Friday, September 25, 2009

Book Review: The Everything Homebrewing Book

The Everything Homebrewing Book: All you need to brew the best beer at home! by Drew Beechum is one of the most recent homebrewing books to be published (2009), so it seemed like a good idea to pick up a copy to read and review. It is from a series of books along the same lines as "For Dummies" (books by different authors with common formatting/graphics) which might make you suspicious, but it was written by one of the most active/vocal members of the homebrewing community. This is his first book, but Drew writes a monthly homebrewing column for BeerAdvocate magazine.

: As the title implies this book tries to cover just about every aspect of the expansive topic of homebrewing. Trying to cover the plethora of topics related to brewing beer at home from the simplest extract recipes through high gravity beers, equipment, process, history, etc... is a tall order for any book, particularly when there are already so many great books that specialize in a single area.

The book starts out like many, with a few chapters of basic information about beer, extract brewing, hops, water, yeast, and malt. The author does a solid job giving an overview of all the major options and ingredients available these days. He also does a good job covering some basic questions that many books skip over (like how much will it cost).

The book then goes into equipment and technique. I wish the author had been a bit more opinionated about the daunting variety of options available to the modern American homebrewer. I read a book to hear what the author suggests rather than just a list of all the possibilities. For example I would have been interested to hear about which of the gear and product Drew actually uses and why, and how he put his system together (in addition to why he didn't go with the other options).

In some places Everything tends to be a bit too anecdotal for me. For example the section on autolysis says "Conventional wisdom set a week's deadline, but award winning brewers leave beer in primary for a month with no ill effects when using healthy yeast." If you want to talk autolysis I think you need to get into different styles, yeasts, temperatures, and techniques etc... Just saying some good brewers don't worry about it doesn't give enough information to make an educated decision about your own particular situation. Similar logic is used for keg priming as well as several other "controversial" topics.

The book goes into great depth in a couple areas that are not always covered well by other books. The kegging section is especially useful with lots of tips on cleaning and carbonating. In general though I felt like several of the sections didn't bring anything new to the table (probably because, lets face it, there is much that hasn't been said about something like malt extract).

My biggest complaint about the content is the complete lack of pictures, drawings, graphs, or beer related graphics of any sort (although there are plenty of dopey little drawings to alert the reader to boxes that contain information that is either "Essential" or a "Fact"). I like the written word as much as anyone, but for a new brewer in particular the pictures and drawings can be the difference between understanding a point and missing it completely. The book I am reading now, Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer, puts this one to shame with beautiful design/pictures/graphs on nearly every page (even the paper feels much higher quality). I realize the lack of flair was probably part of the deal with the publishing company to keep printing costs down, but it is still a shame.

: The book is packed with recipes of all sorts (more than 100 all told). Some of the recipes are internet classics like Denny Conn's Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter, Jamil's Evil Twin, fellow Maltose Falcons member Jonny Lieberman's Blackwine IV, and many of Drew's own recipes from his website. The rest, either from the author or a variety of other homebrewers, run the gamut from simple style based beers through beers that push into areas that are too crazy even for me to attempt (like the Maltose Falcons' Methode Champenoise series of beers). However as you can see a good chunk of these recipes are available for free online, where in many cases they contain additional information/pictures not found in the book.

Most of the recipes are all-grain with an extract substitution listed. It is unclear which beers are turned into partial-mash recipes by the extract and which become extract with steeping grain. In general it seems to leave some basemalt in for a partial-mash, but this could lead to confusion in my opinion. It would also be nice to have the efficiency listed for the recipes since it seems to vary dramatically.

I like the general layout of the recipes with the details all laid out for easy perusal. Most of them contain little asides and tips for the particular idiosyncrasies of the recipe, and overall they appear to be solidly designed and tested. I will register my standard complaint that the book doesn't do enough to describe the specific flavors of the recipes, not even giving a short description of what generally to expect (this is really a shame considering that most of the recipes have half an empty page below them).

: For the most part Everything was very well edited compared to many of the other brewing books out there. There are a few minor issues, things like wrong AA% listed for hops (5.25% AA Warriors in the Steve French recipe), which could throw someone off, but isn't a big deal. My biggest complaints has nothing to do with what is in the book and everything to do with what is not. Often the book gives a brief overview/mention of something without getting into enough detail to let someone get into it without doing additional research somewhere else.

Readability: Drew's writing may not have the same literary pop (inspirational power?) that some other homebrew books have, but it does crams a lot of concise info into its pages. I liked the way that some of the recipes were sprinkled in with each section to provide an example of the concepts being covered, with the rest tacked on at the end organized chapters by origin (Recipes from Belgium, Experiments: Recipes from the Laboratory etc...).

The use of abbreviations and symbols bothered me a little bit. For example the hops are labeled in the form "10.6 percent AA" and the malts all have "pounds" after them instead of lbs. It is a little thing, but it bothers me.

There are also some minor organizational issues. For example the last recipe in the book is for a Russian River Temptation clone which is alone in a section titled "Bacteria: The Friendly Germs", but several pages earlier there is a section on Belgian Sour Ales which does not say much about the microbes. It just seems like if you only have three recipes with non-sacch microbes you might as well lump them all together. In a similar way the sections can seem a bit out of order, I feel like the chapter on sanitation should come before the first extract brew chapter for example.

Overall: The Everything Homebrewing Book is a pretty solid first effort from one of the staples of the online homebrewing community. With its wide scope this might be the homebrewing book you would get if you had to pick just one, but if you own (or plan to own) more than a couple it becomes much less essential. While it does cover several topics very well, for the most part it just gives you a taste of topics that are covered in greater detail in other books. I don't think the introductory parts are comprehensive enough to recommend it over How to Brew for a beginner, but it might be a worthwhile addition to your brewing library if you are the sort of person who wants a hard copy of some bits from the ephemeral homebrewing internet.


Drew Beechum said...

You should have seen all the material left on the cutting room floor! It broke my heart. The first draft was over 126k words. The final published draft was ~80k words, so you can imagine!

But I'm glad you had a mostly positive experience with the book.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

What a shame! That is one of the great things about writing a blog, no word/page limits.