Brighton Beer Blog have a beer and natter with experienced home brewer and beer taster James Torr. He’s founder of the city’s’ foremost homebrew community, Homebrew Brighton and developer of a new brewers software called BrewBat
Without decades of intrepid homebrewers, geeking out over homemade kits to concoct daring brews in their dorms and sheds, it’s fair to say that the world of craft beer would not be riding it’s current, relentless wave
So I thought we should understand a bit more about this breed, and how and why they do it
We learn how the homebrewing landscape has changed, what kits you can get at different budgets, where to find advice, plus some golden rules for homebrewers…
LITERATURE AND SOURCES OF ADVICE
So James, how long have you been hombrewing for?
All grain since about 2012. Did some brews before then, kit, country wine, but not enough to count as a continuum. I’ve got I think 113 brews on the counter now. They’re all available publicly on the BrewBat.com site! Just sign up for a trial beta account for a look.
and how long do you think you’ve been a good homebrewer for?
Preserving a modicum of modesty, let me answer a different question. I think you can become a fairly competent homebrewer in a year or two, brewing once a month, depending on how much you research, read and how meticulous you are.
Where did you go for advice when you started homebrewing?
There was really very little 15 years ago. Just a couple of books available; an English guy called David Line who did a clone brewing book called ‘Brewing Beers like those you buy’ and there were about 4 ingredients for the whole thing, with 4 malts and 3 different hops.
Then there was Charlie Papazian, who was better, but it was complex and just not that easy to understand.
Now there’s Youtube and loads of really good books out there, it’s so much easier to learn home brewing than it was 10-15 years ago. There are also groups on facebook and forums if you have any questions.
What about getting hold of kit back then? Did you have to make your own?
Yeah, you basically had to make your own kit. There were basic plans in the OG books (Charlie Papazian, Graham Line). I never really did manage to follow the traditional picnic cooler/sparge arm design. Used to be that you would take like an insulated picnic basket and a sort of electric boiler, a plastic container with a kettle inside. You’d have to drill a hole in the side and put thermostat in it. In your picnic basket mash tun you’d have to put something in to stop the grains clogging up the outlets. So a kind of copper coil at the bottom with a false plate.
I went straight to BIAB (brew in a bag) with a large Burco wash boiler. Honestly, it was a piece of crap. I’d not recommend it. A stainless pot and a bag, with an induction heater is what I’d use if I was starting these days.
It sounds really technical, like you’d need to be an engineer to even think about doing this?
Yeah you’d have to be a pretty geeky hobbyist, and to be honest most of the home brewers I know are still kind of that (laughter)
It attracts the tweaker, tinkerer types but there are now lots of easy to use kits on the market and they’re not that expensive.
and as we’re talking about sources of advice, can you tell me about about the BrewBat software you’ve been working on, why you created it?
After selling a business before lockdown, I decided to retrain. Once I decided on programming/development, I chose brewing software as my first big project. Honestly, it was a bit too big, but I thought that the market wasn’t too crowded and wanted to write some, so “hell with it”.
The OG brewing software, Beersmith has been around for many years now, but hasn’t really had a design overhaul for a VERY long time. It’s quite technically accomplished, but it’s a bit hard to use, with lots of terminology.
In terms of what BrewBat does, like most other brewing apps, it’s not really about advice (though that’s in the roadmap), it’s about recipe formulation, prediction, calculation and record keeping. You save your gear, search for your local water in our database, save it to your user profile. Then you create a recipe, add ingredients. It’ll tell you how much water you need to add, the bitterness of the overall beer, how much yeast you need to add, what the colour and abv might be.
You can work out roughly how strong your beer is going to be into the fermenter if you enter a reading before the boil for example. You can save readings and see where it has ended up, how strong etc. It’s enough work just to get a functional brewing software, so I’m just working on that at the moment. Down the line, if there’s enough interest and user base, I’ll work on more features like social elements, recommendations etc.
STARTUP KITS FOR HOMEBREWERS
What was your first brewing experience?
The one I started out on was from Wilkinsons, a Woodfords beer syrup kit, they are a Norfolk brewer. The kits are £15-20 quid and it comes with a condensed wort that’s already been mashed. So all you have to do is throw in some hot water. Up to 20litres or so, put in your yeast and your done.
Obviously you need to learn bit about sanitation but its a good starter, because there are so many steps in brewing that can go wrong, it’s good to keep the variables to a minimum, especially at first.
So they are a worthwhile way for someone to get started?
Yeah. There are probably loads of options online these days. Obviously there’s less control in what you’re doing though. You can look at hopping the various kits as well. You can buy hops, make a tea out of them, or dry hop, which is just steeping the finished beer with some hops. So you can also tweak the product and make them a bit more interesting, because sometimes they’re a bit bland.
So lets go through the different options for getting brewing at home?
For less than £100 a good starting point is a BIAB (Brew In A Bag) setup. It’s a one vessel setup. You have your grains in a fine mesh bag on the hob or in an oven. You hold the temp of the mash. So that very basic setup is a stainless pot and a bag and a plastic fermenter. The drawback is the consistency of the temperature as you’ll find it’s hot at the bottom, cold at the top and on the sides.
Look on the used market as there are always people selling and if you decide you don’t enjoy it you can usually resell it on for something close to what you spent on it.
A lot of the equipment is stainless steel and hard wearing or easy to repair.
The next step up is one the re-circulation kits by Hop Cat, or a Hop Cat clone (a rebranded import from China) and cost between about £200 used to £300 new.
It’s basically a more solid stainless steel vessel and it has a pump that recirculates the wort and a plate to stop the grains clogging things up. The temperature is therefore more accurate.
The good thing about buying used is you can sometimes get hold of all the sundries and accessories in one go as well. Personally, if you’re serious, I would start at this level as they don’t take up loads of space, and you can easily get rid if brewing is not for you.
So when I got my first all grain kit, the only one that was available was the Braumeister, a German kit by a company called Speidel. Which was well over £1000
It allowed me to do the mashing and boiling in the same vessel, and a pump to recirculate the wort which helps with efficiency.
The Braumeister has now probably been surpassed by slightly cheaper setup called the Grainfather, about £500 used, £600 new, for the whole vessel. Its got a bunch of add-ons for adding bluetooth controls etc..
A HOMEBREWERS SUPPORT NETWORK
How important is it to be meeting other brewers? What local meet ups or networks are there?
Local homebrew groups like ours are a really good source of information. A lot of brewing is sensory, right. So it’s hard to figure out where (if you did) you went wrong. Getting honest feedback from other brewers, is a really good way to learn. They are good spaces for chatting about brewing and sharing brews. You have to be brutally honest about your beers, not at all precious. It’s good to find a community that are as interested about something as you are and that you can talk about without boring the shit out of people (laughter). You might have questions about things and you can get multiple viewpoints and answers
Locally there’s The Homebrew Brighton Facebook page of course, and the website. Online there’s a few hundred members and we normally have a monthly tasting session where half a dozen or so people will bring beers and we’ll do tastings.
There’s a Lewes group that meet up monthly quite consistently and they often post in our group. There’s an active Worthing meet up group based out of the bottle shop there, Beer No Evil. The bigger communities in London, people like London Amateur Brewers (LAB) , will hold competitions as well.
Is it difficult to take criticism from your peers when you’ve made your own beer?
I’ve done some judging training so I will try and provide some more detailed feedback for brewers. You need to try and be as positive as you can be with that (laughter). People can be quite precious about their beer, understandably, as you’ve poured your heart and soul into it, spent the best part of day making it and bottling it, plus the investment. It can be hard to hear that something not quite right is going on there.
So I think you have to be quite thick skinned. You’re not going to be making perfect beer from the outset and in order to learn you need to look to be getting as much feedback as possible about what you’ve created, and look to people who are more experienced than you and not just your friends and family.
Have you ever been tempted to get a job in a brewery or is it just a hobby for you?
I have thought about this over the years as a homebrewer, even running one as a business. The market is quite full, margins are tight, and it’s hard to make a lot of cash with a brewery, you have to do it for the love. There are ways to make money in the industry but the traditional wholesale avenue isn’t one.
Funnily enough, I worked a few shifts recently at a local brewery with a view to brewing there part time. They were a very nice team, and I enjoyed working there, but in the end I’ve decided that I want to continue on the dev path full time. I also tweaked a muscle in my back on the day I decided it wasn’t for me. I’m not ancient but the physical act of brewing at a brewery is a young man’s game! (laughter) I think you have to be fit, healthy and willing to put quite a lot of work in to work in a brewery. Due to the market saturation and tight margins, the pay isn’t always great either, so you need to be willing to work for the love rather than the money.
🌟 GOLDEN RULES FOR HOMEBREWERS🌟
Finally, to round things off. If there were some golden lessons you wish someone had given you when you’d started out. What are they?
1. Keep it simple, stupid.
Simplicity in process and ingredients is important. Not changing too much, not throwing too many ingredients in and not running before you can walk. It can be tempting for a new brewer to try and get fancy and follow the modern craft trend and add all kinds of adjuncts, but you can make a great beer without fancy ingredients and it’ll be a better beer because you’re not hiding behind things, plus you’ll know what kind of beer it is as it won’t be hiding.
2. Note taking is really important.
Recording your recipe and using a calculator. There’s Brewers Friend online and Beer Smith and Brewfather are other resources. They’re all quite useful and teach you a lot of things. It’s about being methodical and process orientated. You’re looking for repeatability and consistency.
3. Know what you are tasting.
Familiarise yourself with your palate. Understanding and appreciating what makes a good beer and what you are making. Randy Mosher’s book ‘Tasting Beer’ is a great place to start. Even at the homebrew meets I think we sometimes struggle to give good constructive feedback, and in order to improve it’s important you understand why you’ve made a good beer and break it down. The BJCP (Beer Judges Certification Program) app provides scoresheets that break styles down into; Aroma, Appearance, Flavour, Mouthfeel and Overall Impression. Discerning off flavours come into that but that’s going very specialist.
4. Cleanliness is next to godliness,
…or whatever atheist spin you want to put on that. It’s important you understand how much cleaning is involved and get your sanitation regime down. Talk to any commercial brewer and they will tell you they are basically a cleaner 80% of the time. It took me a long long time to realise that infections were affecting my beer. If you are thinking about getting into the industry then you’ll realise the process is quite methodical and laborious. It’s magical and rewarding taking these ingredients and doing what you’re doing, but it’s a lot of work doing a brew.
5. Don’t start out with a lager.
Yeah, don’t start brewing lager, that’s just a terrible idea. (laughter) Lagers require temperature control, lots of yeast, and often go wrong. Start with an ale and don’t even think about brewing a lager until you’re 20 brews or so in.