For this home brewer profile we talk with Ryan Merritt.
Where are you from?
Originally I’m from the heart of it all- Ohio, but I have been living in Chicago for the last seven years.
What is your favorite brew pub in the area?
Whichever one I find myself in at that moment. I do appreciate that there is a wide choice of brew pubs here in Chicago. It’s kind of like asking someone to choose their favorite child. Ok, it’s Goose Island. It’s synonymous with Chicago and their food is as good as their brew.
Do you focus on one style or do you mix it up depending on the conditions and mood?
I definitely tend to brew the styles I prefer to drink, mostly ales, big ales. I am currently working through the Brewing Classic Styles book to better understand each style and what they bring to the glass.
How long have you been brewing and what made you decide to start? Did anyone inspire you to start brewing?
I have only been brewing for about 8 months now, but I completed my 16th brew this weekend. I had been talking about brewing on and off for a while with an old college buddy, but it was my wife who brought me home a copy of “How to Brew” and a commercial beer kit that actually ignited my current addiction.
Would you mind giving us a run down of your brewing career to date?
It will be ashort trip. I started with an off the shelf commercial beer kit and made a few examples from their catalog. They turned out fairly well, but I knew I could make better beer. From there I invested in some dedicated gear and starting doing some full boil extract kits eventually with steeping specialty grains. After that, I started using the Brewing Classic Styles as a guide and picking up my ingredients fresh from a local brew supply store. With each subsequent batch I would up the ante of the previous batch with a new piece of equipment or technique. My last handful of brews have been all-grain, batch sparged, stir-plated starter, immersion chilled, and keged. I primarily dispense out of a dual tapped kegerator, but I do have bottles stashed in every nook-and-cranny I can find. Seriously.
Is there any brewers you look to or anyone you think is at the top of your list?
Well, I think I have to mention Sam from Dogfish Head. They are cutting edge, and a super inspiring brewery to watch. Those guys have no fear. I’m a huge fan of Jeremy’s work over at Founders and the brewers at Three Floyd’s. On the home brewing side I have to say I really have learned so much from listening to Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer.
How often do you brew? What days do you brew?
I brew about once every other week, typically on Saturdays but every once in a while a mid-week brew session is in order.
What are you brewing with? I know a lot of home brewers end up building there own equipment. Do you have any untraditional brewing equipment that you won’t find at a home brew shop?
I am in the initial stages of using a programmable microcontroller to build my own spectrophotometer to output the SRM of my beer samples. It combines two of my hobbies. Well, I guess that would be more of my brewing obsession swallowing one of my other hobbies.
Can you tell us about the first beer you ever brewed, what was it and how did it come out?
My first beer ever was an American Blonde Ale and it came out “drinkable”. It was a hit with the fans of the American Macro breweries. I was happy that there were no casualties, but ultimately I knew I could brew something better.
What was the last thing you brewed?
A Pumpkin Spice Ale. It is currently in primary. I’ve been hearing some cool stories of people fermenting/conditioning part of their Pumpkin Ale in an actual hollowed out pumpkin. If I can get my hands on any decently fresh gourds, the plan is to do something along those lines.
Anything in the works you would like to share?
I have been brainstorming more ways of combining two of my current hobbies- programming microcontrollers and brewing. In addition to the spectrophotometer, I have some ideas about using a floating wireless thermometer to both control my heat source and alert me to key temperature steps throughout the brewing process.
Do you do all grain or extract?
I’ve been doing all-grain batches for the last couple of months. After completing my first all-grain batch, I immediately thought “That’s it?” and regretted not jumping into it even earlier. Don’t be afraid of all-grain.
What type of yeast do you use and how do you maintain your culture?
I typically use a new Wyeast Smack Pack and stir plate up a starter. I’ve harvested a couple of yeast slurrys but I haven’t really done much second-gen or beyond yeast work yet.
What about hops… do you use whole or pellet hops? Why?
I’ve only used pellet hops so far. I thought I had a line on some fresh whole hops in the area to make a wet hopped beer this harvest, but sadly it did not pan out. Pellet hops are great from a storage and utilization standpoint. At least that is what I tell myself.
Do you do any sort of collaborations with other home brewers in the area?
I’ve been doing some home brew trading with a few brewers. We trade up when we get the chance and give each other feedback. It’s a super important part of my brewing since I feel that my co-workers and friends that I give free samples to may have a conflict of interest in giving any critical reviews.
Are you part of any home brewers club or organizations?
I am a member of the AHA, subscribe to BYO and Zymurgy magazines, and I consume most online brewing resources from podcasts to message boards. In addition I do try to make it to the local beer events. Sheffields has been putting on some great events lately in the Chicago area.
Any plans to do this as more than just a hobby?
It currently is much more than a hobby, it is an obsession. I just don’t currently have any plans to recoup my costs. Who knows where life will lead though.
Do you have any tips or words of wisdom for anyone looking to brew?
If you have the interest, start today. You won’t regret it. Like my great-grandad tells me, you aren’t going to learn how to do it any younger.