Great Tips from 4 Top Women Brewers

Darrah Bryans, Head Brewer
Brew Moon Restaurant & Brewery, Cambridge, Mass.

Four years homebrewing experience, six years professional experience
House Beers: Moonlight Lager, Munich Gold, Alternative Ale, Prussia’s Pride, Planetary Porter
Advice: Invest in the right equipment.

Darrah Bryans, an international policy studies major in college, was bitten by the brewing bug while she lived in Washington, D.C. After working at a brewery for several years, she decided to pursue her brewing education in Germany, graduating from Doemens School, a renowned brewing academy in Munich.

She believes there’s really only one thing that separates the professionals from the amateurs: “We have the big toys,” she says. Bryans is convinced that having the right equipment is the best way for homebrewers to get ideal results.

“Homebrewing is so imprecise. Having the right equipment can make a big difference,” says Bryans, who homebrews with her husband. From milling to fermentation, good equipment for the process is simply a must for serious homebrewers.

For those who buy whole grain, Bryans believes a mill should be part of a home brewery. While the rolling pin method does an adequate job of crushing grains, only a properly set mill gives you the right crush, thus ensuring good conversion of starch to sugar during the mashing process. Properly milled (cracked, not pulverized) grain also limits the chance of a stuck mash.

When mashing, Bryans says, you don’t need to know a lot about mashing technology to get good results. Although a colander works as a down-and-dirty lauter tun, a better choice is a plastic bucket with holes drilled in the bottom. That way your entire mash fits in one vessel, so you avoid the many problems created by mashing piece-meal in the smaller container.

Also on the “must have” list for homebrewers is a wort chiller. “After homebrewing for a while, we finally bought a wort chiller. I couldn’t believe what a difference it made,” she says. “Before that, we’d cool the wort in an ice bath.” The savings in time was a definite bonus. Plus, bringing down the temperature of wort quickly so yeast can be safely pitched is a key element in avoiding contamination.

Adding a gas burner to her home brewery also made a world of difference, Bryans says. A heat source more powerful than the stovetop not only saves time by bringing the liquid to a vigorous boil more quickly, it provides better temperature control, allowing the brewer to hit specific strike temperatures in the mash with more accuracy. Precise temperature control is a key element in successfully replicating a recipe.

To control fermentation, especially if you’re interested in brewing lagers, buy an old refrigerator and install a temperature control.

Last but not least, Bryans advises, don’t skimp on the brewpot. Buy a stainless steel pot that’s the right size for the batch you plan to brew. Don’t buy the cheaper aluminum version. Not only are stainless steel pots stronger and likely to last longer, an ample, good quality brewpot prevents sticking, distributes heat evenly and, to some extent, helps prevent boilovers.

Bryans thinks it’s important to pay attention to auxiliary equipment, too. The little things can make a big difference. For example, she says, choose a good floating thermometer instead of a cheap version that could break and contaminate your wort.

To make sure you get the equipment you need, she says, develop a relationship with a well-stocked homebrew store with knowledgeable staff.

Barbara Groom, Brewmaster and Co-owner
Lost Coast Brewery & Cafe, Eureka, Calif.

Nine years professional experience
House Beers: Alley Cat Amber Ale, Downtown Brown, Eight-Ball Stout, Lost Coast Pale Ale, Raspberry Brown Ale, Great White Beer, Indica India Pale Ale, Winterbraun Holiday Ale, Lost Coast Wheat, Lost Coast Apricot Wheat
Advice: Don’t be afraid to experiment.

In the six years it took Barbara Groom and her partner to get Lost Coast Brewery and Cafe up and running, she had ample time to educate herself about brewing. Some homebrewing, a lot of reading and research, and formal training at Siebel Institute, a Chicago brewing school, formed the basis of her brewing education.

Although she brewed only about 20 batches as a homebrewer, Groom had the opportunity to familiarize herself with the process and to do plenty of experimenting. At that time the variety of supplies available to homebrewers was limited. Liquid yeast, for example, was unheard of. Dry yeast was often unreliable, but Groom solved the problem by getting yeast from a local brewery.

By the time the brewery opened in 1990, Groom was more than ready to try her hand at large-scale brewing. Groom’s philosophy is to brew what she likes — flavorful, full-bodied, well-balanced beers. Now that Groom — and her beers — are established, she sometimes misses having the opportunity to experiment. Professional brewers generally learn early on that consistency is one of the keys to success. The need for consistency can pretty much shut the door on experimentation.

Her advice to homebrewers is to be adventurous, especially with the large variety of yeast strains available today. “That’s one thing we can’t do in the brewery, experiment with yeast. Homebrewers have the opportunity to try (yeast strains) out,” Groom says.

Another advantage homebrewers have, she adds, is the ability to experiment with a variety of additives, including fruit (both fresh and extracts), coffee, maple syrup, and whatever else strikes an individual brewer’s fancy.

One worthwhile experiment involves taking one batch of beer and splitting it into two fermenters. By using two different yeasts, you’ve created two brews in one. Compare the different fermentations. Do you prefer one over the other? Make sure to take detailed notes throughout the process so that you can replicate it later. Maybe you’ll learn, for instance, that the German ale yeast — and not the American version — really gives your beer the right touch. If you have limited time to brew, this is a great way to satisfy that homebrewer’s curiosity.

Splitting a single batch is also a good way to play around with hops. Consider dry hopping one half of a batch and not the other.

Yeast aside, take full advantage of the selection of hops and malt now available on the shelves of homebrew stores and through mail-order companies. Don’t be afraid to substitute the hops or one specialty grain for another. A word of caution: Don’t change too much at once. The best way to chart your progress is to alter one ingredient at a time. Otherwise, you might not realize what it is you like about the modification.

Groom also recommends all-grain brewing rather than extract as the best way to create the widest variety of beers.

Melanie Miller, Microbiologist
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif.

10 years professional experience, chemistry and biology major
House Beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Pale Bock, Summerfest, Celebration Ale, Porter, Stout
Advice: Practice good sanitization.

When Melanie Miller started working at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 1989, brewers were responsible for performing lab work. After about eight years of brewing, the two functions were formally separated and Miller moved over to the laboratory full time.

From day one, Miller has paid special attention to sanitization. Simply put, she says, good sanitization is an easy way to produce a better product. “Personally, I feel you can’t be too clean. On the other hand, you don’t want your beer to taste of chemicals,” Miller says. The trick is finding the right balance.

For homebrewers that means finding the right agents for cleaning and sanitizing — ideally, something safe, easy to use, and economical.

Miller is a firm believer in chlorine as a sanitizing agent. In fact while many breweries have switched to other sanitizing agents, chlorine is still used in powdered form at Sierra Nevada. For homebrewers, unscented household bleach provides good results for virtually anything that contacts the wort or beer after the boil. Contact time should be limited, however, because overexposure to bleach can damage stainless steel and yellow plastic. Thorough rinsing with hot water is also necessary, because bleach can pit stainless steel if it remains in contact too long.

Miller thinks commercial iodine preparations, such as iodophor, are also excellent sanitizing agents. They are more costly than regular bleach, however. One big advantage is that iodine used in the proper proportions doesn’t taint flavors, as bleach does, and requires no rinsing. Homebrewers also have at their disposal a number of commercial preparations designed especially for home use. These, too, work well but tend to be more expensive than bleach.

But before you even think of sanitizing a surface, says Miller, be sure it is completely clean and free of residue. While commercial breweries use an acid or caustic cleaner for that purpose, homebrewers can do just as well with a good brush and a little elbow grease. Cleaning or at least rinsing equipment immediately after use is the best course of action.

Miller stresses that while sanitization is important throughout the brewing process, it is essential for every step after the boil.

“Everything has to be clean, your hands included. Pull back your long hair. Try not to breathe directly on anything. If you’re covered with grain dust, change your shirt or clothes. Make sure that anything that’s going near the beer is clean and sanitized,” she says.

Katie McGivney, Quality Assurance Analyst
New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, Colo.

Nine years homebrewing experience, four years professional
House Beers: Fat Tire Amber Ale, Sunshine Wheat, Abbey, Trippel, Blue Paddle Pilsner, Porch Swing, 1554, Frambozen, Saison
Advice: Recognize the importance of quality control.

Working as a packaging assistant at New Belgium Brewing Co., Katie McGivney never fully understood the brewery’s relationship to the laboratory. As she progressed through the ranks, eventually working full time in the lab, the importance of that relationship became crystal clear. “I love it. I’ve learned so much more about brewing,” she says.

She acknowledges that professional brewers have many more resources available to them, but homebrewers can still take measures to exercise quality control of both their raw ingredients and their finished product. Checking your ingredients prior to brewing prevents problems in your finished product.

The only way to discern fresh ingredients from unsatisfactory ones is to use your senses and become familiar with the raw materials. Malt, for example, should not taste stale, nor should it appear moldy. Malt extract should appear fresh with no mold or residue. Whole hops should not be yellowed or have a cheesy smell. You can even make a “hop tea” with the hops you plan to use. Put a few pellets or leaves into a teacup and fill about half way with 158° F water. The taste and aroma of the hop tea are good indicators of the taste and aroma the hops will create in you beer.

Tasting your brewing water is also a good practice. If your local water tastes strongly of chlorine and you’re brewing a small batch, consider using bottled water.

Unfortunately, unless you are propagating your own yeast you will have little control over the quality of the yeast that is pitched.

Of course the worst-case scenario is that you’ve already brewed and bottled your beer only to discover something is horribly wrong. Maybe it’s an off-flavor such as a medicinal or buttery taste, both of which can be signs of bacterial contamination. Maybe the beer tastes like cardboard, indicating that too much oxygen was present in your bottles. Or perhaps your beer appears seriously
overcarbonated, again a sign of contamination or just too much priming sugar.

Determining the underlying cause of your beer’s malady — with the intention of correcting the problem — is not as difficult as you might think, according to McGivney. Once you’ve identified the off-flavor, a good homebrewing reference book should tell you whether your problem is poor sanitization or improper brewing technique. For example did you maintain a strong boil for the required length of time? A vigorous boil will drive away sulfury (rotten eggs) smells and tastes. If you have a sanitization problem, be suspicious of your wort chiller, fermenter, bottle caps, airlock — anything that contacts the cooling wort.

McGivney also recommends performing simple tests such as taking specific gravities of your beer throughout the brewing and fermentation process, as long as it can be done without compromising sanitization. Not only will you know if you’re on target with the recipe guidelines, you’ll also be able to track your fermentation. Bottling a still-fermenting beer is never a good idea.

One of the easiest tests to perform is a forced wort stability test, McGivney says. After brewing and prior to pitching yeast, set aside a small amount of wort in a sterile jar with a lid. Leave it at room temperature. If there’s activity in the container, there’s something wrong.

Taking notes on each batch is also a good idea. Record everything you do, including when an ingredient was added and the amount. This will help you replicate a particularly good batch, and it will help you trace the root of a problem if you discover later that something is off.

Issue: October 1999