As promised during the last post, this one is about books, and the subject of the books, is of course, homebrewing!
Given that we started the search on the subject on our own, with some, but not much discussion or suggestions by friends we just went to google and amazon. The choice was done based on the reviews we read. After some reading and discussions with friends, both in Finland and Mexico, it seems we chose the right books. Now, we bought 4 books to start with, these were:
- “Homebrewing for Dummies” by Marty Nachel
- “How to Brew” by John J. Palmer
- “For the Love of Hops, The Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness and the Culture of Hops”, by Stan Hieronymus
- “Michal Jackson’s Beer Companion”, by the same dude in the title
This review will only focus on the first two books, since the other ones have either not been read or have other purposes. However, as general information, the “For the Love of Hops” is a very complete book on hops, how they work, their different varieties and how they affect the flavour and aroma of beer. “Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion” is a book that describes everything about beer, from the history of different kinds of beers, their flavours, aromas, descriptions, etc. While we haven’t read them yet, they seem very promising for the beer geek, but they are by no means necessary to start brewing.
Now, starting with the dummies book, which cover you can see below.
One thing to consider, is that I’m not a pro book reviewer or anything of the sort, and we’ve still haven’t made any brews yet, so this review is only based on impressions based on learning experience and content. Now, if you’ve read any books from the dummy series you’ll know that they are very easy to read and the content is usually organised in a very digestible manner. In this case the same holds true. The book is basically organised into 7 big sections (renamed):
- Basic theory
- Beer theory
- How to brew
- Alternative brewing
- Putting your beer to the test
The main sections are the first four, so I’ll focus on detailing those a bit and then just mention briefly what the others talk about.
This section talks about hygiene, the general process of beer and the equipment necessary to brew beers. The equipment is separated into 3 levels, beginner, intermediate and advanced.
This section talks about the ingredients of beer: Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast. It does so in a separate manner and then puts the whole jumble together. It explains what each ingredient of beer does, how it works and how it affects the overall resulting beer.
How to brew
Here’s where the fun starts, this section focuses on how to brew from start to end. It does so in a similar manner to the equipment classification; using 3 levels. Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced brewing.
A very thorough list of beer types (around 50+) that can be made, also classified to beginner, intermediate and advanced brewing levels. Some of the recipes were donated by award winning homebrewers.
Sections 5,6 and 7 focus on making cider, mead and using weird ingredients and spices. They also have content on DYI equipment for brewing, how to taste and evaluate beer, and how to troubleshoot your brewing.
On to book two! -> How to Brew, shown below.
Disclosure, I haven’t finished reading this book yet. But to be honest, I don’t think I need to in order to provide my view on it.
In general, the content on both books is the same, they both cover EVERYTHING the beginner needs to start brewing. In the sections I’ve read of this book, I get the impression that the dummies book leaned heavily on this one. Some of the analogies used are similar, or the same, and the general feel is also very similar. I say this and not the opposite because Palmer published his book in 2005-2006 while the dummies book came out in 2008. Now, taking into consideration that the books have the same or similar content I have to say I prefer the way its presented in this book. There are more pictures and photos and its easier to know what the author is talking about. The annex section is also richer and is a bit more on the technical side compared to the dummies book (which does mention techie stuff, but not as thoroughly). One thing that could be considered a downside is that this book has less recipes, but really, it doesn’t matter too much since thousands of recipes can be found online in any case. Another thing that is a bit better in the Palmer book, particularly if you’re into process learning, is that it suggests recipes and walks you through these. This, leads me to one of my 2 issues with both of these books.
The first issue, is the teaching approach. Both follow the beginner, intermediate and advanced brewing division. To clear this up, and since I haven’t done it yet, this refers to the following:
- Beginner – Malt extract brewing
- Intermediate – Malt extract brewing with specialty malts and hops
- Advanced – Full grain brewing
Now, don’t get me wrong, this is the correct way to go; its the best way for a COMPLETE beginner to go about things. But, if you’re in my situation, namely someone who has brewed at the beginner level but wants to skip to the advanced without going through intermediate, the books aren’t so straight forward. In other words, you have to read all levels and get familiar with all the processes at all levels to understand the advanced… why? because each new level excludes what was already learned in the previous level. That being said, this a very particular situation to be in, and its our fault in any way, so don’t let this detract from both books, they truly are good books.
The second issue is, being a stickler for details (and equipment) and overwhelming details. By this (and this is just my opinion) I mean that since the book is written by absolute and awesome beer geeks, they go overboard with the needed equipment and necessary processes, and while they explain other methods they don’t give enough credit to the simplest ones (they don’t give many examples of how to use them). To be more specific, if you’re in a situation like us (skipping brewing levels) its overwhelming to have to worry about everything. This is highlighted by the fact that Anni has been reading Finnish brew blogs and I’ve been reading books written by pure american home brewers. As an example of this conflicting view, the following list contrasts the generic Finnish homebrewer (according to blogs and friends), to the american homebrewer (according to the books reviewed here) in terms of “Full Grain” brewing:
- Water pH.- Finns don’t really care, books suggest controlling pH to different acidity depending on the beer.
- Mashing.- Finns use one big pot with a huge infusion bag and control temperature with a mix of stove and water. Books suggest having 2-3 25L pots/containers and the mashing process consists of regulating the temperature with hot and cold water.
- Fermentation.- Finns sometimes use secondary fermentation and mostly bottle after first fermentation, books suggest that secondary fermentation is usually compulsory (depending on the recipe).
To be clear, the list and the generalisation above is meant as an example and by no means does it discredit either parties. I just find this particularly interesting due to the situation we’re in: Do we want to be a stickler for details and have all the most awesome equipment for our first “advanced” level beer? Or do we compromise between both advanced and simple processes?
As far as we’ve discussed, we’re compromising between both. And in terms of book reviews and personal suggestions the conclusion can be the following:
- If you’re starting or are interested in starting to brew, both books are good, but I’d incline towards the Palmer book. Especially if you’re interested in math, engineering and the nuances of beer making.
- If you want to be a stickler for details and want to have ALL the equipment needed to make this easy, you only need the books and a significant initial investment.
- If you want to brew advanced level beer(full grain) using a simpler process I’d suggest a mix of book education and blog/forum education.
- Above all, I’d suggest to not be overwhelmed by details. It’s very easy to get to the point of knowing too much but not having a clear view. Read, learn, don’t worry and DO, ultimately that’s the only way to learn.
Ignoring the fact that this has turned out to be a longer post than expected, I hope you enjoyed it. Our next post will probably by related to our equipment and what we’ve bought.