Lessons Learned

The Lessons of Zwahlenbrau

My First Two Years of Homebrewing

by Jason Swalley



Jason by his brewing rig, which he calls the Zwahlenbrau 3000. (Photo courtesy Jason Swalley.)

Zwahlenbrau is the name I gave to my home brewing enterprise and first original pale ale recipe. It comes from the original spelling of my surname. I would like to think that at least some of the Zwahlens in my pedigree were brewers back in Switzerland and Germany. My homebrew brand/identity has been a fun part of the experience. My biggest failures at Zwahlenbrau Brewery happened early and were few. I have been fortunate. I avoided some major catastrophes like fermenter explosions and contaminations by arming myself with information before I heated any strike water. If the things I have learned and tips I have accumulated can help one rookie brewer experience early success, more great beer will be produced and the world will be a better place.

I have learned to…

Read about brewing. The Internet is your friend. There are books, websites (beerandwinejournal.com first, of course), and forums with helpful information on all levels of brewing. The instructions that came with my first brewing kit made a drinkable batch of beer. When I went online and found John Palmer’s introduction to all-grain brewing, I realized that kits are the “training wheels” of brewing. My second batch was all-grain and tasted like it came from a brewpub. I was hooked. Now I read about each new style I’m about to brew with recipe in hand.

Use recipes. If you decide that you don’t want to commit to all-grain right away but want to progress as a brewer, try recipes that use extract, instead of ready-made kits. Again, the Internet. Many published recipes have extract and all-grain versions. After a steady year of all-grain batches, I found a clone recipe I wanted to try but was in an extract-only form. I gave my mash tun the day off and made one of my favorite ales to date.  In fact, it is one of the few recipes I have repeated. Extract can make really good beer.

Sanitize correctly. Good sanitation is basic to brewing and something that seems to be often overlooked. My starter equipment package included instructions to use diluted bleach to sanitize the fermenters, tubing, etc. It turns out that chlorine bleach residue makes your beer taste like a big Band-Aid™. Well, like a Band-Aid™ smells. I’ve never eaten one. Pony up the 18 bucks and get the economy size, acid, no-rinse sanitizer. Good beer is worth it!  And don’t rinse the no-rinse sanitizer away. That foam is your friend and won’t affect the taste of the beer. Yes, I was a no-rinse rinser. I confess.

Get creative. Brewing became more fun for me when I started to tweak recipes. When I ventured into all-grain and saw the price of tiered brewing systems, I decided to build my own out of stuff I had lying around . . . mostly. If you have the basic brewing equipment, you possess the infrastructure to make cider, hard lemonade, and other fermentables. Try formulating your own recipe from scratch. Recently, I decided to brew a series of beers popular in my ancestral homeland of Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Creativity keeps brewing fun.

Take the next step. If you are starting to feel like kit beers and extract recipes are just “boiling stuff,” consider all-grain brewing. All you really need to get started is a mash tun. I made one from a 10-gallon (~40–L) cooler and some copper plumbing. There are instructions all over the Internet. To me, all-grain brewing is real brewing. There is nothing like the satisfaction of transforming a bag of malted barley into beautiful, sweet, sticky, fermentable wort. All-grain brewing made me start to care about water profiles, proper pH, lagering temperature, yeast starters, and the in-depth science of brewing. It’s a whole new game.

Zwahlenbrau Brewery won’t be closing its doors any time soon. In a little over two years, it has become more than a hobby for me; it is part of my home’s operation. When my wife stopped buying beer at the store I knew that I was doing well and had a new job. I hope that my brewing ancestors would be pleased with my accomplishments and I wish my fellow rookie brewers early success. Prost!


  1. I think there is another article in the making if you would go over the home made 3 tier that Jason put together, it looks interesting & I know I’m curious on the materials used and sourcing, etc.

    • Jason Swalley says

      Hi Jerry-I’m sorry that I just saw your comment. I can tell you the basics. The frame for my system is on old server rack. The HLT I have on top is on top of a 900 watt electric burner to maintain the mash temperature. High-temp tubing feeds a copper sparge grid in the top of the mash tun. I have a copper manifold in the bottom of the cooler that runs to the pump and gets the wort back up to the HLT/heating system. It took a bit of tweaking to get the flow and temperature settings just right but it works well. I usually get a little better than 80% efficiency with this rig. The tubing from the pump to the HLT is CPVC.

  2. Paul Tidsy says

    All good advice. And a couple of things I would add for anybody learning, and isn’t that all of us? Buy a copy of John Palmer’s How to Brew, first thing. And keep up to date with Basic Brewing Radio and Video podcasts. Plenty of fun and learning to be had there.

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