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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Hot or Not: Heat Effects on Flavor Stability in Finished Beer

While we're right to be wary of light when it comes to finished beer, worries about heat are - persistently and irrationally - overstated.  While heat does have an effect, it isn't an inherently damaging factor in its own right: it needs help.  And, by and large, if you're producing good, healthy beer then you don't need to worry quite as much.

Bright vs. Hot

Light is our enemy.  We've all tasted skunky beer.  Skunking is an effect caused by the interaction of UV light with specific compounds found in hops (though not hop extracts, as I understand it).  This has led some to conflate light with heat, which is a bad idea for at least two reasons.

First, it might make some less wary of light exposure in cold environments.  Be wary.  Chilled beer that's sitting under fluorescent lights, or out in the sun on a cold day, is probably going to skunk quickly.

And second, there's very little reason to be concerned about heat, in and of itself.  Some have written about the potential for the formation of coagulated proteins due to extended hot aging (which I'm not scientist enough to support or rebuke), but I can't recall a specific time when I experienced it.  Reading others' accounts the effects seem to be limited to mouthfeel and head formation which, while important, aren't at quite the same level as light effects, which can make your beer taste like homeless-person asparagus urine.

A Natural Experiment

One reason I'm pretty confident that heat isn't a principle concern in terms of beer flavor and its stability is because I'm a bit of a nerd.  I generate and keep data on my beer, and one of the things I track is competition score as a function of age in the bottle.  It gives me a sense of overall flavor stability, among other things, and one year I was provided with a nice little natural experiment.

I moved.  And in the course of moving house, my finished, to-be-sent-to-competition beer had to be stored for 32 days in a garage.  In the middle of summer.  During several heat waves.

Now, ordinarily my "evaluation" beer doesn't see the light of day between bottling and submission, and it's stored in a near-freezing refrigerator.  So as you can see, this was beer abuse - if we start from an a priori position that heat is a detriment to beer.  

Well, I now had my natural experiment.  18 beers that had been hot-aged for a month, vs. those in previous (and subsequent, eventually) years that had not.  I compared the scores for those beers to those of other beers of similar style and age, and also compared the average effective "life" of each (the point at which its flavor and/or scores fall off the cliff, using judges' scores/comments as well as my own organoleptic evaluation).


I'll spare you the statistics (though I hope to present them in some detail at a future Homebrewcon), but suffice it to say that there was no statistically significant decrease in scores or life expectancy for the treatment ("hot-aged") beers.  

Scoring fluctuation was within "normal" limits (there's always a bit of variability in those due to the human nature of beer judging).  

Flavor stability was unaffected (and, in fact, for the lagers I got a very counterintuitive result when their timeline actually extended).  I can count on more than a year (13.1 months, to be exact, as a 20-batch moving average) of flavor/scoring stability, and this batch had no issues there.  The hot-aged beers varied in initial bottling date, too, so some were hit with this within a few weeks of bottling, and others after more than a year.  As a group, and individually, there was no statistically (or substantively) significant change.

And for what it's worth, they tasted fine, too.  But that's so highly subjective that I shudder to even mention it.

When Heat Matters

Maybe I just got lucky.  It's certainly possible.  But I don't think that's it.

Heat has one undeniable effect on beer (and most any other chemically-reactive situation): it speeds up reactions.  Arrhenius tells us that for every 10C increase in temperature, reaction times double.  Now, many have taken this rule and oversimplified it to state that "heat means beer stales faster."  That's incomplete.

Heat certainly might make beer stale faster, or sour faster, or anything faster - but only if the requisite process(es) is (are) already underway.  A beer with only limited contamination might be "turning" faster than it ordinarily would have in a cold environment, but that doesn't automatically mean that it will hit detectable levels before its normal timeline runs out.  

So I'm not denying Arrhenius' rule, I'm just saying that it might have only limited (insignificant and/or insubstantial) effects depending on the underlying beer's situation.  If you have some history of producing contaminated beer, then, you should certainly be avoiding heat.

Heat is also blamed for accelerating oxidation, but that, too, is incomplete.  Subject to Arrhenius' rule above, oxidation (if already present) may be brought to the fore more quickly in hot-aged beer.  What many are blaming on heat, though, might really be a function of temperature fluctuation, not temperature level.  As temperatures change, your beer bottles (and their caps) are expanding and contracting.  That temperature change is also causing pressure changes, and these two elements are very likely resulting in the introduction of more oxygen into your beer.  Hence, greater risk of oxidation.

So yes, temperature swings might be present in a hot-aged environment, but apparently they weren't a huge issue in my dad's garage.  And if you gave me the choice between aging at a steady 85F vs. aging in a cooler room with 30F temperature swings, I'd take "hot" every day of the week.

Respect Heat, but Don't Fear It

In a perfect world, as soon as your beer is carbonated to your target level, you should be storing it cold.  But if circumstances make that a challenge, you shouldn't abandon all hope.  Make your priority temperature stability, and keep your fingers crossed that whatever's happening faster in that bottle isn't going to catch up to you!

And if you notice that it is...well, I guess it's time to get rid of it.  Cheers!

Keep it simple.


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