book report: Dave Miller’s “Brew Like a Pro”

I like Dave Miller. His Homebrewing Guide was the technical manual in the mid-90s and the book that ushered me into all-grain and kegging. He had previously written a number of other books, some of them for what would eventually become Brewers Publications. Then, like many others, became a homebrewer who went pro.

That was more or less the last we heard from Dave in print for a while, until last year’s Brew Like a Pro. Mr. Miller has retired as a pro brewmaster and once again taken up the small spoon; this book is, in his words, “a field report of my reentry into homebrewing.”

The intended audience for the advice and how-to aspects of this book are brand-new homebrewers who are committed to pub-quality output; the author’s instruction to that audience is to skip extract brewing and proceed directly to all-grain, to never mess with bottling, and to buy a keg system and fermentation refrigerator before ever shopping for a kettle. There’s an inescapable logic to this that I can’t argue with – this configuration is the conclusion at which most of those who stick with the hobby for any length of time arrive anyway; if I ever have to start over from scratch, this is exactly what I’d do. However, having worked in homebrew retail for many years, I know that brand-new homebrewers willing to jump that far into the deep end right away are unicorns.

Still, existing AG wonks will probably sit up and take notes as a pro brewer applies commercial brewery process management principles to a five gallon workflow and setup – I did.

After Dave’s autobiographical introduction in chapter 1, the book gives an overview of commercial operations in a brewpub, then devotes a large number of pages to the needed components in an all-grain, draft-beer, temp-controlled homebrewery. Ingredients get a quick rundown, then a well laid-out and clear chapter on “Homebrewing Operations” (basically brew day through forced carbonation) that hearkens back to the Homebrewing Guide. “Advanced techniques” including yeast propagation, lager brewing, decoction mashing and cask-conditioning get a bit of a glossing over ahead of a chapter on DIY projects like a lauter tun, thermowell, and pump speed control.

Brew Like a Pro ends with a recipe chapter that’s deliberately light on recipes, which I find a bit refreshing: this is a book about a utilitarian, workmanlike approach to homebrewing as an endeavor, and the chosen styles reflect that: a couple porters, a brown ale, a blonde ale, Kölsch,  pale ale … in a very Zen Master moment in chapter 1, Dave writes:

“Homebrewers often ask me for recipes. Here’s yours: 8 pounds of malt, 1 ounce of hops, 1 packet of yeast. Keep making it until it tastes the same every time.”

That resonates with me, and probably with the aforementioned dedicated AG wonks, too: brewing at any scale is a process-driven craft. Considerations like mash regimen, lauter tun geometry, boiler size, pitch rate, and gap spacing on mill rollers are at least as important as a bill of materials, arguably more. “Know thy system,” we could paraphrase.

Like Gordon Strong’s Brewing Better Beer, this is fundamentally a book about how one dude brews his beer, but with broadly applicable lessons. If you’re already brewing all-grain and kegging your product, this book won’t teach you much new in the way of new techniques. But even if you already have a dream system, even if you already have your brew day down, there’s something here to be gleaned, even if it’s just validation that you’re doing it right.

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21 thoughts on “book report: Dave Miller’s “Brew Like a Pro”

  1. Thanks for the review, I might need to add it to my library 🙂
    Just a quick question. I just bought a Blichmann Boilermaker (have not used it yet) and would like to know how you keep leaf hops from the outlet? I also got a Hopblocker, but that is intended for pellets.

    • Hopblocker will block all hops. Remember, leaf hops are much larger than the fine pieces of pellet that that blocker is designed to keep out.

  2. Ha! Received yesterday. I’m after few random chapters. So far so good:) Smooth and nice writeup, helpful tips and tricks, and as Dawson wrote- very straightforward, simple but really, REALLY pragmatic and efficient approach to homebrewing 🙂

  3. Great review. I think I will add this book to my library since I fit the targeted audience. I have only been brewing since November, but have 4 batches under my belt. I want to make the move to AG, but have been thinking on going to the BIAB method. What are your thoughts on the BIAB method of AG brewing. Is there pros and cons for the single vessel brewing vs. the three vessel brewing method?

    • I think BIAB is a great toe-in-the-water way to ease into AG brewing because it’s cheap and quick and easy. Some stick with it, some move on to a multi-vessel system with dedicated MLT and sparging, some do that and then go back to BIAB for the quick and easy. Personally, I use it but it’s definitely a secondary method for me; if you’d like a full spirited defense of BIAB, I suggest you hit up Mr. Keeler: http://20acrecarcass.com. It is his jam, as the kids say.

  4. It appears I need this book. If for anything else, to validate to my wife why I have so much (crap (her words)) and money tied up in my Kegging and AG system. She loves the end product, but she certainly does not understand how it gets there. Perhaps this book will give her a better understand from a third party perspective. Thanks for the quick synopsis, it sounds like another must read.

  5. I will check this out. Efficiency and repeatability have been my mantra for a couple years now. Sunday I brewed an all grain lagerbier 10 gallon batch and a mini mash oatmeal stout 5 gallon batch at the same time (separate kettles), using a longer mash and longer boil on the lagerbier and the same immersion chiller to see if I could time it right to dovetail at the finish. Both worked fine and finished up in a nice early afternoon conclusion. If only someone would come up with the ultimate cleanup regimen!

  6. Thanks for the review. I received this book from a friend who is just getting into brewing. He read the first two chapters and started getting confused. He said “I shouldn’t do extract…I need a draft system?” Although I like some of the things he shares and some of the DIY projects, I would probably be hesitant to get into homebrewing if I thought that you shouldn’t do extract brews and had to get a kegging system and lagering fridge to even thing about getting started.

    Although I found lots of the content to be valuable, I think people thinking about getting into homebrewing should start their reading elsewhere. Homebrewing is homebrewing, no matter how you do it; extract or AG, bottles or keg. Right…?

    • Absolutely. And I agree with both you and Bryan that this isn’t the book I’d loan to a brew-curious friend. I keep a fortune cookie fortune in my car that says “The master at anything was a beginner at something.”

  7. ^^^ Totally agree with you, I probably would have been scared away from homebrewing had this been my first read. Consistency is my foe, not for lack of trying. Every batch I brew I have changed something in my process, and living so far from a big city means I either have to substitute ingredients (I have to do this…. much more than I’d like to), or spend extra cash to have stuff shipped to me. It would be funny to have a brewing show on tv that’s like that discovery show “junk yard wars”, where you have to make a brewing system out of junk and make a beer, haha! (Makes me think of a story of how my friend made black
    patent malt in his microwave many years ago).

  8. I enjoyed the book too, but I was a little confused on his insistance of the Grant and Mash Mixer. Would you ever consider using either of these? Or do you think it’s something you can brew without?

    • I have never used a mash mixer and have never had a problem I could trace back to dough clumps or poor mixing; I dinked around with grants early on in my AG career then abandoned them. I respect those who say they help their process, but I have personally never found either to be vital – do what works for you.

  9. Re: in a very Zen Master moment in chapter 1, Dave writes:
    “Homebrewers often ask me for recipes. Here’s yours: 8 pounds of malt, 1 ounce of hops, 1 packet of yeast. Keep making it until it tastes the same every time.”<<

    While I understand the need for consistency on the commercial level, taken to its extreme it leads to BMC in beer and McDonald's in food. My own home fermentation zen mode is to embrace inconsistency. Magic might happen, and magic won't be easy to recreate due to the sheer number of variables. For example, grain and hops are crops and vary just as the weather does. In an attempt to avoid variance, brewers might need to blend many malts and hops to mask a change or shortage in one. That might lead to consistent beer, but odds are there won't be any magic in the glass.

    • I see your point, and agree with you about embracing happy accidents and idiosyncrasies in small-batch brewing at any level; but I disagree that consistency/repeatability are automatically pavement on the road to homogeneity. Like you say, beer is still largely an agricultural product, and at an industrial scale the goal is often to overcome the variables of nature. But I think the point of Dave Miller’s 3-line recipe is to discover exactly how much ppg one’s own particular system yields, or how much volume your stove boils off, or what attenuation that same strain of yeast will reliably deliver in the unique environment of one’s house, etc., and how to tweak or compensate for those factors; with the end result being – conceptualize a beer, formulate a recipe, brew it, and have it turn out as imagined … to me, that’s understanding and working within a system’s idiosyncrasies, not eliminating them.

  10. Dave gives some acknowledgement to my homebrew club in that book, the Music City Brewers. I love the fact that we have Dave as a very close resource for information. He is still working at the Blackstone Brewery production facility and still brews excellent beer. He’s a highly technical guy. We gotta get you back to making homebrewing videos!

  11. This discussion really makes me think of the balance between artist and scientist that homebrewers get to play with. I don’t think I’ve ever brewed the same beer twice; there is always something different, trying a different type of hops or yeast at least, even when the previous iteration was delicious. This is where homebrewers get to be more artists than scientists compared with commercial brewers. It’s like the chef/cook dichotomy. The cook makes something different every night that’s delicious from what’s left in the fridge. The chef has the vision and skills to present the same delicious meal every night. I think my favourite breweries and restaurants are somewhere in the middle. Cheers.

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