By Emily Weiss
Homebrewing in Minneapolis. There’s an app for that? Absolutely. There are several, actually, but they’re mainly calculators for yeast pitching rate, mash and sparge, and timers for your hopping schedule. They’re helpful tools, but Kyle Kestell, a web developer and passionate homebrewing equipment expert, still felt that an application could do more, he’d just have to make it himself. The idea was to fuse the advice-giving and inspiration you find in homebrewing discussion threads with the accuracy and functionality that this particular emulator lends. The result is Brewtoad, a more powerful, more social, more useful homebrewing app. It was launched just a few months ago by Kestell and a team of creative and technical dynamos at Ackmann & Dickenson, a Minneapolis-based application design and development agency, and is already gaining a national audience. I sat down with Kestell to talk about the natural intersection of brewing and technology, his experience with other applications, and what makes Brewtoad different.
The Growler: So what does Brewtoad do?
Kyle Kestell: Brewtoad is a web application that allows homebrewers to create and share homebrew recipes. There are sort of three main pieces to it. There’s recipe creation, recipe sharing, and recipe discovery. The way we deal with the discovery piece is that we have very robust filters that allow you to drill down and find a recipe based on really specific criteria. So, for example, if you want to look for just IPAs that have an original gravity of more than 1.065 and less than 80 IBUs (international bitterness units) you could find just those recipes from the roughly 1,000 that are currently in our database. We also have all the BJCP-identified (Beer Judging Certification Program) styles and the acceptable ranges for each one. So anyone who wants to conform to a particular style, can follow the bar graphs that represent what levels are in the BJCP acceptable ranges. Then the sharing piece is the social aspect. So you can follow other brewers, you can “like” a recipe, which we call a “cheers,” you can comment on recipes, and share them on social networks. Finally, the recipe creation part, which is the part that I was the most interested in and the piece that we actually built first. That piece allows you to interactively test your recipe and levels by simply plugging in ingredients with amounts. It does a bunch of emulation behind the scenes and evaluates what the brew’s sort of eventual properties will be once it’s done: the character, the color, the balance, the original gravity, the final gravity, the IBUs, and so on. So you develop this recipe interactively and then get instant feedback on what it will turn out like. If I could develop this for baking I’d make a million dollars but the chemistry there is way more complicated than for brewing beer.
Related Post: Berliner Weisse Homebrew Recipe (for Moms Everywhere)
TG: How does Brewtoad differ from some of the other applications out there?
KK: There’s an app called Hopville, which is the big one, and it inspired Brewtoad in a lot of ways. Their ideas were good, but I thought they could be improved upon. So like, for example, in their ingredient database, anyone can add anything to it, so you have all this fragmented data and that really screws up search results. I thought I could mitigate that, so in Brewtoad everyone is sandboxed a little bit by filters, fewer ingredients, and we don’t allow other users to see any custom ingredients you might add. Hopville’s recipe editor was also not interactive. Brewtoad does everything in real time and it’s much more visual.
TG: How usable is this application, and who is it for?
KK: Well it started as a tool for me, primarily. In a perfect world, I think everyone would write their own software, but of course I’d be out of a job. So I had to back up a little and think about everyone else’s needs and experience. I will say that this is not a homebrewing app to use if you have never brewed beer before. Our intention is not to teach you how to brew beer. It’s to help you develop better recipes and achieve the results you want without the guesswork. There will always be super-users and people who contribute a lot, but I think it’s still a tool you can try out and use one time to make a batch of beer. It’s about as simple as it can get right now. We’ll add features, but our goal was to start with something that was pretty stripped down and straightforward.
TG: So, walk me through the user process a little bit.
KK: You start with a style, it’s kind of like with food—you have a particular set of flavors you know you are going to work with. So if you know the style, you click on the style name, and it comes up with the aroma, flavors, colors and commercial examples. Then there are graphs showing the levels and properties for that style, and from there you can either discover existing recipes in that style or create your own. Then you can comment on those recipes, too. I think getting feedback from people who have used the recipe is obviously helpful, even with as much as this application can predict, we still want it to be a community.
TG: You just went to the American Homebrewers Association conference in Seattle. What was the response?
KK: People liked how simple it was and how clean-looking it was. That’s a testament to Chris Micek, our front-end developer. People also appreciated having full access to everything. With Beersmith, the Windows homebrewing app, you only get access to like five recipes or something unless you pay. For us, it costs the same to store a million recipes as it does five, so why not let users see all of them? Response was really good overall. I think our user base grew after that conference.
TG: What would you like to see happen in the next iteration of this app?
KK: In the future, we’d love to have one-click ordering for any ingredient on the site. Right now if you go to a homebrewing equipment store and you want to make a particular kind of beer, you usually have to buy these big kits. I think it would be amazing to see a recipe you like and then be able to order any ingredients you don’t have right from the application. One thing we definitely won’t be doing is ads, or selling people’s information. I think it’s sleazy and it pushes users away. Mostly I want it to work well even as it is right now. But the real reason I got into this, and the reason I like brewing in the first place, is that it’s this great intersection of art and science. So my goal is really to allow people to make their Minneapolis homebrewing process repeatable, consistent, and get good beer out of that.