Learning from Your Mistakes
By Dan Biggins
What is the worst thing that ever happened while you were brewing? Most of us have had a disaster at some point that could have legitimately involved the fire department, or maybe the police had the wrong person in the house found out. For me, a small matter of a rather poorly-placed cylinder of blueberry juice, bumped ever so lightly off the counter, sent the vial sailing, end over end, across the kitchen of a brand new house. Not everyone appreciated the new pattern on the ceiling.
Thankfully, there is no brewing hall of shame to record our worst mishaps. We can safely bury those stories away and suppress our memories with new, more wonderful brewing experiences. But what about those typical, everyday brew session transgressions?
Even without the threat of property damage, the challenges of brewing are baked into all of the many rewards. Often, the stakes amount to a 5-gallon batch. One wrong step can cost us $50, a lot of time, and the respect of our esteemed drinking colleagues. That is why a successful brewer must stay locked in like an astronaut monitoring all of the life support systems. And it is why most brewers tend to intensely post-mortem our actions. Did we remember to close that valve before dumping hot wort into the fermenter? Did we leave for work without setting the temperature controller? Why did we feel the need to randomly blow into that sanitized hose?
One of the best ways to prevent mistakes is to learn from the ones we have already experienced. That’s why the more science-y guys tell us to establish a process. I had to learn this the hard way myself. Coming from a cooking background, I viewed brewing as more of an art than a science. I was loathe to follow instructions or stick to a specific method. I might throw in more hops on a whim like I was boiling a gumbo. Well, after a while that thinking literally left a bitter taste in my mouth. It turns out that in brewing, more hot sauce isn’t always an improvement.
Thankfully, I was able to learn from mistakes by repeating the same steps and eliminating the poorly executed parts. I try to brew in the same space and keep items in the same spots. The goal is to be efficient in where I reach with my awkward arms to help avoid spills or contact accidents. If something isn’t working correctly, I can make an adjustment that will carry over to my next brew session.
I learned to depend on my testing instruments. I finally learned to use that hydrometer thingy. If I repeat everything in the same way, I can make slight course adjustments to get exactly the result I’m looking to achieve. I can tamper down that grainy aftertaste. I can coax more pineapple out of an IPA or more chocolate out of that stout. Using the right tools and the right methods, I can make my brewing adventure less of a surprise and more of a great experience. And the fire department can stick to real emergencies.
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