It’s a question I get all the time. The answer is simple enough, but it can require a lengthy amount of time and explanation that, unfortunately, due to my schedule as a full-time brewer, I’m not always able to provide.
Without homebrewers and the growth of the American homebrewing community, it’s safe to say we probably wouldn’t have the phenomenon that is the modern craft beer industry. Now that craft beer culture is becoming more mainstream, there is an ever increasing number of enthusiasts who are curious and eager to learn about the process that is responsible for all their favorite brews.
I don’t mean to come off a certain way when I interact with folks, but more times than not, regardless of how nice I’ve been, all I can do is replay those conversations in my head and feel guilty. I always do my best to provide my business cards or contact information, but I rarely ever hear back from the likely disappointed homebrewer.
If I do have the time–and have my head on straight–when you see me, I’ll explain away. Fortunately, I have this platform where I can hopefully share those same pointers with a greater number of you. So, here is what I would say to you if you asked me how to become a better homebrewer:
The answer to becoming a better homebrewer is the same as for a lot of other professions and hobbies. Whether you’re a brewer, baker, athlete, designer or salesperson, the answer is simple: you have to practice hard and set goals.
You’re thinking, But to practice more is the obvious answer. Obvious, maybe, but it’s not really that simple. One of my catchy sayings about improving your brewing skills is: It’s always fun to brew a jalapeno pale ale with spices, honey, and the kitchen sink in it, but to make it a good beer you need a good base pale ale recipe. The point is that your practice needs to be targeted. You need to hone in and repeat the individual processes.
How do you get a solid pale ale recipe? It’s just like cooking. In fact, you actually are cooking a meal in the form of wort to feed your yeast. You get good at brewing through trying new techniques and base ingredients in different variations, sizes, brands, etc. Trial and error should be your primary pillars of learning. I would brew the same plain American brown recipe every three batches and just change small things in the base recipe. Slowly, that bland brown ale started turning into something special. Eventually, it became Yeoman’s Brown Ale, which is one of Brewery 85‘s most sought after and celebrated beers.
Not only do you need to keep it in your head to practice, but most people just need to hear someone else say it to them–sometimes even repeatedly. That’s exactly the kind of help I needed from Brian Cendrowski in 2008. I had just graduated from Clemson University and had gotten into homebrewing, after my wife and I had successfully brewed what we referred to as “redneck wine” before making the jump to beer. Brian was running the show for the Upstate Brewtopians homebrewing club in the upstate of South Carolina. I kept practicing, and now–fast forward a couple of years–we are both brewery owners in an explosive growth market in Greenville, South Carolina.
By far, one of the best things you can do to become a better homebrewer is to find and join a local homebrew club. For me, it was the Upstate Brewtopians. The club provided me a place where like-minded people could taste and critique the multitude of versions of each beer style I was trying to brew. I mentioned already the importance of practice. Well, this is where that comes in handy.
The reason joining a homebrew club can be so beneficial is that they are filled with knowledgeable folks who are very likely to give you positive and creative notes that will certainly help your beers get better.
Former Brewtopian president and current beer lawyer extraordinaire, Brook Bristow, extrapolates, “I think clubs in general just have a way of attracting people who want to take their interest in beer to the next level in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Homebrew clubs are playgrounds where you don’t have the pressure of making certain styles for customers, or worrying about profit margins, or collecting medals for marketing.”
Homebrewers in clubs know, understand, and appreciate just how hard you’ve worked on your beer, and it’s great to get advice from those who can empathize with your struggle to hone your craft.
Bristow adds, “For those interested in making the leap to the professional ranks, the club dynamic helps give you a sense of whether you can take your game to the next level. It’s an affordable education and the school of hard knocks for brewing is one of the best recruiters there is for craft beer.”
He’s right. If you’re letting folks who don’t know much about beer try your concoctions, they are more likely to give you negative reviews and give you the dreaded line, “Oh god! That’s awful!” Or, perhaps even worse, they give their blessing on beer that isn’t up to snuff. Beer is supposed to be fun and positive. I’m not saying that you need all sunshine and smiles or that you don’t require some adversity in your brewing process. I’m saying you need positive reinforcement and non-earth-shattering constructive criticism from peers who know how hard brewing can be, especially for beginners and amateurs.
Strong teams breed success, and you can think of a homebrew club as your team. But maybe you have some brew buddies that you get together with on Saturday to share the experience with. While I am a huge advocate for pouring yourself into brewing books, you really need to just get brewing with some teammates.
Andrew Myer of Swamp Rabbit Brewery advises, “There are some great books out there, but a lot people learn best by watching and experimenting. Having brew days at someone’s house is a lot of fun and I always learn something from someone.”
Aside from learning from each other, brewing as a team builds strong relationships. When you are in the right headspace and surrounded by friends, you’ll gain confidence and think more creatively about your own recipes. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s usually plenty of beer that needs tasting at these meetings!
Myers adds, “Homebrewing has always been a community-based hobby; most brewers can’t consume all of their product. It’s been great to meet so many people in the community and being able to share our knowledge with others who seek it is always fun.”
Brian Cendrowski has some similar advice for you. It’s the same thing he once told me: “Human beings can achieve more when they’re all working toward a common goal than they can as individuals. That’s the power of a good local brew club. When you can exchange ideas with other talented brewers, it can only make you better. In particular, this is true with the Upstate Brewtopians. We had a group of really talented brewers who all enjoyed hanging out and drinking each other’s beer.”
In conclusion, don’t discount the great books by the homebrewing masters like Charlie Papazian or John Palmer. In addition to brewing repetition, tweaking base recipes, and getting active in your local clubs, you need to be reading everything you can get your hands on. And if you have any apprehension about joining a homebrew club, seriously reconsider. They work, and there is no debating it. Need more proof? Well, Brian Cendrowksi is close to opening Fireforge Crafted Beer with his wonderful wife and former Brewtopian, Nicole, and the club also graduated my wife, Meredith McCameron, Brook Bristow, Edward Westbrook, David Thornton, Keston Helfrich and Fred Block.