What Are the Secrets to Great Homebrewing?

Categories: Beer

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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