What Kind of Brewer Are You?


It’s a slow day at the RLJ (real-life job), so I spent a good chunk of it organizing my homebrewing bookmarks folder. In doing so, I read back through some old bookmarked posts including one from The Mad Fermentationist: The Four Stages of Homebrewing. It’s an interesting read, and it takes one’s man measure of where you fit in as a brewer, broken down by a few categories:

  • Recipe: Type and quality of recipe
  • Wort Production: Extract, All-grain
  • Water: Water manipulation/evaluation level
  • Boil: Partial boil, Full Boil
  • Chilling: Chilling Method
  • Aeration: Aeration Method
  • Yeast: Type of yeast used
  • Fermentation: Fermenation Methodology
  • Packaging: How your beer is ultimately served
  • Other

An analysis of these categories will “determine” whether you rank as a Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Advanced or Expert.

So I thought it’d be fun to examine my own process against these criteria.

Recipe:

My Process: Generally I search for a recipe online and tweak it based on my personal tastes, available ingredients, or to try and fit a style.

Beginner: Recipe from a trusted source or high-quality kit
Advanced Beginner: Tweaking a trusted recipe
Advanced: Design to-style recipes
Expert: Design your own not-to-style recipes

I’d say I’m in the Advanced Beginner range here; I can follow a recipe per instruction, but I generally make some alterations. My next step is to start trying to brew BJCP-style beers and maybe enter some homebrewing competitions in 2014.

Wort Production:

My Process: All-Grain, Single Infusion Mash

Beginner: Steeped specialty grains and malt extract
Advanced Beginner: Partial Mash (measure the gravity pre-boil and adjust extract amount as needed)
Advanced: All grain (single infusion mashes)
Expert: All grain (single infusion, step, decoction, turbid etc.)

It’s looks pretty clear that I’m in the Advanced category here, but I’m going to adjust that down to Advanced Beginner because I sort of skipped over the whole extract brewing process. I brewed my first batch with some Mr. Beer extract, but it has been all grain from their on out. I still have some Mr. Beer extract kits lying around so I’ll eventually get back to some extract batches.

Water:

My Process:  I don’t do shit. I measured pH for the first time with my last mash and landed at 5.3 (the ideal is 5.2). That’s pretty damn close. I may eventually try to get that pH down to 5.2 and fiddle with water salts, but I don’t think water is a big issue just yet.

Beginner:  Chlorine-free water (carbon filtered, well, spring, RO, or distilled)
Advanced Beginner: Simple water salt additions for flavor (knowing your water’s profile)
Advanced: Water adjustments, including monitoring mash pH
Expert: Water adjustments, including mash pH

Apparently, I’m both sub-Beginner as well as Expert here. I’m going to say I’m at the Beginner stage.

Boil:

My Process: I do a full 90 minute boil. My stove barely produces enough power for a rolling boil.

Beginner:  Partial boil (staggered extract additions for pale beers)
Advanced Beginner: Full wort boil
Advanced: Full wort boil
Expert: Monitor/adjust the boil pH

BOOM! Advanced, baby!

Chilling:

My process; Like a villain anti-hero…. with an immersion wort chiller, occasionally subsidized with an ice-bath or snow/outside temperatures.

Beginner:  Ice bath and top-off with chilled sterile water
Advanced Beginner: Immersion wort chiller
Advanced: Counter-flow wort chiller
Expert: Pump, plate chiller, hop-back etc.

I’m once against in the Advanced Beginner territory, which I think – at least for me – would be more accurately classified as “Beginner, but with nice toys.”

Aeration:

My Process: Shake, shake, shake. Shake, shake, shake. Shake your carboy.

Beginner:  Shake chilled wort
Advanced Beginner: Filtered air aquarium pump
Advanced: Estimated pure oxygen aeration
Expert: Measure dissolved oxygen

Clearly I’m still a beginner here, but my next planned purchase is an oxygenation system. Like I said: Beginner with nice toys.

Yeast:

My Process: Generally, I’ll make a yeast starter, pitch and use my stir plate. I didn’t buy it not to use it. Occasionally, I’ll use a smack-pack. I’ve only used smack-packs that I’ve bought on brew-day without time to do a proper starter.

Beginner:  Rehydrated dry yeast
Advanced Beginner: Liquid yeast with a starter
Advanced: Repitching yeast
Expert: Microscope to check cell count and viability

Advanced Beginner again. I am in the process of reading Zainesheff and White’s Yeast book, but I’m a notoriously slow reader. I have tried my hand at yeast ranching with mixed results. I plan on giving it another shot soon.

Fermentation:

My Process: Most of my beers I’ve brewed so far have been what I like to call “pitch and pray;” pitch the yeast in and pray that the temperature stays stable enough for the yeast to do their jobs. I recently purchased a chest freezer and temperature controller.

Beginner:  Monitor ambient fermentation temperature, brew seasonally
Advanced Beginner: Monitor the actual temperature of the fermenting beer, control with swamp chiller
Advanced: Electronic fermentation temperature control
Expert: Temperature controlled conical fermentors

Looks like I’m advanced. There’s not much barrier to entry here, outside of price. I ended up spending about $250 for my rig. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m hoping it is money well-spent.

Packaging:

My Process: I bottle into Fischer Amber swing-top bottles, though I intend to start doing some 12oz bottles for friends so I don’t lose my precious swing-tops. I also want to get into kegging once I start producing good beers more consistently, as that’s a big expense.

Beginner:  Bottle conditioning using a priming sugar calculator, sugar measured by volume
Advanced Beginner: Bottle conditioning using a priming sugar calculator, sugar measured by weight
Advanced: Kegging
Expert: Counter-pressure bottling

Sounds like I’m strictly a beginner here. I’m not entirely sure how to measure sugar by weight so maybe that’s something for me to look into…

Other:

My Process: Hmm. I measure my OG with both a hydrometer and refractometer. I track my details using a spreadsheet and add hand-written notes into a journal at the end of the brew day. I clean everything immediately after brewing and do a fairly decent job of keeping it clean.

Beginner:  Focus and cleaning and sanitation. Take notes on each step of the process.
Advanced Beginner: Evaluate ingredient quality. Using non-Reinheitsgebot ingredients (fruit, coffee, spices, sugars etc.)
Advanced: Purge everything the fermented beer touches with CO2. Check finished beer’s pH.
Expert: Tests (wort stability, forced fermentation etc.). Barrel aging, sour beers, etc.

I’d say I’m still in the Beginner stage here. I have used sugar in one beer, but I haven’t gotten into spices, fruits and all that other good stuff yet. I am planning on brewing a pumpkin beer soon, so I may be only a brew-day away from Advanced Beginner here.

Overall and Final Thoughts;

Obviously this exercise is just for fun, and even Mike (yeah, we’re on a first name basis – unbeknownst to him) says that this is in no way a road map from Beginner to Expert. But i do think it’s helpful for me at least to evaluate parts of my process. There is a difference between doing something, and doing it well. I’m apparently doing a lot of things I should be doing, and now I just need to focus on doing them right; improving where I can and then moving on to the next step.

If you’re a homebrewer. how do you rank?

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