Probing the minds of pro brewers

Probing the minds of pro brewers

Jamie McQuillan, neuroscientist and part-time brewer at Cell Division Brewery gets into the heads of New Zealand’s brewers to discover exactly what is required to make a great beer.


Most brewers would admit that brewing a drinkable beer is not that hard, as long as you follow a decent recipe and pay attention to a few basic processes like cleaning and sanitation. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why home brewing is an increasingly popular hobby. Brewing a truly great beer, however, is another thing altogether.

For some time now I have been pondering what is it that really sets a truly great beer and its brewer apart from the crowd? In my quest for an answer I decided who better to ask than the brewers themselves? I tasked a panel of some of New Zealand’s top pro brewers (see the end of the article for a list) with the question: What do they think are the three most important factors to consider in the quest to make a great beer? As it turns out, this was no easy task (for either them or myself) and the results were quite eye-opening. As you will see, there are a plethora of factors to consider – some predictable and others that might be a little more surprising.

What follows is a synthesis of the myriad of responses received from the panel, interwoven with my own thoughts and perspectives. Collectively, the responses could be grouped into five broad categories: (1) technical proficiency and process, (2) yeast and water (3) style, ingredients and balance, (4) the senses, and (5) creativity. This article is intended to highlight areas of the brewing process that should be given careful consideration in the quest to make a truly great beer, rather than to provide a comprehensive ‘how to’ guide. Resources covering the how to are abundant, including other articles on the League of Brewers’ website.


(1) Technical proficiency and process

 It is probably timely to mention that a great beer will not magically materialise just because you have a fancy brewing kit. It’s your ability and method that count, not how much your equipment costs. Regardless of one’s setup, a brewer should aim to understand what is going on at every step of the process in order to really hone their craft and brew the best possible beer. This can be achieved by being both observant and through technical analysis. As put by Kelly Ryan of Boneface Brewing “to get consistency, to strive for perfection, to hit the targets you set for yourself as a brewer, whether that be based on analytical data like gravity or pH, or getting that perfect brew with high brewhouse efficiency, brilliant clarity (or haze for that matter!) and a fine flavour and aroma - all of this can be aided by analysis”.

Analysis also encompasses fault detection. Unfortunately, poor attention to process or lack of proficiency can lead to a number of off flavours or faults in beer, including butterscotch, Band-aid, cardboard and even vomit!  North End’s brewer Kieran Haslett-Moore tells us that knowing how faults present in a beer is halfway to dealing with them. This can be extended to having the skill and confidence to know when the beer is fault-free and ready for drinking. For example, it can be as simple as taking 15-20 minutes to run a forced diacetyl test, which will quickly turn an undetectable precursor (α-acetolactate) into that (in most cases) unwanted flavour and aroma of butterscotch.

Analysis can also tell you whether the finishing gravity is stable, and the beer can be safely packaged. There’s no harm in waiting it out just to be certain. Lee-Ann Scotti and Michael O’Brien of Craftwork Brewery produce Belgian styles which can be many years in the making. They are both adamant that rushing a beer is never a good idea. There are a number of fellow brewers of farmhouse and wild beers on my panel, and we are all advocates of time and patience. As Lee-Ann said having patience and thus “the ability to wait for your beer to be the way you want it to be” is key.

Keeping your process simple and intuitive is also seen as an important consideration. Brewing consultant Mike Cheer, well known for advocating the elimination of chaos on brew day, advises a brewer to “remove complexity and chaos from your system, this allows ease of interaction and eventually, an accurate 'feel' for the kit and where your recipes will land.”

Having an organised space in which you know where everything is, and a clear set of steps to follow on your brew day is key to keeping things simple and feeling in control. The latter can also come down to having a good mindset and staying relaxed. Over a year ago, Oli Drake from Wilderness Brewing and I brewed a soon to be released wild beer, using no electricity just open fires and muscle power, plus hay, spontaneous fermentation and vessels galore. It could have been mayhem, but it was one of the most relaxed (although physically demanding) and fun brew days I have ever had. As Oli puts it “the state of mind of the brewer can have a big impact on the final beer and affect all of the more technical aspects of what makes a beer great (i.e. yeast health, sanitation and ingredient quality).” Fingers crossed he’s right!

The importance of process also extends to style and historically appropriate methods, as Oli and I attempted to mimic in our above experimental beer. Lee-Ann and Michael of Craftwork are also big fans of adhering to traditional processes for their Belgian style beers. For example, they brew traditionally with a step mash, and keg or bottle condition to achieve a natural and soft carbonation. Likewise, I am a big fan of a decoction mash and no boil method for a traditional mixed-ferment Berliner Weisse.  

Paying keen attention to process and method also goes hand in hand with solid record keeping, which even for a one-off beer will help in future brewing adventures, according to Craftwork’s Michael O’Brien. Brewing beer, while definitely an adventure, should never be a set and forget process. A good set of records and notes to look back on will allow the brewer (and the beer) to improve and evolve.


(2) Yeast and water

It should come as no surprise that the importance of yeast and its careful management were given considerable weight by the panel of brewers. If yeast wasn’t specifically mentioned as one of the top three factors, it was often because the brewer felt that its importance was already a given and they wanted to provide comment on other crucial aspects. As Jason Bathgate (McLeod’s Brewery) put it “the yeast do all the work, make sure they are in their best condition and environment for the job”. Multiple panel members felt that ‘getting to know your yeast’ was important, through observing it, smelling it, tasting it and learning how it behaves from pitching early on right through to the finished product. This all feeds into maintaining/propagating healthy yeast cells and sending them off to do their job in abundancy, so they are not stressed out – something which could potentially ruin the beer.

Brewing Consultant Mike Cheer recommends gauging your pitch rate by taking a regularly timed gravity reading (at say 18 hours after pitching), and adjusting the pitch rate up, accordingly.  He also suggests that a drop in specific gravity of ~5-3 points after 18 hours for ales and lagers respectively, is good general rule of thumb. An additional valuable tip from Mike is that no matter what your target pitching rate is, add a 30% fudge factor, as it is safer to over rather than under pitch. At the end of the day, the take home message is to pitch plenty of healthy yeast if you want to achieve a great beer!

Yeast monitoring is particularly important in commercial breweries where the yeast is being harvested and re-pitched over and over for a number of generations. However, getting to know your yeast is also important for the small brewery/home brewer. When it comes to yeast, it isn’t just the health and vitality of the yeast that matters, but also the defining character that different yeast strains bring to the beer. House strains of yeast will also often define that character of a specific brewery’s beer. Boneface’s Kelly Ryan, who has been brewing professionally for 22 years, said that the more he thinks about it, the more he is convinced that it is the yeast that defines things. I couldn’t agree more, particularly when it comes to my own collection of mixed cultures of yeast, lactic acid producing bacteria and Brettanomyces. Also in agreement is Lee-Ann Scotti, who feels that great yeast is vital and that you should get to know it and play with it, but you don't necessarily have to follow the rules. The latter point feeds into the theme of creativity discussed below.

Water is an often overlooked but another vital component of brewing. McLeod’s Jason Bathgate put it in simple but irrefutable terms when he said that “great water makes great beer”, and for Kelly Ryan its importance was almost on par with that of the yeast. In the recipes I write for The League of Brewers, the home brewer is advised that mineral additions are needed in the vast majority of council supplied water sources in New Zealand, to help target an optimal mash pH of 5.2-5.5. Calcium in the water aids in stabilising mash enzymes and is important for yeast health. The mineral additions also play a role in determining the flavour profile of many styles of beer. As such, the water source and/or how the brewer treats it can be another defining character of a given brewery’s beers. There are endless resources addressing beer and water. Don't ignore them. Attention to water can transform a good beer into an award winner.


(3) Style, ingredients and balance

An understanding of beer styles is crucial as any given style provides a canvas upon which to build a recipe. “Even if you set out to break, fuse or subvert a beer style I think it’s important to understand what you are rebelling against” says North End’s Kieran Haslett-Moore. So true, and the best way to familiarise yourself with different styles is to read and drink and evaluate. Find examples of commercially available beers that have a reputation for being true to style and compare them other examples including your beers, and those of your friends. Take a BJCP course. From a home brewers perspective, don’t rely solely on the opinions of your friends and family when they tell you how great your beer is. Of course it is, it’s free! Enter your beers into respected competitions, take on any feedback and build it into your brewing practices. This is how I learned and the advice I took on board transformed my beers.

Knowing your ingredients and how to put them together to produce a well-balanced end product, either to style or otherwise, was viewed by the panel as a stand-out factor in producing a great beer. Every brewer that touched upon this aspect gave weight to the need for quality ingredients. Jess Wolfgang of Rhyme x Reason Brewery summed it up nicely when she said “having an extensive knowledge of raw materials, adjuncts, and knowing how and when to use them is key… for me beer is all about drink-ability and balance”. 

Søren Erikson of 8 Wired Brewing agreed that balance, although an overly used term, is very important. What balance really means is that all the components of the beer work well together. The way that the ingredients are ultimately balanced will vary greatly depending on the style/desired end product. As noted by Craftwork’s barrel wrangler Michael O’Brien “a beer’s malty sweetness should generally be balanced by the bitterness of hops (or herbs). Or in barrel aged sour beers, the microbes that produce the acids should balance out the malt sugars. And yeast, to give more than just sweet or bitter flavours”.


(4) The Senses

 When preparing for this article there was one key aspect of brewing a great beer that I was not quite able to put my finger on. It was Kelly Ryan who hit the nail on the head when he wrote “our ability to use our understanding of aromas, flavours, textures and more is a huge part of brewing. Assessing grains, fruits or hops. Tasting your beer as it progresses from these raw materials through to a carbonated beverage. Nailing the colour you wanted. Getting the perfect interplay between the ingredients you spent so long picking and blending. Without our senses, beer would become nothing”.

The same can be said for food and other fermented beverages and it was right there under my nose, literally. The senses! I use them all the time and perhaps take them for granted. They are your first port of call when you check in on things. Is that ferment smelling great? Can you hear the chugging of a strong healthy ferment? Maybe there is a whiff of sulphur in the air and perhaps the yeast is under a bit of strain. You will want to keep monitoring that and mitigate it where you can. Aromas in the brewery can also be a big giveaway for potential problems, especially in wild and mixed ferment beers. Some of the best examples of those beers I have ever had were produced in impeccably clean smelling barrel-aging facilities. I also confess, I regularly sniff my airlocks for any off aromas.

With any luck you were born with an excellent palate and I believe that this is one of the key factors that sets apart some of the best brewers, chefs, cheese makers, chocolatiers etc. But, never fear, anyone with a reasonable sense of taste and smell can develop their palate through experience. As an example, we are all born with an aversion to bitter and only develop a taste for it with experience. Learn to use your senses, evaluate your beer for both the good and the bad. Take a fault tasting course if you get the chance. Drink and learn. Develop an awareness of any blind spots you might have an ask for the opinion of experienced tasters.


(5) Creativity (X factor, vision etc)

The last but certainly not the least key factor for producing a truly great beer is creativity and its offshoots such as X factor and vision. In fact, when I think about it, each member on my panel is a very creative brewer. This is just as well, since many of today’s beer drinkers are constantly seeking out the next new thing. As Søren Erikson acknowledged it is important to constantly keep improving and looking outside of the square.

For the busy brewer, striving for endless creativity is a big ask, as can probably be said for many creative endeavours. Sometimes the creative spark doesn’t come easily. For Kieran Haslett-Moore, creativity (or originality) combined with good technical quality and balance are what gives a beer X factor, or as he puts it when a beer “hums on all levels and stands out from the crowd”.

Equally, when entering competitions as a home brewer, it might just be that creative spark with an unusual style or an odd ingredient that makes for an attention-grabbing beer. For Jess from Rhyme x Reason Brewery, creativity is all about having a vision for the beer, one that has meaning. For her this meaning is often intertwined with an underlying sense of fun, sharing the love and working creatively as a team.

As a final thought, it is important to keep some perspective. In a world full of beers with an ever-increasing number of adjuncts and fusion of styles it can be easy to lose direction and focus. So on this note a final quote from Jess, and it’s probably the best advice a brewer could ever receive. “At the end of the day it's just a beer. Don't f***en overthink it!”



So, what did our expert panel teach us? It has become evident that a truly great beer requires special attention to all of the key technical steps in the brewing process, alongside a raft of other more subtle and intangible factors that can often be overlooked or taken for granted. The latter include learning to trust our senses, harnessing our creativity, ensuring a good mindset, and not forgetting the fun factor. Both Jess and Oli reminded us that brewing is supposed to be enjoyable, especially for the home brewer.

A number of years ago at Beervana I was lucky enough to meet and chat with Larry Sidor, brew master and owner of Crux Fermentation Project in the USA. One thing he said to me when discussing beer and the skills he looks for in a brewer was that “they have to love the beer from start to finish”. This resonated with me. To make a truly great beer you have to love every part of the brewing process (well perhaps not the endless cleaning…). Hopefully this article will shed some light on the steps you can take to improve your brewing but above all else, please make sure you do it for the love of it and have plenty of fun along the way. You will probably make better beer if you do!

A huge thank you to the following brewers for their time and insight:

Jason Bathgate (McLeod’s Brewery)

Mike Cheer (current Brewing Consultant and head brewer at Thief Brewing)

Oli Drake (Wilderness Brewing)

Søren Erikson (8 Wired Brewing)

Kieran Haslett-Moore (North End Brewery)

Kelly Ryan (Boneface Brewing, formerly of Fork and Brewer)

Lee-Ann Scotti and Michael O’Brien (Craftwork Brewery)

Jess Wolfgang (Rhyme x Reason Brewery)

About the author


Jamie is an award winning home brewer and the owner/operator of his tiny, part-time Dunedin brewery, Cell Division. His day job sees him working as a molecular biologist and neuroscientist at the University of Otago.

You will find Jamie writing beer geek articles for us which will no doubt feature his love of farmhouse and sour beers as well as providing useful advice on things such as yeast, fruiting, and other brewing techniques. We also have him working tirelessly on new recipes, diving into styles not previously featured in our catalogue and we may even convince him to dust off one or two of his award winning recipes for us.