Brewing can be a science, but does it have to be? I mean, when we think about the history of brewing, haven’t people been brewing beer since before the human race even knew what yeast really was? With that in mind, can we possibly be overthinking brewing and beer in general? Do we need to know every little nano-aspect of brewing to the Nth degree? Well, I think there’s some wisdom in that, but let’s talk about it some, shall we?
“Ah, screw it!”
When people get into brewing, they often go one of two ways. On the one side, many novice brewers take the “what I don’t know won’t kill me” approach to brewing. They strive to avoid thinking too much about the process with the thought that brewers from a couple hundred years ago didn’t know about microorganisms, so why should we worry about them? While I would certainly agree with Charlie Papazian’s mantra “relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew”, I would say that if science gives us an insight into how a recipe can go wrong, shouldn’t we avail ourselves of such science? Because the fact of the matter is, a beer CAN go wrong. Yes, brewers have made beer for a couple thousand years or thereabouts, but in the process, they’ve learned a lot. And homebrewers ought to take advantage of that knowledge. For example, it’s common knowledge among homebrewers that sanitation plays an important role in making sure that beer turns out as the brewing intended. This lesson was brought to you by SCIENCE, my friends.
So what are some concrete examples of the “ah, screw it” approach to brewing which I, personally use? Well, for one, I don’t screw with water profiles. I happen to live in an area where the groundwater needs minimal treatment, the mineral profile is relatively decent for most styles, and which tastes excellent right out of the tap. So I don’t bother with ensuring that my water profiles match the city of Wherever when I brew. I don’t add chemicals and minerals to make sure that my beers have the mineral equivalent of a Flintstones vitamin. Another thing I don’t bother with is mash pH. Lots of brewers will call me out on this. They’ll claim that I can’t ensure conversion of starches without proper control of my mash pH. Well, the fact of the matter is that I make good beer without the extra bother. Could I ensure more repeatable results if I bothered to measure and control this? Well, probably, but it’s additional hassle that I don’t want to screw with. I brew what I drink, for the most part, and I’m quite happy with what I have been drinking.
Where do I feel this approach falls short? Sanitation, as I’ve mentioned, is crucial to help ensure you don’t throw a batch out. Beer brewing can be an economical way to enjoy good beer, especially if you buy ingredients in bulk and NEVER HAVE TO THROW A BATCH OUT! If you spend $30 on a 5 gallon batch of beer, and have to throw it out, you just spent $30 on, well, a lesson in how not to brew. Another area where I feel some education is beneficial is in recipe formulation. If you never brew your own recipes, never tweak, etc. then you can just continue brewing what works for you. You’ll have fun, and beer will be made. However, if you plan on designing your own recipes, then you really need to know what the ingredients do, and what you have at your disposal when brewing.
“The OCD Brewing Scientist”
Diametrically opposed to the “Don’t know, don’t care” philosophy of brewing is the brewer who obsesses over every little detail of brewing. This brewer is convinced that his minute attention to detail will allow him to produce award-winning brews. Mash pH, water profile, mash temperature, fermentation temperature, moisture content of his grain…this guy must know the stats on every step of brewing. If something is off, he might even toss the whole batch knowing that the end result will be an inferior product. When it comes to this outlook on brewing, I feel I must again point out that we humans have been making excellent beers for a couple thousand years. We have learned a lot in that time, but I don’t feel that this level of attention to details is required to produce great beer. Again, brew in whatever manner gives you joy and which produces beer you like to consume. If it’s cathartic to use a sensitive instrument to measure your mash pH, then do so and with my blessing. However, it’s not the only way to brew.
So is there a little OCD Brewer in me? Sure! For one, when it comes to sanitation, I have noticed I can be a little more obsessive about it than other brewers. I’d rather not take the chance that a misstep on my part is the cause of an infected batch destined for the sink. Another is mash temperatures. If you’re going to bother with all grain, then you really need to make sure you’re mashing at the temperature that produces the mouthfeel and gravity you’re going for. Another important aspect that you’ll want to control if you possibly can is fermentation temperatures. The temp. of your fermentation can drastically affect the finished product. From the fruity ester profile to the harsh fusel alcohols that can make a high-gravity beer less than soothing, controlling your fermentation temperatures will help you make better beer. Again, I want you to be happy with what you’re brewing/drinking, but if I can avoid a batch of beer I want to throw out, then I’m ahead of the game, so I will use some of these techniques.
But the OCD Brewer approach doesn’t always make for a soothing brew day. I won’t bother with water profile, as I’ve said. I’m not going to measure the moisture content of my grain. I’m not going to bother screwing with pH unless I end up with water that needs it. Ultimately, you have to decide what you want to do in terms of your process. I don’t have the patience to be too OCD about my brewing. I want to enjoy my brew days. I chat with friends, I drink some homebrew. Some things just sort of fall by the wayside. You have to find the balance that works for you, and then make beer.
“If knowing is half the battle, then where do I go to learn?”
First, your local homebrew shop is a great place to start. Generally speaking, these guys should both know the ingredients and equipment they’re selling AND they should know a lot of guys who have a lot of experience in the art. While their brewing process is not necessarily going to be the same as yours, you might get some ideas on how to incorporate their ideas into your process. In any event, it’s a chance to learn something new.
Books are a fantastic resource if you don’t have a local homebrew shop. How to Brew by John Palmer is a fantastic resource, especially for the OCD Brewing Scientists out there. There are a ton of them out there by various brewers, and they’re great resources if you like to read.
Another place is a web forum, and I recommend http://www.homebrewtalk.com. The people there are for the most part very helpful and great at identifying what could be going wrong from just a short description. Like anything else, when you have an abundance of opinions, you will have arguments, but even these arguments can be useful in learning about a variety of opinions.
Finally, I recommend listening to brewing podcasts, and the most well-received podcasts come from http://www.thebrewingnetwork.com. The Jamil Show, in particular, is useful for learning about ingredients and techniques which will help homebrewers learn about their chosen hobby. You can scroll through these podcasts and find a style or beer you’re considering brewing, and learn the history and the various ingredients for the style.
Whatever you do, brew and consume great beer, and find a method that works for you and stick with it.