Monday, March 26, 2012

There's lots of good stuff in "The Illustrated Guide to Brewing Beer" by Matthew Schaefer

There are books loaded with lots of good information.  Others have plenty of detailed explanations which are clear and avoid becoming tedious.  And then there are those that have a lot of great looking, yet helpful pictures.  The good news is the "The Illustrated Guide to Brewing Beer" by Matthew Schaefer hits this trifecta.

The first thing I noticed when opening the book is all the great photography.  And yet, the photos don't come across as homebrew porn (not that there's anything wrong with that) but serve a purpose in supporting the text.  Whenever Schaefer describes some homebrewing gadget, there's a picture right there to show you exactly what thing-a-majig he's talking about.  Which is one of the strengths of this book is in its descriptions and explanations of various homebrewing hardware.

Of course, it's hard to use pictures to describe the various molecular chemistry involved in brewing, but Schaefer still takes care to provide clear explanations to good effect.   For example, Schaefer carefully explains why you shouldn't keep a lid over the brew kettle, as this prevents the evaporation of Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) from the brew, which can result in off flavors.  As a novice homebrewer having brewed about 10 batches of beer over the past 2 1/2 years, I always kept the lid on over the stock pot on the stove to retain heat to help the underpowered electric stove in my apartment get the wort boiling. 
I was intrigued as this seemed to be the first time I've ever heard of this, having three other homebrewing books on my bookshelf.  Consulting these books to see if I had missed something, I found that one book never mentioned DMS evaporation.  The other two mentioned something about this, but only in an off-hand way that didn't make keeping the lid off the brew kettle to prevent off-DMS flavors obvious.  The extra care and detail Schaeffer provides made this concept really stick in my head, and now I'll make sure to keep the lid off.

In addition, Schaefer provides more deeper explanations on critical homebrewing topics such sanitizing, hop additions, secondary fermentation and other topic than other books often touch upon, but do not provide the level of information Schaeffer provides.   In fact, I'm getting psyched to make an IPA after learning some new stuff about adding hops.  Schaeffer, a practicing attorney, provides a helpful appendix on the homebrewing laws for all 50 United States and its an interesting read to see how the laws in each state differs.

The book is written fairly economically, and its 240 pages do not come across as a weighty manual.  But I'm afraid it reads a lot like a chemistry text book.  While  I'm sure Schaeffer is a passionate and enthusiastic homebrewer, this just doesn't come across in his the highly factual and procedural style of writing,  especially when compared to the work of Charles Papazian and Randy Mosher, or the Brooklyn Brewshop Beer Making Book, where a certain excitement for homebrewing leaps off the pages.   I kept waiting for a personal story or unique experience from Schaeffer's homebrewing exploits, and save for a rather routine tale about a carboy blowing its top, never got it. 

Which is why I would hesitate to recommend this book for a first time homebrewer as it would likely come across to as a dense tome that wouldn't generate any excitement needed to overcome any hesitation on taking the home brewing plunge.  It lacks any "first time homebrewing recipe" that I found to be very useful starting point for my first brew, which simplified all the homebrewing techniques I was trying to learn that were overwhelming at first.  And there were only two recipes.  Schaeffer must know a few more he could share with his readers and would be a great way to further to elaborate various homebrewing concepts much the same way he uses pictures to great effect.

These mostly stylistic issues aside, this book will make me a better homebrewer.  Five years from now, I expect my copy to be rather worn and have a bunch of brewing mash and hop stains on it.  Which is always a sign of a good homebrewing book.

(Skyhorse Publishing provide a copy of this book for the purposes of this review.)

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