I often get asked where I learnt to brew. People assume I had some home-brew experience or did a course, or perhaps both. No, none of this is the case. I used my tenacity and thirst for knowledge and the very helpful advice of my friend Stuart to get me going. One day brewing under the supervision of a knowledgeable brewer and then let loose on my own plant.
In hindsight I think I was extremely lucky. I followed the knowledge I was given and good beer generally resulted. I built up a model in my own head of why I did certain things and as I gained more knowledge modified that model in pursuit of better beer. Inevitably better results did follow, in most cases, but not without some errors along the way.
Up until a week ago I was still regularly finding information that contradicted my own knowledge about the making of beer. I very much doubt that this will ever stop but I felt on occasions unable to make rational decisions as to the information presented. What I did know was that some of it, especially from home-brewers, was based on inaccurate handed-down knowledge. And the sum total of my skills was no better.
I needed a course. A brewing course that would get me some authoritative information on the science behind the art of brewing. Making beer is a combination of chemistry and microbiology and doing the same thing each time, by rote, does not necessarily produce reliable results. The ingredients being largely natural and the environment changing from batch to batch, without measurements and adjustments variable product will result. Some might say this is what makes micro-brewing interesting, but it can also give breweries-in-a-shed a bad name.
Some members of SIBA have been less than kind about very small breweries, the ones in sheds. To some extent this is clearly sour grapes as we small people are making good in-roads to the market place. There is though some justification to the charge as the outputs from amateur-turned-pro brewer are much more variable. In my view this is a charm and to a beer geek like me an interesting beer is one that makes me sit up and take notice, not one that is an in offensive balance of boringness. But if I want to make a statement with my beer then I need to know how to control the outcome. If I were a painter who wanted a painting full of clashing colours then knowing how to mix that exact tone of colours is vital. If I want a beer that is going to be able to give a smack around the hop-head or one that might well have a bit of yeast bite because I've pushed the boundaries of ABV then I should understand what is happening.
After some research I came to the conclusion that many of the more successful consistent brewers I know have engaged the assistance of Brewlab in Sunderland. They do several courses but I decided that the most suitable for me was the Brewing Skills Development course. This is a 5 day course, nearly completely classroom based and heavy on chemical and biological theory. Very useful for existing brewers who need to know exactly why they do what they do and perhaps to learn why they should not do some things that they do. I went on said course last week.
I could go into great length here about the detail of the course, how the lecturers were witty, engaging and very knowledgeable. I could tell you anecdotes about my frequent good natured arguments about just how much hops can go into a beer before it becomes unbalanced, and how tolerant Chris was of my deliberate contrariness. I could also stress how important it is to engage in the learning process to maximise understanding. But I'll just confine my comments to saying how jolly good the course was.
I would say that having an "O" level in Biology and Chemistry is also handy. If you are a whipper-snapper then I guess GCSE's will do, the fact that you did them more recently should counter the inferiority of this newfangled qualification. You see, I can side with the traditionalists sometimes.
It did get me thinking; shed breweries do produce more interesting and innovative beers. Brewing beer that is nothing more than a carbon copy of a mainstream traditional ale seems a little pointless. "Brewed with traditional English malt and hops" is oft the proud marketing caption. In my book traditional equals boring. An over emphasis on balance and consistency from within the brewing industry may well be contributing to the lack of innovation discussed on Tandleman's blog.
In conclusion, I'm glad I brewed beer before going on the course. I'm also glad I went on the course. I know that brewing 4% session beer, irrespective of the innovation I put into it, is never going to make me any money. The lack of any economies of scale at 2 barrels brew-length does not permit making money at the price level that people are prepared to pay for normal session beer. I think if I had gone on this course before I started to brew I might never have started. I would have believed that making money out of beer is all about consistency and selling volume to the boring masses.
Having a small brewery I have to be different. As they say, it's not the size that matters but what you do with it. Now I am not only equipped with the experimental tenacity that got me this far and the willingness to break with tradition that governs boring 4% session beers, but now I have gained great leaps in my science knowledge surrounding brewing. This in total enables me to push a few more boundaries and make great beer that will satisfy any beer geeks that drop by, hopefully still keeping enough of an eye on balance, tradition and mass appeal.
At least that's the theory.
I still might not make any money, but if I'm not going to make any money doing something, I might as well enjoy not doing so.