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Steve Wagner.One of this fall’s most interesting beer books, The Craft of Stone Brewing Co., tells the story of how Stone’s founders, Steve Wagner and Greg Koch, created the aggressively hopped, intensely flavored beers that turned their San Diego company into one of America’s iconic craft breweries. But before Stone launched in 1996, Wagner was just an ambitious home brewer. Here, he reveals the five biggest home-brewing flubs, and why sometimes it’s good to make mistakes.
1. Forget to take notes. When you like the results of a home brew, you’ll want to re-create it—and that means having kept track of not only ingredients but also boiling times and fermentation temperatures. “To me, keeping detailed records is one of the signs of a really good home brewer,” says Wagner.
2. Try all your ideas at once. “When you use too many ingredients,” Wagner says, “they cancel each other out and make for a muddy, indistinct beer.” Instead, stick with simple recipes until you really feel like you’ve gotten it right. Wagner points out that though Stone’s beers are aggressively flavored, they have short lists of ingredients. The company’s flagship beer, Arrogant Bastard Ale, for example, calls for just one type of hop.
3. Underestimate the importance of yeast. “A lot of times, home brewers will be thinking about the water and the hops and the malt,” says Wagner. “When it comes to yeast they say ‘Well, I've got this old package in my pantry.’” Getting a healthy fermentation started—as quickly as possible—will help you avoid all kinds of problems. Use a fresh yeast starter.
4. Pull the plug on mistakes. One of Wagner’s greatest successes started as a mistake. As the book details, Stone's flagship Arrogant Bastard Ale was the result of a massive ingredient miscalculation. “We debated dumping it down the drain,” says Wagner. “But we let it finish, and when we tasted it, we were like ‘Nobody's going to like it, but it's really cool.’” (The brew was so intense that the founders weren't sure it could find a market.) Wagner advocates finishing any brew you start. If you do wind up with a flawed beer, keep in mind that bottle aging will often temper rough edges.
5. Add too much sugar and blow up your beer. Of all the ways a home brew can go wrong, this is the most dramatic. If you’re carbonating the beer without any special equipment you’ll do so via “bottle conditioning,” inducing a secondary fermentation in the bottle by adding some form of sugar to react with the still-active yeast. “It’s better to start out with too little priming sugar,” says Wagner. “If the carbonation isn't good enough, build it up a little next time.” Alternatively, if you overdo it with sugar, you'll get what’s known to home brewers as a bottle bomb—a bottle that explodes from excessive pressure.