Repeat Repeat For For Success Success

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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.

JJW

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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.

Freedom

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.

JJW

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.  

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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?  

Briefly

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.

JJW

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).