Blend It: A Heterotic Theory of Beer Synergy and/or Dilution


Ever heard of "hybrid vigor?"  It's a principle - often associated with crossbred dogs - that the crossbred version of something will show qualities superior to each parent.  This phenomenon is known formally as "heterosis."

Over the years, I've been thinking about this as it applies to beer.  Not in terms of specialized breeding of yeast strains, or hybrid hops, or next-generation super-awesome grains.  This is simpler than that.  I'm just talking about pouring what's in one beer glass into another one.  

You might be able to go further and apply this to homebrewing as well, of course, but let's stick with one glass (well, two) here, to start.  

"Weikert's Law"

Whenever you judge beer, you end up with lots of small cups with an ounce or so of beer in them at the end of the flight, after you've decided which of them are the winners.  Since I'm a relatively "fast" judge, my flights often wrap up before lunch was served or best of show judging or whatever, so I just take all of those small samples of beer and combine them into one cup, to have something to sip at while socializing and waiting.

Now, it should come as no surprise that when you combine a bunch of award-winning beers into one "mega-winner" sample that it tastes pretty good.  What's surprising is that when I started doing it with the obviously faulty samples, they were pretty good, too.

Thus began my practice of always combining samples, especially when they weren't great on their own.  I started preaching this to other homebrewers, too, who noticed similar effects.  Out of this grassroots effort came something that they (I would never presume to name it this) refer to as "Weikert's Law."  It goes something like this:

"Any two or more blended beers get better."

That's a little overstated, of course - there's an upper limit.  But it certainly seems to hold for beers with minor faults (and, sometimes, major faults), and that's where its utility comes in for homebrewers.

Why it Works (maybe)

I have two explanations as to why this might work: synergy and dilution.  They're not mutually exclusive, and it's certainly possible I'm dead wrong, but both seem intuitively plausible.

First, synergy: each beer is filling in flavor gaps that the other missed, with a resounding overall flavor effect.  Adding those subtle grace notes of complementary, accenting flavors creates a "fuller" flavor experience that is more than the sum of the individual flavors in each beer, even as the dominant flavors are somewhat reduced.  It's like hearing an orchestra with the volume set to five rather than a ripping electric guitar note at 11: softer, but fuller.  

Second, dilution: off-flavors in one beer added to another are effectively diluted (assuming they don't share a common fault).  This means that the off-flavor is less prominent and, if you're lucky, invisible, as the concentration of it in the combined sample falls below detection thresholds.  One beer has diacetyl at a rate of 0.15 ppm, while another has DMS at 35 ppb.  Both are just above detection thresholds - combine them, and both fall underneath it, and instead of one beer with diacetyl and another with DMS, you have one beer with neither (as far as your palate can tell).

Alchemy?  Science?  Nonsense?  Who knows - but it seems to work.

Blending Homebrew

Where I'm going with this next is going to entail some risk, but I'm going to do it, and maybe you'll give it a shot when the need arises naturally and let me know how it goes.

I'm going to brew a batch and split it out into gallon jugs, and spike each with 1.5x the flavor detection threshold of a variety of faults (Siebel makes a great off-flavor kit that will let me do so accurately).  We'll do a taste-test to be sure each is presenting as expected, then recombine them into one full-sized batch.  If I'm right, the off-flavors should largely disappear.

If you have a batch with a minor fault that you want to try to correct, maybe consider blending it with another batch you've already finished.  Top up that half-keg of pale ale with your slightly-corny cream ale, and see what you get.  Brew a short batch of the same beer and add it back.  Combine two slightly-off beers and see if you get one pretty-good beer.  

After all, what do you have to lose?

I'll update you when my experiment is complete, but in the meantime...

Keep it simple.


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10 Simple Beer & Brewing Resolutions for 2018


Happy New Year, gang!  2017 was an excellent beer year, and I managed to keep (almost) all of my resolutions.  I didn't have more than one of any beer (a habit that's proving surprisingly difficult to break, but some pitcher-ed Miller Lite at a bowling alley helped), tried a number of new beer bars (rather than just tap rooms at breweries), made a (passable) perry, and I would have gone back to my least-favorite brewery to try out their beer but (I swear this is true) they closed two weeks before I'd planned on going.  

So, what's on tap for 2018?

10. Drink Around the State, Country, and World

As noted last week, this year's beer challenge will be to see what percentage of PA counties, US states, and countries in the world I can "visit" via their beer.  Should be fun, especially when the "easy" places are checked off of the list!  Just the other day I ordered an IPA from a brewery in Wyoming, because when you're looking at a state with fewer residents than South Philly, you'd probably be wise to take that beer where you can find it!

9. Brew a "Wet Hop" beer

I've played around with fresh hops, thanks to friends with bumper hops harvests, but I've never specifically brewed a beer exclusively with them and designed for them.  I'm hoping to go mobile with my brewery and do it on-site for maximum freshness.

8. Visit every brewery within 20 miles of home

Some might scoff, but that's a lot of breweries for me.  Every now and then someone asks me if I've been to a brewery, and I'll say no and ask where it is, and it'll turn out to be within a few seconds of a route I travel regularly.  That's wrong.  I'm not a "drink it because it's local!" guy, but I definitely want to support good breweries - and if I haven't visited, I don't know if they're any good.  

7. Brew with five new yeast strains

There's a fine line between consistency and being in a rut, and just to be sure I'm not doing the latter, I'm going to brew ten batches with five new yeast strains this year.  Preferably strains I'm not in any way familiar with.  But never that Trappist High Gravity yeast - there's something really wonky in there...

6. Empty my beer fridge completely, and start fresh

I swear I have beers and meads in there that I've had for so long I have no idea what's in them and/or I've forgotten what the code on the top means.  I wish I could say it's because I've been deliberately aging them, but I don't want to lie to you.  They're just the ethanol-laced debris at the back of the shelf.  This could be an ugly summer...

5. Replace my Better Bottles

I had this on the list last year.  I just didn't do it.  But the same logic applies: I've still never had an obviously contaminated batch, and I'm worried it's lurking in there someplace...

4. Rebuild my taps and faucets

I've never been especially happy with my tap handles, and I have a couple of new stainless faucets, so I think it's time for a freshening up in the service department!  I have three beautiful new black-gloss painted handles, and I'm looking forward to dressing them up with some von Rycknell Brewery logos and magnetic tags to indicate what they're serving.  

3. Get back in the habit of bottling

For some reason, I've gotten out of the habit of bottling up a six-pack of my beers and setting them aside for competitions, which I've always done as a form of quality control.  Kegging is easy, but bottling a little bit isn't that hard, and it's a great way to keep a steady stream of beer evaluation data coming in.

2. Use homebrewed beer to raise money for a good cause

As a member of a homebrew club, I've gladly participated in events where our beer is donated and poured, but I don't think I've ever explicitly used homebrewed beer to raise money for a charitable cause.  Once I figure out if that's legal, I'm going to do it. 

1. Keep writing Beer Simple

I love writing Beer Simple.  I'm grateful to all of you for reading, for your feedback, for your ideas, and for your time.  I know that if it's ever time to stop, you'll let me know.  Since I haven't received any voodoo dolls or horse heads yet, I guess we'll just keep it rolling.  Have a great 2018! 

Keep it simple.


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Pause: The Virtues of an End-of-Year Brewing Hiatus


If it's December, I'm not brewing.  And I'm absolutely convinced that it's a move every homebrewer would benefit from.

Every year, around this time, I take a break from brewing.  For one thing, it's a natural reaction to the autumn orgy of beer and brewing events, activities, and obligations.  I don't know if it's because beer and fall seem to go together so well, or because we're all inspired by Oktoberfest, or because I spend an inordinate amount of time brewing and bottling and kegging for the inevitable drinking-down of my beer stocks over two major parties (Christmas and my club's Winter Social) and lots of friend-and-family visiting throughout the holidays, or what - but by December, I'm brewed out.

That's not the whole story, though.

Retreat to Move Forward

During my little brewing hiatus, I do things.  I give the brewery a substantial cleaning.  I inspect, repair, or replace equipment.  I think about my recipes and process, and make changes based on the past year's evaluations and results.  I inventory my ingredients.

In short, this strategic brewing pause lets me (forces me to?) ask questions about whether I'm happy with what and how I'm brewing.  It has obvious practical benefits, of course, because it means I'm doing my due diligence on keeping my brewery, equipment, and ingredients up to scratch, but the more important part is that it frees me up to think about ways to improve.

When you're churning out beer all the time, you're squeezing those reflective moments into, well, moments.  I'll stand at my taps before a party and sample what's on, and maybe spend two minutes thinking about what I'm pouring and how it got there, but then I'll repair to the kitchen to get the coffee-beer-infused scones out of the oven and make sure the door is open and the Beer Jeopardy! questions are ready to go.  While I'm milling for my current batch I'll look around at the grain library and think about storage methods and whether I'm using too much Caramunich, but then a few seconds later I'll be shutting down the drill and heading over to get the mash going.

It's like trying to decide what you want out of a new car and when to buy it while commuting to work: doing a thing and considering a thing don't always work well, concurrently.  During my brewing hiatus, I can consider without the pressure of doing.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Then there's this: after about six weeks of no brewing activity, I can't wait to get back to it in mid-January.  Imposing a little brewcation on yourself makes you eager to jump back in.  

I know a lot of former brewers.  Oftentimes, they're people who weren't all that into the hobby to begin with (which is fine).  They're also, frequently, victims of circumstance: new job, new kid(s), sudden wealth or poverty, etc.  Some, though, are just burnt out on it.

I am absolutely confident that if I maintained my brewing pace all year long, eventually it'd start to feel like some kind of job.  A lot of the joy would go out of it.  Instead, I get to start every new brewing year fresh from a break from brewing, with a sparkling-clean brewery, some new ideas and ingredients and (if it's a successful Christmas) a new and/or improved piece of equipment, and the optimism of looking forward to the new brewing year.  

That's a fantastic way to keep motivated.  It's January and my kegs are largely empty, but I don't have to brew - I get to brew.

Get Biblical (or Musical)

As the Bible/folk music says, "To every thing there is a season."  This implies more than just that life progresses through stages - it also suggests that there is a natural rhythm to what we do, if we're doing it right.

Maybe I'm just already tuned to think this way, being a professor.  Fall semester, winter break, spring semester, summer break: activity, then reflection and preparation, over and over again.  

Give yourself a break this December.  See how it feels.  Spend some time thinking and drinking beer, and leave off of the making of it.  I think you'll be happy with the results.

Keep it simple.


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Mashing Out is Dumb - But Do It Anyway


Proverbially, "even a broken watch is right twice a day."

That's a thought I have every time I hear someone ask (or answer) about the mash out.  In most cases, the answer I hear invokes some discussion of "do it, because raising the temperature decreases viscosity."  It is sometimes then followed by, "but be careful not to make it too hot, or you'll get lots of tannins."

In this case, our broken watch is probably only right once a day.  You probably should go ahead and do a mash out.  And you should probably not be all that concerned about what you raise the mash temperature to.

Fire it Up

Let's start with the "hot lautering/sparging will make your beer astringent" thing.  

First off, tannin extraction depends on a hell of a lot more than just the temperature in the mash tun.  Among those factors a central feature is the pH of the mash.  Simply put, assuming you're in the "normal" pH range (5.2-5.8) for a brewing mash, it's not much going to matter if your temperature in the tun gets about 170F/77C. 

One reason I feel confident saying this is that, just for kicks, I brought my mash up to 180F/82C for several consecutive batches, and there was no change in the resulting beers based on organoleptic analysis in blind judging.  I used my most-common recipes for things like Altbier, Porter, and Bitter, and the resulting beers tasted as they usually do, scored as they usually do in competition.  Heck, the Bitter was one of the most-reliable and best-scoring versions I've ever made (I have a semi-infamous love-hate relationship with that style, in that it's easily in my top three favorites but I have historically struggled to produce high-scoring versions).  

Second, it's harder than you might think to get your mash up that high in the first place.  I perform a modified no-sparge method that entails adding one big ol' mash out addition in more or less identical volume to a batch sparge, and I had to have that sucker at near-boiling to raise the existing mash and wort to 180F/82C.  "Accidentally" raising the temperature in there too high would take some effort, like "accidentally" emptying the dishwasher when you were trying not to.

Don't fear the heat.

Physics v. Physics

Then there's the vaunted "viscosity" argument.  That's one that I bought into myself, before someone who knows much more about this than me explained to me that I had been completely snookered.  It involved words I didn't completely understand, but the gist was that since we weren't talking about dissolving sugar into the liquid, the temperature didn't make a difference once conversion had already occurred.  The sugar is there.  It's in the liquid.  It's not being washed off of the grains.  As a result, the viscosity of sugar at varying temperatures doesn't much matter.

Having said that, we can pivot to a physics term I actually do understand, especially as I once toyed with the idea of majoring in astrophysics: time.  Mashing out won't do anything meaningful to the viscosity of your mash, but it does require you wait a few minutes before moving on.  In that simple passage of time, you're potentially allowing for a bit more conversion and/or some increased efficiency due to marginal pH change, either of which will lead you to the false-positive conclusion of, "AH, See!  I increased the temp in the mash, which made the wort less viscous, and therefore I got more sugar!"  No, you almost certainly got more sugar because you made more, not because you melted it into solution by raising the mash temperature.

Wrong and Right

So, when it comes to the mash out addition, we're wrong about a lot of it, but still getting the right result.  It's dumb, but we should still do it.

First, it'll get you a few more gravity points, so why not?

Second, even though it entails waiting another few minutes, it's time you're saving when you run off and come to a boil, because the resulting liquid is that much warmer already.

Just don't come at me with all that viscosity talk.

Keep it simple.


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In the Boil, They're ALL Bittering Hops


I recently returned from two days of nonstop talking about hops, hopping, hops oils, hops resins, pellet hops, leaf hops, hop shots, iso-alpha hops extracts, hop farming, and hopping methods.

As a result, I really don't want to write about hops today, but...

I noticed a real (and probably faulty) bias in lots of the folks I spoke to on my trip about what we're getting out of mash, first-wort, and boil hops, which is that they would often talk about these hops in the context of significantly increasing aroma and flavor.  They're not wrong, really - it's just that they're overly-optimistic.  I found myself repeating what I thought was a useful conceptual approach to hopping, over and over again, this past weekend:

In (or before) the boil, they're all bittering hops.

If you're using those additions to develop moderate-to-high levels of hops flavor and aroma, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.  Like a sequel to the classic film Zombeavers, it just ain't going to happen, no matter how badly you want it to.

It's Getting Hot in Here: Utilization and Volatility

Hops have two things we care about (beyond odd names we can't pronounce): resins and oils.

We talk a lot (too much, probably) about resins, specifically alpha acids, and their role in producing bittering in beer.  Alpha acid isomerization (by boiling) isn't terribly complicated - the longer they boil, the higher the utilization of those acids you'll yield, up to a practical limit of about 30%.  What's worth noting, though, is that you pretty rapidly (20-ish minutes) hit 15% utilization, or about half of the max.  Practically, this means that you get the bulk of your bitterness from that initial rapid rise in utilization, and the rest of your 60-240 minutes of boiling is yielding diminishing returns.

That same kind of rapid reaction is volatilizing your hops oils, and just as rapidly (or faster).  Of the oils we care about that add nice flavors and aromas to our hops, nearly all undergo a rapid process of getting-the-f***-out-of-your-beer when you boil them, because the temperatures at which they volatilize are generally much lower than the 212F you're boiling them at (some go as low as 140F or below).  Within 15 minutes nearly all are at less than half of their initial concentrations.  Linalool - a nice floral, lavender aroma - hits that mark in six minutes.  

The upshot here is that even short-added hops are still yielding most of their bittering potential and losing most of their flavoring potential.  

In the boil, it's just not productive to think in terms of "early-bitter, middle-flavor, late-aroma" hops.  In the boil, they're all bittering hops.

Low and Slow

None of this matters for lots of recipes, because in a great many styles we don't actually want much more than the bittering out of our hops.  We want accents and hints of hops flavor, not pronounced impressions of it.  

in a more and more hops-forward world, though, I see people actively trying to make even traditional malt showcases with big hops aroma and flavor.  If you want to do that, that's great - but don't try to make new-fashioned beer the old-fashioned way.

If you want anything more than low or medium hops character, add those hops post-boil, pre-chill.

After the boil, let your beer sit until it drops under 170F, then go to town.  At those temps you're adding minimal bitterness, but extracting and preserving the oils (and flavors) you want.  Let them sit, too - longer is better, up to about 20 minutes.

Consider the "less is more," approach, too - when Sapporo played with this stuff and published their results, they found that a lower level of dissolved oils in some beers gave more flavor.  Weird.  

I usually use less than an ounce of anything added then, and then adjust in subsequent recipes.  

Dry hopping in addition to using post-boil/pre-chill hops will intensify flavor and aroma again, but be conscious of the other plant-based flavors and textures you're adding, too.  Dry hopping is not identical to post-boil hopping, though, so make a conscious choice to do one, the other, or both.

Make What You Want

New brewers often work from pre-existing recipes, and with good reason: they often model already-successful beers, and we all need to learn from something when we're just getting started.  After a while, though, you should be thinking back from the finished product instead of forward from the recipe.  

Decide what you want to drink, and then design a recipe and process that gives you the best chance of getting that.

And if what you want is big hops, then you should definitely be thinking more about what happens after you kill the burner than what happens before you spark it up.

Keep it simple.


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Temperature Matters: Control Your Way to Better Beer

When asked about my favorite "brewing toy," I can easily answer, without hesitation, my Thermapen Mk4 thermometer.  When asked about the most improvement I've ever made to my process, I can easily answer, without hesitation, the day I added a temperature-controlled fridge to my home brewery.

You know why?  Because temperature really, really matters in brewing.

I'm amazed at the number of brewers I know who treat this as some kind of luxury.  It isn't.  It's essential.  It may not be necessary, strictly speaking - you can brew beer without thermometers and temperature controllers - but if you're an even remotely competent brewer, you'll see significant improvement in the final product when you're tracking and holding temperature throughout your process.

Getting Hot In Here 

From the get-go, you should be monitoring and maintaining temperature.  Luckily, brewing software these days will give you a foolproof target for your mash strike water and sparge water temperatures, and if you use something like that Thermapen (I have two - I loved my brewing one so much, I bought one for the kitchen, too - INSTANTANEOUS and accurate measurements), you're going to hit them easily.

Once you start hitting those temperatures (rather than winging it and either hoping you got it right or adjusting with small quantities of boiling or cold water), maintaining them in the mash is easy, too.  And you don't need a super-expensive HERMS or RIMS system, either - you just need a cooler.  My Coleman Xtreme cooler has been plugging along for years, and it holds my mash for an hour with one degree of drop.  And it's cheap.

What does accurate and steady mashing get you?  Reliability.  Efficiency should be roughly the same every time, your ratio of fermentables to not will be much more consistent, and those both mean that adjustments to your recipe are meaningful instead of creating variable effects.

Cool It

Things really improve, though, when you get to the fermentation side of things. 

Find a fridge or freezer.  Any fridge or freezer.  Seriously - even one that someone is throwing away.  Why?  Because we don't need it to work as whatever it is, we just need it to work well enough to act as a fermentation chamber, and that's a much lower bar!  Cooling to 50F to make your lager fermentations work better is a pretty easy lift, and even a discarded fridge or freezer can often do the job for years.

Now, once you've borrowed, begged, or stolen a fermentation chamber, you just need to control the temperature inside of it - even refrigerators, at even their warmest setting, aren't likely to give you the temperatures you need (too cold), so you'll want a good temp controller.  These used to be pretty expensive, but lately you can get a good dual-stage (warming and cooling, if you hook a hooded light bulb up to the warming side!) temperature controller from Inkbird for next to nothing (you can catch them on sale regularly for under $40, and sometimes as low as $25!).  

There are all kinds of methods for where and how to run the temperature probe, including drilling through the fridge wall and/or running it directly into the beer itself, but that seems like overkill to me.  Instead, I run mine through the gap in the door (the gasket will seal things up just fine) and into a growler filled with water.  Why water?  Because if I just let it hang in space, it's reacting to the air temperature in the fridge.  If it's touching something like the metal wall or the glass of a carboy, it's getting a completely different temperature (especially if you have hot spots from coils or on the compressor hump).  But that growler is going to be about whatever temperature the beer is.

Now, not exactly the right temperature - after all, the beer has active fermentation going on, which will make it a bit warmer, but don't obsess over that.  Set the temperature to what you want it to be, then evaluate the finished beer.  Seem like it was fermented too warm?  Then drop the temperature a bit next time - what's important is that the probe itself stays in a consistent environment, because that way the relative change will be accurate!

Don't Sweat It

If you can make these kinds of additions to your brewery, then I recommend them highly.  Space, money, or something else might make it impossible, though.  If that's you, then do the best you can, and it doesn't mean you can't make excellent beer (it just might make it a bit harder!).  

For water and mash temps, even a meat thermometer can get you close.  In fermentation, you can probably find a cool-ish and temperature-stable basement corner or room in your house.  But do what you can - it'll pay off.

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

Thanks for pitching in!  I mean, come on, it's a few clicks - just do it...


Slow and Steady: Contrarian Attenuation Advice


So...what's the best mash temperature for increased attenuation?

I was recently lectured on this point pretty aggressively, and every attempt to introduce a touch of empiricism to the discussion resulted in a pretty condescending response.  I don't mind saying, it pissed me off a little, and I hadn't planned on writing about attenuation today but I now feel basically forced into it.

Why?  Because I sincerely believe that lots of homebrewers are walking around with advice on the topic that is, if not wrong, then certainly debatable, and they should maybe knock it off with the aggressive certitude.

Time and Temperature

I mash every beer pretty much the same way.  I'm not a fan of tinkering with mash temperature or density to try to yield a more or less fermentable wort.  If I want more, I add simple sugar.  If I want less, I add dextrine malt.  Why?  Because I know what those will do.  Trying to get there via the mash requires a little too much faith in what playing with mash temperature will do, and mashes aren't uniform.

So, I mash everything at 152F.  

Why that number?  Well, for one, you have to pick something if you're going to do it at the same figure for everything, and lots of brewers seem to agree that 152F lands you nicely in the window of a good ratio of alpha- to beta-amylase activity.  

For another, I do so because of a compelling and convincing argument I heard at the National Homebrewers Conference in Seattle, delivered by one Greg Doss, a microbiologist at Wyeast.  

Greg was intent on getting to the bottom of what made for fermentable wort, along several dimensions of variability.  These included yeast strain, grist, and length and temperature of the mash.  

The short version - following a methodologically rigorous and sound multi-round forced-fermentation test - is this: maximum fermentability was achieved at mashes of 75 minutes in length, at temperatures ranging from 151F-153F.  Outside of that range, fermentability was practically constant as low as 146F and as high as 155.5F. 

So, I mash at 152F for 70 minutes, every time, every beer, with precious few exceptions (mostly going over 156F on some scaled-down session versions).  But I also mention to folks who tell me that "oh, I wanted a super-fermentable wort, so I mashed at 148F" that maybe they want to reconsider that.

Hence the push-back, recently, on this question.

Don't Question Everything - but Ask Questions

I'm not telling you that you should reject out-of-hand all brewing conventions.  There are undoubtedly lessons learned over centuries of a practice that defy easy empirical assessment or verification.  There are also things that may have substantively insignificant benefits/costs that, taken with other minuscule effects, can aggregate into something that is substantively significant, and therefore we might consider keeping around despite their lack of obvious benefit (or continue to limit, despite their lack of obvious cost).  

So, it isn't so much that I'm advocating for a purely empirical approach to what is sometimes best approached as an alcehmic, artistic endeavor.

But I'm definitely advocating that you should be willing to question what you think, do, and advocate for when there's a decent empirical reason to do so.  However you come down on the question, ultimately, be willing to ask it.

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

RoboBrewing: Automation and "Real Brewing"


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?"

" 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.  


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.


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.


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Homebrewing Addict: Obsession, Commitment, or Compulsion?


I recently played a basic icebreaking game with a class in which the speaker made three statements about him or herself, two of which were true and one which was a lie.  My "lie" was "I run marathons for fun."  It was a lie because although I do run marathons, I don't think there's anyone who does so "for fun."  In my explanation (and experience), most marathoners run them because they're compulsive people who are willing to engage in a deliberately injurious activity out of a desire to do something relatively extreme - it's where people who want to exercise and also have addictive personalities end up.

I've started to think it's the same with homebrewing.

Does This Sound Familiar?

I've brewed beer while kegging/bottling a beer so that I have somewhere to put the beer I'm brewing right at that moment.

I couldn't tell you the exact date of five of my six nieces'/nephews' birthdays, but I can tell you the exact OG of the beer I brewed two days ago.

I've adjusted the heat/AC in our house to aid in fermentation temperature management (in the days before I had a temp controller).

I have two or more refrigerators on at least two levels of my home, plus two more in the garage. 

I've scheduled social and professional events around when I need to be at a local homebrew shop to get supplies for a batch.

We have more than one room or area of our house explicitly dedicated to (and decorated for) homebrewing.

A solid majority of my friend group is comprised of members of my homebrew club(s).

I deliberately shop at three - no, wait, FOUR - different homebrew shops so that in a pinch, if I need something rare or special, I can call on a favor from an employee or owner at those shops.  

Since I started brewing beer in April 2007 I've never - not once - been without beer of my own to drink.

Does this sound familiar?  And does it sound sane?  I'm seriously asking.  I hang around with mostly homebrewers, and that's like being a coke addict who mostly hangs out with insomniacs with ADHD - you start to lose track of what's objectively normal.

Rubbing the Lamp

Fine - so we live in a pretty involved and involving subculture.  But it's still culture, right?  I mean, sure, this chews up time that could be spent at a museum, or hearing live music, or visiting family, but honestly, when was the last time anything constructive ever happened in any of those places?

Because say what you want about however you spend your time, but at the end of the brewing day, you know what I have?  I have beer.

And that's like rubbing the lamp with the genie in it and being smart enough to ask for more wishes.  When you're the guy/gal with beer taps coming out of your walls and with the fridge full of bottles and the head full of know-how, the world beats a path to your wort-stained door.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pack up some herbs and yard clippings I've been drying on a windowsill for use in a hay-themed Saison for a Homebrewing Secret Santa brewing challenge.

And then maybe I need to make an appointment with a therapist.

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

Repeat Repeat For For Success Success


Getting something right the first time is hard, if not impossible.  So why is it that I so rarely hear about homebrewers repeating beers?  Multiple surveys indicate that homebrewers brew an average of once per month, and I don't have much evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) that homebrewers are producing the same recipe twice in a row.

I sincerely think that's a mistake, particularly for newer brewers, but also for those with more batches through their mash tun.  The only way to know - know - that you're making what you intend to make is to repeat your process and get the same result.

Process is King

I don't think I know a single good-to-great brewer that doesn't pay close attention to their process.  There's a good reason for that.  It isn't that carefree, devil-may-care brewers can't make incredible beer, it's that hitting your target requires two steps to be performed consistently: aiming and pulling the trigger.  These generate validity and reliability in your brewing.

Validity is the extent to which there's correspondence between what you think you're aiming at and what you're actually aiming at. If you're consistently looking down the sights in the same way, then you should get a much more valid result.

Reliability is simple, too - reliability is repeatability, and reliability depends absolutely on your commitment to doing the same thing in the same way every time.

Not all beer that's targeted validly and produced reliably is good beer - but if it isn't, it's a hell of a lot easier to bring it into line since you can rest easy knowing that the changes you introduce should, all else being equal, produce the anticipated changes.

Prove It

So you think you have your process under control - now prove it.  Make the same beer twice.

I don't mean "brew the same style from the same recipe twice," and I certainly don't mean "change every recipe to improve it with every brew day."  I mean it literally.  Brew the same beer, from the same recipe, on the same equipment and using the same process, with the goal of producing an identical beer.  

Clone your own beer, effectively, and then you can claim to have your process under control.  And lest you think, "well of COURSE they're going to be more-or-less identical!," I've seen this done lots of times and it almost never happens that way the first time.

Brewing is a pretty damned robust process.  As we say, wort wants to become beer.  But that doesn't mean that small inconsistencies in process won't cause large downstream effects.  You'll get beer.  You might even get outstanding beer.  You won't get the same beer, though, without practice.

Don't Think - Know

When I bring this up among brewers, the answer I get most often is, "oh, I definitely brew the same way every time."  When I ask how they know, they seem confused.  "Well, I like all my beers, and they do well in competition, and..."  Honestly, there's nothing wrong with that as an answer to the question "are you a good brewer?"  But it's not much of an answer to the question "are you a consistent brewer with good control over recipe-building and process?"

The only way to know that is to do it.  I know there's an impulse to brew, solicit feedback, and tweak with the goal of improvement.  I also know that brewers often end up chasing their tails "improving" their beer before they have a good handle on their process - and know that they do.  Instead, they're trying to fix their beer based on a "maybe" (as all such evaluations tend to be) in a process that is itself a "maybe."  We can't remove the inherent subjectivity of the feedback and evaluation we get.  We can, though, lock down the process end of the equation.

Once you cross that threshold, as validated by back-to-back brews, you can make adjustments confidently and effectively.

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

Hell Is Other Brewers: Loving and Ignoring Beer Feedback

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

There's a certain vulnerability in homebrewing that we don't often discuss: homebrewing invites judgment.  I don't know a single homebrewer that drinks everything they brew.  Such a person could be only a sporadic brewer or an alcoholic (or both).  That means that, for most of us, we're offering up what we've brewed to other people, and when we do, they're going to judge us.

Hell is Other Brewers

In reflecting on that last week, I was reminded of a famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit: "Hell is other people."  An oft-misinterpreted sentiment, Sartre isn't saying that other people are annoying (though they can be, of course).  He's saying that there's anxiety and pain caused by a near-unavoidable human trait of seeing ourselves not as innately free and independent entities, but as an object that is regarded externally by others, and that we are as others perceive us to be.

If you are as others perceive you, you're a slave to their perceptions even if your innate qualities are completely adequate to your needs and wants.  If they think you're stupid, or vain, or untrustworthy, then you are (or might as well be), and your inability to be free of that judgment can be torturous.  Hence, "hell is other people."

This is deep for homebrewing, I realize, but in many ways it applies to the kinds of judgments we get from people who drink our beer - especially other brewers.  Your friends and family probably won't be totally honest with you, even if they're journeymen beer aficionados with some sensory training and a good beer evaluation vocabulary.  But other brewers...they'll probably be honest.  Maybe painfully so.

And here's the thing: you should both want that painful feedback and try to remain independent from it.

No Exit

For a variety of reasons that we've already delved into, you should be seeking good feedback for your beer - and "good" shouldn't mean "polite."  It probably shouldn't be hurtful and demeaning, but even in those cases such feedback (if warranted) can be a good wake-up call for a brewer who is, perhaps, a little too optimistic in their assessments and filters everything through the lens of "clearly I'm a great brewer and I love my beer and that's all that matters."

I'm 100% guilty of giving unvarnished, direct feedback, to the point where I'm also pretty sure that, taken out of context, it'd be considered cruel (I'm working on being nicer about it, I swear).  Intent and context matter here, though.  If someone is just ripping on your beer to belittle your efforts and mock you, then that's clearly wrong - don't confuse that with someone who is just being pointed to the point of cringe-inducement to prevent any rose-colored-glasses misunderstandings.

Because that feedback is just what you need.  There's degrees of "wrong" in brewing, as we all know.  Slight ester in a lager?  No big deal.  Vegetal aroma plus sulfur that smells like a head of cabbage lit a bucket of s**t on fire?  Big deal.  You need to know the magnitude of the problem, and politeness will strip away that important feature of the feedback.

Hell, I don't even mind when someone is just being mean - there's probably some truth in there, and I think we can and should find value in even ill-intentioned feedback.

That doesn't mean you should be a slave to it, though.


Sartre, like many others, was philosophically guided and preoccupied by notions of human freedom.  Those lessons apply here, too.  Feedback is valuable.  Feedback, however, should not be deterministic as it pertains to your brewing choices.

Creativity is something that draws lots of people into homebrewing.  Creativity and artistry are not things that are universally understood, and in many cases the very best of art is perceived as deeply flawed by the majority.  Maybe you've hit on something truly brilliant in your brewing; even if you have (hell, especially if you have) it's very likely that the feedback you receive about it will be negative and maybe hostile.

If you believe in what you're brewing, then don't let others change your mind for you.  This isn't a blanket denigration of feedback, but it is a reminder that what you're doing, even if you share it around, is still fundamentally for you.  If you believe you're making the beer you want to make, then keep making it.

Be willing to reject specific points of feedback, no matter how intense or how universal.  But if you do, do so for a reason.  Rejecting feedback because you don't like feedback is arrogant and self-defeating.  Rejecting feedback because you have a specific claim or goal can be both principled and correct.

Brewing and Nothingness

Zymurgic-existentialist meanderings aside, the right path here, as I see it, is to embrace the feedback you get.  Beer is inherently social, and making/sharing it even more so.  If we didn't have that feedback, it wouldn't be beer.  In Being and Nothingness Sartre notes that nothingness is a real thing, not simply the absence of something.  

If you walk into a bar and your barfly friend who stops by every afternoon for a pint on the way home isn't there, then his or her absence "haunts" the bar and your experience of it.  It is not simply a state or condition; saying "Chris isn't here" is different than saying "a horse isn't here," because no one expects a horse in a bar.  Chris, though, should be here, and isn't.

In the same way, if we have beer but don't have the social, group mechanism of feedback then the lack of it "haunts" the entire exchange.  It creates a form of isolation that isn't healthy and is certainly not enjoyable.  

So love that feedback, whatever its character or content.  Ignore it if you have a reasonable justification for it, but love it all the same, like a relative with strange political beliefs.

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

How To Talk Homebrewing Without Going Overboard

"A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." - Winston Churchill.

You're at a party, or perched on the bar, or standing around a grill.  There's beer.  Someone starts talking about beer.  And, almost irresistibly, you find the words spilling out of your mouth, despite any intention you had of keeping them in...

"Actually, I brew beer."

If that's not you, then you can go.  But I can write that sentence fully aware that I'm keeping an enormous percentage of you on board for this, because as far as I can tell we nearly all do this.  It's not inherently a bad thing, but it certainly has the potential.  Homebrewer fanaticism might not be what it once was, but there's still plenty of us out there.  

The Downside of Depth

Specialty is the enemy of gaiety.  It isn't so much that people aren't or couldn't be interested in brewing (though they might not be), it's that the kinds of conversations homebrewers tend to have about beer and brewing are only interesting to other homebrewers, and even then it may be heavily dependent on the other's brewing practice, experience, method, or skill.  

If I'm not a Brew-in-a-Bag guy, then there's only so much I care about where you're ordering your bags from and whether or not they eliminate the need for rice hulls in a wheat-heavy grist.  If I don't use extract I'll have a hard time mustering up interest in Muntons v. Alexanders or DME v. LME.  If I don't use induction...well, I do, but you get the point.  

And that's assuming you're talking to another brewer.  Now imagine you're not.  How much do they care about anything other than the very, very basics of brewing, if that much?  

If you're talking about homebrewing, there's a very good chance that you're not educating or entertaining - you're masturbating.  And no one wants to see that in public.

Courtesy v. Interest

I'm sure I've said this before, but never mistake courtesy for interest.  Yes, you're all talking about beer.  It can be fun, and if you're at good craft beer bar or brewery there's bound to be some casual interest.  This shouldn't convince you that you have a green light to go full beer geek.  


If you're going to talk about brewing, maybe don't go full beer geek.  If you use terms that need to be explained, you've probably already gone too far.  If you mention ales v. lagers, take a breath and change the subject.  If you think you might let the words SRM, sparge, or Vorlauf escape your lips, step outside and punch yourself in the genitals until you feel the sensation pass.

The danger here is that people might keep listening just to be polite.  Hell, I'm married to someone who keeps asking questions about something even when she hates the topic, just because it seems polite.  Don't assume that just because they're nodding and smiling that they're not screaming on the inside.

A Matter of Taste

I've been down this road.  I know what it feels like to be the overcommitted, hyper-talkative alehole in the room.  You realize it the next morning, or maybe later that night, and you wonder why you didn't just stick to the basics.

So that's my advice.  Stick to the basics.  Hell, stick to less than the basics.

I prefer to talk about beer like it is what it is - a food product.  Leave the science and the mechanics aside completely.  I've never, not once, had a brewing-based conversation that focused on taste and flavors that has gone awry.  But I've seen (and ignored?) a lot of glazed eyeballs when I go into too much detail on the question, "how long does it take to make beer?" ["Well, only about 4-5 hours to make it, all-grain, maybe 2-3 if it's extract, but you want to do all-grain because of the control you get.  It's cheaper, too.  Anyway, all-grain is when you do your own starch conversions, instead of just getting the liquid or dried extract.  Hey, cool - where'd you learn to tie a noose?  So, as I was saying you can use a cooler or a kettle to mash in, mashing being when you hold the grain in a warm, wet bath so the enzymes can convert the starches into - sure, I'll get you a glass of water for those pills - simple and complex sugars.  See, yeast can consume and convert short-chain sugars but not long-chain sugars, so there's some left over which is why we need hops to balance the sweetness of the remaining - oh, Bob?  He's in the bathroom with my pocket knife, I think he needed to clean his fingernails - long-chain sugars and alcohols, because you know alcohol is sweet, too!  Anyways, that's just the brew day, but it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to ferment and age the beer..."  You get the idea.]

And when I say to talk flavors, I don't mean "round maltiness" or "flinty bitterness" or "slick diacetyl."  I mean "pineapple," "banana," "coffee," and the like.   Imagine you were describing cake to someone who just generally, sort-of-knows-about baked goods.  You'd talk up the sweetness of icing and the softness of sponge cake, not the advantages of convection ovens over gas ovens or silicon trays v. aluminum, right?  


Nothing wrong with something basic ("all alcoholic drinks are basically just sugary liquids, fermented, which makes alcohol") and a discussion of flavors ("lots of beers taste like banana or spices even without using fruit or spice").  Crack that tiny egg of knowledge, then shut up.  Pretend you're cultivating an air of mystery, if it makes it easier for you.  Answer questions, but don't try to gin up a long conversation.  Maybe it'll happen anyway, but try to talk about other things in between brewing-related questions.  And maybe you're just better at this than I am.

But I always get better results when I keep it brief.  A couple of points, and then move on.  

On that note, why not stop here?  

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).