Brewer of the Week: Brian Barrows
Name: Brian Barrows
When did you join the AHA? 2011
Hometown: Originally from Buffalo, N.Y. Moved to Washington, DC in 2007
When did you start brewing? What got you brewing?
I started brewing in late 2008 after helping a friend from graduate school brew a beer. I was very impressed with how he could make beer at home that was every bit as good as commercial craft beer. I knew then that I had to try my hand at homebrewing.
When did you know this was no ordinary hobby, it was an obsession?
I was obsessed with homebrewing almost right away. My first batch wasn’t so great, and I wanted to find out how to make my beers better. I spent the next few months consumed by books, internet forums and blogs about brewing. I applied my new-found knowledge to subsequent batches. In 2009, I placed third in the DC Homebrewers Cherry Blossom Festival competition with my ChamomiAle, a hop-bursted red ale brewed with chamomile tea leaves. It was only my third homebrew and my first competition. Around the same time, I bought a kegging system and converted a chest freezer into a four-tap keezer. I was all-in from the start.
What is your "white whale" beer?
I can’t say there’s a particular commercial beer that I would obsess about trying to obtain. However, I’ve become a fan of sour beers, so I would love to taste an unblended lambic right out of a barrel in Cantillon’s cellar.
What are your favorite craft breweries?
This is tough since more and more come on the scene every day. The top American craft breweries that I know well and have never let me down are Victory Brewing Co, Brewery Ommegang and Stillwater Artisanal Ales. I’m also a biased fan of DC Brau here in The District, and Flying Bison from my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.
Do you have a homebrewing disaster you'd like to share?
My biggest disaster happened in October 2010. I was setting a pot of nearly boiling hot wort onto a table that became unbalanced. As it fell, I had no choice but to try to catch it or else the entire pot of wort would have been dumped on me (and I would have lost all that wort). I wound up getting scalding hot wort in my eyes, on my right forearm and my right leg. However, I recovered from my burns, and the remaining three gallons of wort became a very good Baltic porter.
Do you have a special homebrew related project that you’d like to share?
I could share the plans for my keezer, but that would take some time.
What is your favorite styles to brew?
I enjoy making classic american pilsner. It’s a style that isn’t easy to find and I love how it tastes. I also like making viscous oatmeal stouts.
What styles will you never brew?
Eventually I want to make a good example of every recognized style. However, some styles I would be more willing to give away, such as English IPA, light lager, or roggenbier.
What was the first beer you ever brewed? How did it turn out?
My first beer was a coffee porter extract kit from Northern Brewer. I thought it would replicate the coffee porter I enjoyed at the Rock Bottom in Minneapolis, but it turned out too watery and was more like drinking cold coffee than beer.
Have you ever had a homebrew mistake that turned out great?
The first time I washed and saved yeast from a yeast cake, I stored it in the fridge and forgot about it for about four months. I decided to use it in a Belgian-style blonde ale. I didn’t realize that the yeast was infected, and the beer soured. I rolled with it and added dregs from some sour beers throughout fermentation. The finished beer had intense lactic sourness with some fruity esters from the yeast. With the encouragement of a friend, I entered it into the 2011 DC State Fair homebrew competition where it earned third place!
What is your favorite recipe based off of a commercial style?
I just brewed a cream ale that I wanted to turn out like Genesee Cream Ale. I was glad to get close, since fermenting with ale yeast at lager temperatures can be tricky. I want to refine the grain bill and maybe use a different yeast strain to see if I can get closer to the real thing.
Are you a BJCP Judge? If so, what is your rank and how long have you been judging?
I am not a BJCP judge, yet. I have worked on sensory analysis of beer flaws and have studied the style guidelines. Since there is a long wait list to take the exam, it’s not a high priority for me.
Do you have a favorite homebrew trick or gadget that you've found to make your beer better/brewing easier, etc?
Yeast health is very important to me, so I use a swamp cooler to control fermentation temperatures for every beer I brew. My carboy or bucket sits in a cooler filled with water to just below the level of the beer. I regulate the temperature by transferring bottles of ice in and out of the cooler. With diligent transferring of ice/water bottles, I can regulate temperatures within two degrees of my target and ferment as low as 50 degrees, low enough to ferment lagers without a refrigerated fermentation chamber. If I want the beer to ferment at a higher temperature (e.g., a saison in the winter months), I submerge an aquarium heater into to the water.
Describe your brew system:
My system is very simple. A seven-gallon kettle doubles as my hot liquor tank and brew kettle. My mash tun is a 12-gallon cooler with a stainless steel braid attached to a ball valve. I use a mesh bag suspended by a coat hanger over the kettle to keep most of the hop material out of the boiling wort. I chill with a copper coil immersion chiller. I ferment in plastic carboys or buckets. I don’t care much for airlocks, and instead typically cover the lid of the fermentation vessel with aluminum foil. I almost never bother with secondary fermentation, and I typically keg my beers.
How frequently do you brew?
I brew about two to three times a month.
What is your favorite malt? Why?
Special B is my favorite malt. It can trick you into thinking there are dark fruits like raisins or dates in your beer. In addition to regular use in Belgian-style dark strongs and dubbels, I have experimented with it in American brown ales, porters, and stouts with very tasty results. For the dynamic flavors it adds to a beer, this malt is worth every penny.
What is your favorite hop? Why?
Styrian Goldings are my favorite hop variety. I have found them to add slightly earthy and spicy characters to German, Belgian, and English-style beers.
What is your dream beer and food pairing?
My favorite pairing is Rochefort 10 with Roquefort cheese. On a cold winter night, it’s tough to beat that combo to end your day.
Do you have a favorite or house yeast? What qualities do you like about that yeast?
My favorite yeast has to be Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity. In my experience, it has great attenuation for high gravity Belgian-style beers, gives a nice balance of spicy phenols and fruity esters, and flocculates well to produce a crystal clear beer.
Do you belong to a homebrew club?
I belong to two clubs, the DC Homebrewers Club and Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP). I believe homebrewers are the most welcoming and friendly people you will ever meet.
Is there any advice you would like to give to new homebrewers?
Use the freshest ingredients, especially yeast and hops. Engage with your brewing community. Shadow experienced brewers. Share your brews with others, appreciate honest feedback, and learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. Cheers!