Home Brewing Handicaps


Home Brewing Handicaps

by Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 7, No.2)

Are you putting limits on your own brewing? Examine your processes and see if you can’t perform a little physical therapy on your beer.

This year, “Christmas break” had a little more meaning than usual for me. While I was trimming the tree, performing some risky acrobatics on a 14-foot ladder, everything fell over — the ladder, the tree, and of course, yours truly. As a result, I dislocated my right shoulder and broke my left wrist in two places. (A concrete floor can be awfully unforgiving.) I bah-humbugged my way through the rest of the holiday season, unable to use either arm very well for several weeks.

It’s no fun being disabled, even temporarily. Getting dressed or even tying my shoes became a major challenge. Fortunately I’m right-handed, so I could still peck away at a keyboard, although I had to impersonate e.e. cummings for a while (everything in lower case). Worst of all, I couldn’t lift a beer glass, so I made like a Sumerian, drinking through a straw.

But I got to thinking as I learned to adapt to the circumstances and got used to my temporarily reduced capabilities. I wonder if we as brewers impose similar handicaps on ourselves that put artificial limits on our brewing. Then we get used to these limits and settle for something less than what we could accomplish with better equipment or technique.

In the old days, for example, when home brewers didn’t know much about wort chillers, many of us cooled our wort by immersing it in bathtubs or utility sinks. We even set it outside in the winter overnight. A friend of mine who lived on a crowded lakeshore took advantage of the lake itself for that purpose. (After several infected batches, he began to question that technique!)

We didn’t realize then that a wort chiller, especially a copper immersion coil, is quite simple to make, and that cooling down the wort quickly to fermentation temperature is essential to achieve a proper cold break, expel any DMS left after the boil, and avoid the possibility of wild yeast contamination. Home brewers no longer have any excuse not to have this basic piece of equipment. Nonetheless, I have encountered many in recent years who have handicapped their brewing and made their lives more difficult by not using one.

Brewers also needlessly handicap themselves by brewing with cheap or inferior ingredients. Sure, we might not be able to afford Maris Otter malt for our pale ales all the time, or European Pilsener malt for that Belgian tripel. But what a difference it makes when we use high-quality barley! Without the discipline (and expense) of selecting the best malts, we’ve started to climb a shaky brewing ladder that won’t get us to the top.

Fresh yeast is another crucial factor in beer-making, essential to both healthy fermentation and good flavor in the finished beer. Yet many home brewers still plug along with dried yeast (which has a good chance or being contaminated) or repitch a questionable slurry (something I plead guilty to myself on occasion). By not using a fresh liquid culture with an appropriate starter (another frequently made mistake), we again handicap ourselves needlessly. In the end, even if we’re able to raise that pint, we might not want to!

How about water, that most overlooked element of beer? After years of dealing with overchlorinated city water by preboiling it or letting it stand in carboys overnight, I finally bit the bullet and installed a filtration system. Sometimes the solutions to our brewing difficulties are absurdly simple, yet we never get around to doing the right thing.

A good “New Beers” resolution for all of us might be to take a hard look at our brewing and determine whether we are operating with a handicap that can be corrected, rather than simply tolerated.

And speaking of poor equipment, the spindly ladder that helped bring about my downfall has now joined the outdoor rubbish pile along with the Christmas tree. I’m thinking that a nice bonfire (along with a good Bock) might be the best way to celebrate the return of spring.

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