Ladies and Gentlemen; He has an awesome brewhouse, he fights fire with beer and he wins brewing competitions. Shawn Graham is a truly passionate homebrewer who is all-in on the craft. He is constantly learning and discovering new things in beer brewing. He has the a goal of "trying all the IPA's" out there. His story is an inspirational one, enjoy!
Shawn Graham - Meet the Homebrewer
I’m a Lieutenant in a large metropolitan Fire Department in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. It’s a very rewarding career field that I’ve enjoyed for nearly 30 years. Working a schedule of 24 hours on, and 48 hours off, it has allowed me plenty of time to enjoy the hobby of homebrewing. Like brewing, my job requires the discipline of constantly learning. Just when you think you’ve seen or experienced it all, you are faced with a new problem that you must conquer. Critical thinking, education, and experience helps with achieving a good end result both in firefighting and in brewing. That’s why I seem to gravitate towards the never-ending pursuit of making great beer. One day I’ll be too old to continue to fight fire, but I’ll never be too old to make and enjoy great beer!
What or who got you into homebrewing? When was it?
It was Christmas in 2012, and a fellow firefighter friend of mine received a Mr. Beer homebrewing kit from his wife. My buddy and I enjoyed garage beers at his house fairly regularly, and one day in January of 2013 we brewed up their American Pale Ale kit. Not knowing much about craft beer, we certainly were curious about what the final product would taste like.
Our regular beer menu consisted of Bud Light and the occasional Coors Original. As the homebrew finished, we both tasted it and thought it wasn’t that good and it wasn’t that bad; but one thing it definitely was – fun to make! I sought out the local Homebrew supply store and decided to investigate options to take it to the next level. They sold me the typical starter kit – buckets, carboy, siphon, airlocks, bottle capper, etc. Extract brewing now was the name of my game.
My first beer was a disaster, and I ended up dumping it. My second, not quite so much. I brewed a Scottish Light which tasted pretty good! I decided to turn it into a local homebrew competition and it landed in the BJCP score range at roughly 30. I was disappointed somewhat, but yet I continued to brew sporadically. That same contest came back around the next year and I had a few bottles of the Scottish Light leftover. I decided to turn it in again after aging a year. It yielded a first place in its category and I officially caught the bug.
Upgrading equipment became a regular thing. From full batch boils to temperature-controlled fermentation to the eventual kegging of my beer, I was brewing non-stop. In September of 2015, I entered a Peach Wheat Ale in a contest and won best of show. I guess that’s when I officially got obsessed with the craft. The learning seemed to be never ending, so I developed a plan to transition from extract to all-grain brewing. Today I keep on display the first pot, keggle, and chiller to remind me of where I came from in this endeavor of making great beer.
Can you tell us an interesting story about homebrewing?
If you’re looking for a funny or disastrous story, I have neither. This story revolves around my once hatred for all bitter beers. Sometime in 2015 I decided to brew an India Pale Ale. I figured even though I couldn’t stand the style, to be a well-rounded brewer I would need to have the ability to produce a decent IPA. Having friends that love the style, I was not at a loss of people to critique the results.
It was a recipe I pulled from a reputable website, and I made no modifications to it – a moderately bitter version if I recall correctly. When it finished, I tasted it and thought ‘this ain’t that bad!’ My friends agreed, and I was an official IPA lover. Since then I think I’ve made my goal to try ALL the IPA’s out there! Any time I visit a taproom or brewery, my first go-to style when ordering is that of the hoppy variety. It’s reflective of what I brew most often today.
How is brewing a social thing for you? Do you like brewing with others?
The majority of my brewing is done alone. Not saying I don’t like brewing with others, I just feel like I can focus on implementing a recipe that I’ve put lots of research into, and enjoy the reward of making it come to life. I’d rather make a social event of sharing the end result of that effort. Nothing warms the heart better that seeing your friends and family take a second pull off of the kegerator and tell you they really enjoy the beer. That’s one thing that drives me to continue to enjoy brewing.
There’s a contest my Local Homebrew Club, Cap and Hare, puts on every year called ‘Iron Mash.’ It’s a large gathering of homebrew teams that are handed strange ingredients, tough parameters, or both; and task the teams with developing a recipe on the spot, declaring the style, in 90 minutes. You then brew on-site at a local brewery. After your brew day is over, you take it home to ferment, turn it in a couple of months later, then celebrate at the awards party. It’s my favorite competition to brew in. I have the help of a fellow lover of craft beer, firefighter, and brewer Nolan Rosen. Having that much pressure to develop a recipe in 90 minutes does prove the need to have help. I do enjoy having Nolan brew with me, as our first year we were graced with a 3rd place win on a Pale Ale with Rose Hips and Tajin Season Salt.
What advice would like to give to other homebrewers?
Once you’ve decided to brew beer, don’t expect to enjoy fantastic, flawless beers in your first many batches. Expect to make mistakes. Learn from those mistakes. Have patience. Be disciplined. Seek out help. Whether it’s from the internet, books, fellow brewers, or from homebrewing clubs, there is lots of good information out there to make you better. Above all, if you’re doing it for fun, you’re approaching it the right way.
For those who’ve decided that brewing good beer is in your future, I believe there is an incremental approach at achieving this goal. Buying the best of the best equipment and ingredients alone will not necessarily result in the best beer. I believe in gaining expertise in each individual step of brewing and putting that expertise into practice. I started by focusing on the hot side of brewing, learning how ingredients react in the boil, and what they yield in the final product. Using extract made this simpler because the maltsters did the heavy lifting on getting the sugars right. When making the decision to move to all-grain, that brought about a whole new chapter of learning.
I had to understand the conversion process, and that took lots of trial and error. The hot side has its challenges, but it gets more complicated when you move to the cold side. Learning about the phases of fermentation, yeast, temperature control, and packaging took a very long time. Again, I broke these processes down into individual tasks, and tried to master each one. It took lots of reading and lots of practice. The challenging thing about putting into practice something you’ve learned is that the results aren’t shown immediately. You have to wait until the beer is fermented out and conditioned before you can find out if what you did made a difference. Enter patience and discipline. Sometimes the things you learn prompt you to buy different or better equipment. Marry your proven processes, equipment that works for you, and quality ingredients, and you’ll soon produce beer that you can certainly be proud to share. All the time, knowledge, and practice is worth it, I promise!
What is the best beer you ever made? And the worst?
I’ve made several beers that have been good enough to take awards at various contests. There’ve been beers that I thought were excellent, but fell short at those same competitions. The beer that I hold dear to my heart is a beer that I’ve brewed many times, tweaking it along the way to make it ‘perfect’ – my Graham Cracker Ale. It’s a wheat-based beer that pretty much tastes like a graham cracker. You see, since my last name is Graham, I figured that I needed to have a namesake beer. My third or fourth attempt at making it right yielded just about what I had been aiming for. I was soon to be married to the love of my life, a woman who is supportive of my love of brewing beer. We had a small wedding attended by family and very close friends. Our parting gifts to all was that bottled batch of Graham Cracker Ale. It was so good that instead of saving a piece of cake for us to eat on our first anniversary, we saved a bottle of that beer to share with each other. Very memorable beer, that’s for sure!
The worst… well, any beer that I have to water the yard with is the worst. I try to put a silver lining on these failures, because for every one of these beers I take away the learning points rather than dwelling on the failure itself. My second beer I dumped was a Chocolate Oatmeal Stout that a friend named (before it was finished) ‘Quaker Shake Stout.’ A great name for such a colossal failure. When I was ready to add the chocolate component to the conditioning beer, I tossed in some Hershey’s Cocoa powder directly into the fermenter. It infected the beer and ended up tasting like I was chewing on a piece of stainless steel. Learning point taken; make sure what you add to the finishing beer is sanitary! I’ve yet to revisit the beer, but plans are in the works to do so by the end of this year.
Tell us about your favorite styles to brew
Hoppy styles, that’s for sure! As mentioned earlier, I wasn’t always a fan of this style. I love brewing (and drinking) Pales, IPA’s, Double IPA’s, and dry hopped beers of any sort. Lately, I’ve focused a lot of my studies on the New England Style or Hazy versions – I know, like just about everyone else! It’s been quite challenging trying to dial this style in. Trying not to be uber-focused on just the style, I’ve found myself broadening that focus to learn more on the contributions that hops impart on beer. That keeps my fermenters full of hop-forward beers, and I’m OK with that!
This year I decided to be more organized, and less impulsive on what I brew. I bought a calendar planner book and started planning ahead. I wanted to have styles that were appropriate for the seasons they were meant to be enjoyed in planned out and ready for those seasons. So, once a month I will brew a beer that I’ve never brewed, or one that I’ve yet to perfect. This gives me time to research those styles ahead of time, hopefully coming up with a solid recipe and a fantastic beer to share. In between these beers you’ll usually find me brewing those hoppy beers that I mentioned above. All in all, I brew on average 3-4 beers a month and I find that very fulfilling.
Tell us about your brewing plans for the future
Like most homebrewers, I aspire to brew professionally and one day own and operate a Brew Pub. I don’t necessarily want to have a large production brewery, just something that can keep me busy in retirement and bring in a few dollars. I have friends that have started with a small operation, and it seems like they have the ability to experiment, produce quality brews, and all with no huge production schedules to maintain. I imagine it can get monotonous brewing the same beer over and over again. Mine is a pipe dream, but nonetheless it keeps me driving to learn to be the best brewer I can be. After all, they say you never really work if you’re doing what you love, and who wants to work after retirement?
What is your experience with Kveik?
I probably have a dissenting opinion about Kveik yeast. I’ve never used it, and have no future plans to do so. I believe if you have the equipment to ferment with the ‘proper’ yeast for the style you’re brewing, you should use it. Kveik seems to be the buzz nowadays. A few friends have experimented with it, and seem to love how it chews up sugars at such high temperatures. I see it as a useful tool for those who cannot temperature control their fermentations and want to produce beers that require such. I don’t have that problem, and am perfectly content with waiting a beer out that ferments slower, at lower temperatures.
What equipment do you use and why?
I use a 3-vessel HERMS system made of highly polished keggles. The mash tun is insulated by a custom designed ‘koozie’ made from a pair of old firefighting bunker pants. It’s operated by a two-pump system; one for recirculating the wort, and the other to circulate the HLT. Gas fires the boil kettle and HLT. My first experience assisting in brewing an all-grain beer found me on a friend’s HERMS system. It just all made sense to me the moment we fired it up. I did much research on how a system like this should be built and started piecing it together. I had a friend weld it up, then brewed like crazy to learn how my new setup worked. It took several months to finally get the processes down well enough to predict my efficiencies and be consistent on it. From there I ferment in Kegland’s Fermentasaurus and FermZilla conicals in True commercial refrigerators that I integrated with temperature control. Most times I pressure ferment so the beer is close to finished carbonating when I package it. I keg all my beers and serve from a 3-tap keezer, and a single tap kegerator. The setup works fairly well in my 12x16 brew shed.
Are you satisfied with that or are you thinking about upgrading?
I love my setup and do not plan on upgrading anytime soon. Should the need arise in the future, I may upgrade the size, but still plan on brewing on a HERMS system. I’ve toyed with the thought of moving to stainless conical fermenters temperature controlled by glycol, but the cost is fairly prohibitive. The one upgrade that is definitely in my future is my brew space. I intend on building a large shop and designing half of it for brewing and separate the other half for working on projects.
Graham's awesome brewhouse!
How are your experiences with PLAATO Airlock and PLAATO Keg? What do you think of being able to share the hobby with WIFI-connected devices?
I am familiar with both units, but currently do not have either. I use a Tilt to obtain gravities, and it fits my needs fairly well. What I do like about the Plaato Airlock is the diagnostic information you can get. That seems very useful in evaluation to prepare in duplicating a great beer you’ve made. One suggestion on the Airlock if I may – I would love to see the ability to use a device like this and still be able to ferment under pressure. Plaato Pressure Airlock… kind of has a ring to it, right? The Plaato Keg IS something that I plan on buying. Just the other day I had a decent IPA on tap and was thinking I had plenty left to bottle up for a friend. That was one pint before the keg blew! Oh, if I would’ve known its amount ahead of time… so four Plaato Kegs are in my very near future! I plan on integrating them with my taplist.io display.
Wi-Fi devices have changed the brewing scene very much in a positive way. Gone are the days of having to open your fermenter up to pull a sample to check gravity. That archaic practice wastes beer and subjects your batch to oxygen and infection. I can truly brew a beer that never sees oxygen past the yeast pitch – well, until you pour it in a glass! As far as keg monitoring, large taprooms have had the ability to display keg amounts for some time. I’m sure glad to know that homebrewers now have that ability, and at an affordable price!
Do you have an unpopular opinion about homebrewing?
I guess the only unpopular opinion centers around my lack of interest in Kveik yeast for reasons explained earlier.
Any closing thoughts?
I believe brewing beer is a lot like the game of Golf. I’m not a golfer by any means, but I can relate to the game. I’ve tried my hand at it a few times, and I was simply terrible at it. I would make a decent drive (luckily) and hack at it 6-7 times before I sank the ball. Not many times could I be consistently good throughout one hole. I lacked the patience and discipline that it took to take me to the next level. Fictional character Bagger Vance once said in a movie, [Golf is a] “game that can’t be won, only played.” I feel like brewing and enjoying beer relates so well to that statement. You may never win all the awards or make the perfect beer, but the pursuit to do so keeps you practicing, working, and improving – playing. The focus it takes to be a good brewer is no different than what it takes to be a good golfer. Fortunately for me I’m sharing my experiences as a homebrewer and not a Golf Pro… who needs all that fortune and fame anyways? I’ve got beer!
Thank you Plaato for the opportunity to share my story. Check me out on Instagram at @grahambrewing. Cheers!