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Break Out of a Brewing Rut

Day in and day out with the same old homebrewing techniques can get monotonous if you let it. It is easy to get into a homebrewing zone and turn on the autopilot switch, which can lead to low motivation and a stale homebrew approach as time goes on. Staying motivated to keep homebrewing can be tested with time and the availability of great craft beers becoming ever more plentiful. However, successful homebrewers find ways to break through mental barriers, avoid brewing ruts, and stay creative.

If you have found yourself losing excitement for your homebrewing hobby, here are 10 methods to put some pep in your brewing step.

1. A New Scene

The Rut: Brewing with your old standard setup can be boring. Do you still have the homebrew gear you started with in 1987? If so, it may be time to update and advance. New homebrewing gadgets and technical toys are hitting the market constantly.

Bouncing Out: Get some new equipment. Visit your local homebrew shop and look around. Read magazines and blogs dedicated to homebrewing to provide yourself with more equipment upgrade ideas than you know what to do with. If the cost of acquiring this new equipment is an issue, consider building your own.

Bob Sweeney started homebrewing in 1991 after going to a lesson at a health food store in Memphis, Tennessee. He brewed one batch of extract before switching to all-grain brewing. He stays out of homebrewing ruts by building new equipment. “I have built a lot of brewing gear that I always wanted but couldn’t have due to cost or time constraints,” Sweeney said. Among those builds are a four-tap keezer, a single-tier three-vessel brewing structure from weldless strut (check out the November 2005 issue of BYO for instructions), and a temperature-controlled fermentation chest freezer with collar. Sweeney has also built a control panel to house the PID for a HERMS (heat exchange recirculating mash system) coil to regulate mash temperatures in his hot liquid tank that controls a natural gas burner. (See “Brewing on Autopilot with PID Controllers” in the November 2003 BYO for more about this build).

Try This: Splurge on or build one piece of new equipment and then try using it with your next brewing session.

2. Brew like a Kid

The Rut: The deeper we get into homebrewing, the more serious we may take our procedures and results. This can result in a stagnant approach that cuts out all thoughts of taking chances and making mistakes. Sometimes, you need to break the “rules” and go with your gut.

Bouncing Out: How about throwing Fruity Pebbles cereal in your next batch? That is what Morrey Thomas did. He has been homebrewing since the 1980s and has avoided getting stuck in ruts by staying open to new ideas. His wife’s favorite beer is his Sunset Wheat, which is more often referred to simply as Fruity Pebbles because of the taste profiles brought out in the beer. Thomas explains, “James Spencer (of Basic Brewing Radio) made mention of using Frankenberry breakfast cereal in a beer he brewed with Belgian yeast.  I thought about his choice to use Belgian yeast, and knowing that strain throws stone fruit esters, I decided to try a hefeweizen yeast believing the Weihenstephan strain would give banana nuances so we’d have sliced bananas on our breakfast cereal,” Thomas said. “My gears are always turning and searching for ways to try something new, innovative, and different. No matter the result, I never get in a rut from status quo. Be it great or not so great, I’ll never feel I am in a rut.”

Choosing unique ingredients doesn’t always go over well with fellow brew friends, but as the brewer you have the final say on what you brew. For example, Thomas says, “I made mention that I would be brewing a 2.5% ABV beer with rye and wheat as my only grains and Nelson Sauvin as my only hop. Several folks wrenched their faces to make a “yuck” comment. I let it be, brewed the beer and brought several unlabeled bottles to a bottle share tasting. Faces were smiling as comments ranged from, “Wow that is great, do you have more of that?” to “May I have the recipe?” Then the big reveal and jaws dropped and exclaimed, “How did you make rye taste that good?” It’s all willingness to get out of your comfort zone and try things that may or may not feel comfortable to you.”

Worried about wasting a lot of ingredients on a recipe that may not be drinkable? Try experimenting with smaller batch sizes. You can always scale them up later if they’re a hit.

Try This: Break the rules and experiment without worrying about bad results. Invent your own recipes and take chances by adding ingredients or adjuncts that you have never tried brewing with before, even if at first they appear to be out of place in a beer.

3. Do More than Brew

The Rut: You have a hard time justifying a whole day or afternoon spent brewing. Instead of looking forward with anticipation to your next brew session you stress over the time that will be “wasted.” This can be compounded if your significant other doesn’t see the value of a Saturday spent brewing.

Bouncing Out: You can do more than just brew when you are brewing. Combining your day of brew with other productive and fun activities is a good way to stay motivated, get out of a monotonous groove, and is a win-win situation with the spouse. Make the spouse happy and complete some chores, pay your bills, or do other things that need to be done during the downtime of a mash or boil.

Lewis Dunham is an avid homebrewer who suggests, “you’re already in the kitchen (assuming you are a stove brewer)” so why not, “bake some bread, dust off the slow cooker and make a curry, or bake some cakes if that’s your kind of thing.”

Dunham continues, “What I like to do on a brew day is start early, catch up on some podcasts, treat myself to a hearty lunch, tidy the kitchen while I go and prepare for a rewarding dinner. If you start early enough you can be done with a brew day in the early afternoon giving you the rest of the day to do as you please – this can certainly alleviate that feeling of an entire day ‘lost’ to brewing.”

Try This: Mix up your next batch of brewing with other activities. Make it fun and multitask.

4. Go with New Goals

The Rut: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” –Seneca

The same can be said of homebrewing, “Without brewing goals, no homebrew seems to be favorable.” We start out with the goal of completing our first extract homebrew, then make a partial mash, and next an all-grain batch. After a while you may lose your steam and motivation, and find yourself in a rut.

Bouncing Out: Attend the Great American Beer Festival, HomebrewCon, a BYO Boot Camp or other homebrewing event and you will find yourself coming home with all kinds of ideas that will lead to new goals. For example, experimenting with new techniques, using new technologies, and refining your homebrewing craft.

Other goals to get you going: Teach a friend to homebrew, earn a medal at a competition, buy less commercial beer and brew more beer than you did last year, or begin kegging. It’s a new year, make a resolution!

Try This: Take the time to choose some motivating brewing goals that you can attain. Follow Bob Sweeney’s lead and set the goal of setting goals to try new brewing methods and techniques. Ever tried brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) brewing? How about focusing on low dissolved oxygen brewing (LODO)? Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.

5. Find a Brew Partner

The Rut: Homebrewing can be a solitary hobby, and one can find success and good outcomes going solo. Still, two minds are always better than one, and sharing homebrew success with a friend can be a lot of fun.

Bouncing Out: Do you have anyone in your life who loves beer as much as you do? Possibly that buddy who is always trying to snag a six-pack of your newest brew. Why not teach him or her how to make their own homebrew and become homebrewing partners? Maybe you have more than one friend that you can get hooked on brewing and have the beginning of your very own homebrew club.

Nick Garrard likes to build recipes around a single ingredient, such as honey. Garrard brews collaboratively with his friend Lewis Dunham, who is involved in setting up their DIY equipment. “We usually make a day of it, so there’s the brewing and we play some music, drink some homebrew, and occasionally cook something,” he says.

Dunham says about their brewing collaboration, “I’m lucky that I get to brew with someone who can be as enthusiastic about it as I am. We have spent brew days having a barbeque outside in the sun, playing guitar, and having a few drinks that we’ve separately made, just popping back in the house to check things are progressing as they should every now and then.”

Try This: Search for a homebrewing friend and this will help the time fly by. Or look for a local homebrewing club to join. Sweeney notes, “for most of the first three years I homebrewed I was a member of a very active homebrew club in Memphis. Good clubs are a great way to stay out of ruts as you meet regularly with other active brewers and get advice and can possibly enter local homebrewing contests or even judge them, which I did a few times.”

6. Take a Brewcation

The Rut: Never seeing what the homebrew world has to offer can stifle even the most motivated brewer.

Bouncing Out: Don’t become a homebrewing hermit. Look for homebrew or craft beer festivals and competitions on the internet. You may be surprised how many pop up and chances are you can find one close to home. Find one that interests you and make a weekend brewcation out of it.

While tasting beers you may not be familiar with, carefully ponder them from a brewer’s perspective. “Think about what the brewery has put into the beer you are trying, what are the malts, what’s the profile, what’s the hop addition like? Can your palate identify what is supposed to be in the brew?” says Dunham.

Try This: Find a festival or event that is in a place you have always wanted to visit and start planning for an unforgettable getaway.

7. Choose a New Style

The Rut: Everyone loves a solid pale ale, but after batch 50 it may be time to move on to a new style. It can be easy to find some recipes that turn in to old standbys that never fail, but getting in the same style rut can put a limit on your homebrewing and get to be a bore.

Bouncing Out: Have you ever brewed a saison? How about a sour? Why not? The styles of beer out there are endless and that is how we all got started, by trying something new. Want to go further off the beaten path? Try brewing a cider or mead. You already have the equipment!

Dunham has noticed brewing the same types of beer all the time with similar ingredients and techniques offers little variation on brew day. He shares, “attempting a brew you aren’t used to could end up being a fun challenge and at the same time introduce you to new techniques.”

Try This: Check out the Brew Your Own website (www.byo.com) or look through your back issues and find an article about a style you have never brewed. Try to focus on it and dedicate yourself to this style and then nail it!

8. Get Connected

The Rut: Keeping your homebrewing interactions concentrated to a small thumbprint. Even though your inner Luddite may churn at the idea of the internet and technology, making wise use of the internet can be a revelation when it comes to homebrewing. The world wide web has waves of homebrewing information to be surfed and enjoyed.

Bouncing Out: Homebrewer forums are super for expanding your knowledge base and sharing what you know. I am amazed at the ideas and techniques that I have never fathomed possible that are being talked about on homebrew forums. I posed the question about what others do when they get in a brewing rut on a homebrewing forum to get ideas for this story and received an endless list of ideas and answers. The homebrewing community is full of great people that are very willing to share ideas and keep you inspired. Sharing what you know to help other homebrewers can also be a great motivator.

Try This: Check out homebrewing forums and blogs and join in the fun for new inspiration and motivation.

9. Think Outside the Box

The Rut: Getting too tied up in what everyone thinks should be done with homebrew can be limiting. Rules, rules, rules. Break the rules and go with your gut.

Bouncing Out: Go off the wall with your next batch of the good stuff. Mix hops with malts that you never thought possible, go with new yeast types, and try adjuncts that don’t seem plausible. Try not to be boxed in with the traditional ideas of how things must be done.

Morrey Thomas says, “I love designing my own recipes while incorporating new techniques into my homebrewery. Additionally, small changes like reversing sulfate to chloride ratios can make big differences, and planning/researching these changes keeps me excited. I live for experiments like making an 11-gallon (42-L) batch of beer, separating the wort into two fermenters, then pitching two different yeast strains for side by side comparisons.  Hops can add wildly different nuances to an otherwise boring beer, so I encourage all brewers to think outside of the box and experiment with new (to them) yeast strains and hop combinations.”

Try This: Brew 5 gallons (19 L) of beer and then divide it into five 1-gallon (4-L) batches and try a different dry hop variety or yeast strain in each batch.

10. Give it Away

The Rut: You have tried to drink all the beer you brew and you can’t. You don’t want to waste it, but the bottles are piling up and you can’t justify brewing more beer with such a full supply.

Bouncing Out: There are mountains of people willing to help you drink your homebrew. You can find them at homebrew competitions and through homebrew clubs. Competitions and clubs are a great place to share your wealth and find out what other brewers say when it comes to your brewing skills. You will receive constructive criticism on your brew, and find the interaction with other serious homebrewers stimulates you.

Another approach to this rut is to brew smaller batch sizes. More brew days of smaller batches isn’t a bad thing if you enjoy the process! Or, brew something that takes more time. Maybe a barleywine that needs to mellow for six months (see the article on page 40), or a sour that you plan to age for a year before even sampling.

Try This: Jump right into the club scene. Ask at your local homebrew shop or search online for the one closest to you. Make it a goal to enter a competition this year.

11. Take a Break

The Rut: You have tried all of the above rut-breakers, and yet the passion still isn’t pulling you to brew the next batch in the same way it used to be.

Bouncing Out: When all else fails, you may simply need to take a break. And there is nothing wrong with that. “I think the best advice/suggestion I can give is simply, if you aren’t having fun with it, just take a break. You are under no obligation to put a brew on. Put your tools down and just walk away for a little while and when you feel the pull of wanting to put a brew on, you know the time will be right to get back into it,” said Dunham. And he’s right, your equipment isn’t going anywhere — so when you get that urge pulling you back, all you’ll need to do is find a recipe, order ingredients, and start brewing again!

Try This: Take a sabbatical from brewing. Keep your equipment packed somewhere that you can get to it when you are ready to return, but until then, maybe expand your horizons and try a new hobby. Don’t worry, the homebrewing community will be ready to welcome you back when you’re ready.