Repeating Yourself

Inspired by Janis Gross and her Facebook post today, I feel that its important to say a few words about repetition. So digging back through my archives, I want to present to you the unedited version of my BYOB column in BeerAdvocate Magazine. (You should subscribe – it’s a damn good magazine even if I’m writing for it!) This is from around July of 2010 – “Practice Makes Perfect”

On an episode of the Jamil Show, super award winning homebrewer and host Jamil declared that if you really want to be a great brewer and understand your system forwards, backwards and sideways then you should brew every day. I’m not willing to go that far, but I have noticed that time away from brewing always makes the next batch seem to go “wrong”. It’s the simple fact that Jonny Lieberman learned on his first brew day back: practice really does make perfect.

The magic point rests at about the 2-3 week mark. When I’m brewing frequently, everything moves like clockwork. The brew itself may not be excellent, but the brew day will. It’s a study in muscle memory and in Zen brewing. You can let go of the obvious. No more fretting and or “oh crap! I forgot to clean that!” With the mundane handled, focus is freed for the details.

Another effect of the increased practice is the timing. When I’m actively brewing, I’m busy during the session. No more of this “brewing is two hours of work crammed into eight hours” stuff for me. I’ve got my mojo working getting kegs cleaned, equipment tuned up and everything properly squared away. Yeast starters? Check! Oxygen? Check! Full rinse and sanitation of the chiller? Check! Event the mash tun gets cleaned immediately, dried and stacked with no rotting mash to do in the olfactory senses.

Conversely, despite the buzzing and flying around the brewery, brewing by muscle memory frees up the grey matter. Now that you’ve got the mental checklist whirring in the background, the foreground brain can engage in experimentation. Think of it as the incredibly useful equivalent of daydreaming. “Lalalala.. This is an IPA, what would happen if I added black malt or smoked malt?” Ok, don’t do the smoked malt, that’s just a bad combo. I didn’t say all your ideas would be good, just that there would be new ideas, listen to the things popping off your head and be prepared to shift on the fly. Since this is homebrewing, there’s no reason not to.

For the pros, on the other hand, there’s plenty of reason to be hesitant. Between the money leaving company coffers for ingredients, power, glycol and labor and the need to produce beer that customers consistently buy- the trepidation factor is certainly higher. But watch these guys in action and the muscle memory effect is in full force. To the untrained eye, there’s less obvious watching and thinking. They’re assiduous about taking notes, as should you, but the record keeping isn’t something thought about.

They only get away with it because of that intimate knowledge of their deck. There’s no guessing – they know if I add X gallons at Y temperature it will stabilize to this. If I add 500 ml to the HLT, it sufficiently acidifies the sparge water to prevent pH problems with the sparge.

Nowhere was this more evident to me then a recent trip to my friends at Eagle Rock Brewing. When they opened a few months back, it wasn’t atypical for a 10 barrel brew day to take 18 hours. Jeremy and Steve aren’t newbs , they’ve been homebrewing for quite a while. The new scale and the new gear (Alesmith’s old system) forced a muscle memory reboot. Now they’ve got it down to 12 hours and you can bet with a few more months and a few new bits of gear, it’ll go even quicker.

The moral of the story? Don’t let your brew gear lay dormant. If your partner gives you static, explain that you’re doing it to remain in fighting trim and ultimately brew faster to spend more time with them and better beer!