Professional vs. Amateur Brewing: A Game With Which I am Not Familiar

After watching the field-crushing performance by Jack Nicklaus during the 1965 Masters, Bobby Jones, the tournament's legendary co-founder and a man idolized by Nicklaus himself, had the following to say about Nicklaus' performance:

"He plays a game with which I am not familiar."

That sentence runs through my head quite a lot when I hear homebrewers talk about brewing - especially when they're citing professional brewery practices to justify something they believe to be essential to homebrewing.  

When Jones gave his famous quote, he wasn't being humble or even falsely modest: he was simply pointing out that the game of golf was so different compared to when he had competed (equipment, the advent of professional golfers whose sole vocation was the game, course design) that the two could hardly be compared.  He was complimenting Nicklaus, to be sure - but he wasn't necessarily conceding that Nicklaus was more skilled or talented.

So it is with homebrewing v. professional brewing.  What is necessary, desirable, or appropriate for one is not necessarily so for the other.  They're playing a game with which we homebrewers are not (well, are maybe notfamiliar.

A Question of Goals

Homebrewers should not consider themselves "minor league" brewers.  If I made a list of the best brewers I know, it would be about an even split between pros and talented amateurs.  

At the same time, we should not consider ourselves "mini-pro" brewers.  There is far more that separates us from professional brewers than the scale of our batches (and for that matter, some homebrewers regularly brew on a brewpub or nano scale).

The most significant difference between us is the goal being served.  Professional brewers brew to earn a living.  Yes, they also (hopefully) want to make great beer, give back to their community, provide employment, and enjoy their work - but they're also doing it to support their families, which means that when push comes to shove they're always, at least in the back of their minds, staring down the barrel of a profit motive.  This will alter their practices.  It will likely make them risk-averse.  It will probably make them value consistency and, perhaps, mediocrity.  They are brewing to a standard, whether it be industry norms, market conditions, safety or health requirements, or some combination of these.

Homebrewers do not brew for profit.  A bad batch will not mean an unpaid bill.  We have no need to brew to meet the demands of the madding crowd.  We have no fears of mistreatment of our beer by a distributor or vendor or bartender.  For that matter, we have time on our side: even if we screw up, there's a decent chance the beer will be gone before our mistake is manifest.  We're brewing for ourselves, and our mistakes are ours alone - and if we can tolerate them, then in most cases they do no further harm.

To hold ourselves to a professional standard is not only unrealistic - it is unnecessary.

Form Follows Function

This isn't going to be a point-by-point review of things that pro brewers do that we don't need to - it's more a request that you refrain from automatically adopting pro brewers' dogma about brewing.  We're not playing the same game.  Our equipment, scale, and purpose differ in all kinds of ways that change our processes.  

A few quick examples:

  • Yeast health and fermentation are very different games when you have 200+ gallons of beer pressing down on a yeast bed vs. 5 gallons.
  • Maximizing mash efficiency isn't nearly as important when you're not trying to preserve a very thin profit margin.
  • Temperature changes, runoff, the addition of ingredients, and any number of other things might take a LOT longer in a professional brewery. 
  • You're probably not brewing lots of beers across multiple shifts in the same week.
  • Your beer doesn't need to survive weeks in transit and then on the shelf and still be drinkable.
  • A hop chosen for a very high alpha acid percentage might make sense to a brewery who can buy less of it for the same IBUs, but not to a homebrewer looking to minimize cohumulone.

We could go on, but I assume you get the point (and people get on me for writing too much).  When I write about something you can probably leave out of your process and still get good beer, at least one person always writes, "but ABC Brewing Co. would never do that, so how can you say we should?"  

Because we're not professional brewers.  It's like asking why I don't go out and run a mile before the start of a marathon - elite runners do it to get loose and ready, so why not me?  Because I'm not looking to qualify for the Olympics - I'm just trying to survive and finish with a decent time, and I don't have 27.2 miles in me (26.2 is more than enough). 

And why are we reverencing professional brewers as though they have access to magical knowledge that we don't?  For certain, they often have more experience - more brewing "reps" under their belt - but as noted above, their goals and process aren't the same as ours.  Their rules and norms don't automatically apply to me any more than mine apply to them.  They may or may not have more brewing education than you.  They may or may not have a better culinary sense than you.  Hell, they may or may not even be a better brewer than you.  The only thing we're sure they have that we don't is a license to produce beer for sale - they're professionals.

I'm an amateur.  But so what?  "Amateur" doesn't mean "worse."  And let's not forget that "amateur" frees us up to experiment without fear, innovate, take advantage of small batch sizes to make unique beers, and more.  There's value in being an amateur.

Hell - Bobby Jones was an amateur.

Keep it simple.


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