You Need Help: Advice for Brewers in the Style of the Brownlow Committee

The Brownlow Committee: Merriam, Brownlow, and Gulick

The Brownlow Committee: Merriam, Brownlow, and Gulick

"No man is an island entire of itself," Donne tells us.  He certainly got that one right: we all need help, brewers especially, and no matter how long they've been brewing.  

Why?  Because brewing rewards consistent repetition, and repetition is arguably the enemy of progress.  "Practice makes perfect" - sure, but what is the thing it's perfecting the right thing?  Or just the good-enough thing?  If you have a process, routine, mindset, recipe, and/or approach to brewing that yields beer that's good, then you may end up in a real brewing rut.  It's like evolution.  The human eye isn't the finest visual organ that anyone could design: it was just the first one that worked to give us a survival advantage, and so it got passed down and refined over time.  It doesn't mean it can't be obviously improved.

But "obvious" isn't always easy.  Consider the American presidency - it may be the most challenging job in the world.  All the more so when, like in the late 1930s, you're a president looking down the barrel of a global depression, fascism on the march (literally), and an impending world war (again?).  And yet, at the time, the office of the president consisted of a few clerks/secretaries, the president, and...that's about it.  So, the Brownlow Commission is formed because - and I swear this is the quote - "The President Needs Help."  Duh.

So, today, as an homage to Louis Brownlow and Co., Beer Simple presents a five-point plan (just like theirs) to help us brewers get not just help - but the right help.

The Five Point Program

First, increase the amount of good feedback you get.  Luckily, we've already jumped into this topic, but it bears repeating: not all feedback is worth your time.  Some of it is overly-harsh, but much more commonly it's far too friendly and optimistic.  Join a homebrew club with structured tastings.  Enter every beer you brew in several competitions (maybe not forever, but just for a short while) to get trained, anonymous feedback.  Taste your beer against highly-rated commercial examples in the same style to see how you stack up.  But get more - and better - feedback.

Second, identify the best brewers in your area and ask if you can join them for a brew day.  This isn't so you can steal their entire process - it's to see what they do and don't do that you might consider to be essential brewing practice.  There's no better way to break out of your own stale brewing dogma than to watch people (whose quality as brewers you personally attest to) flout the "rules" that you've subscribed to and still create great beer.  By all means, hit these people up for tips, too, but more important is to expand your horizons.  It's like Mr. Clemens said: travel is fatal to prejudice.

Third, read.  And read old and new.  Revisit some classics of brewing literature (How to Brew, Jean de Clerk's A Textbook of Brewing, if you have access to it) and read some of the great modern texts on brewing science and practice.  Books like this are vetted (usually) by several technical experts and brewers, which doesn't guarantee that they're right, but it limits the probability that they're flatly wrong.  Unlike, say, a beer blog which gets vetted by...I don't know, does Biscuit the Brewdog count?

Fourth, and this might sound counterintuitive, but stop brewing for a while.  Not long - but take a couple of months off.  Clear your brewing head.  This happened to me as a natural experiment last year when I had overcommitted by a borderline-irresponsible degree to teaching.  I had minimal free time, and when I did I was occupied with staying organized.  The result, though, was that when finals were done and the smoke cleared and I got back into my brewery, I was looking at it with fresh eyes.  It wasn't that I'd been looking at brewing as an obligation or a slog (though that can happen, for certain) - it was just that I'd gotten used to doing things a certain way.  Now that I was essentially re-familiarizing myself with my system and process (due to my long absence) I was more than willing to make changes in process, equipment, method, and more - which I did, with some very nice results.  

Last, help yourself.  Look for your own flaws, subtle though they might be.  Don't rush through a brew day - if you're doing that, you're not making good beer, so start looking for ways to shave time off of your process.  Check out your ingredient procurement process - is everything fresh?  When was the last time you refined and updated your recipes?  Have you been trying out new ingredients?  Maybe don't drink while brewing (I know that's controversial).   There's an almost-infinite list of things you can do to help your own brewing if you conscientiously and actively decide to do so.

Aaaand....repeat

After you do these things, you'll feel confident, rejuvenated, and happy with your brewing, like a brewer who just got the latest software update downloaded into his/her brain.  The trick is not to re-dig your rut.  Once every year or two, repeat this program to keep yourself fresh.

We all need help.  The sheer, stupid obviousness of that statement doesn't undermine its truth or value.

Keep it simple.

JJW