What Are the Secrets to Great Homebrewing?
All photos by Susannah Skiver Barton
Wednesday, May 7, marks the 27th National Homebrew Day, and this past Saturday, homebrewers across the United States gathered in shops and other venues for the Big Brew, which is exactly what it sounds like. At Bitter and Esters (700 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn), homebrew enthusiasts gathered to make a batch of Big Old IPA using a recipe devised exclusively for the shop by John Palmer, noted homebrewer and author of How to Brew. Palmer himself was in attendance to assist with the special brew and to sign copies of his latest book, Water. He sat down for a chat about the book, the current state of homebrewing, and where he sees the movement going in the future.
You began brewing in 1992 and published the first edition of How to Brew in 2000. How often do you brew nowadays? These days it's like once, twice a year. The whole beer revolution has happened in the meantime. Craft beer is readily available; in fact, there's almost no restaurant you can go to anymore that doesn't have some craft beer in it. Especially in the last five years, I've gotten much more involved in the craft end of the market and I go to conferences and do presentations. I consult with some microbrewers. It's become my career now.
When you wrote How to Brew, did you expect it to become the homebrewers' bible that it is today? I did not. At the time, when I started, there was [Dave] Miller and [Charlie] Papazian and those were the only two books that were available. There were others but they weren't as popular. So I wanted it to be Miller, Papazian, and Palmer. Well, now it's Palmer, Papazian, and Miller. So -- who knew?!
It's nice. I am really glad that I was able to write in such a manner that people were able to understand and it answered their questions. It's been very gratifying for it to work out the way it has.
Besides your book, do you have any advice for people starting to homebrew? If you start with malt extract brewing and today's beer kits and so on, it really is like Kraft macaroni and cheese. It's hard to screw up.
In the order of importance: Your equipment has to be clean and sanitized; that's number one.
Number two is your fermentation temperature. Fermentation temperature is very critical in terms of getting a very smooth beer flavor out.
Then, yeast pitching rate. You want to have enough yeast to do the job. If there's too few, they get strained, they sweat too much, you get off flavors. If there's too many, the beer tends to be a little lifeless and bland.
Then you can start worrying about recipe proportions, and then you can start worrying about water. It's very important, but you can brew good beer with most any water and getting the other four factors right. Knowing how to treat your water and adjust it is the difference between a good beer and great beer. It makes that ten percent difference -- it really kicks that beer over the top.
Palmer adjusts the water for optimal brewing
Does your new book, Water, primarily deal with this -- how to adjust water for the brewing process? The Brewing Elements series by Brewers Publications -- Yeast, Hops, Water and Malt, which comes out later this year -- intended to serve not only the homebrew market but also the craft brew market. My co-author and I wrote the book with the guide in mind that we would cover water completely, front to back, coming in the brewery and exiting the brewery, and make it applicable to craft brewers as well. Because there are so many homebrewers that eventually do want to open their own brewery, knowing the techniques to use for, say, wastewater treatment is going to be useful at some point.
So in the front of the book we focus on treating the water source coming in -- trying to help them identify what kind of water that is, if it's a service water or ground water, what kind of treatments you need to do to make it potable. And then I lead them into the chemistry, like what a standard water report is, and talk about what's important to you as a brewer. How do you adjust these parameters as a brewer to serve your needs in the recipe? So the middle section of the book is adjusting water for brewing.
The latter third of the book is on wastewater treatment and specific to commercial processes such as water softening and filtration. For the amateur homebrewer, really only the first half of the book or so is applicable to them. But if they do decide to open a brewery, there's that information outlining what kinds of things they need to think about.
Palmer and John Lapolla of Bitter and Esters adding grain to the brew
How has homebrewing changed since you started brewing in 1992 and in the 14 years since you published How to Brew? Where do you see it going in the next decade or two? It's undergone quite a bit of change. When I first started, everybody had extract kits, but the ingredients we were getting were kind of like the remnants of what real brewers would use. Malt extract was usually made dual-purpose for baking or brewing, so it was typically unhopped or made to low fermentability.
Then they started making hop extract and specific beer kits. The United States was really the first country to homebrew with the goal of making better beer. Everywhere else in the world -- the UK, Canada, Australia -- people were homebrewing to make cheap alcohol because alcohol taxes are so high. But here it's because we wanted a different beer style.
So ingredients are improving to where today we're getting not first cut hops but very often the hop growers and distributors are making that year's first crop readily available. They're setting some of it aside and that goes to homebrew shops, so we're getting the same quality that the commercial brewers are getting. So that's a big difference. You have a lot of all-grain brewers too, and I think that is, at least in part, due to my book helping people learn all-grain brewing better.
So that's the current state of things. You have this real focus on craft beer that homebrewers are feeding. They're the ones buying craft beer, they're the ones even making the transition to becoming professional brewers very often. You still have lots of brewers going through the traditional brewing schools but very often it's a homebrewer that's learned it from the ground up and then saying, "Okay, I'm going to open my own place."
Where I think it's going? You're going to see home beer- and wine-making becoming normal, becoming something that almost everyone does. Just like buying whole bean coffee and grinding it yourself at home or weekend gourmets whipping up big dinners at home. Brewing is going to take its place in the same sort of consideration for everyone. You're still going to have the instant-food people, but brewing is going to become a pretty normal activity for a lot of people.
What are your thoughts on homebrewers going professional -- whether formally opening breweries or straddling the line via "gypsy brewing" (e.g. renting brewery equipment to create their beers)? Opening a brewery is a hell of a lot of work for small margins. Here in the United States, we're used to paying small money for beer -- half of what you'd pay in other countries. So that market perception keeps the margins on craft beer low, plus our three-tiered system of brewer, distributor, and retailer to the consumer keeps the margins small for everyone.
In terms of homebrewers that want to go professional, the brewpub where you're serving your own beer over the counter is the best way to do it. A small system of one barrel, three, seven barrels -- that works well. But then to potentially start making a lot of money you've got to go ten times that or even more so that now you can service accounts with kegs around the city and the margin on kegs is half that of bottles. There are all these considerations.
The gypsy approach is a good idea. Homebrewers that want to make more can go and make a couple of kegs or make maybe 200 bottles on a larger system and distribute it to their friends or maybe sell it. Of course, the licensing is a process. Once you've gone through the licensing process you might as well open your own place.
What's your go-to beer style? What beers are you excited about? My day-to-day drinking beers are American pale ales, American IPAs. Double IPA is one of my favorite styles. I enjoy the Munich dunkel style, porters, and stouts. I like a wide variety of beers. In any state, I could probably name two or three that I enjoy drinking -- no singular favorite.
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