Book Review: Brewing Better Beer

Brewing Better Beer
Gordon Strong
Brewers Publications
315 pages

This is a book that lends itself to an elevator pitch: Gordon Strong is the only three-time winner of the national Ninkasi homebrewing award and the highest-ranked BJCP judge in the country; let's let him a book to walk homebrewers through his approach and technique as if they were there in the back yard with him.

That's how the book reads, anyway. Strong is given broad latitude to just offer his opinion and preferences about how to brew. This isn't a comprehensive how-to guide; it's sage wisdom from one of America's best homebrewers. So, you get an extensive preamble on Strong's philosophy of brewing, with nuggets like, "I manage complexity through abstraction to avoid information overload" (emphasis his). In another passage, he encourages you to "think like" and offers five subheads: an engineer, a chef, a judge, a carpenter, and a Jedi Master. This is perhaps the weakest chapter.

In subsequent sections, he just walks through various topics and offers his views--things like processes, equipment, and ingredients. Here's a section on hop selection to give you a sense of the book:
For high-alpha bittering, I like Magnum for a clean bitterness and Tomahawk otherwise. Challenger is my favorite for English beers, but they're somewhat hard to find. For moderate bitterness, I'll use whatever I have; it doesn't much matter. More often than not, I'll just use the same types of hops I'm using for late additions so the character will be compatible....

I don't dry hop much anymore, although I do when I make IPAs and American barleywines. I much prefer hops added at knockout or in the whirlpool.
At first, I was put out by the style: what do I care what your preferences are, Gordon? Everyone has preferences. But later, I began to enjoy it. There's a sense of liberation in reading about one man's opinion--you realize that so much of brewing is personal preference. Many homebrew books make you feel like there's a right and wrong--or at least a pretty serious orthodoxy. (Having interviewed enough professional breweries, I've already encountered one version of this. Pros all have their preferences, they are absolutely adamant that this is the only way--and they all contradict the preferences of other, equally adamant, equally celebrated pro brewers.)

Strong only discusses all-grain brewing, but I wouldn't call it a book for advanced brewers. It's accessible enough that even I could follow everything, and I am by no means advanced. It's handy in exactly the way talking to other brewers about their methods is handy: you discover tips and techniques you haven't tried. Since Strong is so accomplished, it's worth paying attention.