The more you know

When I started home brewing, I thought I understood what makes a good beer. I read a lot about beer and ingredients, talked to brewers, and drank even more beer. But my early beers were bad. As I improved as a brewer, I learned to appreciate beer on a new level, elevating how I think and talk about the brews I enjoy.

I spent a lot of time drinking beer before I started brewing it, but there is nothing like tasting each ingredient to understand its contribution to the overall flavour.

“Home brewers typically develop their palates a little quicker than those who just go out a lot,” says Shean Higgins, co-owner of Tidehouse Brewing in Halifax. Before starting Tidehouse, he worked at Noble Grape, and started home brewing in 2008.

You can know that Maris Otter malts are “biscuity,” but tasting the hot grain straight out of your mash tun allows you to isolate that flavour in a way that appreciating it in a beer can mask.   

It’s easy to complain about a $12 bottle or $8 pint until you’ve bellied up to the cash at your local home brew store and paid $70 for a bag of grain. Now ponder that your average local brewery is pouring 10 (or more) of those into a single brew. Add to that hops, other ingredients, taxes, employee salaries and benefits, and more. The price makes more sense.

In addition to helping you appreciate the time and expense that goes into making your favourite local beers, home brewing helps you make the beer you like at home for less.

“When I first started home brewing, I realized I had a constant supply of flavours I enjoyed at home, so I was more apt to go out and try a new beer,” says Stephen Crane, new assistant brewer at Spindrift Brewing in Burnside, a former Noble Grape employee and enthusiastic home brewer since 2013.

Living in Atlantic Canada, there are many beers we’ll hear about, but never find locally like Heady Topper by The Alchemist from Stowe, Vermont, but online “clone” recipes abound. You also might be surprised how easily local breweries will share their recipes (and advice) if you ask nicely.

Much of what I’ve learned about beer I learned in the grain room at Noble Grape on Oxford Street. In that room, the size of a generous bathroom stall, you’re surrounded by grains and hops to smell and taste. More than once I’ve learned or shared a tip with someone who asked what I’m brewing.

You don’t need to hang out in the grain room all day to learn a thing or two. Brewnosers, an Atlantic Canadian web form and brew club, offers abundant opportunities to ask advice on brewing process and ingredients. Plus, there are many local brewing groups to discover on Facebook.

“I’m part of this Dartmouth home brew club, and all of them are dads and I’m not yet,” says Crane. “Some of the guys are really serious about it, and some of them just come out to chat about beer. In any other situation we’d never have met.”

When you start home brewing, the first thing that you’ll learn is that you’ll make a lot of bad beer until you get the hang of it. I’ve poured out at least a barrel. But from each of those 23-litre buckets you dump, you learn something about what went wrong and how to make it right. Your beer will improve. You’ll learn to identify those flavours in other beers. You’ll nod knowingly the next time someone says a beer tastes buttery.

Stemming from that last point, failure is part of trying new things. By learning your craft at home, you’ll develop a deeper appreciation for how much work local brewers pour into their product.

“It’s similar to kneading bread with your hands,” says Crane. “You can’t understand textures and tastes if you don’t experience it. Being able to home brew, you get more of an intimate knowledge of the ingredients and what you’re drinking. And you have an increased respect for what you’re drinking and the person who brewed it.”   

Must-try beers: Home brewers turned pro

Spindrift Brewing
Burnside, NS

Change is afoot at Burnside’s lager brewery. It recently welcomed head brewer Kyle Jeppsen (formerly of Gahan Harbourside) and assistant brewer Stephen Crane to the team, and bid goodbye to founding brewer Kellye Robertson (off to Shipwright Brewing Co. in Lunenburg, N.S.). Concurrently, the formerly-lager-only brewery is now offering ales. It is as an IPA should be, bitter, piney, with a hint of floral. Watch for it in the NSLC this month.

Weak Sauce (pale ale)
Tidehouse Brewing

Tidehouse is making a near beer. “I am personally trying to drink less,” says Higgins. “My habitual nature is to grab a beer when I come home, and then another, which isn’t good for a productive Wednesday.” Most malt-flavoured beverages are too bland to drink, but this is packed with a striking amount of Citra hops. Alcohol tends to destroy the flavour of dry hops, those added after fermentation to lend a big hop flavour. This beer brings the hops you need without the hangover you don’t.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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