This is Craig Webber with his two assistant brewers, BJ and Sarah, in the wonderful bar he’s built in his shed.
Last week we celebrated his crowning as Champion Brewer at the national homebrewing championship. Craig had the best beer in four categories and with Daniel Rayner, Ross Mitchell and Rod Campbell earned the ACT the title of “Best State of Show”. This afternoon I was lucky enough to see Craig at work in his shed getting a Bavarian Weizen ready to ferment.
[ED – Thanks to Christoph Zierholz for helping arrange the interview]
A fitter and machinist by trade, Craig is an instrument maker at the CSIRO where he got his start in brewing a mere three years ago when Ross Mitchell approached him to build some parts for Ross’s brewing rig. Craig took a shine to the idea of brewing his own VB and, taking advice from Ross, he leapt head first into brewing from basic ingredients straight into kegs and swiftly expanded the horizons of his beer drinking. Here’s Craig with the astonishing rig he’s built for himself combining the mashing, sparging and then the brewing of the wort (pronounced vert).
It certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to combine a passion for beer with an ability to work metal with precision. Craig’s gone so far as to make his own grain grinder.
When I arrived the preliminaries had been overcome and the vort was boiling away. This Bavarian Weizen is made of 50% wheat, 50% pilsener malt, and a mere 50 grams of hallertauer malt.
Here it’s boiling away over Craig’s carefully calibrated gas burner.
At this early stage (brought out to measure the specific gravity) it’s a very clear liquid with, as you can see, a lot of mysterious chunks floating around.
Maintaining a steady temperature through fermentation is always tricky for the home brewer. Craig has overcome this with a dedicated refrigerator with a purpose built thermostat control. When I dropped by it was running at 22 degrees.
When time was up on the batch in question it was drained through a heat exchanger (tank water for the heat exchange) into the fermentation vessel. Interestingly Craig doesn’t feel the need for air locks on his fermenters, just a loose lid, although the seal on the dedicated refrigerator probably reduces the risks of contamination. This is what the bottom of the barrel looks like after the wort has drained into the fermenter.
At this point it’s free of the chunks and has taken up the hazier appearance expected of a wheat beer. Here’s Craig checking the specific gravity with help from Chloe in the background. That’s also Craig’s trophy cabinet over his shoulder.
After primary and secondary fermentation the beer finds its way behind the bar in his shed where Craig keep three beers on tap at any given time.
Burners, boilers, spargers, washers, mashers, grinders, a plethora of refrigerators, yeast cultures running through multiple generations, a dedicated computer running the ProMash program to keep track of what’s worked and what hasn’t, the equipment and bar fills a large shed, all put together in just three years.
Brewers tend to be generous and Craig was kind enough to share his three excellent on tap beers (in small glasses as I had to drive) during the time I was there.
For the rest of you wanting to give it a go it’s likely that one of his recipes will be on tap in the Wig and Pen in the near future as the prize for being crowned the Canberra Brewer Of The Year 2006.
For those wanting to follow in his footsteps Craig recommends attending meetings of the Canberra Brewers Club, held on the first Thursday of the month (excluding January) at the Harmonie Club in Narrabundah. Many local brewers will be there seeking opinions about their beers and keen to give advice to the aspiring. (Plug: Canberra Brewers are sponsored by Trojan Hospitality, Brew Your Own At Home, and the Wig and Pen.) If you’re a complete beginner don’t despair, my own kit-based brewery occupies a corner of my laundry and involves nothing more technical an ability to boil water and fill a plastic vat with water, not that my beer is likely to win any awards other than making me personally very happy.
As for why Canberra produces so many excellent brewers that it can beat the rest of the country in competition? The water supply goes some way to explaining it, but there do also seem to be a lot of people with a science background in the local brewing scene helping to bring along the rest of us.