As I said, my goal was simple: make beer similar to the beer I made at the pub.
That immediately dictated some choices, the most obvious of which is all-grain brewing. Almost as clear was another, which I have never questioned or regretted. I state it here as a bit of advice to you.
Don’t waste an hour or a dollar on bottling.
Pub beer is draft beer, and draft beer is best because it is the freshest and subjected to the fewest insults after it is made.
Draft beer is unpasteurized, and it is kept cold from the end of fermentation until it reaches its destination in the stomach of a happy beer lover.
Draft beer is served from kegs.
Therefore, the first thing you should get is not a kettle or a fermenter, but a draft beer system, including a few kegs and a refrigerator.
As it happens, I already had a draft beer system before I went back into homebrewing, because my “pension” from Blackstone is, basically, unlimited free beer. All I need to do is take an empty keg in for a refill and pick it up the next day. That puts some light on the length of time it took me to go back into brewing. If I had been lacking good fresh beer, it would have happened a lot sooner.
So, here I am telling you to spend a few hundred bucks on a draft system, right up front. For most homebrewers it is one of the last things they pony up for. I say, do it now. Money spent on a draft system repays you from the start. De-labeling, cleaning, and sanitizing 50 bottles (enough for a 5-gallon batch) is a wet, nasty job that takes hours. Filling bottles is almost as tedious. I was a bottling homebrewer for 17 years, and I clearly remember the day I brought home my first keg as a day of liberation. Believe me: Money and time spent on bottles is a waste. At best you will be able to pass them along to a new brewer, and all that does is perpetuate the cycle of misery.
Allow me to present my case for investing in a draft system:
- First: A refrigerator has other uses besides beer service. It helps you make better, cleaner-tasting beer. It facilitates post-fermentation crash cooling and clarification.
- Second: It allows you to brew year-round without buying large quantities of ice. Year-round brewing is part of the game. If you want fresh beer, you have to make it fresh.
- Third: A draft system has value even if you don’t persist in the hobby, or if time constraints keep you from producing all the beer you want. Many brewpubs and some micros will gladly fill customers’ kegs and, in fact, at Blackstone we have a fair number of regular customers who set up a draft system with no intention of making their own beer. And if worse comes to worst and you revert to buying bottled beer, you can sell the kit and caboodle and get most of your money back.
- Fourth: Brewing is always exciting, an essay in a wonderful art; bottling is drudgery. It is also low-paying work. A draft system is much more cost effective, easily paying for itself with the time you’ll save by not bottling your beer. Even if you figure your time is worth only three dollars an hour, a draft beer system will pay for itself in 20 batches of beer. Bottling is worthwhile only if there is nothing you would rather do with your leisure time. I have yet to meet a homebrewer who got into the hobby because he wanted to clean and fill bottles.
That’s it. Taking it together, I believe the case for “going draft” is as compelling as the one for going all-grain.
I know that the course advocated here is not the one most of us took into homebrewing. This includes me. But it is the best.
As to what “going all-grain” involves, that is pretty much the subject of the next few chapters. For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the process of making beer, I will start with a brief overview; then we will look at how pub breweries are set up and operated, with the idea of doing the same thing at home, on a smaller scale.
My emphasis here is on practical procedures rather than brewing science. My goal was to limit theoretical discussion as much as possible. There are a number of good books, listed in Resources, that delve into the “whys” in a systematic way; I think anybody who gets serious about brewing will want to read them. But too much information, right at the start, can be an obstacle. It makes brewing seem like something only a chemist could master, and that is far from the truth.
On the other hand, there are some endeavors in which a certain amount of technical discussion cannot be avoided, and in which a willingness to deal with basic math is indispensable. Brewing is one of them. Before you buy one piece of equipment, read through the next few chapters and try to decide whether making your own beer would really be enjoyable for you. If, on the other hand, you have already gotten into this great hobby, then I hope you will use them as a guide to refining your craft.
The emphasis on practical procedures means that, I am writing about the way I make beer at home. My preferences and habits are on display and, of course, they will not suit everyone. I try to mention some alternatives along the way, but if I am going to keep it simple and straightforward, I really have no choice but to focus on what I know firsthand. However, there are some limitations that come with this. The most obvious has already been mentioned: I am not going to go into extract brewing at all.
What sets this site apart from others you will find is simply that it reflects a different view of homebrewing. When I first turned pro, I tended to look at the process from a homebrewer’s perspective. In my return to homebrewing, I find myself looking at it from a pub brewer’s perspective. I think my experience has given me a better idea of what is truly necessary and what is just “nice to have” in a home brewery.
In the interests of full disclosure, there is another area where my perspective comes into play. Take a look at the chapter on recipes (chapter 8). I am what you might call a “beer classicist.” You may like all the latest permutations and inventions, many of which march under the banner of “extreme beer” — imperial pilsners, double weizenbocks, honey goat cheese cranberry ale, and so on. I do not. Give me a well-balanced Märzen, a rich roasty oatmeal stout, or a tangy witbier, and I ask for nothing else. If you have read the well-known New Yorker article on craft brewing from a few years back (see Resources), I can say it simply: I’m with Garrett Oliver. If you like humongous beers, or monstrously hoppy beers, or monstrously hoppy humongous beers, well, you’ll need to look elsewhere for information about them.
I do believe that a beginner should focus on the classic styles at first, regardless of personal preference; they require the greatest care and are least forgiving of errors. If you can brew a good Kölsch, a hundred-IBU quadruple IPA is a walk in the park. Years ago my friend Steve Fried (the longtime brewmaster at McGuire’s in Pensacola, Florida) gave the keynote address at a homebrewers’ conference. He concluded with a reminder that process is more important than your bill of ingredients. I can’t reproduce what he said word for word, but this is a paraphrase, as best I can recall:
Others have asked me for a homebrew recipe blueprint so here it is bluntly.
- 8 pounds of malt
- 1 ounce of hops
- 1 packet of yeast
- Keep making it until it tastes the same every time.
My recipes are a little more specific, but I hope you get the idea. Consistency is the ultimate test, even for a homebrewer. You don’t have to meet customer expectations, but you do need to master the techniques that are required if you expect to make good beer every time. Remember think progress not perfection.
This is week 2 of the legends of the beer traveler. I will be posting more in the following weeks :).