So you finally did it, you bought a homebrewing kit! Maybe you studied various kits online, or you went to your local homebrew shop and picked out your favorite one with help from the owner. Or maybe you didn’t buy it at all, perhaps it was a birthday or a Christmas gift (this is how I began my homebrewing journey). No matter how you got it, your brew day comes and you excitedly open the box and start reading the instructions.
You find yourself hopelessly lost.
Most homebrew kits have terrible instructions. The instructions may tell you to use unconventional methods and ingredients, like bleach for sanitization or table sugar to prime your bottles. They may give strange temperature recommendations, like fermenting all your beers up to 80ºF (27ºC). They may also just plain omit information; my first kit simply told me to fill my bottles, with no mention of a bottling bucket or wand.
Fortunately, where the homebrew kits have failed, others have risen to the occasion. The information found in these books is crucial to the homebrewer looking to make a decent beer. No matter whether your kit is an all grain brew or simply pre-hopped wort, these are the best books for the beginner homebrewer. One thing to note: although I am a big fan of my e-reader, these books are best in their paperback form. All of these books have tables, graphs and illustrations that can be hard to read on an e-reader. Flipping from chapter to chapter as you will want to do is usually easier to do with a physical copy as well.
Marketing itself as the “homebrewing bible”, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing is a great overview of the entire brewing process. Where The Complete Joy of Homebrewing excels is in its relaxed tone and approachability; the book is filled with detailed brewing information but is written in a way that is clear and easy for beginners to understand. The book contains plenty of pictures and recipes for both extract and all grain brewers. The low-stress style of writing is punctuated by the book’s mantra: Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew. This phrase is repeated constantly throughout the book and is central to its overall style. It lets you know that things probably won’t go as planned, but if you follow the instructions and advice in the book then your beer is likely to turn out just fine.
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing is not simply a beginners guide, it also contains sections with more advanced concepts. Things like water chemistry and the science of mashing grains are touched upon, but aren’t gone into in great depth. This is to the book’s credit; more information isn’t always better, especially when it comes to a book targeted at beginners. When a topic gets a bit too technical, Papazian will usually recommend his other book, The Homebrewer’s Companion. This is a great way to not overload the brewer with non-essential knowledge, but also to let the readers know that there is more to learn if they would like. The Complete Joy of Homebrewing keeps it relaxed and practical, giving you the knowledge needed to brew quality beer.
Like The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, John Palmer’s How to Brew is an overview of the entire brewing process from start to finish. Where it differs is in the why, it explains each process in detail and will give you the reason behind each step. For many brewers, the why is an important part of the brewing process, as it allows you to modify a step or process to achieve a specific goal. How to Brew is laid out a bit like a textbook; at first this may seem like a tough read, but as I got further into the book I realized that it iss simply the best way to relay amount of information that is given. How to Brew likes to go in depth into the science behind brewing and it will help you understand what exactly is happening during every step of making your beer.
Unlike The Complete Joy, How to Brew caters towards a more technical crowd. Author John Palmer has a degree in metallurgical engineering and has worked in the aerospace industry; he is a very smart man and it comes through in his writing. The basic concepts of brewing are all covered, but more advanced topics like mash and water chemistry, fluid flow in a lauter tun, and the biology of yeast are discussed in depth. This gives the starting homebrewer a ton of information that they can use for many years, but some may find it to be too much information. If you feel you will want to go past the basics of homebrewing and explore some more advanced methods, How to Brew is the book for you.
Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer
Brewing Classic Styles is a great companion piece to the other books on this list, and is a book that every brewer should own. This book will not teach you how to brew beer, but rather focuses on helping you brew specific styles of beer. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) is an organization that has created the BJCP style guidelines, a list of over 100 different styles of beer, complete with the vital statistics and tasting notes that accompany each one. When a homebrewed beer is entered into a competition, it is partly judged by how close it sticks to a certain style; if your IPA lacks the style’s trademark bitterness it isn’t going to do well. Brewing to style can also help a brewer find flaws in their process, they can compare their beer to a commercial example in the same style and evaluate what could cause any differences.
Brewing Classic Styles takes each category in the BJCP style guidelines and breaks it down. For each style, the book gives a short history, the vital statistics, and then gives a couple of paragraphs detailing the keys to brewing it. These keys to brewing include common mistakes, tips specific to each style, and might include things like different yeasts that are used in the style. Each style also comes with a recipe for a 5 gallon batch, and variations for extract, partial mash and all grain are included. This gives you a great starting point for each style, and the recipes themselves will often hold as much valuable information as the vital statistics and keys to brewing. For a beginner brewer, these recipes are incredibly useful; they are award winning recipes and if brewed correctly will result in a fantastic beer.
Whereas Brewing Classic Styles gives you a reliable recipe for each beer style, Designing Great Beers takes it a step further, giving you all the information you need to build your own recipes. This may mean modifying an existing recipe that you find online or in another book, or it may mean building your recipe entirely from scratch! Designing Great Beers goes into detail over every ingredient that makes up your beer, from the minerals in the water to the characteristics you will find in each hop variety. It also goes into the process of designing a beer, detailing a six step plan to creating a fantastic recipe.
Just like Brewing Classic Styles, Designing Great Beers spends a lot of time on the BJCP style guidelines. It impresses upon the importance of brewing to style when entering competitions or when trying to brew a beer that won’t surprise your tasters. At the same time, Designing Great Beers gives you the information needed to stray from tried and true recipes to create something that is your own. Its style chapters have everything you need to know to create a beer to style: common ingredients, mashing and fermentation temperatures, conditioning tips and more. If you like to create instead of simply following recipes, Designing Great Beers is a must have.
The four books I have listed are incredibly useful for the beginning homebrewer, but your learning shouldn’t stop there. For some less conventional brewing, American Sour Beers is a deep dive into sour beers, and Radical Brewing is a great read for those who aren’t so concerned about brewing to style. For a comprehensive look into the ingredients that make up beer, the ‘elements series’ of Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast go into great detail about each component.