Maybe You Shouldn't Be Homebrewing...

Every once in a while I see articles and blog posts saying things like, "Try homebrewing!," "Don't Quit, Keep At It!," or "Anyone Can Brew!"  I'm going another direction today, just for the sake of intellectual honesty: Maybe you shouldn't be homebrewing.  

Don't start.

Think about quitting.

Because the simple reality is that brewing isn't for everyone - and there's no shame in admitting it's not for you.  

Bad Beer: Not a Reason To Quit

Let's start here, though: I'm not giving this advice to anyone solely on the basis that they make bad beer.  That's where the articles get it right: if you're having trouble producing beer that's relatively flaw-free and (or?) that you like to drink, then that's fine.  We can help you with that.  Making good beer is actually pretty easy if you do the simple things right.

So please don't think this is some kind of elitist attack on the brewers that are working to bring their beer up to a palatable level, however they define that.

If it's just a question of making better beer - don't quit.  Keep at it.  It'll get better, I promise.  Join a homebrew club, enter competitions to get objective feedback, revisit and refine your process, etc.  

Love the Process

Novelist Frank Norris said, "Don't like to write, but like having written."  That might fly with writing, but I don't know that it's true for brewing.

Brewing is work.  Even when it's as easy and simple as it can be (see...this blog for how committed I am to THAT idea), it's still work.  You have to like the work or you won't keep brewing for long - it's just too easy nowadays to get good beer.  The "don't like to brew, but like having brewed" mentality probably sufficed in the 1980s when there was virtually no craft beer around, but now even the corner dive bars I go into have a couple of solid-to-great local craft taps on.

Take a look at that picture at the top of the post.  That was literally 24 hours ago in a friend's home brewery - the blowoff from that Flextank in the picture was too much for the headspace, and seven of 65 gallons ended up on the floor, under the tables, and soaking into the carpet in the adjoining room.

Now, I'm not saying you need to LIKE the idea of cleaning that up, but at the very least you have to be able to get some wry humor out of it.  On a much smaller scale you probably DO have to like the act of cleaning a kettle, the challenge of engineering a tap system and drilling holes in your walls, monitoring the temperature of a fermenting carboy and draping it with wet towels to get some evaporation cooling, and/or a dozen other small details that go into homebrewing.  If you're not at least neutral on those, the satisfaction of "having brewed" probably isn't enough to keep you going.

Homebrewing Probably Won't Save You Money

My process produces the equivalent of two cases of 12oz bottles.  In exchange, I use about $18 worth of ingredients, $1 worth of electricity, and four hours of my time (including brewing, monitoring, and packaging).  

Those two cases on the open market would cost me something like $40 each, so I'm ahead by $61 per batch, right?  

Not really.  First, my time's worth something (despite the fact that I spend it on this blog for free).  Even at minimum wage, it'd be $7.25/hour, or $29.  And I brew FAST.  Most spend more like five hours on their brew day, rather than the three hours I do.

Then there's the equipment costs.  Burner, kettle, cooler, carboys, tubing, bottles, caps, kegs, cleaners, sanitizers, salts, spoons - the list goes on.  At the end of the day, you're probably breaking even.  But I'm not even sure I can say that about most brewers, just that it's possible.

And, at least in my case, I probably buy more beer now that I brew, paradoxically.

Homebrewing Isn't Cool

...and even if it was, the anti-trendsters would be out in force to rag on it.  You'd be accused of being a hipster, or at least being a carrier of the virus.  Is that worth it to you?

Homebrewing is a pretty nerdy hobby.  It's populated, in large part, by scientists and minutiae-lovers (worst Cinemax soft-core adult film EVER).  Ever had a two-hour conversation about the geometry of a Coleman cooler?  You will.  If the thought of that makes you want to run screaming from the room, then maybe avoid that room.

I guess you could brew a one-gallon batch once in a while for the novelty of serving a bottle or two of your own beer now and again, but I still don't think that'd get you any cool points.

If You're Still Reading...

Good.  

Now that the dilettantes have gone, we can talk.

Brew because you like to create - whether it's the cooking, the science, the problem-solving, or whatever.  I don't like cleaning pots, but I don't mind it, either, because I know that at the end of the day I'll have spent my time making something my own way.  That's fun.  AND I get beer out of it.

Brew because you'll love the people you meet.  The people who stick with brewing are YOUR kind of people.  It's funny how many of us in this community are fairly introverted, but at the same time homebrewers are pretty social within their set.  Sure, there are some out there who use this hobby as a tool to beat people over the head with their beer superiority (hello, aleholes), but they're a minority.  AND you get beer out of it.

Brew because you like being connected to one of the oldest human activities.  We've been brewing beer for a long time (almost since cultivation began), and if you have a sense of history and continuity you'll like continuing that tradition, and it will make the petty annoyances worthwhile.  AND you get beer out of it.

Finally, brew because YOU want to.  Ignore the supporters and the detractors alike, because at the end of the day you'll be the one cleaning up that seven gallons of blown-off wort at the top of the screen.  Ignore the friends and family that ask you to brew beer for them like you're they're personal nanobrewery.  It has to be personally gratifying, and not for others, because otherwise you'll just be resentful and irritated at the idea of brewing, cleaning, kegging, bottling, shopping, hauling, and lifting.  If you like doing it for you, then by all means, brew for your cousin's wedding, your high school reunion, and your office picnic.  But start with doing it for you.

And don't worry if your beer isn't very good to start - we'll help you with that, and it'll get better in no time.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Hooked: Brewing with the End In Mind

Some things are hooks for our senses.

It's the time of year that we start to see "pumpkin beers" on the shelves and taps (don't panic - this isn't a piece about pumpkin beers).  As most of you know, though, "pumpkin" beers aren't really "pumpkin" beers: they're pumpkin pie spice beers.  What we tend to think of as "pumpkin beers" often don't have a single gram of actual pumpkin in them.  Some use another type of squash.  Some don't use anything except the spices we associate with pumpkin pie.  And even the ones that actually do use pumpkin...well, it isn't as though we all have a great sense memory of what a bland squash adds to beer flavors.

So why do we call them pumpkin beers?  Because that's what they make us think of.  Fall.  Leaves.  Thanksgiving.  Pumpkin Pie.  We're servicing our expectations - nothing more.  And if you point out to someone that their favorite pumpkin ale doesn't actually have pumpkin, they won't care.  Why should they?  The name creates an expectation, and the organoleptic experience verifies it.  

It's like how, to me, "Christmas" smells like bourbon and ginger ale.  At my great uncle's annual Christmas party, the most common drink by a mile was Jack and Ginger.  So, in my mind, every time I smell that combination, I think "Christmas."

There's a useful lesson in that for us brewers (home and commercial).  When we make our recipes and build our flavor profiles, we should start with the end in mind.  It does us no good to get dogmatic and stickler-ish about what's actually in the beer - we should be focused on whether we're generating the flavor experience that we're shooting for.  How we get there is our business, and no one else's.

Double Down

It's often useful to include in recipes multiple elements that might yield essential flavors.  If you want a significant amount of citrus, you might consider a classic American hop (for the aromatic oils), a mild Belgian yeast (for its orange and nectarine esters), the introduction of some lactic acid (since we often associate that bright, tart flavor with some citrus fruits) and an actual addition of some kind of citrus fruit. 

Obviously this will take some trial and error to ensure that you're not overdoing the element in question, but there are clear benefits.  First, you're not putting all of your flavor eggs in one basket: if you accidentally select a yeast strain or hop pairing that nulls out the presence of the flavor you want, you're screwed if that was the only thing contributing that flavor.  This way, you're covering your bases.

It's also been my experience (having judged a large number of Specialty flights over the years) that brewers tend to undershoot their flavor targets rather than overshoot them.  It reminds me of a story that golf teaching legend Harvey Penick told about a student who wanted to be taught how to put backspin on the ball.  

"When you hit your shots, do you usually go long, or come up short?" 

The student replied that he almost always came up short.

"Then why the hell do you want to know how to put backspin on the ball?"

Give yourself every opportunity to get that flavor hook into your beer - you can always back it off in future versions.

Faking It

Another golf truism is that "they don't draw pictures on the score card."  However you get the ball in the hole, it's in - so don't worry about how it happened.  By the same token, in brewing we should be conscious of the fact that the people who drink our beer don't know what went into it.

If using white squash gives you the mouthfeel you want, then to hell with pumpkin.

If you're making a Rhubarb Stout (true story - my wife had to make one once) and you're concerned that the flavor of rhubarb is too subtle and too much an unknown, then add in some cranberries to fake out the drinking audience.  If they believe that tart/sweet flavor is just your magical, alchemic, superlative method of extracting flavor from rhubarb (instead of just an equal dose of cranberry), then who needs to know?

If you're making a seaweed beer (true story - I have to make one for a brewing competition this winter) and you want to make people think "ocean," then there's no harm in adding some salt to the recipe even if seaweed doesn't actually taste salty.

Again: what matters is hooking the flavor to something the drinker is expecting to find, or can relate to the expected flavor profile.

Rough it Up

Once upon a time I made a 14% ABV Eisbock.  That's not that hard, really, but it's important to the moral of the story.

Being a lager, and a tough one to make due to the high ABV and the effect of concentration on off-flavors (freezing and concentrating the beer is going to amplify the hell out of any faults), I was ecstatic when my samples of it were as smooth as glass.  Nice malt character, toasty, some dark pit fruit flavors - I had a winner on my hands, and I knew it.

It sucked.

Not the beer, but how it was received.  Every pair of judges that had it noted that it was "lacking alcohol."  Yeah, NO, it wasn't - and if it weren't really irresponsible I'd have challenged them to drink a pint of it and then try that knife trick from Aliens.  

So I tried it as a Dopplebock.

Same result.

Finally, as a Traditional Bock (now a Dunkles Bock), it found a home - in a beer style that typically has an ABV of about half what this was rocking.

The lesson?  That beer would have been a better example of the style if it wasn't quite so clean: I wasn't giving people what they'd expect, even though by-the-numbers it was spot on (and in fact on the very high side) and the result (a clean beer with just subtle warming despite the ABV) was what you'd claim to want.  

So always ask if you're working against yourself, from the receiver's perspective.  

Brew with the End In Mind

Every time you sit down to work up a recipe, the first thing you should do is decide what you're trying to accomplish beyond "making a [blank] beer."  If it's a particular flavor, work backwards from that and incorporate lots of avenues to get it.  If it's a particular experience or impression, don't constrain yourself to what the name suggests should create it (the Pumpkin Syndrome).  If it's a certain style profile, make sure you're not "fixing" your way out of the style.

Brew deliberately.  Brew with an eye towards what you want the people who drink your beer to take away from it.  Brew in a way that increases your odds of getting what you want.  Brew with the end in mind.  

And, as always...

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).