My introduction to brewing is probably much the same as many of you out there and can be summarized in two words: Mr. Beer. This clever little kit has turned a lot of average beer drinkers on to the joy of zymology, and in that respect it’s awesome. If your goal is to make something in your basement that will get you drunk, then you are sure to be a Mr. Beer master. For less than $100 and with a few hours of following a dumbed-down instruction booklet, anyone can turn sugary syrup into prison hooch. Whether or not your beer-snob friends will enjoy it is another matter.
I opened the kit, read the instructions and said, “That’s it? This is awesome!” But from the get-go, I had some unanswered questions: what is the no-rinse sanitizer made of and why is it slimy? Where’s the priming sugar and is that the same as powdered sugar? How do you keep the bacteria out of the little plastic keg? Where’s the hops? My first brew was a Blue Moon clone that came out surprisingly similar to the original. I followed the instructions pretty close although I batch-primed because I read it was much easier. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a very sophisticated palate but the beer was definitely drinkable. For me that mild success was all I needed. The 2.5 gallons were gone in about 2.5 weeks, (the first beers were still not even fully carbonated) but those unanswered questions started to eat away at me. Why did they design the fermenter this way? Why do they tell you not to open the fermenter? Was 65° in my basement considered too cold? The engineer in me couldn’t let it go. Like Alice, curiosity led me down the rabbit hole.
The next week, after reading a lot (I think I read John Palmer’s How To Brew in less than 2 days) I was not satisfied with the ice bath method of cooling. So, I went to home depot and bought all the materials to make a couter-flow wort chiller. Well, actually I made two: one for my cousin who had been brewing on-and-off for about a year and one for myself. I turned a generic IPA from a liquid extract kit into a monster of an Imperial IPA, not only using DME to build up the gravity, but adding hops to the boil, and dry hopping (in the Mr Beer Keg) with whole-leaf Citra. This beer was epic but I was far from satisfied with my brewing equipment. I dropped some money on a 5-gallon kit and that is when the snowball really starting gaining speed…
Throughout my brewing history I have had some successes and a lot of failures, but the only theme that was consistent was my dissatisfaction with the lack of detail in the “process” of home brewing. Everything was an attempt to be “close enough”, which for me was not acceptable. I graduated from college with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and I tell anyone who will listen that being an engineer is not just a career, it’s a way of life. I strive for exacting precision, I always look at the world as a series of problems to solve, I constantly search for the “right” answer among valid options, and I find beauty in what is logical. Call me a nerd, or even anal-retentive, and I won’t disagree. But I enjoy the process of brewing more than most. Drinking the end result is a a nice bonus and I do seriously enjoy beer, but the things that really get me excited are hitting mash temps and nailing efficiencies, when fermentation happens just right to create the desired ester profile, and when the hop schedule creates the planned aroma and flavor.
Much like my brewing history, I became deeply involved with this project very quickly. Some say that this is feeding my (unproven) unhealthy addiction, but I don’t do anything half-way: ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing right’. I can’t help my personal desire for perfection but I can provide you with some scientific results along the way. I came on as an assistant brewer and just being involved with this project has my wheels turning non-stop. What upgrades are really a good value? What are the benefits of using one product over another? How can you make something yourself on the cheap? Hopefully the experiments, reviews and builds that I provide will not only be a resource for others to follow but also a roadmap for planning upgrades and brewing great beer without breaking the bank.