Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Session #71: Five Things I Learned About Beer From Homebrewing

For this month's Session, John at Home Brew Manual asks us to write about how our experience brewing beer has affected our enjoyment of drinking beer.  I've been homebrewing beer for over three years, making somewhere between 10-15 batches over that time.  Some of the beers were good, some OK, others were beyond horrible.    By my reckoning, this puts me into the "knows enough to be dangerous" category and so I can't realistically claim to have any deep insights into the matter.  But then, what good is having a blog if I can't spout off a bunch of uninformed opinions?  So without further ado, here are five things I learned about beer from actually brewing it.

1.  Any Idiot Can Brew Beer

If a video existed of the first time I ever brewed beer, watching it today would be a lot like watching a video of my first date.  Not only did I not have a clue about what I was doing, everything I was doing was based on books and things I'd seen, but never actually did.   I'd thoroughly sterilize things that really just needed to be cleaned, and barely cleaned things that needed to be thoroughly sterilized.  (Just to be clear, I'm talking about my first homebrew, not my first date.)  I have no idea how any sugars were extracted from the luke-warm, soggy over-sized teabags stuffed with grain that served as the "mash".

After spending nearly a day peeking at the carboy every five minutes, the yeasts quietly worked their magic and the airlock began to slowly pop up and down.  The result was a thin, grainy, severely under-hopped and over carbonated Brown Ale, and all those who tried it gave me a rousing chorus of "It's not that bad." 

Technically it was beer and most people, if not told what they were drinking beforehand, would likely identify my first homebrew as "beer" within a few sips.  Beer became a little less mysterious, and I discovered the most satisfying beer in the world is any beer I just made.

2. Any Idiot Can Brew a Good Beer Once in a While

I'm living proof.  After a few batches of homebrew, I began to develop a process.  Or at least I stopped running around my kitchen yelling "Oh Shit" so much.  Until one day I tried my hand at a Molassas Stout and was in perpetual fire drill mode the whole time.  The grains were mashed at either too high or too low a temperature as I fiddled with the stove burners all afternoon.  The wort was way too hot when I pitched the yeast.  When I was done, it looked like someone with Stout colored-blood had been hacked to death in my kitchen.

To my utter amazement, when I tasted the final product, my immediate thought was "Damn, did I just brew this!".   Some how, all those brewing flaws either counteracted each other, or the off-tastes somehow complimented either other really well, and everyone agreed the final product was truly awesome.   And I'll never be able to duplicate it again.

So whenever someone raves about one great beer from a new brewery that's supposedly the next big thing, I always think, "Let's see them do that again."  Some breweries do, others don't.

3. The Act of Brewing Beer is About as Sexy as Cleaning Your Toilet

When I started homebrewing, an experienced homebrewer advised, "Just realize you'll be spending a lot of time cleaning things."  Unfortunately, he was right.   I spend more time cleaning metal and glass objects require to brew, ferment, and store beer than time actually brew beer.  Over one period, a couple batches homebrew tasted like someone slipped vinegar into it before I figured the source of the contamination.  So whenever a professional brewer says, "Brewing is a lot about sanitation," rather than some way cool awesome recipe, I get it.

4.  Small is Beautiful

Many professional brewers profess a preference to keep their operations small, whether it be to maintain quality or simply to hide the fact their ambitious expansion plans went bust. 

Whatever their reasons, I've found the traditional 5-gallon homebrew batches are too much.  Too much time to brew, too much heavy equipment, and way too much beer.  As much as I love my watery, odd-tasting Pale Ales, after drinking three gallons of the stuff, I'm done with them.  My friends can only accept so much "gift homebrew" before our relationship is seriously strained.

I experimented with smaller 1-gallon all-grain home brew batches with good results, before ramping this up to two gallons, which I brew comfortably in my kitchen with standard cooking equipment.  I'm not too proud to say my biggest source of homebrewing equipment is Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

5. Anyone Who Wants to Brew Beer for a Living Has to Be Crazy

There is nothing more satisfying than drinking my own beer and slowly demystifying the alchemy of yeast, malt and hops with the creation each new batch of beer brewed in my own home.

Thankfully, I don't have to care if each batch tastes a little different.  I don't have to take out any loans to buy equipment, and if a batch of beer goes bad, I can simply pour it down the drain.  I don't have to go around cold calling on bars, grocery stores, and restaurants or worry if my beer isn't selling for whatever reason.  I don't have to hire or fire anyone, or stress out over meeting payroll.   I never have to smile while politely dealing with drunks at Beer Festivals.  Why anyone would want ruin a good thing by doing that other stuff is something that makes absolutely no sense.

Then again, my idea of a great Sunday morning is running ten miles, even in the cold rain, and I suppose some might find that a little weird.


  1. Excellent post! Great work.

    I'm not a home-brewer yet, have only just taken the very first basic step towards doing so, but I love and fully relate to your last two paragraphs!

    We can simply drink the beer, without the strain of selling it in order to survive. And I'm with you 100% on the Sunday morning run. Somehow, it's a beautiful thing. Cheers!

  2. Points two and three ring true for me. After brewing for a year I've it easier than expected. And I've also found it involves a lot of cleaning - should almost be called homecleaning rather than homebrewing.

  3. Great post - I'm familiar with 'running around my kitchen yelling "Oh Shit"' and that 'rousing chorus of "It's not that bad"'. But reading it put a smile on my face and makes me look forward to doing it again soon...

    So it's not just people who do it for a living, but anyone who wants to brew beer at all has to be crazy


  4. Fantastic post, really entertaining and from the heart. You perfectly articulated my own experience seven full-mash homebrews in. Thanks.

  5. I remember the days of "Oh shit." Sometimes with the process quite a bit more predictable you can miss the days of running around lost. But the benefit of the more predictable process is that the beers tend to be consistently better than the earlier attempts.

  6. some familiar thoughts there, cleaning, cleaning and cleaning. Also I remember the pain of my first all grain brew all too well, and the smile on my face that first time I had the "shit did I brew this" moment. However there is a little less mystery in the process for me now, and a lot more zen on brew day.

  7. I really wish I hadn’t seen this as I really want one now diablo 3 paragon leveling, GW2 gold, swtor credits!