I learned to brew beer right around the same time that I discovered good beer. I started graduate school at Boston University in 1990 and quickly began enjoying the local brews — particularly Harpoon Ale, Sam Adams Boston Ale and Dock Street Amber (from Philadelphia) — that were popping up. There was even a brewpub, Commonwealth Brewing, with three or four regular brews and a new “seasonal” beer every other month or so. I also tried out imported beers, whenever possible. Coming from South Dakota, where Beck’s was an exotic import, this was an eye-opening experience.
A couple of graduate students in my department brewed beer and I was immediately intrigued. I learned the basic extract brewing method from them, but was hampered for a long time by substandard equipment — especially the lack of decent-sized brewpot — and having to brew in a small Boston apartment.
My early brewing efforts were also hampered by my lack of knowledge. As a graduate student in biology, I could have easily dug into the advanced homebrew literature at the time, but I figured I had enough things to study and just wanted a nice, easy hobby that ended up with me drinking beer. And, even though the stuff I made wasn’t great, it did get drunk on poker night with no complaints.
I got a nudge in the right direction from a friend of mine, John Weerts. I went to college with John and would see him over the holidays as my folks had moved to Kansas City, where he lived. I taught him how to brew on one of those occasions, but then he struck out on his own. He joined is local brewclub (Kansas City Bier Meisters), stepped up to all-grain brewing and started making some really good beer. Years later, he visited me in Boston and brought along a keg of rye beer, which was fantastic. I immediately knew I was missing out on something.
On my next stop at my local homebrewshop (The Modern Brewer), I bought every book they had, including George Fix’s “Principles of Brewing Science” and Greg Noonans “Brewing Lager Beer.” Armed with the knowledge from these books, a new brewpot, and a ridiculously cobbled together all-grain set-up, I brewed a mini-mash version of a porter recipe of mine. It was the best beer I had made so far.
Fast forward to today, and I still think that gaining the right knowledge is the most important step to brewing great beer. (My brewing set-up is still almost comically jury-rigged, but it works.) I have read a number of professional brewing texts (and recommend the two volume “Malting and Brewing Science” set by Briggs, Hough, Stevens and Young), keep track of many of the great homebrewing forums out there, and am a member of the Austin ZEALOTS homebrew club.
The best way to gain brewing knowledge, however, is to brew. And, I normally brew about 20 batches per year. In the 15 or so years I’ve been a homebrewer, I have brewed ales, lagers and sour beers. I have tried most of the common traditional brewing techniques and experimented with new techniques (including my reiterated mashing techniques). Although primarily an all-grain brewer, my interest in extract brewing has been rekindled due to new techniques (such as the extract late procedure) and I have recently experimented with ways to improve partial mashing (especially making dark beers with a partial mash procedure).
I began experimenting with less mainstream beers a year after I graduated from college, catapulting me into the amazing world of craft beer. I ventured into homebrewing soon after this when a college friend showed me that with some ingredients, a few basic pieces of equipment and a stove I could make beer myself. It wasn't even fair...make my own beer; how cool was that? I was hooked before I even brewed my first batch. I immediately purchased a Brewer's Best kit and brewed an IPA. From what I remember it was surprisingly good, but more importantly none of my friends got sick from drinking it.
My homebrewing education continued while earning my Ph.D. in Pharmacology at Wayne State University in 2006 when I learned a great deal about cell biology, microbiology, and what it takes to keep a sterile working environment. These skills became great tools in my homebrewery but it wasn't until I began my Postdoctoral Fellowship at The University of Pennsylvania in a yeast cell biology lab that I was able to fully use my skills in bench research to make better beer. I began freezing brewing yeast strains, examining yeast cells under the microscope, counting yeast cell number before pitching, and culturing yeast from bottles of my favorite beers. The quality of my beer improved dramatically over this period of time.
Today, I live in South Carolina with my wife and son and continue to experiment with ingredients and techniques whenever I brew my own beer. The goal of my posts will be to share anecdotes about my brewing experiments while occasionally educating you on the wonderful world of yeast and other topics. Hopefully I can teach you that as homebrewers we are all scientists.
Betsy Parks is the editor of Brew Your Own. A graduate of The New England Culinary Institute, Betsy came on board at Brew Your Own in 2007 after completing a bachelor's degree in journalism. She is the author of many BYO feature stories, as well as the regular writer of the "Tips from the Pros" and "Beginner's Block" columns. She lives near Manchester Center, Vermont.
This year, Jamil is going pro. This spring he is launching Heretic Brewing Company, a 30-barrel brewery in the East Bay region of California’s San Francisco Bay area. Follow along with his blog as he transitions from homebrewer to brewmaster.
BYO “Style Profile” columnist, Jamil Zainasheff is an award-winning homebrewer, author, and host of “The Jamil Show” and “Brew Strong” shows on The Brewing Network. A “stylish” guy, Jamil has brewed every style of beer described in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines and co-authored Brewing Classic Styles (Brewer’s Publications, 2007) with fellow homebrewer and “Brew Strong” co-host John Palmer.
I’ve been brewing for about 10 years. I came to home brewing via the great beers I discovered just out of college in the early 90s. A bottle of Pete’s Wicked Ale I consumed in 1994 was instrumental in my conversion from bad beer to good beer. Once the world of great beer was revealed to me I began reading, following and, most importantly, drinking more and more. That research led me eventually, inevitably to home brewing. A couple of years later and there I was at San Francisco Brewcraft home brew supply store getting acquainted with the intriguing world of yeast and the baffling world of siphons. (They still drive me crazy.)
I consider myself a novice. If you do too this is the blog for you. One of the goals of this blog will be for me to improve, learn and grow as a brewer and hopefully bring those of you who’ve got a lot to learn along in that process.
I live in New Jersey with my wife and two small children. I am a member of the PALE ALES, a Princeton-based home brew club and am an avid customer of Princeton Homebrew.
I write the Tasting Note Tuesday column for Private Tap, where I highlight whatever commercial brew has my attention each week. In addition to Brew Your Own, my writing about beer has appeared in Saveur magazine.