Book Review

Brewing Quality Beers: The Home Brewer's Essential Guidebook
by Byron Burch (Joby Books, Fulton, California),
123 pp., $5.95. ISBN: 0-9604284-2-9.

Republished from BrewingTechniques' March/April 1994.

Byron Burch is a helluva good brewer. When I first started brewing a decade or so ago, I saw his name everywhere - First Place this, First Place that, Homebrewer of the Year . . . He hasn't quit yet. Last year, I finally got to drink one of his beers - though I didn't know it at the time - and the panel on which I participated at the AHA National Competition gave him second place in British bitters. He owns a home brewers' and winemakers' shop in California. The Sonoma Beerocrats, the area homebrew club, has annually won the AHA's award for most competition points earned during the year, and I suspect that Byron's presence in the club has been a significant contribution to that accomplishment. He's been teaching home brewing for years.

Byron knows a lot about making beer. All he needs is a good editor.

When Brewing Quality Beers succeeds, it is concise, accurate, and helpful. (It is also frequently didactic, but I suppose Byron has earned the right to a few opinions.) When it stumbles, it's simply confusing.

Unfortunately - and surprisingly - the weakest section is the material for beginners. I teach a half dozen beginning brewing classes each year and have learned that getting people started is much harder than it might seem at first glance. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate, after having been at it for a few years, but new brewers are faced with a sometimes overwhelming amount of information, some of it contradictory. Most newcomers need to be led through the process step by painful step. Information needs to be tidily laid out and seems to work best when given only as needed.

The beginners' material in Brewing Quality Beers moves in leaps and starts. After the introduction, there is a drawing of two carboys in different stages of fermentation, but no explanation. That drawing is followed by a two-page sketch of basic home brewing, although the relevant illustrations appear 49 pages later. Then the book presents some recipes and a long section on ingredients, including a lot of information that new brewers will only find baffling.

In the midst of this, there is a pretty good description of bittering units and how to figure them. But, given that the actual description of brewing procedures doesn't show up for another 20 pages, it hardly seems the right place to provide formulas for calculating bitterness in a 60-min boil.

This section also includes some sketchy and apparently out-of-date information on the use of yeast ("the majority of home brewers use dried beer yeasts"), and a section on "Optional Refinements" includes pectic enzymes, lactic acid, and ascorbic acid, none of which seem essential knowledge for new brewers and several of which are worthy of considerable debate.

Finally, on page 57, Byron explains the basic procedures - and does a credible job. The paragraphs on sanitation are particularly excellent and contemporary. In the midst of discussing a simple infusion mash, he gets into strange ground recommending Koji as an aid in mashing, but in general the text is clear and typically concise.

The book really shines when it gets to the material explaining the basic procedures of all-grain brewing. Byron's methods are simple, the equipment described inexpensive, and the recipes far more believable than those in other texts. Unlike other writers, too, Byron doesn't intimidate the reader with overwhelming detail. Brief but thorough chapters cover water treatment, color prediction, and kegging, each with simple charts.

I would be uneasy handing this book to a brand-new brewer and would expect to have to clarify a lot of points for him or her along the way. However, for someone who has been brewing for a time and wants to switch from extract-based to all-grain beers, I would offer Brewing Quality Beers with few reservations.

-Jeff Frane
Portland, Oregon

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