In preparing for Siebel I tore through some professional level texts. A couple weeks ago a friend of mine asked if what I was reading would be a good gift for his father, who is a homebrewer and has a birthday coming up. I figured I’d post this review of the MBAA Practical Handbooks for the Specialty Brewer.  The books can be ordered by clicking here.

I do think that these books have much to offer the serious home brewer, but there is also quite a bit of content that is essentially meaningless in the homebrew setting as well. I don’t think you need the whole set, more on that below, but my assumption in suggesting these books to a home brewer is that they already have in their collection a bunch of the standard homebrew texts. (I won’t list them all here, but I mean the books you can find at almost every local or online homebrew shop.) That is to say, this book shouldn’t be your first or second book, but it probably works as a good third.

The MBAA Practical Handbooks for the Specialty Brewer are a 3 volume set.  The first deals with Raw Materials and Brewhouse Operations, the second with Fermenation, Cellaring and Packaging Operations, and the third with Brewing Engineering and Plant Operations.  The books are laid out in a Question & Answer format, so they essentially read like the teacher’s answer book for a comprehensive short essay test on brewing.  If you’ve read the classic “learn to brew” texts, then this is like getting the answer key for the final of a semester class on brewing, except it is way more in depth than any of the homebrew texts available.  This depth however does not place the material out-of-reach of the homebrewer.  It’s in short answer essay form, and the writing and editing are done in such a way that the material doesn’t require much background information.

While reading the first volume of these  books I thought to myself, I wish I had read these years ago.  I have been pretty hard core with the brewing material I have read in the past, so much of the material was review for me.  Still, it’s presentation made many things clearer to me.  For the homebrewer, I’d recommend Volume 1 for sure, and while half of Volume 2 might be about specifics for commercial brewing, the first 135 page chapter on Fermentation & Cellaring by Daniel Carey and Ken Grossman might make it worth the money to a serious homebrewer as well.  Volume 3 probably has only one chapter that is of interest to home brewer, and that is the chapter on Draft Dispense.  While that section is very useful for people who keg and build their own home draft systems, I find it hard to recommend a 178 page book for 45 pages of relevant material.

Volume 1 is almost completely applicable to homebrewing.  Sure, you’re never going to pelletize hops or work for a maltster.  The understanding of how your raw materials are produced however will lead to a better understanding of how to use them in the production of wort.  One reason I feel so strongly about the value of this volume is that homebrewers often are weaker in their understanding of malt & malting than other parts of the brewing process.  In beer production, barley is really the raw material, but as brewers we often pay someone else to do the first step of beer production which is malting.  Barley and malt take up two chapters and 60 pages of this volume.  That combined with a 35-page chapter on Hops and a 50-page chapter Wort Production through mashing, separation, boiling and chilling form the core of this volume.  There are a couple toss away chapters on Water and Adjuncts, but there are other places that homebrewers have already found better and more applicable information on those subjects.

When people find out I make beer, I sometimes quip that I make sweet tea and the yeast make beer.  That’s part of what makes the first volume so valuable, even though it is describing commercial practices that the homebrewer will never use, those practices are used to create the products that homebrewers use as their raw materials to make their sweet teas.  Despite the fact that its the yeast that make the beer, fermentation control is essential in the production of good beer.  This makes the second volume of this set valuable to homebrewers although half of it may not be applicable to their processes.

Volume 2 is about half applicable to homebrewing, but since the subject is fermentation and cellaring for the most part, it is highly valuable material.  The first chapter, about half of the book, is an in depth look at fermentation and conditioning processes.  Sometimes they go deep on a subject that isn’t useful for homebrewers like 7 pages on how to design a beer cellar from flooring to lighting to ducting.  But the discussions of yeast functions, traditional lager & ale production methods, propagation procedures and the like I believe are useful to brewers of all stripes.  The chapters on Clarification & Filtration and Bottling are essentially non-applicable to homebrewing, and the Lab Methods chapter is either review or better covered for the home setting elsewhere.  The Racking chapter is at least very interesting to beer enthusiasts as you’ll know everything there is to know about the different kegs you’ll find in America (except for dispensing which is covered in the third volume).

Volume 3 is basically irrelevant to homebrewing.  The only chapter that would really be of interest is the 45 page section on Draft Dispense.  It covers everything from construction of insulated python hoses containing several beer runs and glycol cooling lines to proper technique for drawing a beer from the faucet.  If you’re interested in this material, one place to start is the Draught Beer Quality Manual which is provided online for free from the Brewers Association.  Other chapters include Plant Engineering, Plant Sanitation, Environmental Engineering, Safety Operations.  They are all related to commercial equipment that for the most part have no relevance in the home setting.  Even the Draft Dispense chapter isn’t wholly applicable to home draft setups, but a complete understanding of that leads to better drafts operations no matter your setup.

So my final recommendation to homebrewers would be that the first volume at $50 is a good purchase if you’re serious about getting to know your raw materials and how to use them.  It’s harder to justify another 50 bucks for the second volume since much less of the text is relevant, however it is 135 pages of Ken Grossman and Daniel Carey talking about fermentation and cellaring.  The third volume is really not worth the money unless you plan on buying both the first two volumes, then maybe you want to drop an extra $20 for the chapter on draft dispense if you want to know all the essential information used in the industry for pouring beer.