By Leigh O’Connor.
"Many of us are stuck at a computer all day in fairly sterile offices and we crave being able to express ourselves. Brewing is a great outlet for people, who enjoy process, tradition, history and flavour.” – Chris Sidwa.
American by birth and Australian by choice, Chris Sidwa turned his back on investment banking and accidentally started a craft beer enterprise that is taking this country by storm.
You name the variety or flavour, Chris has brewed it all and with his book ‘Brew a Batch’, he can help you make your best beer yet. This lively handbook assumes no prior knowledge and covers all the advice you need to start brewing great beer.
Talking one-on-one with AGFG, Chris – who is head brewer and co-founder of wildly popular craft brewery Batch Brewing Co in Sydney – tells of the great satisfaction he gets from watching beer drinkers experiencing new flavours for the first time.
"We get a lot of people who think of beer as pale lager, which is what makes up the vast majority of what has been poured for the last decade, so that makes perfect sense,” he explains. "But what we pour is loaded with flavour relative to what they’ve been trained to expect.
"Sweet, sour, fruity or spicy with aromas of tropical fruit or herbs – all these flavours delivered in a balanced beer served to a person who is not expecting it, can lead to some seriously big smiles on happy people. And that’s what makes me happy.”
Chris says Aussies get bitten by the home brew bug: it’s a desire to create and share something that represents you and your story and a desire to taste something that isn’t being brewed already.
"While there are countless breweries making beer with some unique and interesting flavours, there is always something commercial brewers can’t do or haven’t done, that you as a drinker don’t have access to – so you get to make it yourself!
"The hobby isn’t about providing beer for yourself, it’s about exploration.”
We asked Chris for his five best tips for brewing your first batch:
- Be organised: make sure you have everything you need before you start, because you can’t put a batch of beer on hold and finish it later in the day.
- Give yourself enough time: don’t squeeze this in between a couple of other activities. It will inevitably take longer on your first try.
- Be clean in everything you do: treat your beer like a patient who has no immune system.
- Start simple and cut yourself a break: don’t target a boozy double IPA or a lager – start with a simple pale ale or brown ale, which is super tasty and has the benefit of a darker colour to disguise the murky appearance of almost everyone’s first brew.
- Have fun! You’re making beer!
Chris considers brown ale the Pinot Noir of beers, saying it is versatile, great when it’s dry, with a perception of malt sweetness, or when it’s big and bold with a strong hop presence.
"It is great with food or when brewed as a carrier for spice and works really well as a gateway beer for novice drinkers – it’s visually different from bland, pale lagers but its rich taste, when well made, is deceivingly light and easy to drink,” he says.
"Despite its thick, sweet appearance, the drinker gets the rich flavour of malt with a crisp aftertaste that vanishes quickly, leaving you wanting more. I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it.”
Chris’s beer recipes begin with a flavour memory: an inspiration that could be a twist on a beer he has had in the past, or from a new grain or malt his farmers and maltsters offer.
"Once I arrive at the flavour in my head, I start building the malt bill – each malt or raw cereal grain is selected in a particular quantity to offer a balanced flavour combination. Balance in beer is the key to its drinkability, so the malts need to be mashed at a particular temperature to achieve the right level of sweetness in the fermented beer to balance all components.”
Tasting your brew at every stage is vital, as it builds flavour memories and an understanding of the brewing process. Chris encourages home brewers to taste the raw materials, unfermented beer, during fermentation and conditioning and finally in the bottle.
"Knowing how the flavour evolves during fermentation and in package is imperative. The important word here is ‘taste’ not ‘drink’. Drink your beer when it’s done but taste it along the way, so you know when that is.”
Writing ‘Brew a Batch’ has reconnected Chris with his love of brewing. As one of the heads of a growing business, he has spent most of his time lately talking to suppliers and customers and dealing with the management of the business.
"But that’s not what I set out to do in life, so we’re making some changes. As breweries grow, they tend to want to produce more beer and the fermentation tanks get bigger and bigger. But bigger means more risk and that saps creativity.
"So, we have decided to go smaller. We’re in the process of building a second brewery, where our batch sizes will be a third of what they are now, enabling us to experiment like home brewers again. It is back to our roots for us.”
A quintessential guide to becoming a home brew aficionado, Chris’s book is a great Christmas present for the beer drinker in your life; walking them through the entire process from choosing the best ingredients to setting up their home brewery, brewing techniques and most importantly, how to taste and assess each batch.
Images from Brew a Batch by Christopher Sidwa, Murdoch Books, RRP $39.99 Photography by Chris Chen, Illustrations courtesy of Brew a Batch Co..