Beer brewing attracts a wide range of folks from the uber creative and crafty, to highly technical and scientific-minded. If you're lucky, you have a mix of both qualities, or at least colleagues to collaborate and balance strengths. For the most part, the published resources lean toward the very technical (we'll say it – DRY) side, leaving a significant void for those of us who benefit from graphic/visual learning. With a background in design and creative direction, a stellar palate, and a gift for developing "radical" recipes, author and beer icon Randy Mosher has taken the lead at filling that visual text book void. His latest, Mastering Homebrew, is chock full of concise and well designed infographics, covering aspects of the brewing and recipe building process – a must-have resource for brewers at any level.
As a fellow homebrewer and label designer, we've had a number of conversations with Randy over the past two years leading up to the release of Mastering Homebrew, revolving around the process of writing and designing a visual guide to beer. So when it was finally complete, we could not wait to get our hands on a copy. We also had some label designs featured, which was quite an honor.
We grabbed a few pints with Randy to discuss not only the book itself, but his thoughts on beer styles, changes in brewing culture, and the future of craft beer.
HttA: It's been 6 years since your last book, Tasting Beer. The forward of Mastering Homebrew touches on a global beer journey – what have you seen change in that time?
RM: The last homebrew book was Radical Brewing (2004), so a lot has happened since then. American-style home brewing around the world has exploded and that's been exciting. People in Europe, South American and Asia started looking around like we did in the 70's 80's thinking – Man, this beer is boring! They've traveled around, seen good beer and can go back with examples of how to do it. And they also know that it is possible to change the marketplace, that those industrial beers don't have to be the only beer. People who are passionate, work hard and make good beer can create a culture and make those beers sustainable.
It's also exciting to see people getting beyond the basics – researching local ingredients and creating recipes that express their own personalities.
HttA: What do you think it is about homebrewing that makes it such a popular and approachable hobby?
RM: I think a lot of it has to do with the social aspect of beer, that's it's just fun to drink beer with your friends. You look at the hobbies that revolve around consumption – beer is the most social. For the amount of money and effort spent, it's a pretty good return. Once you get comfortable with recipe design and seek out resources, it can be such a creative outlet with a blank slate every time.
HttA: How do you think all of the experimentation is going to affect or change the integrity of classic beers styles? Where do you see the future of beer evolving to?
RM: We have this illusion that these styles are fixed and timeless, but once you start looking at the history of them, they're shifting sands. The beer I'm drinking is a London Porter, but I don't know if it's a London Porter from 1850, or 1800, or earlier. Every generation the styles evolve into something different. We need styles to be fixed beacons because we try to brew for competitions, but its an artificial construct that's not as permanent as we imagine.
Working with two breweries, making beers that are not to style, I can see that there are people who have a hard time drinking a beer that's a style they don't know, because it forces them outside of their comfort zone. Others love that. As a brewer trying to sell an IPA – how do you do that? Is yours really better than Lagunitas or Firestone Walker? Who's handle are you going to take? There are only so many ways to make something "to style" and that can be limiting.
HttA: The book starts out talking about brewing with both sides of the brain. Why is this important and what are pitfalls of one-sided brewing?
RM: I was always kind of a science geek with poor arithmetic skills, so I didn't end up in science. Because beer is an art you can't have science alone tell you what's good. You can't have a completely scientific approach that's going to taste good. So you have to make judgement calls and ask yourself – what's cool, what flavors would I enjoy?
"The soul, the point of view, trying to share and express something is what people crave, in craft beer and in homebrewing."
HttA: What do you think one of the biggest misconceptions of the brewing process is?
RM: I don't think people give yeast enough credit. Managing temperature is difficult and some people tend to not be in tune with how much it can do. People build their models around one experience, lock it away and don't replenish and rebuild. The best brewers I know are constantly tasting the malt, smelling the hops, replenishing memories and reminding themselves of the nuances. It takes work and time. You gotta know the ingredients. You can't make assumptions.
"If you're really going to be an artist, you have to master your medium. You have to know what you're painting with and how it works."
HttA: How did you approach the creative process of writing this book in particular, which has a very graphic-focused communication style?
RM: Being a visual person and artist, geometry was the easiest math class because it involved pictorials. Whenever I can make translating numbers into something you can look at I feel like it helps better get the idea across. First I started with the charts. Mastering Homebrew is a descendant of my first book, Brewer's Companion (which is currently out of print). I was homebrewing during that time and made worksheets documenting the colors of malt. And then I made a chart for hops, and one for water. I had stacks of graphic displays of numerical information I created, and I felt like a lot of that content still had validity.
Second, I wanted to depict the brewing process graphically. So we walk through each of the mashing and sparging processes, lining them up side by side, so that you can visually see the differences in technique.
Third, I was trying to make the book feel human. It's homebrewing - I felt like it needed to be fun, it had to look like something you wanted to do – by having quotes from notorious brewers, but also being able to show pictures of everything. When people absorb that stuff visually, it is a different type of learning. And then because they wanted each chapter to start on a right hand page, there are these dead pages at the end of the chapters and I wanted the end pages to be filled with some lively stuff. I sent out requests to people i knew and forums all over the world asking for labels in exchange for a copy of the book. It got a lot of interest and great label designs from Eastern Europe, Poland and Czech Republic. It would be cool to do a show of some sort of show at least get them up on a website to give people proper credit. Label design has always been one of things I loved most about homebrewing. As soon as I started I was copying old cuts out of Dover books, xeroxing, stamping and it was totally fun. Beer tastes better in a cool bottle, there's no question about that. You don't have to do it – but it makes people more interested. And it's part of the self expression.
|A sampling of homebrew labels contributed from around the world.|
HttA: People like to throw around the term "craft beer bubble." As someone who has seen a few decades of the ebb and flow of the beer industry, what’s your reaction to the term?
RM: Simple: it’s bullshit. These things flow in hundred year cycles. If you think about the 19th Century, people got involved in this idea of progress. We don’t have that any more –you grew up in an era of no progress. I was growing up in the 1960’s, we thought we’d be flying cars around the sky and living on the moon. The Jetsons wasn’t just a cartoon, it was the belief. We thought the future was going to be so great and unlimited. Clearly that was an unrealistic thing.
As the food supply starts getting further from the supply and more processed, there's more chemistry, less food. People were sharing "culture" by eating Campbell soup and drinking Coca-Cola – that was our culture for people to all feel like "real Americans." It was convenient and easy, there wasn’t that sense that we were losing something from it.
That mentality turned around in the 1960’s with the counter-culture “whole earth catalogue,” an alphabetical catalogue of stuff that wasn’t modern – maple syrup buckets, cheese making kits.... 45 years later they're mainstream hipster stuff that’s all coming back. It never really went away, but they were the last surviving examples of agricultural and manufacturing traditions that were squeezed out because of modernism. Part of the boomers contribution was to bring back the things of meaning, like food that taste good. Homebrewing is one of those expressions – good beer, good coffee, fermented foods. I don’t see any way of putting that notion of unlimited progress back in the bottle.
"Modernism is oppressive. I think when it comes to food and drink people want the sense of humanity, something that’s real and complex. That’s the thing that the big brewers are grappling with – they can have the skus on the shelf, but being large doesn’t offer the advantages that it used to."
Right now there's a paradigm shift of what people want. Your generation is not only not sold by advertising, but there’s a feeling of – if it’s advertised, it must be bad. And suspicious. They [macro breweries] can leverage the power that they have, which they certainly do – but it can’t make them cool. They’re hoping that you just close your eyes and keep drinking it. It must be an incredibly frustrating time for them.
About Randy Mosher: Randy is the author of five beer and brewing books. He also writes a regular column for All About Beer, called The Taster. Mosher is a member of the faculty of the Siebel Institute and teaches for the Doemens Beer Sommelier program. Mosher is also a creative consultant specializing in new product development and design for craft breweries, and is a partner in two Chicago-area breweries: 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and Forbidden Root. For more, visit randymosher.com (Photo credit: Nancy Cline)