There are an infinite number of reasons to chat beer with expert home brewer, Denny Conn, the man whose face (and two-fingered peace sign) graces the front of the Little RIPA PicoPak. Conn has co-authored books on experimental brewing, he hosts two regular podcasts on the subject and he’s been on governing committees for the American Home Brewer’s Association.
But something many don’t know about him is that he used to offer quirky challenges to his fellow home brewers akin to Iron Chef competitions. Challenges he called his “Iron Brewer” prompts, which pushed his brew club members to use odd items like breakfast cereals in their new brewing recipes.
“I don’t think they’ve quite forgiven me,” Conn chuckles. But conceptualizing brewing recipes, among many other talents, is something he’s top-notch at doing. “The first thing you need to do if you have specific ingredients you want to use is you need to use your taste imagination to taste the finished beer in your head. You don’t want to just start throwing ingredients together.”
In other words, there are two basic approaches: bottom-up and top-down, which he prefers. “For the top-down approach,” he says, “you imagine what the beer is going to taste like and then you figure out how to get there.” Take, for example, his mushroom beer: “I needed to come up with something that would enhance their flavors and not clash,” Conn says of the tasty fungi. “So I came up with a Belgian Golden Strong that would really let the flavors of the mushrooms come through.”
And while Pico customers may never know the greatness of his mushroom Golden Strong Ale, they may be able to sample a new PicoPak from Conn’s own recipe books down the line. He and Master Brewer, Annie Johnson, are working on a Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter.
But how, after all, did Denny Conn become Denny Conn, one of the most respected and knowledgeable home brewers in the country and what does it have to do with Julia Child? “I started cooking for a hobby at 13 after I saw Julia Child’s first show,” he recalls. “I was a chemistry major in college but after that I was running my own business and so was my wife. We didn’t have time for nice big meals together.”
So his then-business partner introduced him to the world of home brewing and Conn’s wife soon bought him a brewing kit and his first batch of pale ale came out delicious – unusual for a newbie. After that, he was hooked. “I still remember opening that first bottle I brewed and hearing that pppffff sound and feeling I’ve done something magic,” he recalls. “Now, my life is all about beer. I write about it, talk about it, spend hours every day on various forums discussing it. And I drink it.”
It was this love of beer and home brewing – and adherence to tradition – that had Conn feeling skeptical when he first found out about PicoBrew and the company’s flagship invention, the Zymatic. “When I first saw the first Facebook post about the Zymatic,” he says, “my immediate reaction was do-not-want. But then I found out [2013 Home Brewer of the Year award winner] Annie Johnson was involved with the company and because of the respect I had for her and her achievements, I thought I owed it to myself to take a closer look.”
Conn was sent a Zymatic and he’s been using it ever since, creating test batches and experiencing the freedom of brewing beer and being able to walk away from the process and get other things done. “I was blown away by the tech, by how easy it was to use, how repeatable,” Conn says. “I totally changed my opinion of it.”
It’s even helping out in other areas of the home.
“The Zymatic and Pico are both great – I can do laundry, clean the house, write a chapter in the book without paying any attention to the brewing until it’s done. And when I do housework, it means my wife can stay out in the garden and that makes her very happy, which also makes me very happy.”