My Brewer’s Library

My brewing bookshelf

During the build-up to brewing my first batch of beer, and for the next few years, I became a sponge for absorbing information about homebrewing. Not starting brewing until 2007 meant I had a lot of podcasts to listen to, but I still found a few books that proved to be great resources when I ran in to questions or just wanted to read about beer quietly instead of listening.

I cannot say that I’ve read 100% of each of these books, but I read the portions I needed at the time. I found each valuable for different reasons, which I’ll try to articulate.

My Favorite

My favorite brewing book is not so much filled with technical information, but as a great source of inspiration. Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer is full of ideas. At the time it was released, they provided a recipe for every category in the BJCP guidelines. Since then, BJCP has added, merged, and tweaked style guidelines to be completely different than they were in 2007.

The beginning chapters provided me a good resource to get through my first few independent brew days where I wasn’t at a homebrew shop or a friend’s house.

My favorite feature was the (now outdated) hop character wheel on page 20. Rather than displaying the hops independently or as spike graphs, they plotted the hop characters spatially, with those exhibiting similar characteristics located close to each other. The primary characteristics  were around the outside of the wheel, and superscripted letters to add notes for flavors on the other side of the wheel. My brain found the relationships easier to understand this way than in any other layout I had seen.

But the real treasure was the recipes. When I wanted to try a recipe, this book gave me a write-up of what the style should be like, and a tested recipe I could rely on. As an experienced cook having a solid recipe to try, then tweak allowed me to learn which changes were important.

I still come back to this book when I want to target a traditional style of beer. I don’t use the recipes in this book as a base so much as a way to target the characteristics I want in the beer.

The Technical Manual

With the title How to Brew, you know John Palmer’s thesis on brewing will answer most (if not all) your technical questions. This book covers all aspects of ingredients, process, and equipment.

Inspired by a friend’s rectangular mash tun and a few diagrams in this book, I built my 72-quart rectangular mash tun with 5 cross-pipes to allow mostly-vertical rinsing with few dead spots.

If you don’t have someone to walk you through the process, and you enjoy reading, this book will give you all the information you need.

The Real Foundation

While the two books above have been much more perused and had a direct impact on my brewing processes and recipe development, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing was the first homebrewing book I read. Charlie Papazian was an early innovator in homebrewing and the pursuit of finding an alternative to mass market light lagers.

Starting to homebrew before it was fully legal, Charlie’s book provided some great information and stories about the early days. E.g., using large plastic garbage cans as fermenters because there weren’t a lot of options for large fermenting vessels.

Some of the recipes in this book seem to have been written as jokes or thoughts about medieval methods: Cock Ale, or the recipe that calls for a racoon penis. Historical documents that discuss hanging the leg from a recently butchered animal in a batch of beer to revive a stuck fermentation. You’ll have to read them all just for the fun of it.

But when I say this book is the real foundation, I mean it. Sometime after writing the first version of this book, Charlie became one of the founders of the American Homebrewers’ Association. And over the years, that organization brought enthusiastic brewers into the hobby, inspired them to revive alternatives to Pilsner, and create new beers that required new definitions. Not only did it change the face of beer, he provided the greatest wisdom you will hear if you decide to make beer at home: “Relax, don’t worry, and have a homebrew.”

This philosophy has allowed me to developed into a good brewer. Some people choose to interpret this is, you don’t need to worry about anything, you’ll still have beer. To some degree, that is true: as long as you can do basic sanitizing, you’ll have beer. But the more things you are careful with, the more repeatable the beer you make will be.

But it’s not worth stressing out about. Even if you make a mistake, you can recover from most of them. And you’ll still have good beer.

You’ll encounter homebrewers who have literal meltdowns if they encounter any deviation from their expectations, but that’s not needed. We’re making beer, and while a noble pursuit, it doesn’t require perfection.

More Knowledge

Once you get started, if you enjoy the hobby, you’ll want to learn even more. Here are some other books I’ve found valuable to explore different topics and generate ideas:

Thinking about trying to brew a batch? Go for it. Relax, don’t worry, and have a homebrew. Just wait until you’re finished with the brewing process.

Brew up an adventure!

One Beer Lover’s Journey

Hoptain America T-Shirt
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I grew up with limited exposure to beer and alcohol. I remember seeing a few neighbors drink it while doing yard work, and I remember “Wally the Beer Man” hawking his wares during Minnesota Twins games at the HHH Metrodome in Minneapolis while I was growing up. His call of, “Beer here! Get your beer here!” is one of the more odd memories of my childhood.

No one I went to Twins games with bought beer from Wally or his. We were there for the game.

I do remember a few times running through the stands, collecting the plastic collector cups to bring home. I also remember being revolted by the smell of the cups that had held beer rather than soda. At the time, I don’t think I even knew the smell was beer, I just knew I didn’t like it.

White & Nerdy

Sometime around 9th or 10th grade, I became aware of the fact some other young adults at my school spent a lot of time thinking about and pursuing alcohol. I didn’t really care, since it wasn’t part of my life except for the occasional caramel sauce that had enough whiskey in it to add a unique flavor.

I was never in the popular group, and I don’t remember ever being invited to a party where alcohol was served. My friends were active in sports, theater, and speech. I did theater, speech, and worked most weekends from the time I was in 7th grade.

I did try sports in junior high, but quit mid-football season in 9th grade because I got in to an accelerated math program. The whole team thing was weird, but I did start snowboarding in 1989.

High school never included alcohol for me.

College Parties?

Nope. I can’t say I remember going to any college parties. Freshman year, I was focused on my grades, working in the computer labs, and trying to make sure I was active enough on-campus to have things on my resume to qualify to become a resident assistant to save on room & board.

I remember seeing lots of people suffering the results of over-consuming alcohol, but I didn’t even have an interest in going out when I turned 21. I think a coworker bought me a beer at lunch the week after I turned 21. It was fine, but it was a mass market Pilsner. This was the first time I wasn’t revolted by the smell of beer, but I wasn’t on fire to have another one either.

The following summer, I remember having a single Natural Light with a hurried dinner after working out with a friend. It was fine, but didn’t really do anything to pique my interest. I think I drank two glasses of water in the same time period I drank a single can of beer.

The Epiphany

Liquid Black Yummy-ness

Sometime the next year, one of my roommates told me, “You think you don’t like beer because you haven’t had real beer yet.” And he handed me a Samuel Adams Cream Stout. As a coffee lover, the blast of bittersweet chocolate, hints of coffee, and a distinctive flavor I couldn’t yet recognize drew me in. He was correct; I hadn’t had real beer.

After that, I explored “microbrews”. (Really, it was a thing in the 1990s. Basically, it was the hoighty-toighty beer.)  You know: Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss, Killian’s Irish Red, and several varieties brewed by Samuel Adams.

Over time, I came to realize that the unique flavors I was experiencing in beers were the hops and yeast-derived flavors combining to create experiences I’d never had before. I strongly gravitated toward dark beers because they were built on a base of bready sweetness, mild hop bitterness, and flavors I loved in coffee and chocolate.

The Doors Blow Open

After focusing on beers that fell in to fairly sweet profile for many years, I found out beer could be made at home. A co-worker had a bunch of us over to brew a batch of beer on his stovetop. It completely blew my mind. I remember only a couple of us actually cared about participating in each step of the process, but seeing the process start to finish probably changed my life.

Seeing the brewing process, then eventually tasting the finished product, ignited my interest in beer in a way I didn’t expect. I started cooking at a young age, and I could see the potential for flavor exploration in brewing.

Even though I wouldn’t start brewing on my own for nearly a decade, I read The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and sought out beers made by local breweries to dissect their flavors and try to understand how they were created.

Go Big

When I did start brewing, my first beer was a kit for Russian Imperial Stout. It reflected my love of dark beers with a bready sweetness that didn’t cross into being cloying.

My brother and I brewed a beer that didn’t turn out well because I didn’t manage the fermentation properly.

I think I brewed a couple 5-gallon extract batches that turned out well, and started accumulating things to brew all-grain. A turkey fryer burner, a horribly inefficient grain mill, a rectangular cooler, and the wrong type of pvc piping (it warped when hot water hit it).

The Excitement

My wife and kids will attest to the fact I went a little nutty about beer. The consumption was the least important part for me, but the excitement of exploring recipes, techniques, and flavors held my interest. It wasn’t enough for me just to focus on the brewing, I was able to tie so much of the process into unrelated activities.

Talking about the importance of being careful with math problems was the same as weighing and measuring accurately. The fact that many things didn’t happen as fast as you wanted them illustrated the importance of patience with managing fermentation. A new dinner recipe might include a spice or herb that would nicely complement a recent batch of beer.

Making and enjoying beer is a lot of fun for those of us who enjoy the process and pursuit of a great flavor profile.

Let’s brew up an adventure!

Surprise Delivery

A while ago, I was browsing (maybe kinda sponsored link?) for Caliente hops, which weren’t available. I sent an email to their customer service department about how disappointed I was the variety wasn’t available.

When I had brewed with Caliente in the past, I was blown away by the tropical fruit notes. Now that I was looking to use it again, I was surprised it hadn’t taken off with commercial and homebrewers, as the mango, peach, and pine notes seemed to be what people have been going crazy for in their beer.

I received a very polite email saying they regretted Caliente hops were not available, and could I please send them my mailing address? So I sent my address to them.

A short time later, I received a small package with three hop varieties and some swag in it. I know they can’t do this kind of thing for everyone, and I totally did not expect it. But I am looking forward to making some beers with these, and at one of them will be heavily dry-hopped with those Mosaic LupoMax pellets!

And That’s not All! . . .

I recently went back to Yakima Valley Hops to peruse their selection again. The first thing I noticed was that they had re-designed their web site.

The second thing I noticed was that CALIENTE HOPS ARE BACK!!! Get some. I’m going to.