Make Some Beer [A Review]
"Craft beer is like wine these days," my brother offhandedly remarked to me "It's crazy how many options there are."
I grew up on the front range of Colorado, which is basically micro brew mecca. It's weird if your town doesn't have a brewery. Call me spoiled, but I never have a good reason to drink Bud or Heineken or Corona when I multiple excellent breweries within minutes of my home.
Beer means many different things to many different people; to some, it's a picture of laziness and indolence. To others, it's the specter that haunts homes and destroys families. I want to acknowledge that these images are based in sad reality, but for me it's never carried that connotation. I grew up in a home and a community that was very moderate for the most part. After all, if you're going to buy craft beer, you're drinking for pleasure and taste rather than to just get smashed.
When I turned 21 and began to learn about the intricacies of beer, I became utterly fascinated. At first it was fun to just try new beers, but as time passed I became interested in homebrewing. My dad brewed occasionally when I was growing up and my roommate at the end of college brewed all the time, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. (His pumpkin ale was incredible, while his espresso stout with juniper was... less incredible.)
When I graduated from college and moved out of that house, two of my roommates and I decided to pool our returned security deposit money and invest in a brew kettle, some buckets, hoses, air locks, and the whole nine yards. We started with a simple amber ale kit which turned out okay, and then a few months later we tried making a brown ale. Also just okay. But with a few home brews under my belt now, I wanted to venture into more interesting beers but didn't know where to start.
About a month and a half ago, I saw Make Some Beer: Small-Batch Recipes From Brooklyn to Bamberg by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand online, and it's basically a beer cook book. Shea and Valand are the founders of Brooklyn BrewShop, a supplier for hobbyist brewers in NYC. They specialize in small-batch beers, meaning 1-gallon quantities rather than the usual 5-gallon. You might ask yourself, "That hardly seems worth it! Isn't that a lot of effort for a microscopic amount of beer?" I admit that I was surprised at first, but there are (at least) four advantages to such a small-batch approach:
- You can brew it on your stove with normal kitchen implements
- You can test out a recipe to see if you like it before brewing a gazillion bottles of it
- It's a comparatively small investment
- It's a smaller amount of malt, and thus a little bit more manageable
Certainly the disadvantage is the economy of scale, because you put in almost the same amount of effort as you would for five gallons, but you get significantly less output. The other challenge is that most brew shops sell hops and yeast prepackaged for 5-gal recipes, so you'll have to do a little more measuring. I would definitely still recommend trying it out, though.
I convinced my brother to try a couple recipes with me, so we brewed a Bruxelles Blonde and a Farmhouse Ale in the same day. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, and if you want to scale up to a 5-gal batch they offer adjustments at the end of each recipe. They were done fermenting two weeks ago, so we bottled them up. They obviously hadn't carbed up yet, but I was flat-out impressed with how well the flavors turned out. We didn't have a good way to measure out the hops and yeast very precisely, so I was worried that the beers would taste really screwy. The Blonde tasted perfect, but we must have added a little too much hops to the Farmhouse. When we popped them open this weekend for Labor Day, they had carbed up pretty well. We probably could have been a little more generous with the sugar, but it wasn't bad. The farmhouse ale still tasted a bit off, but we're going to let the rest of the bottles sit for a while longer and see if that helps.
Though the proof of a book like this is in how good the beer is, I also wanted to offer a few comments about the book itself (and not just the beer I made from it).
The actual review part of this review
The recipes are dead easy to follow, even for a guy like me who's relatively new to the homebrew scene. If you've ever cracked open a cook book, this will be what you might expect. The book is divided up into the four seasons, and for each season they provide a generous helping of appropriate beers from breweries all over the country and the world ranging from common (the Bruxelles Blond we tried is just your average Belgian) to crazy (a Bacon Dubbel from Pisgah Brewing or a hop-less Dandelion Gruit from Upright Brewing).
Another neat feature of the book is a selection of (food) recipes at the end of each seasonal section that complement a certain beer or use the spent grain somehow (I plan on trying out their spent grain no-rise pizza dough). I found to be especially helpful a spent grain primer (p. 56) that explains how to use the spent grain while it's still wet, how to dry it out, mill it, freeze it, or compost it.
If you need it, they offer a quick refresher on how to brew beer at the beginning (p. 12) as well as a list of brewing equipment and ingredients. If you've never brewed beer before, you'll probably want to find something additional to learn more about the process. They also have an excellent reference guide to common hops that shows where they are from, their relative bitterness, and tasting notes. It's a great tool if you want to start branching out and creating your own recipes.
I only have a couple quibbles, and they are relatively minor. First, it's bound as a paperback which is a frustrating choice for a cookbook--it doesn't stay flat when you lay it on the table. When your hands are covered with sticky malts, you don't want to be worrying about opening up to the right page. Though it would cost more, a hardcover or spiral-bound edition would be more helpful.
Second, the table of contents is less than helpful. It gives page numbers for each season, but not for each individual beer. It's not the end of the world, and you can flip around and find the page quickly enough, but it's just not very helpful as far as tables of contents go. Plus, the spent grain primer isn't even listed at all!
At the end of the day, Make Some Beer is a really helpful beer cookbook for the amateur home brewer who wants to try out some interesting new beers. I wouldn't recommend it to the complete novice, but if you're fairly familiar with the brewing process then it should prove to be an excellent resource for you. Brewers more experienced than I would probably find it less helpful except to get some new ideas.
You can find _Make Some Beer _on Amazon for $15.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.