Brewer of the Week: Graham McGregor
Name: Graham McGregor
When did you start brewing? The very first batch I ever made was in 1990 while in college. It probably doesn't count because we used absolutely no sanitation control and ended up dumping it. After that I brewed a lot in the early 90s, mostly extract batches with specialty grains, but the supplier I had locally was very poor. A bit of Crystal and some Black Patent malt was about all he had to add to the foil-packed brown, crumbly hops that sat on the shelf indefinitely. There was only dry yeast to work with, and not much selection of that either. All of the beer had a varying level of cider flavours that I attribute to the yeast. Then, after marriage and kids, I took a long break until about two years ago when I was finally able to get back into the hobby.
When did you know this was no ordinary hobby, it was an obsession?
About $1000 ago.
When did you join the AHA?
Just over a year ago. Like most, I found the forum first and then after all the great information, I felt guilty so I joined.
What is your "white whale" beer?
I haven't really found one yet, but the hardest beers to find around here are sours/lambics. We have some advantages and some disadvantages in Ontario. We only have two places to buy beer. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) and the Beer Store (owned by Molson/Coors, Inbev and Sapporro). The LCBO, which is government run, has most of the craft beers because of the Beer Store's monopoly and pricing. The LCBO also says that they can get any beverage from anywhere if you order it (and can afford it). I did order a case of Rauchbier from Bamberg many years ago because it is impossible to find.
What are your favorite craft breweries?
Most of mine are Canadian, so you may not have heard of many of them. Muskoka Craft Brewery, Flying Monkey's, Camerons, Neustadt, Creemore Springs (recently bought by Molson/Coors), Big Rock and Steamwhistle. I travel to the U.S. a lot, and when I'm there I'll try to get Anchor Steam, Dogfish Head, New Glarus (especially Moon Man) and definitely Bell's Two Hearted. But, I'm more likely to find something smaller and more local and try that depending on where I am. If there's a local brewery on the menu, I'm gonna grab that first cause I never know if I'll get it again.
Do you have a special homebrew related project that you’d like to share?
Not yet. We just purchased a property with a great shed that I'm hoping to turn into a little brewery, but haven't gotten started yet. I'll post that in Pimp My System when I get going on it.
I guess the only special thing I've done is make some adapters to fit pop bottles. I have two friends that can't drink alcohol at all due to health reasons, but they both love beer, so I'll put four liters of beer in a pot and cook it at 190°F for a couple hours to drive off the alcohol. Once I let it cool, I can then carbonate it in the pop bottles. It's actually surprisingly good given all the abuse that the beer goes through, but it makes beer that they can drink. After I made the adapters, I found out you could just buy the same thing though. oh well.
What is your favorite style(s) to brew?
I brew a lot of American pale ales (APA), saisons and wheat beers. I really love late hopped wheat beers. Cloudy and wheaty, but hopped like an APA. I also make some smoked beers each year with home smoked malt—usually apple wood. I also make a lot of Kolsch-style beers, and usually have a cider working at all time. I don't do anything special, just cider from the orchard down the road (mixed apple varieties) and beer yeast. I've had great luck with Kolsch yeast making ciders. I backsweeten them with a can of apple juice concentrate and a half cup of sugar after sulphiting.
What style(s) will you never brew?
There's nothing I would never try to brew, but I doubt I'll make too many barley wines. I'm a session beer drinker and when I get into the high alcohol beers, things can end badly…
What was the first beer you ever brewed? How did it turn out?
Like I said above, the first was dumped. It was a Canadian Ale canned kit. The first beers I made that I was happy with were stouts. I think the heavy flavours helped mask my mistakes, but at 19 who cares (remember, Canadians must be able to handle their beer at a younger age than the U.S. because our legal age in Ontario is 19).
One of the first beers I remember really liking was named "Count Hannibal Slim's Royal Ace of Spades Oatmeal and Coffee Breakfast Stout." Hannibal Slim was my buddy's dog, the Ace of Spades came from the Motorhead we were listening too when we made it, and the oatmeal and coffee were packets of Quaker Instant oatmeal and a handful of coffee grounds thrown right into the boil (didn't even know you had to mash oatmeal back then). It was very black so it didn't matter how cloudy it was and it actually tasted pretty good. I've been meaning to make a coffee and oatmeal stout for a while now, but I think that the memory may be better than the beer actually tasted.
Have you ever had a homebrew mistake that turned out great?
I made some absolutely terrible homebrew in a rush once. Ramped the temp up high to get it done fast, full of fusels and off-flavours (of course I didn't know that at the time), but I took it back to University with me. I offered some to my roommate's cute friend and amazingly she drank it! I was so impressed with her willingness to drink my horrible homebrew that I eventually married her. Fifteen years and four kids later, she's still stuck drinking my horrible homebrew.
What is your favorite recipe based off of a commercial style?
I don't really follow any recipes or aim for any particular commercial beer. I formulate all my beer using Beersmith or IBrewMaster (mostly just to make sure my ABV and IBU are close to what I want). I've read that Three Floyds Gumball Head is sort of a hoppy wheat, but I've never had it so I don't know if this would be similar or not. But, I love it.
Are you a BJCP Judge?
I just did my BJCP tasting exam a couple weeks ago, so I'll find out in about six months if I'm an apprentice or a recognized judge. There are very few competitions around here, so I did it mostly for my own knowledge, but I'd be happy to judge if I can find a competition.
Do you have a favorite homebrew trick or gadget that you've found to make your beer better/brewing easier, etc?
I like using a hop spider when I'm using leaf hops, and I love my thermapen and refractometer. The refractometer has really helped take the guess work out of hitting gravities.
Describe your brew system.
My system is about as simple as it gets. A turkey fryer, a 60-quart aluminum pot, and a Coleman extreme cooler. I think it's 52 quarts. I warm up my strike water in the pot, pour it into the cooler, add the grain and mash. I use the same pot to heat up my sparge water and I drain the first runnings into a pail, add the sparge water to the cooler and dump the first runnings into the pot. Sparge into the pail and add that to the pot and boil. I use buckets and carboys, but I'll always use buckets first just because they are so much easier to clean. I do not believe in hot side aeration, at least not at homebrew scale because I do everything wrong and my beer turns out pretty good. I've never found any off-flavour issues from my process. I've won several golds for beers I've made so I guess it's working OK! I'm sure it could be better, but this is what I've got to work with and it's working for me.
How frequently do you brew?
Depending on the season, anywhere from three to 10 times per month. I brew year-round, but work gets in the way in the fall, so the frequency drops a bit. I often brew a five-gallon batch and then brew a 10-gallon batch a couple weeks later using the same yeast. I'll often brew based on what yeast is ready more than anything else.
What is your favorite malt?
I use a lot of OIO Canadian 2-row. It's economical, I get good efficiency and I like the flavours. Most of my beer will also have some level of Weyermann Munich I. All my pale ales will have between 10 - 100 percent Munich depending on my whim that day.
What is your favorite hop?
I can't say I have a favourite because it depends on the beer I'm brewing, but I use a lot of Citra and Galaxy. East Kent Golding is my go-to for British/Irish/saisons. I like citrusy hops, but I LOVE tropical flavours like passion fruit, but I still haven't found the perfect combination of hops. I use a lot of New Zealand hops in APAs as well. They seem to have some of the tropical flavour I'm after, but they can be hard to find. There are several I've read about but never been able to get. I'm not a real hop-head and I don't make too many IPAs. A beer with 3-ounces of hops would be a big hopped beer for me. The Canadian craft brew industry seems to run about five to eight years behind the U.S. Big hoppy beers are just catching on around here. Even at 3-ounces in five gallons, my beers are pretty much as hoppy as any of the local commercial craft beers you could get. I'd bet anything you're gonna start seeing our breweries producing more saisons and sour beers in the next few years.
Do you have a favorite or house yeast? What qualities do you like about that yeast?
I'm a big fan of White Labs 007. I use that for most of my APAs and British beers. Wyeast 3711 is my go-to for saisons, and I love the ease of use and the attenuation I get from that yeast.
Is there any advice you would like to give to new homebrewers?
Keep it simple. When I started out I wanted to do more complex systems and recipes and I'm glad the AHA forum talked me out of it. The best things I've done to improve my beer are using starters, making a good immersion coil and watching temperatures. I don't obsess about temperature, but I try to keep my beer on the cooler side when fermenting. Don't get caught up in worrying about your water. I use tap water for everything except kolsch styles, where I use half distilled and half tap as my water is fairly hard. That's it. You'll drive yourself insane worrying about water when you could do so much more to improve your beer on the fermentation end.