Brewing Better Beer: Master lessons for advanced homebrewers by Gordon Strong
Date read: 09-19 February 2016
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Paperback, xvii, 316 pages
Published 2011 by Brewers Publications
This was an amazing book and it has vaulted to the very top of the list of homebrewing books (as far as I’m concerned) for anyone beyond ultimate beginners. I intend to get very good use from this. Strong writes that it’s meant for advanced homebrewers but as Michael “Musafa” Ferguson writes in the Foreword:
“Gordon would say that this is for the experienced home brewer already brewing all-grain recipes. I say that this book is a book for anyone who has ever contemplated or attempted homebrewing, from the newbie looking in through the window to the professional brewer who has returned to his or her roots, not unlike what I have done” (xiv).
I think the author of the foreword makes the more accurate assertion, although I disagree with the whole “anyone who has ever contemplated …” claim. I believe it would be a bit overwhelming for them. But it is for anyone else with almost any amount of experience, and especially if any of that is with all-grain.
Highly recommended for everyone except those who have only contemplated trying brewing, and somewhat reluctantly for those who have only done extract brewing.
[I finished this book a month ago. I would prefer to write the review that this book actually deserves but I am seriously backlogged on book review writing and want to get something out. I guess I am telling myself that I will revisit the review and improve on it, just as I intend (and already am) revisiting the book. Perhaps I can give you enough of an overview to make a decision whether it is for you or not; that is kind of the idea anyway.]
With that in mind, I have provided the outline of each chapter at one step below the chapter heading so that you may gauge the book’s coverage. Keep in mind, there are a couple levels below many of those headings also.
- Part I: Philosophy
- Chapter 1. The Philosophy of Brewing
- Part II: Mastering Your Craft
- Chapter 2. Mastering Techniques
- Chapter 3. Mastering Equipment
- Chapter 4. Mastering Ingredients
- Part III: Applying Your Knowledge
- Chapter 5. Evaluating Your Own Beer
- Chapter 6. Envisioning Your Beer
- Chapter 7. Troubleshooting
- Chapter 8. Finishing Beer
- Chapter 9. Competition Brewing
- Chapter 10. Conclusion
- List of Recipes
Foreword [by Michael “Musafa” Ferguson]
I liked several things Ferguson said. The first is in relation to book forewords and does go on just a bit more for a little more clarity but this excerpt is what you get. The others are more directly about the book in hand.
“There are basically two reasons to read a foreword. You have either already bought the book and are looking to get everything out of it you can, or you are contemplating buying the book and are looking for insight into whether or not you should spend the money.” xiii
“This book, however, is not a how-to book; it’s a “do you want to” book.” xiii
“This book is just like having a mentor.” xv
“This book flows along the lines of analogy, technique, and practice.” xv
- Blown Up, Sir
- The Journey Is the Reward
- Structure of This Book
- Using This Book
- But Why Nothing on Extract Beers?
The recipe for Old Draft Dodger, an English Barley Wine [p. 3], gave me a solid slap upside the head in full acknowledgment of how large a mash tun I need. And since my mash tun will also be my boil kettle—am going to use Brew in a Bag—that was a good and solid bit of info. I had been working with estimates of 25 lbs but this uses 30.25 lbs of malt + 1 lb muscovado sugar [yields 8 gal to boil down to 6 gal]. Thus, this was a critical equipment and process control point, for me, which I will discuss in a bit.
There is a fair bit in the intro but mostly Strong lets us know what he isn’t about and a touch of what he is attempting to be about. In the process, he gives the authors and texts he turns to in a pinch or otherwise necessary, as he does throughout the book. Pay attention as he tells you exactly who he turns to for a topic.
What the book is not
- “isn’t a textbook or a purely technical brewing book.”
- SEE brewing reference textbooks – “De Clerck, Kunze, Narziss, Briggs, Bamforth, and Lewis.” 5
- more towards homebrewers SEE Fix and Noonan 5
- “online technical studies by A.J. deLange and Kai Troester that describe practical experiments, ….” 5
- “isn’t a scholarly study; …” 5
- “is not a recipe book, but I provide many of my award winning recipes.” 6
- illustrate points & add color
- “If I’m looking for a new recipe, I often look at books by Zainasheff/Palmer, Noonan, or the Classic Styles Series published by Brewers Publications.” … “If I’m looking for ideas on formulation, I’ll look to Daniels and Mosher.” 6
- “is not a basic brewing book and it doesn’t discuss extract brewing at all; … … won’t teach you how to get started brewing or give you step-by-step procedures for bsic brewing processes.” SEE Palmer, Korzonas 6
What the book is
“What this book does is fill an unaddressed niche in homebrewing literature. It describes how to think about brewing, how to select and apply proper techniques, and how to continue to learn and develop your own brewing style.” 6
Stories, recipes, and anecdotes are used to illustrate points, analogies (and other influences) will be used liberally, and he states strong opinions based on his experience. [quasi-paraphrase] 6
Part I: Philosophy
Chapter 1. The Philosophy of Brewing
- Everyone Has a Story
- Channeling Influences [Write out your own]
- Mastering Skills [On what it means to be a master]
- Developing Your Own Style
“Think about your own style being your framework for brewing. You’ll find out the details as you learn and grow in your abilities. Select the tools and methods you want to use and learn. Work towards mastering a core set of skills that let you make the beer styles you enjoy most. …” 23
“Reconsider what you are able to do whenever you make modifications to your system.” 23
Part II: Mastering Your Craft
“In the next three chapters, I will review the stages of brewing, the choices to make, identifying the critical control points, and what your choices will imply later.” 25
Books for all-grain knowledge:
“My favorites are John Palmer’s How to Brew and Greg Noonan’s New Brewing Lager Beer. Noonan’s book is more advanced and is really a great reference text. I also like Al Korzonas’ Homebrewing: Volume I as a source of useful information, although it doesn’t cover all-grain brewing. For a person first learning to homebrew, I still like Dave Miller’s Homebrewing Guide. All of these books have given me information that I still use today.” 25-6
Some of the things that will come up in the next several sections are control points [e.g., single-infusion mash], decision points [e.g., lautering options], techniques of interest [to me], and critical process/system decisions [e.g., moving liquids]. These are strewn throughout the book and add immense value to Strong’s clear system thinking.
Chapter 2. Mastering Techniques
- Transforming Grain
- Mash Temperatures, Final Gravity, and Maltsters
- Step Mashing for Attenuation Technique
- Tripwire–Belgian Tripel (recipe)
- Decoction and Tannins
- Hochkurz Double Decoction Mash Technique
- Procrastinator Doppelbock (recipe)
- Step and Decoction Mashing Techniques Combined
- El Hefe German—Hefeweizen (recipe)
- Cold-Steeped Roasted Grains Technique
- Headlights On Sweet—Stout (recipe)
- Unusual Technique: The Overnight Oven Mash by Joe Formanek
- Part-Gyle Technique Producing Two Beers
- Seven-Year Itch—English Barley Wine (recipe)
- Session Slammer—Northern English Brown Ale (recipe)
- No-Sparge Technique
- Pride of Warwick—Strong Bitter (recipe)
- Managing the Boil
- Intentional Caramelization Technique
- Gunn Clan Scotch Ale (recipe)
- Using Hops
- First Wort Hopping and Late Hopping Techniques Combined
- Avant Garde–American Pale Ale (recipe)
An example of control points [for single-infusion mash] under Transforming Grain:
- mash temperature
- rest time
- mash thickness
- mash pH [measured at mash temp; NB: pH is temp dependent; generally regulates itself] 33-34
Lautering Options are a [decision point]
“The method used to get the wort into the kettle is a decision point for the brewer: Will sparging be used, and if so, what technique? We examine the techniques of continuous sparging, parti-gyle sparging, batch sparging, and the no-sparge method.” 50
Some decision points under Using Hops are:
- Varieties to use
- Form of hops
- How much of each
- Techniques used during/after boil 65
All-Late Hopping [technique of interest]
“In a nutshell, the techniques involves adding all your hops within the last 20 minutes of the boil, adjusting your amounts to compensate for the reduced utilization.” … You will want to watch out for excessive vegetal and grassy flavors coming from the increased hop material (as weel as the volume loss due to absorption). The advice to keep your total hop bill to less than 8 ounces (227 grams) per 5-gallon (…) batch still applies.” 66
Chapter 3. Mastering Equipment
- Matching Equipment to the Task
- Learning Your System
- Optimizing Your Brewing
“In order to be a great brewer, you have to learn your brewing system in detail and make it your own. You have to know its strengths and weaknesses and how it responds to different brewing conditions.” 75
“The major topics in this chapter are selecting your equipment, learning your system, and optimizing your brewing.” 75
Matching Equipment to the Task tells us to:
“Start with what you need to accomplish, then find devices to best meet those needs.” 76
“Consider your equipment selections along with your process choices.” 76
“In this section, I’ll walk through the common brewing tasks that require equipment and discuss alternatives and tradeoffs. 76
This section is most valuable for brewery planning. I am really happy that I have read this before I finalized my ideas on what I think I am doing. Nothing changed except I feel better prepared and better educated/validated in my decisions. I appreciate that. [I have read quite a few how-to-brew books. This one works for me.]
To give you some idea of the further breakdown and amount of information covered by Strong, Matching Equipment to the Task covers all of the following: Measuring Ingredients, Crushing Grain, Moving Liquid, Managing Heat, Mashing, Lautering, Boiling Wort, Chilling and Separating Wort, Fermenting and Conditioning, and Packaging.
Moving Liquids under Matching Equipment to the Task brings in the most important decision, per Strong, as to system design:
“Water and wort have to be moved between vessels during brewing. This is generally accomplished manually, with gravity, or with pumps. To me, this decision, along with the number of brewing vessels, is what drives the overall design of your system.” 79 [critical process/system decisions, emphasis mine]
“The phases of this that are important in this step are how water gets into the hot liquor tank, how brewing liquor is added to the mash tun, how sparge water is added to the mash tun, how the outflow of the lauter tun is directed to the kettle, and how the boiled wort is moved to the fermenter.” 79
Learning Your System contains a massive amount of useful advice, again, especially still validating your system design.
“Think of systems in abstract terms, like black boxes with inputs and outputs. … This is the systems approach for managing complexity; it allows you to learn the system a piece at a time.” 89
Some of the key things to understand about your system: The range of anything that can be adjusted, How those changes affect the outcome of each step?, …. 90
Some examples of process control points: How accurate are your thermometers and other instruments?, …, When step mashing, how do I increase temps? Direct fire, how long continue to rise after cut-off? Responsiveness of thermometer?, …, What is my evaporation rate?, How much loss do I have from final boil volume to initial fermenter volume, and from initial fermenter volume to final finished beer volume? Also from mash volume to IFV, …, In general, how many pounds of grain needed to hit different gravity targets?, …, What kinds of techniques are possible on my system? How difficult are they to perform? 90-93
Not all control points are of equal importance; focus on those that make a big difference first. 94
Optimizing your Brewing
“…, since the difference between a competent brewer and an expert brewer is often measured in how efficiently and effectively they perform the same tasks.” 94
“… internalizing the techniques and processes so that thoughts and desires are more directly translated into actions and outcomes.” 94
“Some of this mastery comes through simple repetition and understanding of processes and techniques we’ve previously discussed, while executed on your particular system. However, other parts involve changing the way you think and plan your brewing, and how you approach tasks.” 94
Planning Your Brew Calendar under Optimizing your Brewing
Provides several reasons why to plan out your brew calendar, including the most obvious … have a beer available for a certain date but there are others. 95
Planning Your Brew Day, also under Optimizing your Brewing, provides reassuring ways to think about planning out your brew day, even if you’ve never done it on your own before.
- Think like a chef; do the prep work before cooking. Mise en place, having all that you need to cook ready and waiting. 96
- Start with breaking down all of the steps. Think about order, equipment needed, ingredients needed, time required.
- What consumes the most time? If can start longest task first you may shorten the brew day.
- “Critical path,” from project management : the sequence of dependent tasks that must be completed to get the job done on time. ID the minimum time needed to complete a complex project involving multiple tasks.”
- Checklists help to not forget certain tasks 97
- Have extra consumables on hand in case run out : extra propane, DME or LME, …
- Pay attention during brewing sessions and take notes of things to improve in future; sticking points, etc.
- Prioritize tasks also; where do I need to focus my energy and attention? 98
- Avoid wasted effort by understanding the end-to-end process of brewing, and what decisions drive the quality of my final beer.
- Now, how can I extend this critical path planning if add a 2nd or 3rd batch?
- “Finally, remember that brewing is often a series of small course corrections.” 98
Chapter 4. Mastering Ingredients
“I’m going to focus on how you categorize, characterize, differentiate, and select each of these types of ingredients.” 103
“The goal is for you to be able to choose ingredients that allow you to brew what you want, to be able to understand cause and effect and how ingredient choices affect the finished beer, and to be able to evaluate new products …” 103
“For each of the types of ingredients I’m discussing, I provide some background on the key points you need to know to properly work with them. I’ll also share the selections I’ve made, and how I approach using these ingredients.”103 His selections are in the So What Do I Do? sections under all of the individual ingredients.
- Assessing Ingredients
Part III: Applying Your Knowledge
Chapter 5. Evaluating Your Own Beer
- Understanding Beer Styles
- Developing Your Palate
- Critically Assessing Your Own Beer
Chapter 6. Envisioning Your Beer
- Basic Beer Math
- Recipe Formulation
- Adjusting Balance
- Avoid Clashing Flavors
- Recipe Formulation Examples
- Conceptualizing New Styles
Chapter 7. Troubleshooting
- Detecting Beer Faults
- Technical Brewing Faults
- Style-Related Faults
Chapter 8. Finishing Beer
- Factors Affecting Beer Stability
- Carbonation and Packaging
- Final Adjustments
Chapter 9. Competition Brewing
- Brewing for Quality
- Brewing for Quantity
- Three Beers From One Base Beer by Steeping Specialty Grains
- Two Beers From One Mash, Using Different Yeast
- Making a Fruit Beer Using Mead
- Winning BJCP Competitions
Chapter 10. Conclusion
- Expanding Your Knowledge
- Staying Current
- Final Advice
- Staying Alive
Highly recommended for everyone except those who have only contemplated trying brewing, and somewhat reluctantly for those who have only done extract brewing. I have already gained immense benefit from this book and intend to get even more from it. It has been a blessing in planning out my brewing system and processes.
You know? This may be all you’re getting review-wise for this book. I would much rather spend time making this book useful to me than telling you about it. As you can probably tell, my notes aren’t even fully typed up as I decided to invest in the reading first.
You ought have enough to go on to decide if it is of use to you. You can also attempt to look at it at a bookstore–new or used–or see if your library can get it for you, which I deem as highly likely. Then buy a copy! Or buy your library a copy, if you can.
This was actually the 11th finished nonfiction book I finished this year but it is the 14th review written and posted.