By Greig McGill
With apologies to Mark Oliver Everett for the stolen title, this time I thought I’d be a little less technical and offer up a selection of things I wish I’d known or done differently when I began homebrewing. As my supposed friends love to point out, I’m getting old, so imagine me dispensing “wisdom” while sitting in a rocker on my porch and yelling at those damn hazy-beer-making kids to get off my lawn. As with all opinions, take these or leave them, but they work for me!
Don’t stress about the recipe
For some, honing the perfect recipe is the holy grail, and perhaps the entire point of the hobby. For those people, I salute you, I respect you, but you’re insane! Yes, recipe development is fun, and there are many guidelines to keep in mind in terms of not using too much of a particularly aggressive or characterful malt or a hop that will clash with other hops, or the yeast profile. But, and it’s a bigger but than Shakira’s 1, unless your brewing process is near perfect, and you’ve mastered all aspects of yeast expression, fermentation control, pH management, and ingredient blending for consistency, the nuances in a recipe are often lost in the noise of the rest of the process. Not only that, but when you inevitably get bitten by the gear bug and purchase a flash new system from this great bunch of people I’m writing this for, that recipe will need to be tweaked, and sometimes changed massively to achieve the same beer. Chances are you never will achieve exactly the same beer. Gear matters that much! But then again…
1 See, I told you I’m getting old. I still consider Shakira a modern pop culture reference. For you kids out there, please substitute some other modern pop star famous for shaking their substantial gluteus maximus.
Gear doesn’t matter that much
OK, so this is just a blatant lie, but it got your attention I hope! Of course gear matters. However, unless you’re a commercial brewer, and gear choices could potentially cost time, money, and/or personal safety, then your gear should only matter in as much as it helps you pursue your enjoyment of brewing. If you need a really sexy setup to feel good about the hobby, there is nothing at all wrong with that. It’s a hobby, so whatever helps you enjoy it more is the right answer. I think it’s important to realise that so long as the gear you have lets you get your process reasonably consistent, and controls important things like mash and fermentation temperatures in a hygienic way, you can make great beer on it.
Process really matters
Your beer is a reflection of your process far more than it is of the recipe you used, as I mentioned above. I wish I’d spent a lot more time thinking about my process right down to tiny steps like when to move a pump. I wish I’d documented all this. I wish I’d made good notes about why I changed a part of that process, what I expected the outcome to be, and how I’d measure that. Is that too geeky? Perhaps, but the best brewers I know, the ones who regularly take out medals in all the competitions they enter, and also make great everyday drinking beer, they care about their process. It breaks my heart when people spend a fortune of shiny equipment and really rare and expensive hops or other ingredients, and then throw all that away with a poorly thought out process which leads to flawed or simply uninspiring beer. What can you fix in your process right now to make better beer?
Don’t be a creature of habit
If the only reason you do something in your process is that “you’ve always done it that way”, then consider researching that part. Understand the why of it. Once you’re fully aware of it, consider changing or optimising it. My favourite example of this is mash length. I always used to mash for an hour because “that’s what you do”. Once I realised that my malts had undergone full conversion after twenty minutes (sometimes after ten) then any longer mash stage was just a waste of time. That was my experience, yours might be different. Always test for yourself to ensure the results of your changed process are what you expect.
Be a creature of habit
I love contradicting points! Of course, it’s fine to evolve your process, but it’s silly to change something just for the sake of it. If a particular thing works for you, and you’re not sure there’s a benefit to you in changing it, don’t! It’s easy to chase the dragon of perfect efficiency, or the shortest possible brewday, but these can often lead to making changes that reduce the consistency or effectiveness of your brewing. Question? Always. Change? Only if it makes something measurably and consistently better.
It’s the yeast, stupid!
It’s commonly said that we think we make beer, but really we just make wort. Yeast makes beer, and the best brewers are really the best at making an excellent wort for the yeast, and ensuring those yeast are in optimal condition to do their work. This pairs well with the first point about recipes. The best recipe (and process) in the world won’t matter if you’re not pitching the correct amount of healthy yeast, and ensuring the environment is well suited for them to make the beer that you want.
Log everything… EVERYTHING!
I implied this in the process section, but seriously, document everything you do. I wish I had. I once made a perfect Märzen, and I have spent far too long trying to chase that perfect beer. Had I simply documented everything about that day, maybe even the weather 2, recreating it should have been within my power. Alas…
2 OK, maybe not. But you never know!
Not all ingredients are created equal
Your ingredients matter. A specific hop variety from one supplier may differ in more than just alpha acid when compared to the same hop variety from a different supplier. Ingredients change between harvest years. We’re dealing with nature here, and although our maltsters and hop companies do an amazing job of trying to average out the annual variations, it’s simply not possible. Especially with hops, where essential oil makeup will vary drastically year to year. I haven’t even gone into age and storage conditions of ingredients, though I’ve talked about that before, at least as it relates to hops. It mostly holds true for everything, though even I don’t refrigerate my malt!
Water matters, but ignore mythology
I think we all probably know that one brewer who drives miles to get their water from some mystical spring in the mountains because they swear it makes their beer better. Well, it might, but I bet it won’t work for every beer, and I know there’s nothing magical about it. While water should probably be one of the last things to fiddle with when perfecting your beer, it really does make the difference between a decent beer and an incredible one. The reasons are scientific though, and have nothing to do with “million year old underground lake water” or any such nonsense! Buy John Palmer’s Water book, read it, brew better beer!
So there you have it. A bunch of things I wish I’d known or thought more about when I started brewing. I’ve stopped there as this is getting quite long, but I’m sure I’ll think of a bunch more. Perhaps there will be a sequel to this blog post? What do you all think? Are there any bits of knowledge you wish someone had given you before you started? Now, get off my lawn you haze-fans!