Today marks the 14th annual Learn to Homebrew Day, a day that is celebrated by some one million Americans who brew their own beer. Homebrewing is at the very core of the craft beer boom, with countless professional brewers having honed their chops years prior on a homebrew system. Several established breweries still try out their test recipes on systems not unlike those found in many basements across the country today.
One homebrewer who is in the process of taking the leap from amateur to professional, is Brian Purcell of Decatur, GA. Brian began homebrewing several years ago and is living out every homebrewers dream as he begins work on his own brick and mortar brewery, Three Taverns . I recently spoke with Brian about homebrewing and what it’s like to start a craft brewery.
Brian Purcell: I made a trip to Portland 12 years ago to attend an old friend’s wedding. After a day of sampling the amazing beer and pub culture of Portland, we ended the day at a party where my friend was serving his own homebrewed beer. This was my first taste of homebrew and it blew me away. I never imagined you could make such great tasting beer at home.
Back in Atlanta there was a homebrew shop around the corner from my house, and the first thing I did on return was to buy a homebrew kit. I didn’t actually make my first beer till I moved to the beer hub of Decatur two years later, but once I brewed my first batch I was hooked. I don’t think there has been a month since that I haven’t brewed at least one batch of beer. In brewers’ terms, I got the bug. I can’t imagine not brewing beer now.
Eatocracy: Did your view of beer change after you began brewing your own?
Brian Purcell: Discovering the art and uncovering the mystery of brewing has been nothing short of profound. Beer is an ancient art and, while simple at its very essence, is far from simplistic. A new beer starts with a recipe that can find inspiration from many sources and takes time and talent to formulate. And the outcome of the brewing process is complex and difficult and mostly determined by the skill and creativity of the brewer.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, he writes, “When we put something in our mouth, and in that blink of an eye decide whether it tastes good or not, we are reacting not only to the evidence from our taste buds and salivary gland but also to the evidence of our eyes and memories and imaginations.” Once you understand that, you understand how an amazing beer can be enjoyed and celebrated by all our senses as a gift, a gift to which we can only be grateful.
Eatocracy: What advice would you give for someone that is considering home brewing? Any books or websites you'd recommend on the subject?
Brian Purcell: Most homebrewers could go on for hours on this topic. My experience though distills it down to this one most important thing, “brew it your way”. There are things you shouldn’t do of course, but everybody brews in a different way and brewing is really all about learning.
Your first step might be to watch a friend brew or attend a class. Or you might start with the directions in brew kit or a book like Charlie Papazian’s beloved The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, first published in 1984. Today you can even watch videos on YouTube or subscribe to Podcasts like Basic Brewing. There are even newsgroups and forums on homebrewing you can find on the internet. And every city has homebrew clubs where community is formed and information and techniques are traded and improved upon.
The mediums for learning are endless, but you need to do what is most comfortable for you depending on how far you want to take the hobby. Be your own brewer. Nothing should stop you from making your first mistake, for mistakes can lead you to new heights in making beer. In the end, the sage advice of Charlie Papazian still applies today, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.”
Eatocracy: Does brewing certain beer styles present more challenges than others? Is there a particular style that is more tedious to perfect?
Brian Purcell: All styles take skill to master, but some are definitely more forgiving than others. But to me the Belgian styles, especially the big beers with dry finishes like the Tripel and the Quadrupel are some of the hardest to perfect. The alcohol on these beers typically reach as high as 9-12% with the road to perfection littered with failed attempts, many of them my own in the early years of brewing. The quality of the produced wort (unfermented beer), the health of the yeast and the management of the fermentation environment is especially difficult to master for most brewers, including many experienced commercial brewers.
To match the quality and nuances of the Belgian brewers, especially the monastic brewers, is almost impossible. It is surely impossible without the focus, the practice, the experimentation, and the “Benedictine patience” required for unearthing the mystery of making these truly divine beers.
Eatocracy: You recently lived out the dream of every homebrewer by raising just under two million dollars to start your own brewery. What were the least and most rewarding aspects of that process?
Brian Purcell: It began for me as a passionate dream and the inspiration and drive from a well developed vision was critical for the long hours of research and planning required in making it a reality. This is a capital intensive industry, and unless you are an exception and can self-fund your venture, you have the especially daunting task of raising capital from investors, an effort that requires a thorough and formally developed business plan.
Time and emotional energy was one of the most difficult challenges when trying to balance my current job as a business owner, my commitment to my family and friends, and the many hours away during my four years planning the brewery. And while often mentally and emotionally exhausting, the effort was filled with amazing rewards and surprises.
The breweries that make up the Craft Brewers Association are filled with amazing and deeply passionate people. Whether I was attending an industry conference, interviewing another brewer, talking with pub owners or raising a glass with fellow beer enthusiasts, there was always an inspiring experience of real relationship tied to a common vision for the creation and restoration of good things. Looking from the outside in year after year was a real test to my stamina and commitment, but a vision for life and vocation in this community always spurred me on. And of course there was always the escape into the soul satisfying work of brewing the next test batch of beer.
Finally after months of networking and pitching new investor prospects, we were suddenly rewarded when we raised 135% of our capital requirement in June of this year. As the brewery build-out now accelerates toward a May launch in 2013, I often have to pinch myself to make sure I’m still not dreaming. This is truly my dream come true.
If you’d like some more information about how to begin the process of making your own beer, the American Homebrewers Association"has got you covered. There you can find a listing of all the events taking place today in conjunction with Learn How to Homebrew Day, what you need to get started brewing your first batch of beer, and even how to connect with fellow homebrewers in your area.
What is your experience with homebrewing? Any good stories about a beer that was an accidental hit? Plans or special ingredients for an upcoming beer? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.