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Fine Grain Knowledge vs Abstraction in the Brewing Process

A friend recently pointed to the classic 1998 brewing text by Ray Daniels titled Designing Great Beers : The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles and pointed out the need for fine grain knowledge when it comes to beer recipe development. I used to have the same discussion with web designers a decade ago. Abstraction is a useful tool and we all enjoy the benefits of abstraction throughout our lives; but nothing really beats having fine grain knowledge when the shit hits the fan.

In my past life I was a web developer. Specifically, I would hand code quality HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) with attention to usability, accessibility and cross platform consistency. In short, I was a fine grain knowledge kind of guy. And I used to tell these DreamWeaver coders that it’s all fine until something breaks – then you need to know that code backwards. You need to be able to go into that code that makes the look and feel and functionality and understand how to tweak the fine pieces to fix issues.

Being a web developer isn’t just about making websites – it’s about understanding and employing web technologies to achieve a desired result. On reflection of what my friend was saying about the Ray Daniels book, I have to agree. While you don’t absolutely need to know the fine grain knowledge of brewing math and science to make beer, you will make better beer with those levers available.

And that’s where I get sucked down the rabbit hole of brewing science. Because I’m fundamentally a fine grain knowledge type of personality. Admittedly, I use the abstraction of the Brewer’s Friend Recipe Builder. Abstraction has it’s place. But that’s not where I design recipes. It’s where I put my recipe into a bit of software and get an idea of the expected ABV (Alcohol By Volume) and colour of where those ingredients should put me. I guess it’s a fine line, though. It’s also handy to know the expected yeast count required by the recipe for healthy fermentation. But then I’m not obsessed about efficiencies… or recipes, for that matter. A ballpark is fine by me on most occasions and I’ll change my mind on a whim right up to the kettle stage.

A bad recipe brewed well will always beat a great recipe brewed badly. I can’t remember who wrote that, but it’s worth writing on your home brewery wall.

One brewing abstraction that I do find invaluable (even though I’ve read a lot about water chemistry) is the supporter’s version of the Bru’n Water spreadsheet produced by Martin Brungard. I’m not about to go down that particular rabbit hole of specialist knowledge. I guess abstraction is a good thing when it achieves the desired outcome.

The point is to be aware of when you need or can even achieve fine grain knowledge on a subject. If it’s attainable, then attain that knowledge and embrace the abstraction knowing that you can pull more levers by knowing more about the problem domain.

Abstractions are a part of our lives. Do you need to be a mechanic to operate a car? No. The complexities are abstracted away by a steering wheel, foot pedals, and gauges. Do you need to understand the water reticulation system to be able to get a glass of fresh water? Again, no. You turn a tap and it arrives. And, again, the complexities are abstracted away. This is modern life in a nutshell. In web design, expensive design software abstracts away the complexities and the repetition of hand coding because it makes business sense for visual people. But you still need other people like me with fine grain knowledge to fix the code when it’s broken… or to envision technical obstacles in the design.

I have to admit that I don’t have the fine grain knowledge of recipe design that my friend was referring to last week. The road to my recipe is one that’s more shooting from the hip. I follow my tongue. I tend to design around what I have available in my closet. And I’m comfortable putting a shot across the bow of a beer style and honing in from there. I’m not even sure I’m a big believer in beer styles as written in stone.

So, whether you’re a fine grain knowledge brewer, or an abstraction brewer… or, like me, a combination of the two to varying degrees of that maths and science… the proof is always in your pudding. And that’s the best part of the hobby of home brewing. Good beers in the fridge.

Mashed in grain in my brew kettle

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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