How Do You Brew: It speaks volumes about our advice

If you’ve been a homebrewer very long, you’ve either heard or said these words, “Ask 10 homebrewers their opinion and you’ll get 12 answers.” And it’s true . . . homebrewers seem to almost always have plenty of answers to about any question. Nowhere is this more evident than when a new brewer asks what they need to get started brewing or what method they should use when they brew. You’ll hear to start with extract; start with all-grain; do brew-in-a-bag; use a 3-tier, converted keg system; get an electric, all-in-one system; use a cooler; batch sparge; fly sparge; no sparge . . . you get the idea. But all of these answers are based on the personal preferences of the people answering the question. Their history impacts their choices. For us, starting out, batch sparging was an unorthodox potential heresy – brew-in-a-bag would have gotten you tossed from the fellowship of brewers!

What you don’t often see, though, is anyone asking the questioner why they want to brew. What do they hope to get out of their brewing experience? What is it that they expect to enjoy most? Sure, we all do it because we love beer and want to make it ourselves, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
In our book Homebrew All-Stars, we looked at the motivations behind homebrewing by grouping homebrewers by an archetype. In other words, how they think of their homebrewing. We talked to 25 people who represent some of the best homebrewers we know and asked them why they brew. We came up with five groupings. There are the gearheads, the scientists, the old-school masters, recipe innovators, and wild ones. So following we pulled together a guide to see where you land – it’s just like in a magazine (oh wait this is a magazine) – or, these days, like those “which Hobbit are you” quizzes online. We guarantee as much accuracy as those quizzes too! Since the book was published, Denny has evolved into yet another archetype . . . the relaxed brewer.

Each motivation lends itself to a particular style of brewing and, contrary to some online discussions, none of them are wrong.

Each motivation lends itself to a particular style of brewing and, contrary to some online discussions, none of them are wrong. It’s a case of “different strokes for different folks.” We want you to think about WHY you brew as a way to get to HOW you brew. That’s the path to getting the most value out of your homebrew experience. So, let’s check out some of the different reasons people homebrew and how that relates to the equipment and processes they use. This should then serve as your guide to make sure you’re communicating properly to future brewers about your own goals in the hobby to help them find theirs.

Point of Order Before Proceeding: Just like in all things in life, you’re bound to find you cross boundaries. “A little of gear head, a little of innovator, a whole lot of scientist.” It’s expected and fine — it’s what makes humanity absolutely fascinating and frustrating. No matter how much science fiction writers want us to fall into easy categories, we don’t.

The Gearhead

Gearheads are all about the equipment. Whether they build it or buy it, they love their shiny, clean equipment and technological innovations. Most often they’ll build their own equipment and that can often take precedence over the actual brewing part. If you’re this type of brewer, you might save up for a fancy system, putting off brewing at all until you get it.

These are the brewers who might have the PID-controlled, tiered, converted-keg systems with multiple pumps, coupled with the pristine and immaculate gleaming piles of steel. Or maybe they’re the ones with wires running everywhere and soldering iron in the background. These are the brewers who know what a raspberry pi is (no, not the dessert) and how to program it. They also may be the kind of person who rebuilds something in their brewery each and every time they brew!

The Scientist

These are the people who have to know why things happen when they brew. Brewing beer is just a means to answer the questions. Does this mash temperature make a difference as compared to that one? What happens when I substitute one base malt for another? How does this new yeast compare to the one I used last time?

Scientists take extensive notes when they brew. They often will have two identical sets of equipment for doing split batches for comparison. They’ll brew the same recipe multiple times, changing one thing each time, to investigate how that change affects the finished beer. Numbers and process are their best friends.

They’re the people who often have “the answer” to whatever question you ask. But remember, answers in brewing are highly dependent on process, which we hope we’ve established through our years of preaching. Be wary of universal truths and do your own digging!

The Old School Master

Old school masters have a reverence for traditional beer and the making of it in traditional ways. You won’t see them making a sour hazy imperial raspberry milkshake Oktoberfest with habaneros and vanilla.
Denny: If anybody out there makes that, please don’t tell me!
Drew: If you do make this, please let me know and send me a bottle that I can put in front of Denny when he doesn’t expect it!
They want to make established, traditional styles in established, traditional ways.

It’s not about being “boring” — it’s about a belief and a preference for the expected quality and tastes refined over decades or centuries of brewing practices. It’s about hitting a taste from refinement of those simple clean ideas. And to quote Denis Leary, sometimes it’s about “beer-flavored beer.”
The equipment of an old school master may well include an extra pot and burner so they can do decoction mashes easily.

The Recipe Innovator

These homebrewers take as much delight in obsessing over a recipe and the ingredients in it as they do in actually brewing the recipe they’ve created. Every trip to the grocery store inspires a new recipe as they browse the shelves, seeing unusual ingredients and wondering how they could use them.

Drew has a reputation of being this type of brewer. He’s toned it down a bit, but he’ll always be known as the guy behind saison guacamole and clam chowder saison. And he still can’t resist ordering a five-pound (2.3-kg) block of caramel and thinking about how he could use it in a beer.
Drew: No, seriously . . . 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of caramel. Thinking I’m going to take part of it, melt it, defat it, and use it as an addition to a tripel . . . maybe a wee heavy.

Also, yes, this is part of the current raging storm of cries and laments: “What’s happened to craft beer?” in regards to pastry stouts and the aforementioned sour hazy imperial raspberry milkshake Oktoberfest with habaneros and vanilla. While, this is definitely my jam in terms of “brewing fun,” even I think that the way people are “innovating” is a bit over-the-top.

The Wild One

The wild one is all about the creepy crawly sour and funky stuff. Whether kettle-soured, barrel-aged, or made with bugs added to the fermenter, there’s power in the pucker. Their deep and abiding passion is the broad swath of microbes out there. In fact where wild brewing used to have a reputation of being deeply idiosyncratic and “woo” filled — these days a lot of the most interesting science is happening here.

Their equipment might include an extra kettle and a way to keep it warm for kettle sours, or a collection of barrels to mine the possibilities of extracting flavors from microbial critters left in the wood. They also probably always have a browser tab opened to the Milk the Funk Wiki to read the latest offerings and the Sour Hour is dialed up on their podcast app!

The Busy Brewer

We all know that homebrewing can get to be an all-consuming passion. All homebrewers can often talk or think about is homebrewing. You know you’ve reached that point when you’re explaining to your partner about how final gravity affects a beer and they just give you a wan smile as their eyes glaze over.

But believe it or not, there are homebrewers who have lives other than homebrewing! Family, jobs, or even other hobbies (yeah, it’s hard to imagine) take up their time, energy, and budget. But there are ways they can fit homebrewing into their busy schedule.

The rise of all-in-one brewing has changed the way brewers approach their brew days. Photo courtesy of High Gravity.

One of the most interesting trends in the last 10 years has been the rise of small-batch brewing. One- to three-gallon (4- to 11-L) batches have become how many people are brewing. They take less time to brew, require less equipment, and can be done on your kitchen stove. While in the past the mantra was, “you might as well brew more all at a time,” now it’s “just brew!” Smaller batches are a great way to do that.

One of the most popular ways of brewing small batches is the brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) process. Other than the bag and a fermenter, you likely have most of the equipment you need right in your kitchen. And less volume means less time to heat water or wort, less time to chill after brewing, and less time bottling or kegging the result. Denny has even been doing a 20-minute mash and 20-minute boil on his 3-gallon (11-L) BIAB batches. That means that you can knock out a 3-gallon (11-L), all-grain batch in well under 2 hours. The key is to double the amount of bittering hops to compensate for lost IBUs.

The Evolution of a Homebrewer – The Relaxed Brewer

Denny started out as a gearhead when he began homebrewing. Even while he was still brewing in the kitchen with extract, he was exploring building a 3-tier system. That was pretty much the pinnacle of homebrewing 22 years ago. Sure, he didn’t understand exactly how they worked or why you needed one, but they were SO cool looking and all the big guys in the hobby had them!

Fortunately, before he went down that rabbit hole, he discovered batch sparging. The “Cheap’n’Easy” brewing system was born, and along with an insatiable desire to know why things worked like they did. Because so many people at the time adamantly declared that batch sparging was a poor brewing method (one homebrew shop owner declared it would make “dirty beer”), Denny was compelled to figure out how to get the best out of it.
That led to a series of experiments, including decoction and first wort hopping. The beer was great, but it was secondary to the discovery and proof.

He came to the conclusion that if you stressed over homebrewing, you were doing it wrong.

After 20 years or so, Denny decided that enough was enough. Something was missing and it was the joy he had felt when he first started brewing. There’s a lot to be said for knowing nothing and just going with the flow! He had done enough exploration at this point to have a handle on how things worked. He came to the conclusion that if you stressed over homebrewing, you were doing it wrong. And so the relaxed homebrewer was born.
Denny knew from years of experience that you could make great beer with inexpensive equipment, like a cooler mash tun and bucket fermenters. But there was a level of effort there that didn’t pay off in more enjoyable brewing for him. He wanted to groove on brew day, not toil. He started using an all-in-one electric brewing system, along with glycol chilled conical fermenters. He had his groovy brew day back.

And this is another important point — who you are as a brewer is not a fixed North Star. Over time, like Denny, you’ll find your priorities and passions will change. Be adaptive. Keep enjoying your brewing!

Wrap Up

It’s important to keep in mind that none of these goals, brewing techniques, or equipment choices are wrong, as long as they’re not compromises. Keep in mind what you want to get out of your homebrewing (other than beer!), and tailor your equipment and process choices to achieve that, and know that not everyone is like you. Now go out there and brew!

Issue: December 2020