FEATURE: Interview with Homebrewer Joe Rancourt

Homebrewer Joe Rancourt
Saturday, November 2nd is the 14th annual Learn to Homebrew Day, spearheaded by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA). This global event was established to encourage people  to learn how to brew from fellow homebrewers.

There are more than 80 events taking place at breweries, homebrew shops and garages across the world. Not far from Ottawa, the Cornwall HomeBrew Club is taking over a local restaurant and have invited speakers from the industry to talk about homebrewing.

To get a glimpse into the world of homebrewing we'll be posting interviews with Ottawa homebrewers all week leading up to November 2nd – and maybe they'll encourage you to brew your own beer!

Ottawa Beer Events: How long have you been homebrewing?

Joe Rancourt: About 25 years ago, my old man started making wine at home.  Like most people, he saw an opportunity to save a few dollars by doing it himself.  They did that for a few years and then got out of it altogether.  His equipment just sat in a corner for a year.  I was just starting out in university at the time and saw my opportunity to save a few dollars by making some cheap beer.  I whipped up about 10 batches at the time using extract kits.  The results ranged from acceptable to barely drinkable.  I then turned to a Brew on Premises (BoP) shop for a few years.  While they brewed beer All Grain, AG as homebrewers call it, I found most of the beer turned out nearly the same and wasn’t really high quality.  Once I finished university and picked up a real job, I turned my back on homebrewing, convinced it wasn’t possible to make acceptable beer at home.

Fast forward to 5-6 years ago, a friend was telling me how his neighbour had built himself a brewery in his garage.  The guy even had a nice website dedicated to pictures of his equipment.  When I emailed the guy, he told me to expect to spend $4K on setting up a decent brewery.  I was sold.  Now I just needed to find the money.

2 years ago, I was on parental leave with my second son.  My leave was just coming to an end.  We had two young kids and money was getting tight as we had made the decision to have my wife stay home for a few years instead of sending the kids to daycare.  With only a couple weeks before returning to work, I started exploring homebrewing once again and found myself at our local homebrew store Defalcos, with no clue how to start out.  Oddly enough, I met another guy there at the exact same time looking to to the exact same thing.  Grady and I have been great friends since.

From my reading, I knew I wanted to getting into All Grain, but that I would start slow.  I started out with 4 Festa Brew kits.  After getting those 4 batches going in a matter of a week, I set my sights at learning about All Grain brewing.  It took me only 3 weeks to make the jump and in mid-January 2012, I found myself in -20C weather, in my garage for 5 hours, babysitting my first batch of all grain beer.

How were those Festa Brews in comparison to the extract you used to brew?

Oh, definitely a solid step in the right direction.  In fact, I have about 6 or 7 friends now regularly making beer with these Festa Brew kits.  It’s the easiest and faster way to make beer.  I did a couple this summer in fact when I broke my ankle and couldn’t commit to brewing anything for for about 8 weeks.

So why not stick with the kits?

There was just something about brewing something from scratch that appealed so much to me.  And truthfully, I really needed a good hobby and this one was the most appealing!

How was that experience and how did that first batch turn out?

It was very exciting and intimidating taking on that first batch.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to brew with someone from the local club on New Year’s Even 2012.  Geoff Campbell.  Great guy.  Great beer too!  No matter how much I read on the subject, seeing the process in action really demystified it for me.  There’s so much to learn, but it’s not that difficult to brew a decent batch of beer.  

So the first brew, a robust porter, went fairly well.  And not to take anything away from Festa Brew kits, which are miles ahead of extract kits, my first all grain batch turned out better than any beer from a kit I’ve ever had.  The second batch, proved more challenging.  It was a real challenging day.

How so?

I got cocky.  The first time, I set an entire afternoon aside to focus on brewing.  Since it went so well, I tried to cram in a brew one evening and everything went wrong.  I had trouble boiling off the wort (beer before it is fermented) and then cooling it down.  My garage and driveway turned into an ice rink when using water to chill the wort after the boiling was done.

Did that put you off brewing for awhile?

Not at all.  It forced me to be more disciplined.  In the months following, I figured out ways to turn this into a timed process.  Something that took me nearly 5 ½ hours to do the first time was suddenly taking me 3 ½ hours.  In the early months, I would use my wife’s yoga night to cram in a brew while she was out.  I had it down like clockwork.

And how was your beer turning out?

Initially, I thought I was making good beer.  But after awhile, I realized that it could probably be better.  I changed a few things and those moves made a huge difference.

What were the biggest changes you made?

I invested in a Thermapen thermometer.  You can buy cheaper thermometers, but so many people love these.  Temperature is so important in brewing and it took me a good 6 months to respect the fact that even being off a couple degrees will change the end result.  Best $100 I spent on brewing.  I also got into treating my water with campden tablets and brewing salts.  It took a bit of learning to treat the water to achieve desired results, but the payoff has been huge.

Tell us about your system.

It’s fairly simple.  I use an electric turkey fryer, a converted cooler as my mash tun and an immersion chiller to chill the wort.  The rest is standard stuff like pails, carboys, a grain crusher, etc.  It’s a fairly humble setup that allows me to brew 5-6 gallons at a time and I’m quite happy that my setup cost me under $500 and not $4,000.  I did look into building a 19 gallon system as I was brewing quite frequently.  I was half way there until I decided to stick with the original system.  It would have saved me time in the grand scheme, but it would have made brew days longer.  With a young family, that probably would have limited my brewing opportunities.  Plus, I just love brewing!

How frequently?

Last year, I brewed 60 times.  And I’m on pace to do that again this year.

That’s a lot of beer!  Who drinks it?

Yup, that’s a lot of beer.  We often have people over for dinner or pool parties and I am more than happy bringing beer to our friends’ places.  We’ve even had a few house concerts and I am happy to just open up the taps so that people can taste beers they never could see themselves drinking and loving.

Where do you find the time?

My wife’s is pretty patient with my hobbies mainly because they are worth it!  I also roast coffee, make homemade sausages, fresh pizza, vanilla extract, smoke meat, etc.  And as far as time requirements go, I have it down to a process where I only need to tend to my brew for a few minutes here and there until I have to transfer it to the carboys and clean up.  That’s what takes the most time.  Most people are surprised that I can pull this off with 2 boys under the age of 4, but it fits right in.  My youngest is quite interested and involved in the process, wanting to stir the mash, test the wort and eat the grains.

What's your favourite beer you've made so far?

I've had a number of favourites.  I just finished a keg of porter that was on beer gas, which is a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen.  It was quite smooth.  I’ve made some great IPAs, including a great Rye IPA I call the Death Dealer.  It took the People’s Choice award that the Beaus Oktoberfest Homebrew Competition this year.

What an honour!

Ya, I was pretty surprised and humbled.  There are so many great brewers out there.  I wish I could have tried some of the beers from the competition as people were raving about a number of submissions.  I love trying beers from other brewers.  Get a bunch of brewers together and you can be sure we’ll spend the whole night talking about brewing and beer.

So you keg your beer?

Kegging equipment has become so affordable these days.  I got most of my equipment through www.ontariobeerkegs.com.  It’s not cheap to start out, but in the long run, when you think of the time savings and that it’s generally a one time expense, it’s a great investment for a serious homebrewer.  Currently, I have 6 taps, 2 of which serve use beer gas.  I say currently, as it seems expansion is inevitable sometimes!  

Sounds like you have a lot invested in this.

Yes and no.  I did the math on how much we spent at the LCBO and The Beer Store in a year.  That wasn’t fun.  I limited my first year’s expenses to that total.  I was able to build a keezer (freezer modified to serve beer), acquire all the necessary equipment and buy ingredients.  This year has been a little easier on the wallet.  Ingredients can be relatively cheap.  That 2-4 that used to cost me $25-$30 (and not even the good stuff!), now costs me anywhere from $5-$10 for high quality beer.

Would you say you’re a craft brewer then?

Not at all.  I find that to be more of a commercial title.  We’re pretty lucky in Ottawa to have a number of great Craft Brewers in the area.  I simply call myself a homebrewer.  People used to cringe when you would tell them you’re a homebrewer and I guess some people still do.  Then they get a taste of the product and that cringe turns to a surprised look, then a smile.  With the level of quality coming from homebrewers’ basements and garages these days, I sure home the title of homebrewer is gaining a little more respect.

Would you ever consider going pro?

I almost left the public service about a year ago to start a brewery.  Like many others who start a brewery, I found something I loved more than my day job.  I took a serious look into it and was getting to the point of financing.  In the end, the timing couldn’t have been worse.  I still hope to one day start a small operation, but for now, I’m happy being a homebrewer with big dreams.

What's the best advice you can give to new home brewers?

First piece of advice is to get an idea of how far you want to go and what you are prepared to devote to it.  There are plenty of great books out there and you’d be surprised how many great videos you can find on YouTube.  Most new brewers’ questions have been asked and answered so many time in various forums.  Someone starting out today is more fortunate than people starting out 15 years ago who didn’t have access to that information.  In the end, the best thing to start out is to find a good homebrewer, help them out for a day and drink some of their beer.  It won’t take you long to figure out how far you’re willing to take this hobby!

You can follow Learn to Homebrew Day activities on Twitter as they unfold using (#LTHD2013) or on Facebook (American Homebrewers Assocation).

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