewer? Not by my measure, but I am happy to see the significant growth, consistently higher score sheets and my progress toward my BJCP Certification.

Oh and my biggest turn around? When I discovered my tap water was completely inappropriate for brewing and learned to manage my brewing water profiles. I have written about water chemistry ad nauseam, so will spare you another lecture. For you – there maybe a different AHA! moment.

Please notice I have avoided words like graduated or advanced. Never let anyone put you down for your brewing style or approach… extract, partial mash, all grain, BIAB, cheap n easy mash tun or an all-in semi-automated RIMS system. How you brew is a personal choice.

6 Replies to “Centennial Post – The Long Road in Brewing”

  1. Matt. I agree with so much of what you posted! I really like the intellectual honesty part – I just went through a few less than stellar batches as I tried to cut corners due to time constraints. Looking back I should have invested just a little more time to do it right. I also struggle with repeating batches, not sure why but I just can’t bring myself to rebrew the same thing, I really need to if I am going to make the personal progress I desire.

    Cheers!

  2. Great post!

    I find myself struggling to improve my overall quality and would love to follow your advice of regular practice and experimentation. I guess I just don’t know what to do with all that beer! I brew for myself mostly and give away a growler here and there to friends but that still only means I can brew about 1 5 gallon batch a month. I try to take good notes, but there really is no substitute for regular practice at anything. I feel like a make decent beer, but like you early on I have no confidence in my palate and when I sense something is “off” I usually have no clue what it is.

    I read as much as I can (I am trying to get through “water” right now but probably need to go back and take a Chem 101 class!) which is both blessing and curse as I do not feel like I can apply much of what I read – only so much you can test out on each batch as you referenced.

    I have not read all of your posts, so forgive me if this has been explained but can you tell me how you handle this production “problem”? 60 batches a year is A LOT of beer!

    Sorry for the long reply, but your post got me going!

    1. Hi Todd, so you kinda hit the nail on the head. It is a bit overwhelming when you see how much you need to brew to accumulate good experience. I divided the laundry list up, finally, into specific areas of focus and forced the discipline to make small changes. As for the large amount of beer – how is that a bad thing? 🙂 I share a good deal of it and sometimes, toss a bit out. And frankly, I probably drink a bit more of it than I should (and my belt gets longer and tighter than it should). I just edited that to indicate about 20 batches a year – I mispoke there. I am at 67 brews on that system as of today. It doesn’t include the batches before I started counting – and those brewed on my Grainfather.

      I might suggest moving to smaller batches if that will help you brew more often. My minimal batch size right now is 5 gallons, but the time commit is about the same as 10 gallons. I do like to see how my beer changes over 3-4 months so having a lot in the pipeline is helpful, and provides a lot of variety.

      Some folks have accelerated their small 1-2 gallon batches with shorter rests and boils. And the time savings are significant with shorter heating and chill times. That might be something to consider.

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