The story of a homebrewer going pro isn’t anything new, but it’s rare when a brewer makes the jump outside of his/her home country. The U.S.-born Christopher Sidwa moved to Australia in 2008 and took his hobby to the professional level when he cofounded Batch Brewing Co. (Sydney, Australia). Hoping to inspire a new generation of homebrewers, he has released a new book Brew A Batch: A Beginner’s Guide to Home-Brewed Beer (Murdoch Books) that offers up all a budding homebrewer or curious-about-brewing drinker needs to fall down the rabbit hole. Senior Editor John Holl caught up with Sidwa to talk about the book, brewing, and advice to homebrewers.
CBB// What was your introduction to homebrewing?
CS// It came indirectly. I learned making beer was something you could do at home, and I liked the idea. It also came from drinking beers such as Sam Adams Cream Stout and Newcastle Brown Ale. It may even have had something to do with the fact that I couldn’t legally buy beer when this was going on in 1999.
But at that time, I was learning about food and flavor and teaching myself to cook, so it flowed easily into wanting to learn more about how to make beer. I made extract brews for my first batches, so the equipment was simple. The first was just dry malt extract (DME) and some hops. By the second, I had specialty malts and a yeast starter. I was focused on process and sanitation and making something that tasted good but never on repeatability and nailing numbers.
CBB// How did that help translate for when you went pro?
CS// It wasn’t until I met my now business partner that I got serious. Together we bought a SABCO system, shipped it to Australia, and punched out six straight batches of APA—shit, we learned a lot about consistency, and every batch we’ve made since has had a very specific goal—more often than not, we nail that target because we’re focused on process. In four and a half years, we’ve brewed a bit over 1,000 batches of roughly 160 unique recipes—so our 10-barrel brewery is still very much a homebrew kit.
CBB// You started in the United States and then moved to Australia. I imagine that brewing is brewing no matter where you are, but were there any cultural differences you encountered?
CS// There was a rich homebrewing culture when I got to Australia in 2008. Being as far away from the United States and England as Australia is (making shipping very expensive), the locals had developed their own processes using what they had available. Brew-in-a-bag and the no-chill method were two things their local equipment options led them to develop.
In Australia, I was also introduced to the kit-and-a-kilo method (malt extract is available in groceries stores thanks to Coopers, so people would buy their malt kit and a kilo of sugar, blend both with some warm water, and then toss in some yeast—you can guess the results), which gave the homebrewing scene a little bit of a tarnish. There were plenty of stories of people’s dodgy uncle making homebrew in the shed. I had to explain what I meant by homebrewing to a few people to avoid being grouped with their drunken relatives.
CBB// For many homebrewers with a desire to do more and to make commercially available beer, there is a moment when they get that push to go pro. What was it for you?
CS// The businessman in me will answer this one. It was when I found out a 50-liter (13-gallon) keg of beer could sell for $300 (plus tax). I had a plan to open a brewery one day, long after the kids’ educations were paid for, but I never expected it could be a viable business that could still support a young family.
I met my business partner, and together we realized we could make it work. But it was more the idea of giving the market something more, and different, than it was how much we could get for the beer that pushed us over the edge. We wanted to have an impact, and sharing our homebrewed batches showed us we could.
CBB// What’s your advice for homebrewers looking to go pro?
CS// Give your market an honest assessment. Push out beyond your friends and family and ask strangers—they’re honest and unbiased. Does your market want the beer you like to brew? How much will the market buy? This is relevant to ensure you buy the right size equipment—overcapitalizing is a real risk in a market this saturated.
Start small and don’t expect growth—you have to be prepared to work for it—15-hour days with cuts on your hands that don’t heal because you never get a chance to rest.
CBB// Every writer learns something while writing a book. What lesson(s) did you take away from the process?
I learned what an amazing team we’ve attracted at Batch. My team stepped up and let me be absent for a few months to write. I was still running operational aspects in the morning and writing from the Royal Albert Hotel [pub] on my corner, but I didn’t lift a finger in the brewery while the team brewed, packaged, poured, and sold a lot of fantastic beer. Brewing attracts some really wonderful people—and the ones I work with are among the best.
CBB// Are you still homebrewing?
CS// I’ve brewed one batch of homebrew in the past four and a half years. I was in New Jersey with my wife’s cousin—it was his first in a long time so he got to learn, and I got to make sure the process I had written about actually still works like I remembered it!
We knocked out a Batch West Coast IPA clone with extract, specialty malts, and a pack of Safale US-05. Other than some oxidation and higher finishing gravity, it was a pretty rad first [in years] for both of us.
CBB// Having a professional brewery is cool, but do you ever miss homebrewing?
CS// I do miss it—my business partner/homebrew collaborator and I miss it so much that we’ve decided Batch’s next brewery will produce even more new beers than our current one. We’ve put down a deposit on a 3-barrel system for recipe improvement and innovation—homebrew scale with first class equipment and control in a separate facility with a bar and a life of its own. I had my brewers and tasting-room manager at the space we’ll be brewing from today to get them thinking and excited. We’re all stoked.
CBB// What recipe do you still enjoy making above all others?
CS// Brown Ale—traditional or with a twist, I just really love malt-forward beers.
CBB// If you weren’t a brewer, what do you think you’d be doing?
CS// I’d be a gardener or farmer with a particular interest in nutritional, sustainable, and restorative growing practices. First, I learned to cook, then to brew; now I’d like to provide my own food—nourish the body and spirit. That would be pretty cool.