Always Improving

It seems like almost every brew day something goes wrong. Not usually something big, but just enough of an issue to cause me to have to slow down and find a way to solve the problem or work around it.

A recent example was just a couple weeks ago. I was brewing with a friend who had brought over his counter-flow plate chiller. I normally use an immersion chiller but was eager to try out the plate chiller. Sadly I never got the chance.

Throughout the course of the brew we made hop additions in my hop screen. Absent-mindedly I dropped the last addition of whole-leaf hops straight into the kettle. When we went to run the pump it sucked up a whole leaf hop and jammed. We ended up having to change things up and just use my immersion chiller.

The mistake itself was easy enough to work around but it meant a good amount of wasted time—both the time wasted getting everything set up for the plate chiller and the time spent shifting gears to a different chilling method.

Mistakes are common enough for me on brew day that I’ve realized I need to find a way to prevent as many of them as possible.

Two books I’ve read in the past year have influenced how I’m thinking about getting better at brewing (as well as other hobbies and passions). One is Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better and the other is The Checklist Manifesto.

Practice PerfectIn Practice Perfect, the authors lay out a series of rules that can be used to guide practice activities with a goal of constantly improving at whatever it is we set out to be good at.

Rule number one is “Encode Success.” In spite of the common saying, it seems that practice generally makes things permanent rather than perfect. Thus every time I go through a brew day and make a mistake that I do not correct I am actually increasing the chances that I will make that mistake again.

The first step in improving is to identify my errors but I need to follow that with the very deliberate action of performing that step of the process completely right the next time I brew. The sooner I brew again, the more likely I’ll follow through with working on righting my wrongs and the better chance there is of actually encoding that success into my general brewing routine.

This is followed a few rules later with “Let the Mind Follow the Body.” The more I brew correctly (which I am thinking of as “practice”), the more I have opportunities to engrain the actions of brewing to the point where they become second nature. This frees my mind up to deal with specific and unique problems as they arise without somehow jeopardizing the normal steps of the process.  

Obviously that’s only 2 of the 42 rules, and it’s likely that many of them will not apply to brewing, but I am very intriBrew Day Checklistgued with the idea of using a few rules to help me improve the quality of my beer.

In The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawunde gives abundant evidence of how the most complex tasks in the world are routinely performed without error thanks to simple checklists. This information should have helped me prevent some of my recent brewing errors. Well, it would have if I had ever bothered to make a checklist.

The problem with checklists is that they need to be made specifically for the task at hand. Since my brewing setup is not exactly the same as everyone else’s I can’t just go on the internet and download someone else’s checklist.

I had to sit down and really think through my brewing process, writing down all the essential steps that are necessary for a proper outcome. Then I went through this summary and looked for all the places I might forget to do something. This became the checklist, which is mainly a series of questions for whoever is helping me brew for the day to ask me at various points in the process.

The true test of the efficacy of my checklist will be if it helps prevent errors. For any error that it doesn’t prevent the checklist will be refined so that over time it is adapting to my needs and helping me make sure that any new mistake will only be made once.

I’m hopeful that the art of practice combined with the feedback loop of a good checklist will help me to improve my brewing abilities and the quality of my beer with every batch. So what should I do now? Go get started on my next brew!

Author Bio: Here is another post from dedicated locavore and passionate diy'er Jon Spee. Jon has been homebrewing for two-and-a-half years, and has been writing about it ever since on his fantastic blog, In addition to beer talk, check out his site for information about everything from gardening to meal plans. Before moving to the area, Jon taught high school science and Spanish for seven years.
Resources: If you’d like your own copy of Jon’s checklist and brew day summary sheet (both are specific to his setup but can be used as a starting place for your own checklist) they can be downloaded from his blog. Brewer’s Friend also has a number of resources including specific checklists for all-grain, BIAB (brew-in-a-bag), partial mash, and extract brewing.


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1 Response

Mike B
Mike B

February 16, 2016

I’m a big fan of checklists. I’m just as prone to an absent-minded day as the next person and forget certain steps that add anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour to a brew. I also take the checklist route and make a step-by-step detailed brew plan in Microsoft Project so I don’t miss a thing.

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