Saturday, June 6, 2009

On Homebrewing

Homebrewing is something that just gets into your blood and probably doesn't leave until you get a job as a head brewer and have to get up at 5 am to brew two to three batches a day, 6 days a week. Even those guys seem more relaxed than your average blue collar widget maker. Anyways, about 10 years ago after having made many extract beer batches I finally made the leap to all-grain brewing. Brewing all-grain is like making tomato soup from fresh picked tomatoes in a food mill and then adding all of your own herbs and spices as opposed to simply opening up a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup and adding water. That might be a bit of a reductionist view but it is effectively true. The transition from extract to all-grain was, for me, a total brewing paradigm shift where overnight I had sole responsibility for 100% of the flavor outcome of the finished product. This was a bit scary at first but after a few batches the intricacies of different grains and the signatures of each hop became an irresistible puzzle that drew me back to the kettle whether the last batch was exceptional or not. In some ways it reminds me of golf - where you can spend all day in the woods hunting for your drive then chip in on the 18th hole and feel like you won the lottery. That's what lies behind every potential batch. Of course, it's not exactly like winning the lottery. The best brewers I know are guys who are massively creative and also have a solid commitment to the science of brewing. A lot of brewing is in the details - mashing at the correct temperature, not sparging too fast, avoiding hot side aeration, getting a good hot and then cold break and the like. Even the super creative brewers who miss the essentials don't make particularly good beer. They are content with heavy hazes and starchy tannic off-flavors all the while being exuberant over how the cactus flavor comes through in their Chocolate Oaked Altbier. So it's an art and science like most things in life. 

After a year or so of all-grain brewing 5 gallon batches I started looking for a larger kettle. Impatience usually won out or maybe it was curiosity but the result was that very few batches survived very long once they were kegged. A colleague of mine mentioned to me that he had a neighbor who had owned a failed winery in Watkinsville and might still have some equipment left over. I made plans to meet up with him and stopped by the old winery on a Saturday morning. He left me alone to sift through piles of dusty and rusty equipment - most of which were refrigeration related items that went to his many freon chilled dairy/fermentation tanks. Finding nothing, I walked back to his house and asked him if he had a 10-20 gallon pot that I could buy. He, of course, had nothing that small but mentioned a large kettle that he had 'out back'. Walking around the side of a warehouse he presented me with a 50 gallon Vulcan steam jacketed kettle. I asked him what he wanted for it and, after a long pause, he sheepishly said "Would $150 be too much?". So, that's the abbreviated story as to how I started down the road of large batch all-grain brewing. I had a friend who used to remind me from time to time that you should never run your business like a hobby and you should never run your hobby like a business. I have always been better at applying the latter half of that maxim to my life. Our hobbies are the things we do with those few hours of the week that are not absorbed by work and family. They are not designed to be profit centers but are designed to re-charge us emotionally and oftentimes to provide a creative outlet. After loosely adopting this philosophy I stopped doing cost-benefit analysis on every batch and focused rather on just making the best beer I could. That led to conical fermenters, plate frame chillers, wort pumps and so on... The reality is that the enjoyment of the hobby and the satisfaction it brings is so much deeper than had I never made the investment in it. That's not at all to say that I didn't enjoy the many 5 gallon batches I brewed - it's just that each additional piece made the experience that much richer.

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