Fritz and Maria's Beer Column
Last year we wrote about homebrew machines, including the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery (williamswarn.com).
Our opinion was that it is best suited for brewers with plenty of disposable income and primary interest in easy, fresh, good beer.
This brewery isn't necessarily made for those who have the time or interest to make brewing a hobby, spending every Saturday in the shed, tinkering with equipment, new ingredients, recipe development, etc.
We were recently invited to put this theory to the test. Ian Williams, president and founder of WilliamsWarn, invited us to help judge a competition for Personal Brewery owners to see who could make the best New Zealand Pale Ale.
The challenge here, though, is that while the Personal Brewery is designed for brewing from a malt kit, there wasn't a specific WilliamsWarn NZ Pale Ale kit.
This means brewers had to go beyond the "add the kit, press the button" mode and act like homebrewers.
We've long been fans of kit brewing as a starting point for homebrewing, and we know there are infinite ways to quite successfully "pimp your kit beer".
Many people make beer at least as good as commercial beer by modifying kits and for a few that's plenty. At last year's A&P show, Josh Denize submitted several excellent entries from modified kits in his Personal Brewery.
So, we anticipated these 60 NZ Pale Ales to be a fairly narrow range of entries. Normally in homebrew judging, we get quite a wide variety of recipes even within a single style, and many will have significant flaws relating to sanitation, temperature control or ingredient quality.
But WilliamsWarn provides very high quality kits, and has nearly eliminated sanitation and temperature issues with their system and instructions, so we'd expect less variety and the flaws greatly reduced.
But a funny thing happens to many brewers once they have mastered a perfect version of their favourite beer. Unexpectedly, they want to try more new beers, they want to know more about brewing and they want more control of their brews. Without planning it, they suddenly have become homebrew hobbyists. Even if they went out of their way to get a machine to make one perfect, consistent beer every time.
Ian, whose background is in the brewing industry, admits that he had very little experience with craft beer when he started his quixotic mission to create a home brewery. But now the company is encouraging experimentation and providing excellent homebrew support. Blair, a staffer who started out as a customer, says he has also experienced a rapid evolution in his own beer tastes since buying his Personal Brewery.
So what we got was quite a broad spectrum of beers. Not all of them were within the style, including a ginger beer and one made with wheat yeast. Many others pushed the style edges from dark and roasty malts to extremely high hop bitterness and flavour.
Some beers obviously started from English pale ale kits, others from American pale ale. Some were even all-grain brews, not from a kit at all.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we experienced a few more flaws than we'd expected as well. These challenges, ranging from astringency from added grains to struggles with balancing hops and malt, make sense if you are no longer relying on a tried and true kit.
And this somewhat confirms our view that this machine is only foolproof in so far as you stay within its limitations. Beyond that requires some brewing skill and knowledge.
But overall, the flaws were minor and the beers were good. Some of the beers were excellent, and that brought a few important lessons.
First, Ian had slipped a few commercial ringers into the blind judging to keep us on our toes, and none rated top 10, confirming that these Personal Breweries can put out great beer, and proving that making fresh homebrew made well is worth it.
Also, the top prize went to Hamish Evans, who used the new Black Rock Riwaka kit - yes, a NZ Pale Ale kit.
He simply added a few more hops, and it was fresh, lovely and very New Zealand, so there's something to be said for relying on an expertly brewed kit for the base of your beer.
At the end of the day, there's no shame in using kits or fancy machines to make homebrew. Just be warned that brewing might grow into an obsession.
Emerson's Brewery has released their 2014 JP – they make a different Belgian style each year in honour of legendary Otago professor J P Dufour. For this year's Saison, Richard Emerson says, "We have brewed the beer using Classic European noble hops in the mash and the kettle. The mash had a combination of raw and malted wheat plus a dash of rolled oats as well as the usual Gladfields base malts."
- The Nelson Mail