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Homebrewing: How to Get Better At It
To get better at their craft, artists need practice, critique, coaching, idols, and inspiration. Brewers are artists, too, and they need these same things in order to improve their beer. But it can be difficult as a brewer to find good coaches and willing critics.
We all remember the victims of our first few brews. They smiled and imbibed happily, excited just to be drinking homemade beer even though it was watery, or unbalanced, or possibly infected.
Coaches are even tougher to come by in the homebrewing world. There are formal brewing courses, but these are expensive and not offered everywhere. Commercial brewers are usually too busy and focused on protecting trade secrets to be very helpful.
Today I want to help you become a better brewer by introducing some ways to find critiques and coaching, as well as sources of inspiration.
This one is easy. Brew. Taste. Brew again.
Every year the American Homebrewers Association publishes recipes from National Homebrew Competition winners in Zymurgy magazine. The brewers of these beers make great idols.
Others include the biggest names in American homebrew: Charlie Papazian, Jamil Zainasheff, John Palmer, Gordon Strong, and Randy Mosher. In my mind, some of the best idols are homebrewers who have just turned pro and make good beer. For me, these include the brewers at Maine Beer Company in Portland, Maine and Lone Rider in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Closer to home, great idols can probably be found at your local homebrew club. Look for the beer about which everyone says, "I would buy a pint of this," and introduce yourself to the brewer.
There are three great ways to get critiques on your beer:
- Do a blind tasting of samples of your beers and commercial beers side by side with your friends. Expect to hear "I like this" or "I don't like this," and not much else, but remember that brewing beer that people like is the goal! So, this feedback is important.
- Bring your beer to a homebrew club meeting. Depending on the group, you may get very useful feedback, particularly because you can discuss the brewing process. But be on the lookout for false enthusiasm in support of the new face in the club.
- Enter your beer in a competition (or two). This will give you the most complete and unbiased feedback. Fair warning: it can be harsh. One limitation is that the judges can only guess at the brewing process based on the tasting, so their feedback may not be entirely fitting for your system.
I have already mentioned it twice. In fact, I feel a new homebrew mantra coming on. First: "sanitize, sanitize, sanitize." Then: "join your local homebrew club." The best place to look for coaches is your local homebrew club. Many clubs have brew-ins, where one club member will host the club at his or her house to demonstrate his or her setup and process, as well to share some beers. Even without this opportunity, you can develop friendships with fellow brewers at club meetings and pepper your idols and peers with questions about how they brew and how they would change the way you brew.
Where homebrew clubs leave off, the literature picks up. How-to articles abound in Zymurgy and Brew Your Own magazines, (as well as Serious Eats: Drinks, of course!). Homebrew books are another great resource. Some of my favorites include How to Brew by John Palmer, Brewing Better Beer by Gordon Strong, and Brewing Classic Styles by Palmer and Zainasheff.
Inspiration can come from anywhere: a favorite commercial beer, a nip of Scotch, a passage about beer in Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson's writings. Travel in the well-known beer-loving countries, such as England, Belgium, and Germany—as well as those less well-known, like The Netherlands and Austria—can yield some great local finds.
The bottom line is to make what you are driven to make, and keep your eyes—and taste buds—open for inspiration.
About the author: Peter Reed is a homebrewer and future pediatrician, promoting the health of yeast and children.