Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Review: How to Brew

After reading The Complete Joy of Homebrewing I made a couple of extract batches and a few all-grain batches using the basic methods espoused by Charlie Papazian. For the most part these beers were drinkable and several were downright tasty, but none of them were great (even to my rookie palate) and I didn’t really understand the “why” behind most of what I was doing.

Then someone directed me to the online version of How to Brew and eventually I bought a hard copy of the third edition. The book did an outstanding job at highlighting the most vital parts of the brewing process. John Palmer tries to explain why each of these areas are important and the mechanism behind the way they impact a beer. I credit this book with getting me to be more serious about my brewing, to take better notes, and to think critically about every step in my process.

Content: The title pretty much says it all, this is first and foremost a book about the process of brewing beer at home. It touches lightly on recipe design, and a few other topics, but that is not its focus.

John Palmer goes into great detail to explain mashing, water chemistry, sanitation, hop chemistry, and metallurgy. Each section is well written and well thought out, covering everything from the practical basics to the complex scientific (from what types of water to use for extract brewing to how the ions in the water effect the pH of the mash).

The water section is one of the best references on the subject that I have found, particularly his discussion of residual alkalinity a concept I had never heard of before. As a former metallurgist, John does a particularly through job on that section, (although it is one of the sections I look at least frequently). Another great section is “Is my beer ruined?” which covers common off flavors, their causes, and possible solutions or preventative measures.

The book contains numerous lists to reference when selecting a hop, malt, or yeast strain. These are very handy when considering trying out an ingredient that you have not used before (for example which grains can be steeped and which must be mashed). The lists are by no means comprehensive, but they certainly cover the vast majority of ingredients a homebrewer will run into.

The book covers every aspect of brewing “standard” ales and lagers. While the methods it teaches (sanitation, fermentation control, water treatment etc…) are just as important for making good Belgian/extreme/funky beers, it barely touches on these topics directly. As a result, after you master the techniques on standard beers you will have to look to other books if you are interested in making more esoteric styles.

Accuracy: I haven’t found any major mistakes (or typos which plague some of my other favorite brewing books). John stays in his comfort zone, avoiding talking about subjects that he isn’t as knowledgeable about.

That said, I do disagree with him in a couple of places. For example I have some problems with the section on starch gelatinization (the temperature at which starch granules will burst making the individual starch molecules available for enzymatic action). He quotes the gelatinization temperatures for various adjunct starches and suggests that because several of these temperatures are within (or partially overlap with) the standard saccharification range it is fine not to pre-gelatinize them. The problem is that unless a starch has been refined (like corn starch) it takes quite a bit of time and/or more heat to fully gelatinize them. If you have ever tried to thicken a gravy or a stew with wheat flour you probably noticed that it didn’t really get thick until the liquid boiled for a couple minutes, which is in spite of the gelatinization temperature of 136-147 F according to Palmer's table.

There are a few other areas where I have some minor issue on a technical point, but most of them are on tangential subjects.

Recipes: All of the recipes are presented in extract with steeping grains, all-grain, and all-extract variants. There are not many recipes, and the ones that are there are all pretty standard (boring). That said they are solid beers that are perfect for someone trying to perfect their technique. I am of the opinion that when you are just starting out (or tweaking your technique) you should brew proven recipes that have as few ingredients as possible. This way you can learn how different aspects of your process affect the finished beer. Once you get a grip on your basic process you will probably leave these recipes behind (if you are like me) as you go onto make your own recipes or branch out into more diverse styles.

I one minor issue with one of the recipes. His Vienna lager recipe calls for Black Patent in the steeped grains list, and debittered black malt in its place for the all-grain recipe. I doubt this is an intentional substitution, I would assume both are supposed to be debittered.

I think How to Brew is the easiest book on my shelf to quickly reference. The numerous boxes/charts/graphs/lists make it especially easy to extract a key piece of info while you are in the middle of a brew session.

In terms of reading it cover-to-cover I think the book does a good balancing act between technical content and readability. It does a good job explaining chemistry and biology as they relate to brewing without getting bogged down in technical jargon or information that isn’t applicable to the average homebrewer. he often uses analogy to explain complex topics. I particularly like the one for starch conversion, trimming branches (starches) using a hedge trimmer (alpha amylase) and handheld clippers (beta amylase).

The layout, starting with extract brewing, and progressing though to all-grain can make the order of the chapters a bit confusing. For example hops are covered in chapter 5, while grains aren't discussed until chapter 12. There are two separate chapters for water (one for extract and one for all-grain). So if you are already an all-grain brewer you will be jumping around quite a bit to skip over the extract chapters that are mixed in with the “general” chapters.

Overall: The book can seem a bit cluttered with formulas for things you may never have the desire to do by hand (beer color, mash pH, gravity, IBUs) I think these can be good references for understanding how Promash or Beersmith normally does the work for you.

Whether you are someone about to brew your first batch of homebrew or an experienced brewer looking to polish up on your technique you should have a copy of How to Brew. It does not cover the depth of topics that some other intro books do, and it is not written with the same exuberance that Charlie Papazian brings, but I think if you are serious about making the best beer, this is the book to get.


Anonymous said...

Good review...
I like his book but I initially found all the calculations a bit overwhelming. I remember thinking, Do I really have to do all that? Then I saw his little section "Mashing in a Nutshell' I copied that down closed the book and was off to the races.
I agree with what you said about the recipes. Charlie P seems rather more adventurous (though Complete Joy has a few clunkers too) in that regard.

notg said...

A nice, balanced review.
I bought this book a couple of years ago and have been making my way through it in my spare time. I think you are right - it is one of the better books available for a beginning brewer, and provides some great reference tools.
I think in the end he achieved a good balance between depth and breadth. Thanks for your thoughts.

Thomas said...

"As a former metallurgist, John does a particularly through job on that section, (although it is one of the sections I look at least frequently)."

Actually he still is a metallurgist by trade, it's his day job.

Thomas said...

Great review otherwise

Anonymous said...

Great review. I totally agree, as someone who learned from this book (and then glanced through a copy of "Joy" that I bought fr a friend) - I actually was considering doing reviews on these on my new blog, from a "newbies" perspective (plus Homebrew for Dummies which i checked from the library) - but now glad I didnt b/c they would never have been as thorough as your reviews. Much thanks...... Your blog is great.

JasonA said...

There is waaaay to much information in this book. Though I think its value is being more of a reference book than an instruction book. Each chapter can be broken down and utilized over time. None of it (per se) is needed to be absorbed all at once.

As with the author, coming from Joy, its an awesome upgrade for the more frequent brewer.

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