RoboBrewing: Automation and "Real Brewing"

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A few weeks back I put some thought into a brewing system overhaul.  I was looking at my nine-year-old Coleman Cooler mash tun and pondering the idea of "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" vs. "stuck in a rut," and decided it was at least worth exploring.

One of the things I considered - mainly because I'm friendly with some enthusiastic people who own, use, or sell them - was one of those new-fangled brewing machines like the Zymatic.  Pricey, for sure, but I was curious about whether it might be worth it, and so I started talking to some folks.  Time saved and repeatability are worth something, after all, and psychologists often demonstrate that money spent on buying back time feels like a good investment compared to other forms of buying, so why not?

That's when I discovered a surprising resistance to these kinds of machines: "That's not REAL brewing."  

"Real Brewing?"

"Um...it isn't?"

Nope.  Not according to a small-but-reasonably-vocal group of homebrewers I was in touch with.  Maybe I'm constructing a straw man here and there really isn't real opposition to this, but it sure seemed that way.

Some even seemed shocked I was considering it.  

The argument went like this: if a computer and a machine are doing the adding and processing of ingredients, then the "real brewer" is the machine, not the human operating it.  They described the machines as basically producing a hot, pre-hopped wort extract.

So, naturally, I followed up with, "OK, but isn't extract brewing 'real brewing?'"  This is where it got weird: YES, obviously, extract brewing is real brewing, in their estimation.  

Why?

Well, because you're adding the pre-hopped extract and boiling it yourself.

Dismissing (I think rightly, but please feel free to disagree) the idea that using a can opener and pouring extract into water to dissolve it as a "brewing act" of note (I mean, really, why is that substantively different than letting the machine do it?  If I used an electric can opener, am I "not brewing" again?), it seems like these folks bring brewing down to one act:

Boil the wort yourself.  Is that really the essence of "real brewing?"  If so, it seems like a strangely specific hill to die on.

Ideology

And then there's the old saw that "brewers make wort - yeast make beer."  If so, then isn't "real brewing" much more about the cold-side process?  

That argument didn't get much traction with my impromptu and far-flung focus group, either.  Why?  Because the objectors had what amounts to an ideological objection.  One wrote, and I quote, "it's just wrong," referring to the use of an automated brewing machine to produce wort.  Others expressed the same idea in different ways, but to the same general conclusion.  

Introduce automation, and you've tainted the process.  You're "buying" consistency in your process, as one put it.  That's not an expression of logic - after all, the same could be said of brewers who use software to build recipes and calculate strike temps and water additions/adjustments - it's a statement of philosophical and stereotypical and normative thinking.  

But ideology, stereotype, and philosophy are, almost by definition, incomplete and imperfect shortcuts that often work against reason.  They simplify the world and make it "knowable," which is comforting, but they usually rely on (check out Lippmann, Public Opinion, Chapters 6-10, for some awesome reading) "blind spots" to provide their crucial energy and agency, since simplification nearly always comes at a cost in terms of accuracy or consistency.

Automation "feels" wrong to them, and introducing it is acceptable in some ways that feel "OK" (using extract) while being unacceptable in others (using a home-based machine to create a comparable product).  That inconsistent standard is often evidence of a blind spot at work. 

No Axe to (Automatically) Grind

Ultimately, I decided against the various machines out there, but I was perfectly satisfied by their capabilities and potential to make great beer.  I have no axe to (automatically) grind, here.  I'm not path-dependent and trying to make myself feel good about a decision or purchase.

I'm just fascinated by the debate.

For what it's worth, I can't side with the anti-machiners.  Even if we're talking about a push-button machine with pre-packed ingredient sets, you're still doing your own fermentation.  If we start drawing lines around what can and can't be accomplished by buying pre-processed ingredients, using specialized tools or programs, and/or taking advantage of technology and equipment in order to decide what is or isn't a brewer, then I think we just end up in a muddle.  

Is a decoction gal a more "real" brewer than a single-infusion guy?  People who use whole flower hops v. pellets v. extracts?  Temp controller folks v. "natural cave aging and temperature control" people?  

If you're working the product in any way, you're brewing.  If the day ever comes when you can push a button on one end and get a full, fermented, and carbonated keg out of the other end with no work on your part, then I'm more than willing to restart this conversation.

Until then, though, I don't see what the problem is, even though I'm sticking with my old, reliable Coleman cooler instead of the shiny brewing machine.

Keep it simple.

JJW