Sunday, 15 September 2013

Award-winning homebrewers

Just in case you managed to miss this yesterday: one of our beers won an award at the UK National Homebrew Competition.  Our Declassified NZ (a black IPA brewed solely with NZ hops) took third prize in the Specialty round. 

We were very pleased that something we brewed would be judged worthy of an award in a brewing competition. It provides some validation that we are doing the right things. Although, if anything, it makes us want to keep improving our beers rather than just sitting back and being content with what we've achieved.

However, we did have stop and think and say HANG ON A MINUTE, that award-winning beer was only the fourth beer we ever brewed. In fact, if not for the change in the hop profile (switching US Pacific North West hops for NZ hops) it is the same as the second beer we brewed (which was our first all-grain brew). So how did we manage to brew something so good (relatively speaking) so early on in our brewing history?

I was reminded of an article I read on the Brewdog blog about homebrewing a few months back. One quote really stuck in my mind:

Russell: "Do as many home brews as possible. After about 100 attempts the beer will start to taste good! There's a lot more control in modern breweries so don't beat yourself if your first few attempts don't even taste like beer; it's tricky! Be prepared for plenty of trial and error."

I remember thinking at the time, 'how bad could you be at home brewing that you would need to do 100 brews before producing something good?' I have to assume this figure is an exaggeration. But surely such statements would be more likely to put off potential home brewers than to encourage them to try it for themselves? It sat slightly oddly in an article that appeared, on the face of it, to be encouraging people to try home-brewing.

The first thing we ever brewed was an all extract pale ale. We fully expected it to be awful but actually it tasted nice. Our second brew was all grain, the original Declassified Black IPA. We thought it tasted pretty good, even if we say so ourselves... Two brews later we produced something that won an award.

So I guess what we're trying to say is, home brewing isn't rocket science but it is a scientific process. We're both scientists by training. So we approached brewing like a science project: we educated ourselves as much as possible beforehand, we documented as we went, we reflected after, and we learned from our mistakes. If you've never brewed before, you're not going to brew a good beer by accident. But if you're willing to learn and you try your best you should get something that tastes good in less than 100 attempts. ;)

However, if you're not of a scientific bent, please don't be put off. You can still make good beer without a detailed understanding of the science behind it. However, don't be surprised once the home-brewing bug bites, that you'll want to know more. Once you starting learning more about the science of beer, you're on the road to turning good beer into great beer. 

Thanks to everyone who has tried our beers and offered us feedback and constructive criticism. We have appreciated that and found it really useful.


Unknown said...

Well put. I too have started in the past few months and spent the first month reading and understanding the science.
I haven't brewed a dud yet though I didn't win this time round.


Malc Newton

Unknown said...

Congratulations guys! said...

Every time I brew a new beer I think I am improving but people who have tried my beer still say my Simcoe IPA is their favourite. I've brewed about 8 beers now... The Simcoe one was only my second one. I also think that 100 beers thing is not true - as long as you follow the steps and keep things clean, you'll have a beer. What's good about getting experience and more understanding is that you can make recipes up practically as you go along and still be confident that they'll be good

Emma said...

Primarily, we entered to get a bit of feedback and see how our beers would stand up to any competition. We weren't expecting to win anything.

We've brewed two beers that ended up going down the drain though. One didn't turn out as we planned it, i.e. it wasn't good enough and we were unhappy. The second (a re-brew of a very nice saison) had a fault. That one was even more upsetting. Still, we learned important lessons from both. We have a blog post in the pipeline on that very topic.


Emma said...

Thanks :)

Emma said...

It's funny, isn't it - there are so many variables involved in brewing that recreating a great beer isn't so as simple as you might expect it to be.

I think that for us, one of the main reasons we've fallen in love with brewing is that there is so much to learn. We both like solving problems and understanding how things work so it fulfills a need we both have to expand our minds. And obviously we both enjoy drinking fantastic beers too. : )

Unknown said...

Congratulations! I agree with most of what you say, but I suspect having a scientific approach has a lot to do with it. I tend to find the best brewers (both amateur and pro) are those that understand how and why what they do affects the final product. An almost fanatical obsession with reading and researching the topic also helps!

I've been brewing for less than a year and have 14 brews under my belt. Despite this apparent lack of experience I have brewed a beer that has won both a local competition as well as placing 2nd in the IPA category of the UK National Homebrew Competition. I have brewed a couple of beers that weren't great, but I understand why and where I went wrong and know how to fix it in the future. On the whole I would say the remaining 12 beers have been for the most part above average when compared to commercially produced beers.

I guess we are the proof that you can brew truly great beers with little practical experience, but I suspect it's no coincidence that we both take a scientific approach to brewing. I suspect we have both spent a number of years performing "research" too!

Here's to hopefully the first of many awards for us both - good luck!

Emma said...

Many thanks Richard and congratulations on your second place IPA. Good work!

Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more. I have been brewing just under a year now but (somehow!) managed to come 4th in the UKNHBC with my schwarzbier called Jet. To be fair I have a fairly scientific/technical background which I think definitely helps but at the same time there is not actually that much to it. I think the key is to have a documented process that you can repeat just in case you happen upon a winning recipe.

I have also learnt the absolute importance of keeping everything as clean and as sanitized (not really possible to have everything sterile in a home brew environment!) as possible with the post boil equipment i.e. fermenter, yeast starter vessel, pipe work etc. I have had only 1 beer go bad but it is heartbreaking after a couple of months of effort.

Unfortunately I didn't get to attend the event this year but will definitely be going next year.

Emma said...

I'm a microbiologist by training and Chris was an engineer - we definitely use our scientific knowledge and practical skills when brewing. Not that I think it is essential to have those skills but it helps for sure. In fact, it probably makes us love brewing even more because we want to understand everything about it on a minute level. :)

Aseptic technique - keeping clean things as clean as possible - has proved vital. There are so many things that can go wrong, we are determined to never let infected beer be one of them!

I think there is a definite element of good fortune to producing a great beer (without too many attempts), but you have to provide the right setting to make that possible. I guess the more experienced you get the less luck is involved. :)