Admit it: No matter if in a DeLorean, TARDIS, or a hot tub, we’ve all thought about what advice we might give our younger selves if we could go back in time. Aside from handing your past-self a copy of Gray’s Sports Almanac: Complete Sports Statistics 1950-2000 (#1.21gigawatts), you’d probably want to know what you could have done to improve the quality of your beer from the very start of your burgeoning homebrewing career. (Obviously.)
Below is a list that would have been a veritable goldmine to me when I first started brewing, so past-self, if you get this, you owe me… And you can start pay me/us back by investing in Apple stock, anything under $100 a share, and then sell when it gets to around $650— no need to get greedy. Then, not only could we brag about getting in on Apple before its historic run-up just like all the other dime-a-dozen fish story tellers of the modernized hipster Gordon Gekko variety, but we’ll also finally have the start-up capital we need to open our very own, well funded, state-of-the-art super brewery. But we’ll need some inspiration first… Got it. Book us a brewery tour of, say, Europe (Belgium first, please), where we can undertake extensive “research” into the finer points of beerology. Thanks past-self, you’re the best!
So without further ado, here are the top 40, yes 40, ways to help any homebrewer improve upon their craft. And for those of you just getting started, consider this article a giant life hack into the wonderful world of homebrewing. [A little disclaimer: By no means is this list the end-all be-all of tips to becoming a brew god, nor is tip # 15 necessarily better than tip # 20, so please don’t get irked that ‘Always use Glass Carboys instead of Plastic Ale Pails’ or ‘Kegging is Better than Bottling’ didn’t make the list.] Alight, so without further-further ado…
40. RDWHAHB. Come on, you knew this was coming. When all else fails, consider pouring yourself a tall cool glass of RDWHAHB- the world will be alright.
39. Read this article. Ah, you’ve gotta love a good self-reference, endless loop, meta quip à la Douglas Hofstadter. I feel like this tip should be higher on the list…
38. Complete a formal brewing program. Granted, these programs often come with a hefty price tag ranging anywhere from about $8,800 for a Professional Brewer’s Certificate from UC Davis, on up to Siebel’s WBA Master Brewer Program with a tuition cost of around $27,750, and are probably not viable options for the average homebrewer, which is why it’s not higher on the list. Not to mention, these types of programs are primarily intended for the homebrewer looking to turn pro, but I can pretty much guarantee you that at the very least, the quality of your homebrew will almost certainly improve after completing one of these brewing programs!
37. Use a Secondary Fermenter. Not always necessary (think German Hefeweizen), but racking your beer to a secondary comes in handy when you’re looking to clarify and condition your beer, or if you’re dry hopping with anything.
36. Use Your Local Homebrew Store as a Knowledge Resource. If anyone is going to know about their product and have a passion for brewing, these guys should (usually).
35. Brew more. Experience trumps theory, and perfect practice makes perfect. So get yourself on a regular brewing schedule and stick to it.
34. Watch online brewing videos. In addition to a list of helpful brewers on youtube, I always enjoy BrewingTV; informative, intelligent and helpful advice, all with a good sense of humor- it’s the homebrew way.
33. Listen to brewing podcasts. The Brewing Network (www.thebrewingnetwork.com) is a fantastic resource when it comes to homebrewing podcasts, and the best part is they’re free and downloadable so you can educate yourself on the go. The Jamil Show anyone?
32. Follow your recipe and be precise. Remember what happened in Kindergarten art class when you added all the colors of paint together? Sure, you got firsthand experience discovering all the shades of brown, but then you eventually learned that careful application of color made for better pictures. This may sound obvious, but adding a couple extra pounds of DME that was just laying around the house to your 5 gallon batch of homebrew will definitely change how your finished beer turns out— and probably for the worse. Granted, experimentation is great, but precision and process control equals more repeatable, consistent results.
31. Read brewing magazines and online articles about brewing. Homebrewing and the world of beer are developing faster and faster all the time, so it’s a good idea to keep yourself informed on the latest trends and techniques. Get yourself a subscription to Zymurgy, BYO (Brew Your Own), or both. Low on funds? No problem. BYO posts a ton of their articles online fo’ free (byo.com), and there many other talented and altruistic writers (ahem) from the homebrew community all over the web. While you’re at it, why not get a subscription to Draft, Allaboutbeer, Beer, Imbibe, The Beer Connoisseur, Beeradvocate, and any other craft beer mag you can get your hands on. And no, I don’t get a cut from any of those guys if you do pick up a subscription, but I wouldn’t say no if they wanted to kick a free magazine or two my way…
30. Become a Certified Beer Judge. In order to become a BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judge, you really have to prove you know how to brew. Study the BJCP guide, review their test-prep info, and find a study-buddy. Move up in the ranks within the BJCP, and watch your homebrew knowledge and skill grow.
29. Ask to apprentice/volunteer in a brewery. Ask around- many microbreweries would be happy to show you the ropes in exchange for some help (lifting, cleaning), especially those breweries just getting started. Remember, most professional brewers today started out as homebrewers, and the best ones do what they can to help a fellow brewer out.
28. Enter Homebrewing Competitions/ Get Peer Feedback. Just like Canadian intellectual rapper Baba Brinkman said, the key to your (beer) evolution goes like this: Performance, Feedback, Revision. There are few better places to get that feedback than from competition, where beer goes through a sort of natural selection: the fittest rise to the top while others could probably stand to benefit from some revision. All competitions should offer you feedback, whether it’s a club competition within your local brew club, a state homebrew competition, or the Grand Puba (Maxwell Dixon) of them all, the National Homebrew Competition.
27. Join a homebrew club. True story: I joined my local homebrew club before I brewed my first batch of beer. In fact, I think I joined before I ever really thought I’d want to brew. So, in my case, I might not have ever become a brewer if it weren’t for my local homebrew club. One of the great things about a homebrew club is that every homebrewer in the club usually specializes in a certain branch of knowledge, or has a particular style of beer that they brew really well, and can offer their expertise on that subject. Many homebrew clubs have a formal educational part of the meeting where they discuss various topics relevant to brewing, and many clubs do beer style reviews where they feature a certain beer style, taste it and discuss it. And usually club members will bring their homebrew to the club meeting to share and receive feedback.
26. Brew with other brewers. Not only does it build comradery, you also get to learn and bounce ideas off of your fellow brewers. Many times it’s a fellow homebrewer who gives you that one little tip you were missing in order to perfect a certain process or recipe you’ve been struggling with. The more advanced the brewer, the more you’ll be able to learn.
25. Join an online homebrewing forum like at beersyndicate.com. (Told you we were shameless.). Essentially a virtual homebrew club, online brewing forums enable the homebrewer to learn and share ideas with fellow brewers to help one another share their knowledge and experience. www.homebrewtalk.com is one of the best, but check out the forums at www.reddit.com, www.brewingnetwork.com, www.northernbrewer.com, and even www.beeradvocate.com has a forum too.
24. Mash Temperature Control. For those all grain brewers out there, controlling the mash temperature is key to determining the fermentablity of your brew, and thus key components in your final beer such as thickness, thinness, residual sweetness, dryness, and alcohol content. This topic is debated a bit, but the general rule of thumb is the lower the mash temp, particularly in the 148-152F range, the more maltose conversion takes place during mashing, which produces a higher gravity wort, and generally results in a cleaner, thinner beer with a bit more alcohol. The higher the mash temp (154-160), the less fermentable the wort becomes due to some unfermentable sugars produced in that temperature range which results in a less attenuated (sweeter) beer with more body and less alcohol. There’s even the medium body range of 150-152, which gives you a little bit of both worlds.
23. Don’t introduce oxygen into your beer once fermentation has begun. Yes, I know, I added this tip in the “Don’ts of Homebrewing”, but it’s important, so it gets a little more attention. As with almost everything we eat, exposure to oxygen causes our food to spoil faster. Ever wonder why the flesh of a sliced apple quickly turns from a juicy milky white to an unappealing rusty brown? That’s oxygen at work, and it can have negative consequences in your beer too. Though beer doesn’t exactly spoil in that it won’t make you sick if you drink old beer, it can become unstable and begin to deteriorate and lose its character given enough time and leave you with what I describe as a semi-sweet, apple juice/apple cider/squash, carbonated drink often with notes of wet paper or cardboard. These off-flavors are the tell tale signs of oxidized beer and is a problem that effects both commercial brewers and homebrewers alike. Do your best to limit splashing your beer around while it’s fermenting and when bottling in order to reduce the mixing of oxygen in your beer. Use airlocks when fermenting to prevent oxygen from entering your fermenter, and make sure your fermenter is sealed tight. If bottling, use a bottling wand and oxygen barrier caps to help increase the stability and self-life of your beer, and reduce the chances of stale oxidized notes appearing in your beer.
22. Serve your beer at the proper temperature. Isn’t it annoying when you order a tasty craft beer only to have it brought to you ice cold? Not only do you run the risk of brain freeze if drank too quickly, what’s worse is that you can hardly taste what the brewer worked so hard to create for you! Every style of beer has an ideal serving temperature, but a good rule of thumb is to serve ales around 48F, and lagers just slightly cooler. You’ve made it all the way from grain to glass; don’t stumble at the finish line.
21. Give your beer enough time to age before drinking. Yes, we’re all anxious to see how our beer turned out, but there are very few examples of beers that are in their prime just after a week in the bottle; German Hefeweizen and possibly a big fresh hopped IPA are the only exceptions I can think of. A good rule of thumb is allowing your beer three weeks in the bottle in order to drastically reduce many of the off-flavors you might find in newly bottled beer, a.k.a. green beer. What’s a ‘green flavor’ you ask? The answer is that green flavors really just refer to a lack of balance, or a particular off-flavor that would be eliminated with some aging, and these off-flavors/off-aromas depend largely on the style of the beer. For example, in higher gravity beers, you might get an overly alcoholic character as its green flavor, while lighter beers usually exhibit an overly yeasty quality, or in the case of some lagers, sulfur. Some other beers can be overly sweet, overly hoppy, harsh, sharp, grainy, bitter, you name it, and these off-flavors can present themselves in the aroma, flavor and aftertaste. However, a very common compound found in young beer is acetaldehyde, which is often described as green apples, sometimes apple cider, or fresh pumpkin slices. Just remember, with a little patience, you too can avoid the Green Giant.
20. Make a yeast starter. Ok, let me make a caveat here: A single vial of liquid yeast is enough to pitch directly to a normal gravity (1.040-1.065), 5 gallon batch of wort without making a yeast starter. Generally speaking, I would only make a yeast starter from a single vial of liquid yeast IF I’m adding it to a 10 gallon batch, making a high gravity beer (1.070+), brewing a lager, brewing a really clean ale, or the liquid yeast is a little old. That’s it. I know, the old brewing wisdom was that a starter will always help your beer, but things keep getting better in the world of homebrewing and the good people at White Labs and Wyeast have scientifically designed their liquid yeast vials with enough yeast cells to adequately ferment your standard gravity 5 gallon batch.
19. Use online brewing calculators, programs and apps. Stop with the guesswork. There are so many free, easy-to-use brewing programs out there from priming sugar calculators, to ABV and recipe calculators, it’s insane not to use them. Heck, it’s even worth throwing down a few bucks for some kick ass brewing software like BeerSmith!
18. Aerate your wort just before or at the time you pitch your yeast. Yeast will benefit from an oxygen rich environment at the very beginning stages of fermentation. That said, let me stress: DO NOT shake the fermenter long after you’ve pitched the yeast. Let’s put it this way: It’s best to shake the hell out of your fermenter and then pitch your yeast immediately afterwards. Second best is to pitch your yeast and then shake the hell out of your fermenter immediately after pitching.
17. Create and/or add to your brewing library. There are too many great books to mention them all, but the bottom line is that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Many of the missteps you might make in brewing have already been encountered and remedied, so stand on the shoulders of giants and enjoy the view.
16. Chill your wort quickly. The faster you chill your wort after the boil, the better cold break you achieve which not only helps to clarify your beer, but can help extend the shelf-life of your homebrew by better stabilizing it and potentially prevent certain off-flavors such as sulfur/ cabbage. Not to mention, the quicker you chill your beer, the less risk you’ll have of infection as you’ll be that much closer to pitching your yeast instead of giving some uninvited bacteria time to set up camp. Personally, I use a copper immersion wort chiller in combination with an ice bath, but there are several other common approaches to quickly chill your wort.
15. Brew all-grain batches. True, about half of award winning homebrews are extract recipes, but the other half are all-grain. And when it comes to brewing exactly what you want and not someone else’s ‘malt from concentrate’, all-grain is the way to go. Usually more cost effective than extract batches, all-grain brewing offers the homebrewer more complete control over their recipes and the brewing process. Just remember that all commercial brewers brew all-grain recipes, so if you ever start thinking about taking your recipes and turning pro, you’ll already have one foot in the door with quality all-grain recipes.
14. Boil full-volume batches. Boiling full-volume batches of wort can help with hop extraction, prevent caramelized or scorched malt and the accompanying darker colors that come with scorched malt, and prevent you from unintentionally infecting your beer if back-adding water to your brew. Oh, and when I say ‘boil’, I mean a rolling boil. Not a volcano boil, but not a few bubbles here and there either.
13. Be creative and experiment. Most homebrewers are curious and creative by nature. Whether it comes in the form of recipe development, in the equipment and gadgets we use or build, or the processes we implement, the true homebrewer is driven by a passion for beer to innovate and explore. Try brewing a batch of beer, then splitting the batch into two fermenters and changing just one thing about the beers, like using one yeast strain in one batch and a different one in the other, or maybe dry hop different ingredients like two different types of hops, wood, chili, fruit, whatever. Maybe age one batch longer than the other, secondary one batch but not the other, or prime with different types of sugars.
12. Remember the “don’ts” of brewing: Don’t rack your beer off of the yeast during primary fermentation too soon (give it at least a week), or you may end up with popcorn butter beer (diacetyl). Don’t bottle with any color of bottle other than brown; if you do, keep your beer out of the light, or you might “skunk” your beers. Don’t bottle your beer before fermentation is complete, or you may end up with malty sweet beer, or worse yet, bottle bombs. Don’t ferment your beer much higher than that yeast’s ideal fermentation temperature as recommended by the manufacture, or your homebrew could come out with strong fruit and/or rubbing alcohol characteristics. Don’t steep or mash your grains at temperatures exceeding 170 degrees F, or you may end up with harsh astringent beer. Don’t cover your wort when boiling, or your beer may take on noticeable amounts of DMS which is described as cooked vegetables such as creamed corn, tomato or cabbage. Don’t over mill your grains, or you may end up with dry, husky grainy notes in your beer. Don’t splash or otherwise oxidize your beer after fermentation has begun, unless you’re looking for wet cardboard tasting beer. Don’t keep your beer in the primary fermenter for long periods of time (usually three weeks is ideal), otherwise you could end up with beer that exhibits yeasty and soapy characteristics and a lack of head retention.
11. Brew with quality water. Water makes up the vast majority of beer, and, pound for pound, it’s probably the cheapest of all your ingredients, so it only makes sense that you would want to brew with quality water. Brewing with over chlorinated water can lead to the development of possible chlorophenol compounds (think plastic or vinyl), and sometimes medicinal flavor components in your beer. Not convinced water makes a difference? Try this experiment: Buy a bottle of bottled water and line it up next to a glass of tap water, a glass of water from a garden hose, and a glass of water from a drinking fountain, and compare. Make sure to serve all the different samples at the same time at the same temperature, and see which one you prefer. Even in the off chance you don’t taste the difference, why would you want to skimp on the least expensive ingredient of your beer? That said, in some cases, tap water is ok to use, but for the most part, you’ll want to use some sort of filtered water, either store-bought filtered water, or water from your own home filter or purifier. For all you hydro-heads* out there who really want to get into the topic of water and brewing, check out John Palmer’s book Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers. [*hydro-head: equally as annoying a term as “hop head”, used to describe a beer enthusiast whose idiosyncratic flavor fetish is water.]
10. Use fresh ingredients. Just like any food product, malt, hops and yeast (especially liquid yeast) will deteriorate in quality over time. Sure, there are limited exceptions to this rule like with recipes that call for aged hops, but on the whole, the better beer is the one that is brewed with the freshest ingredients. Old, improperly stored hops can develop stinky cheese qualities, and old unrefrigerated grains and sometimes extract can leave you with musty, grassy and sometimes moldy or metallic flavors in your finished brew. Old yeast may be too weak to fully ferment your beer, leaving you with a stuck fermentation resulting in a sugary sweet malt drink and potentially open up the possibly for other unwanted bacteria to take over and generously contribute any number of potentially nasty off-flavors to your beloved homebew (re: Sweaty Gym Sock Ale).
9. Steep with specialty grains. This tip applies more to the extract brewer, but it doesn’t hurt to steep some of the more roasted specialty malts even if you’re an all-grain brewer. Steeping is one of the easiest ways to add complexity and depth to your homebrew and is a must if you’re brewing only with malt extract.
8. Choose the right yeast for the job. Yeast is the life of beer, and in most cases is responsible for the majority of the beer’s aroma and flavor profile. Often times, the key to the perfect beer lies in the yeast. This isn’t a debate over whether liquid or dry yeast is better because nowadays both will produce excellent beers. That said, you will find more variety with liquid yeast, which means you might end up using liquid yeast more frequently. Take advantage of that variety, so if you’re brewing a Saison, use a Saison yeast strain, not just any old Belgian Ale strain. As a matter of fact, there’s so much variety when it comes to yeast, you can often find different yeast with in the same style of beer. At last check, White Labs [a popular yeast producer] was offering at least four different varieties of Saison yeast alone! If you’re not sure exactly which strain is best for your brew, check the manufactures website, White Labs or Wyest, for example. There you can often find descriptions and recommendations for the various yeasts, and consumer reviews. However, sometimes the best yeast you’ll ever use is the yeast you re-culture yourself from one of your favorite commercial beers. Sounds complicated, but it’s not too difficult if you practice super sanitation and follow a few basic steps for how to harvest and grow yeast from a beer bottle.
7. Research and create your own recipes. Developing your own recipes is part of the fun of homebrewing, but do some homework first. Compare different recipes you might find online, or in books. Look for common ingredients and ratios, and stay within the general framework of those recipes.
6. Pitch the appropriate amount of yeast. Underpitching yeast can stress your yeast and leave you with unwanted estery characteristics, beer that is not fully fermented (i.e. too sweet), or even worse, allow for the potential of other bacteria or wild yeast to infect your beer. The general rule of thumb when pitching yeast is to add about 150 billion viable cells of yeast for a 5 gallon batch of ale wort with an original gravity of 1.050. White Labs states that each vial of their yeast is packaged with 70 to 140 billion yeast cells, which still leaves you short of the recommended 150 billion cells. This 150 billion cell number comes from a formula that mrmalty.com references that shows how to calculate the proper pitching rates. However Mr. Malty, in turn, borrowed their figures from George Fix who authored the book An Analysis of Brewing Techniques. I don’t know who George Fix got his numbers from, but the gist is it’s recommended that you pitch about 0.75 million viable yeast cells, or 1.5 million for a lager, for every milliliter of wort, for every degree Plato.
Here’s the formula: (.75 million) X (milliliters of wort) X (degrees Plato of the wort).
5. Brew with the right equipment. Many times, an artist is only as good as his tools. This holds true for homebrewing as well. Much of the equipment you’re going to use in brewing you will be using over and over again and keep for many years to come, so spend a little bit more up front to make your brewing career a little easier. If I had to recommend a beginner to intermediate brewing setup, I would say get a BIG pot (at least 4 gallons) and if you can brew outside I HIGHLY RECOMMEND a stainless steel keg that’s been converted to a kettle, at least two food-grade fermentation buckets or glass carboys (5 – 6.5 gallons each), a food-grade bottling bucket with a spigot, an auto-siphon and racking cane, a wine thief, a hydrometer, a bottle capper, oxygen barrier caps, a bottling brush, at least 50 brown glass bottles per 5 gallon batch of beer, a precarbonate sanitizer such as One-Step, a brewers spoon, 3 feet of tubing, airlocks, and an outdoor burner, especially if brewing with a keg that’s been converted into a kettle. But my # 1 most recommended piece of equipment to homebrewers is a spare refrigerator with a temperature controller. I even show you how to do it here: Convert a Refrigerator Into a Fermentation Chamber.
4. Sample AND WRITE about several commercial examples of the style of beer you’re trying to brew. Better yet, WRITE ABOUT EVERY BEER YOU TASTE! Buy several commercial examples of the style of beer you’re interested in so you get a clear idea of what’s considered a good example of the style, and what isn’t. And don’t just drink the beer, TASTE IT and WRITE NOTES! Write about what you like best from a particular example, what you might want to tweak about it, and how it stacks up to the general descriptions of the style (see the BJCP Style Guideline as a reference). Write descriptions of the aroma, color, flavor and body, aftertaste, and overall impression allows you to refine your palate when it comes to beer. No need to limit yourself to just commercial examples; write about homebrews too! In little time, you’ll be better able to discern the contributions of various ingredients, pinpoint what you find desirable in a beer in order to recreate it, pick out off-flavors to know what to avoid, and get a better understanding for what is considered a good commercial example of a particular style of beer to use as a benchmark when brewing that style.
3. Keep a brewing journal… the more detailed, the better. Ever brew a beer that you and everyone else loved, but try as you might, you haven’t been able to reproduce it? Sloppy/lazy note taking might be the culprit. If you haven’t heard it before, beer brewing is largely process driven, meaning that if you follow a precise recipe and a specific plan EVERY time, you will end up with basically the same product (we’ll save the discussion about terroir for another day). Here are a few key things to note: (1) mash schedule [if brewing an all grain batch], (2) boil schedule and ingredients: note the quantity and variety of ALL ingredients used including any malts and hops, when you added them to the boil, boil time and pre-boil water volume, (3) fermentation schedule: note the pitching temperature, fermentation temperature/s, how many days in the primary fermenter, gravity readings (especially the Original Gravity and Final Gravity), tasting notes, how many days in the secondary (if any) and note any dry hopping ingredients, (4) if bottling note the bottling date, amount and type of priming sugar used, and (5) tasting notes: jot down the date and describe the beer as it matures over days, weeks, or months if it lasts that long.
2. Fermentation Temperature Control. Some days I seriously consider putting temperature control above sanitation- it’s that important (spoiler alert!). In fact, I’m familiar with at least one very well-known homebrewer who made only one single change to his recipe, a six degree change in fermentation temperature, which ended up turning his ordinary homebrew into award winning beer. Fermentation is where our yeastie friends go to work to transform our sweet malt juice into beer. And being that yeast are highly reactive to temperature especially during active fermentation, temperature control not only helps to avoid many of the common off-flavors you might find in a so-so beer, it can also help you fine tune and showcase the exact flavor/aroma profiles you want in your finished product. As a general rule of thumb, try not to ferment ales warmer than 68 degrees F, otherwise you run the risk of your beer developing unwanted esters such as banana, banana cream pie, topical fruit, gumball, and potentially fusel alcohols which can impart notes of rubbing alcohol or ammonia into your beer. Yum. Remember that during the first three days of active fermentation, the beer inside your fermenter can be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature outside of your fermenter which means that if you’re fermenting in your house at 68 degrees, the temperature inside your fermenter could be fermenting in the upper 70s (bad idea). Homebrewers use several different methods to try and control their fermentation temperatures. Many find a room in the house that maintains a relatively steady temperature, an approach that is better than nothing, but not by much. Others employ the ghetto bucket method, but for my money, adding a temperature controller to a spare refrigerator and using it as a dedicated fermentation chamber is the best way to go.
1. Sanitation. Sanitation is first on the list for the same reason it’s stressed up front by almost every ‘how to homebrew’ book you’ve ever read; it’s so fundamental to good, consistent, beer that it should really just fall under the assumed, self-evident, axiom category of homebrewing. Some might not appreciate how vital sanitation is when it comes to brewing until they brew their first ‘sweaty gym sock’ ale and have to watch all their hard work, time, and money literally go down the drain. The most CRITICAL potential infection times are (1) Any time after you’ve cooled your wort to below 140 degrees F and before you’ve pitched your yeast, and (2) Any time you are making a yeast starter or re-culturing yeast. Aside from being super vigilant during these two danger zones, carefully cleaning and sanitizing your brewing equipment BEFORE and AFTER every use is the corner stone of any brewer worth his weight in malt. I can tell you that the worst homebrews I’ve ever had came from brewers who didn’t practice proper sanitation procedures; you really just have to wonder if they can’t even get sanitation down, what else are they missing…
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Hi, I’m Dan: Beer Editor for Beer Syndicate, Beer and Drinking Blogger, Gold Medal-Winning Homebrewer, Beer Reviewer, AHA Member, Beer Judge, Shameless Beer Promoter, and Beer Traveler. Interests? Beer.