For this home brewer profile we talk with Barry Masterson.
Where are you from?
I’m from Dublin, Ireland originally, but have been living in Münster, Germany since March 2008.
What is your favorite brew pub in the area?
The city of Münster only has one operating brewery left, and that’s Pinkus Müller, an organic brewery that also ships to the US. I like the old tap room there with its big oak beams and about a hundred years of graffiti engraved into the tables. I’ll class it as a brewpub as the copper is right next to the tap room. There are other brewpubs in the area, but they’re more your typical German brewpub selling a helles and a dunkel, with varying quality, and I’ll tend to visit these in the summer when it’s nice to sit in a beer garden and have lunch there.
Do you think the image of American beer has changed over the years? Or do most people still think of American beer as just Bud, Miller, Coors…
Yes, I certainly have, but you have to bear in mind that I’m usually surrounded by beer fans, or at least I drag them along with me. When I first moved to Germany I was all too aware of the limitations I would have on my choice of beer. As I mentioned, it’s very difficult to find non-German beer outside of specialist bars. So when I turn to someone and tell them that the US produces some of the most interesting beers in the world, it took some convincing. Indeed, most people in Germany would associate the US with the fizzy yellow… liquid, ironically not realising that the vast bulk of German beer is not too far from that in the blandness stakes.
But not everyone thinks like that. As about half the beers I brew follow the American Pale Ale mould, I began to convert a group of people in the office, and the odd trip to California gave us more opportunities to crawl as many beer types as we could. It’s highly enjoyable breaking down preconceptions, and while we don’t do it as often as we should, we do have tasting sessions in the office where we bring along beers we picked up in our travels, or I bring in new batches of brew, and we sit around and have fun talking beer and stuff. I think it’s great that these guys have open minds and don’t subscribe to the “German beer is best” mentality. I’m of the mind that no country is best, as everyone has different tastes, and every country produces more than a fair share of crap beer. But still, I like to keep an open mind and take beers as they come, but it’ll take me a while to convert the rest of Germany!
How do you think the Irish or German home brewer differs from the American?
I don’t know any German home brewers, yet, so I can’t say for sure. But I do think home brewers have more in common than differences. I like to think that they all love the art of making their own beer, the journey of discovery in experimenting with new or unusual ingredients, and the willingness to share and enjoy each others beer.
As far as differences go, I get the impression that the American home brew scene is more competition-oriented than in Ireland. There’s only one competition that I know of, and IrishCraftBrewer.com, the home brewing community I am most closely associated with, doesn’t run it. We tend more towards big drinking, I mean tasting sessions, to just share experiences and get feedback. Perhaps competition would help to finely hone peoples skills, but I think the lack of also means people are not so concerned with style conformity, as defined by some central body. It’s give and take.
Do you focus on one style or do you mix it up depending on the conditions and mood?
In terms of drinking, I definitely mix it up, and there’s no type of beer that I won’t try twice. It also depends where I am. If I’m travelling I try to stick local. The thing about living in Germany is that despite the thousands of beers available, they’re in a fairly limited range of styles, and it’s almost impossible to get non-German beer, so I take every opportunity I can to get the more exciting British, Belgian, Dutch (yes, I said Dutch, think De Molen) or American beers, not to mention the great craft beers coming out of Ireland. To get an idea of what I’m drinking, my blog exposes all…
How long have you been brewing and what made you decide to start? Did anyone inspire you to start brewing?
I started brewing around late 2006. An old friend of mine used to make kit beers about 10 years before that, with mixed results. While sitting at the bar in The Porterhouse, Dublin, he suggested that we try our hand at it. I wasn’t convinced, as I remembered his attempts all those years ago, but we did it, starting by doing extract brews in my kitchen. It was a social thing more than anything, and was a great excuse to get together every few weeks, with other friends also joining.
Would you mind giving us a run down of your brewing career to date?
Well, myself and my buddy Kieron started around late 2006 with extract brewing. It was hard to get ingredients in Ireland at the time, as the last bricks-and-mortar homebrew shop had closed a couple of years beforehand. We had to look to the UK or Belgium for ingredients, and also for advice in forums and such. By Christmas 2006 I had decided to take the plunge and start an Irish site, and at the same time found a small group of Irish home brewers on a forum started by another Irish home brewer. I met with Séan Billings, the chap who was running the forum, to discuss my ideas, and out of that, on the 17th of March 2007 (St. Patrick’s day was coincidental!) we launched www.IrishCraftBrewer.com. That’s when things really kicked off. From a small group of about 20 in the beginning we now have about 500 members, about 90 of whom are very active, and several homebrew suppliers have opened up business in Ireland since then.
As a community, ICB helped me, and all active members I hope, become better brewers as we have regular monthly meet-ups for tasting each others beers and providing constructive criticism. It’s one of the things I really miss since leaving Ireland.
As far as my own brewing goes, I switched to all grain brewing in 2008 and haven’t looked back. I mostly brew highly hopped ales of the American variety, simply because I can’t get enough hop driven beers here, but I also experiment a lot with the likes of smoked porters, barley wine, spiced ales, trying single hop beers with varieties I’ve never tried and such.
There are definitely some things I cannot do, and need to change that, mostly relating to temperature control. I really want to start lagering beers properly. However that’s going to have to wait till we decide where we’re going to live and have the room to accommodate my brewing fantasies!
Are there any brewers you look to or anyone you think is at the top of your list?
That’s a tough one. I’m hard pressed to even name a favourite beer, as my tastes change all the time. I think the Irish craft brewers don’t get enough light shone on them, so I’ll have to say Galway Hooker, simply because they broke the mould with their Galway Hooker Pale Ale at a time when most of the Irish craft brewers were making a stout, a red ale and a lager. And to be clear, a Hooker is a type of ship found in the west of Ireland, not that this stopped the lads using the other meaning for tongue-in-cheek advertising slogans!
There are so many inspirational people out there doing innovative things and creating amazing beers, I can’t even begin to make a real list.
How often do you brew? What days do you brew?
That varies a lot. If my wife and son go away to visit family, I’m brewing! Generally at the weekend, and in the case of last weekend, I did two brews, an Imperial Stout with a portion of peat-smoked malt from a Scottish distillery and a pale ale made with wild hops I gathered in the neighbourhood.
What are you brewing with? I know a lot of home brewers end up building their own equipment. Do you have any untraditional brewing equipment that you won’t find at a home brew shop?
Over in Europe most people use electricity for home brewing, so my biggest investment was a 2kW stainless steel boiler. I wish I’d gotten one a little more powerful, but it does a good job. I made my own picnic cooler mash tun and immersion wort chiller, but apart from that I reckon I’ve pretty much standard gear. I ferment in plastic, as it’s easier for me to handle than glass. During the summer I brew in the kitchen, but then have to carry the fermenter down to the cellar where it’s a perfect 19 Centigrade, so lugging 25 litres of wort down 2 flights of stairs is not conducive to glass or even stainless. When we move (whenever that’ll be!) I’ll be ensuring I have an out-building for brewing and will finally get temperature control sorted!
Can you tell us about the first beer you ever brewed, what was it and how did it come out?
I think it was a clone recipe for Old Speckled Hen. We’d bought the Clone Brews book for inspiration and reckoned we’d go with a tried and tested recipe to begin with, as we really weren’t sure what was going on with all this malt extract and hops. To be honest, I can’t remember what it was like. Clearly it wasn’t awful, as I know I’d have remembered that, and probably wouldn’t be still brewing today. Pretty soon after we were making Belgian strong ales and American IPAs based on our own recipes. I think experimenting teaches us a lot about the ingredients we work with.
What was your favorite clone you brewed?
I have to admit that my former brew buddy and I only attempted to clone a couple of beers based on published recipes when we started out, and after that we just made it up as we went along. I like the idea of reading clone recipes for beers I know, as it helps give a feel for what might go into making that beer, but in my experience, the ones we made were nowhere near the original!
I accidentally made something that I thought was close to one of my favourite beers, Clotworthy Dobbin, at least in terms of flavour, if not the wonderfully thick body that beer has. I have since tweaked the recipe twice, but think I moved away from what I thought I had. Let’s just say it’s one of my few recipes that is a work in progress, and probably always will be.
What was the last thing you brewed?
Just last weekend was a double brew for an Imperial Stout and a Wild-Hopped Pale Ale. The Stout was planned to be about 10% ABV, but I’d never used so much grain in my system, and my efficiency really suffered. Normally I’m in the 80-85% region, but htis really killed me and dropped to 60%. As a result, I’ll be getting something about 7.4%, I hope. But that’s ok. It was a lesson learned, and it’s the flavour that’s most important at this point. As for the wild hopped ale, I got my usual 85% efficiency, but as it was made with wild hops, I have no idea how bitter or what flavour profile they’ll bring. Can’t wait to try it!
Anything in the works you would like to share?
Nothing planned, but then I seldom plan very far in advance, with the exception of the last two brews which definitely took some planning. Mostly because of some peat-smoked malt coming from a brewer in the UK (Ramsgate Brewery, the owner of which was very kind to send me some peat-smoked malt after an on-line exchange about one of their beers) and having to process the wild hops.
Do you do all grain or extract?
All grain now, although I do have some bags of DME left, and I have used it to top up the gravity on a barley wine I made last year, inspired by Sierra Nevada Bigfoot I had a 2007 bottle in October 2008 and it was really nice). It’s nearly ready to drink!
What type of yeast do you use and how do you maintain your culture?
I started off using Wyeast smack packs, but mostly use dried yeast now, with US-05 and S-04 being my staple. I will use other yeasts if I’m looking for a particular character, but the way I see it, I’m still learning, and by keeping the yeast constant I’m at least getting to know the subtleties of the other ingredients first. Of course I’ll never stop learning!
What about hops… do you use whole or pellet hops? Why?
I use pellets initially because I thought they were easier to store. In actual fact, I learned to brew using pellets, and I find my system deals with them better than with whole hops. I do a manual whirlpool after cooling, and for most beers this keeps the crud away from the outlet. For hugely hopped beers I might use a hop sock. I don’t have a hop strainer, so whole hops will clog my system unless I use a hop sock for them also. I don’t use whole hops often, but if I did I’d start thinking about adding something to my equipment to allow me to deal with them more efficiently.
Do you do any sort of collaborations with other home brewers in the area?
I did in Ireland, but have yet to meet another home brewer in Germany. I’ve been talking to a brewer in Dortmund, and there have been suggestions of doing a guest brew for some time, but I really don’t hold any hopes for that!
Are you part of any home brewers club or organizations?
I already mentioned IrishCraftBrewer.com above, and I am still heavily involved there, albeit at a distance. I take care of the website also, so that keeps my fingers in. I have yet to meet a German home brewer, but from what I have heard there are plenty about. I also heard that some meet up in a bar I was in last week, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for them. I’ll be really eager to see what styles they make, and whether they spit on the Reinheitsgebot like I do.
Any plans to do this as more than just a hobby?
I found out recently that as of 2006 you no longer have to hold a Braumeister qualification to start a brewery in Germany. This turned on a dim light bulb in my head, as till then I reckoned the sheer expense and time required to get such a qualification meant there was no point in even day-dreaming. Of course it’s nice to dream, but I’m not sure I have the business acumen to do so. Maybe I’ll change my mind if I get tired of my job!
Do you have any tips or words of wisdom for anyone looking to brew?
Brewing looks complicated to a beginner, and the jargon and scope of ingredients can be over-whelming. In actual fact, it’s really simple, and people have been doing it for a long, long time, well before any of the science and jargon ever existed. So I say just do it! Make it a social thing. Have fun with your friends and family. Experiment, and most importantly, make the beers that you like, and share them.