May 23, 2012

The Good and The Bad: A Review of Gordon Strong's Brewing Better Beer

This book has picked up a lot of flak since it came out last year, mostly around Strong's attitude. Subtitled, "Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers" I thought it might have at least a few pieces of information that haven't been disseminated around the internet. I found some criticism extremely warranted but there is some good information in this book. Unfortunately I find Strong's writing style really detracts from the book; so much so I would not recommend purchasing it. Good ideas are lost in lazy writing and his required assumption that he is right because he says so. If you have a chance to borrow a copy or purchase a cheap used copy it would be worth your time to thumb through it. To be fair, I have broken down what I liked and what I disliked about the book. You may find it more or less useful than I did.

The Good

The recipes in the book look pretty good. I'd like to try brewing some of them to see if they at least live up to his hype. They aren't super complex recipes (no bourbon barrel aged double imperial moon dog green stout with vanilla, cherries and dandelion aged for three years with brett and pedio) but they also aren't basic pale ale recipes.

Strong's steeping dark malt technique. I don't know if Strong came up with this or borrowed it from somebody else but it's a good technique and probably the single most important reason to thumb through the book. Strong argues that you can  get all the flavor out of dark specialty malts without the acridness by not mashing them. Instead he argues you should steep them, either hot or cold. The discussion is fairly thorough on the different effect of either hot or cold steeping. It's interesting for sure and I've read about a few people who have tried this method with really good success. I think there's plenty of room to explore making beer with lots of dark malts but steeped so all the flavor comes through without the level of acrid bitterness that would come from using that much in the mash.

Strong is also a big fan of late hop additions from flame out to chilling instead of dry hopping. He claims you can get similar flavor and aroma without risking oxidation and vegetal flavors that can come along with dry hopping improperly. That sounds like a great opportunity to eliminate a possible point of off flavors for you fans of hoppy beers. He also makes a good case for the benefits of first wort hopping.

Another topic I found novel in his book (pun not intended) was a discussion of post-fermentation adjustments to the finished beer. I don't recall any homebrewing book discussing this subject, although I'm sure the professional and academic literature is fairly full of it. Strong discusses making various additions to the final product to fine tune the taste.

Although I have more to say on this subject in the second half of the review, Strong does a good job of explaining the all grain process and somewhat decently discusses recipe formation in a way that's likely very helpful to brewers looking to make the jump to all grain or just getting their feet wet with it. The first half of the book, where he discusses the all grain process, feels like an update to The Joy of Homebrewing with new techniques that didn't make it into the most recent addition.

The Bad

My biggest issue with this book is Strong's overall writing technique. He comes out in the introduction and says he wrote the book to be like having a conversation with him and although he has read many brewing texts, he will provide little or no references. The underlying assumption is that you should just believe what he says because he says it and it must be right and you couldn't possibly need to know more than what he is going to write. Unfortunately he fails to deliver a clear and detailed discussion to even approach the kind of thoroughness to excuse not providing references. The book is written like Strong compiled a bunch of stuff he wrote on the AHA forums and things he found online and just edited it together into a book. Truly lazy writing. What's worse is that he says several times that he was the technical editor for Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing. So he even knows better.

The subtitle of, "master lessons for advanced homebrewers" is just not true. That kind of language makes me expect some homebrew Jedi lessons about making awesome recipes or techniques that make homebrew destroy commercial beer. That kind of stuff is nowhere in this book. Half the book is a basic discussion of mashing and the second half is sort of a discussion of recipe formulation. As I said before, a good book for new all grain brewers. Not exactly advanced if you have spent a few hours online reading about homebrew. Seriously, is advanced homebrewing. Not this book.

Following on those two points, Strong never gets into making a detailed discussion of anything. He just sort of hints at various things and moves on. It gets worse as the book progresses. Early on he does a better job with the easy stuff but by the time he's talking about adjusting the final beer he just throws ideas out without any way to execute and certainly without a clear process. He sets up lots of paths for good discussion but never completes. If you wanted to actually do almost anything discussed in the book you need to find another source to learn the actual process or specifications.

The second half of the book is mostly useless. The recipe section just sort of talks at an idea and then gives a recipe. No real discussion about how to form recipes. Nothing about how combinations of different ingredients produce different flavors. To me an advanced homebrewer needs to know particulars about putting together recipes, not that it can be done. There's a whole section where he talks about the tongue. WTF?


I actually tried to cut down on the bad stuff because a lot of it repeated my thoughts about how poorly written the book is. I wanted to excuse it as just bad writing but I've heard him on some podcasts and he always seems to have that approach. Just throws out ideas without specifics and when asked for them hems and haws and never produces. It's not a useless read but I would say if you have brewed a few all grain batches you probably have severely limited use for this book. If you can find a copy to thumb through it's worth doing so but not worth $18 unless you plan on reselling it to the internet.

1 comment:

  1. Solid review - I have not added this one to my library yet, but it sounds like it might not be worth it. I know everyone feels differently about how people present themselves. I am a big Jamil Z fan, but I know there are tons of people who think he is pompous and much akin to your descriptions of Strong's writing in this book. The one thing I do have to say is that the two of them have combined for 5 of the last 8 years Ninkasi Award winners. So scientific or not, they are doing something right!