Brew & A: Nick “Motobrewer” McLellan

Posted Sep 12th 2014 | By:  




and with that a brewer is born. Starting out five years ago and diving in deep, Nick McLellan, known to the brewing world as motobrewer is a fixture of the community helping new and old brewers alike. A collector of hobbies, Nick’s interest don’t stop with brewing. From his DIY work, to his days on his Ducati, to his love of curling, Nick stays busy. A family man who is currently designing his dream rig, Nick gave me a few minutes of his time for our series, Brew and A.
Keith: How did you start brewing?Nick: It probably started when I was about 15 years old. I walked into a hobby shop looking to buy parts for my RC airplane. I walked past the ingredient kits. I didn’t know anything about making beer at that time but it struck me as odd that you could just make beer at home. I came home and told my dad what I saw, and his response was, “Yeah, my cousin has been making beer for years.”. His cousin is a pretty accomplished brewer and he makes some of the best beers I’ve ever had. Especially lagers.Fast forward about a decade. I’m just about to graduate college. I had just started getting into craft beer and had a few light discussions with my dad’s cousin about brewing. My wife and I were in an apartment and we were pretty tight on room. I told myself as soon as we moved into a house I’d start home brewing. About 2 weeks after we closed on our house my friend and I went to the home brew store and I got enough stuff to make my first extract beer using my dad’s cousin’s outdoor burner. That same friend got into brewing at the same time and we still brew together on occasion.Keith: What’s your favorite beer?Nick: My favorite beer I’ve made was the “small stout” I made while parti-gyling an imperial stout. I was planning to make r2eng’s Double-W Imperial Stout, and I got the idea in my head to scale it up a little bit, then try to pull a second beer out of it. Hopping the small version was sort of seat-of-the-pants, but as soon as I got a feel for what the gravity would be I hopped it accordingly. It worked fantastically, and they both were some of the best beers I’ve ever made. The RIS turned out to be right at 10%, and the small stout was around 4%. I used to do this every year during the week between Christmas and New Year’s with my friend, but I haven’t done it the last two years.My favorite commercial beer changes but if you were to ask me right now I’d say Staghorn by New Glarus, as we’re pretty close to Oktoberfest season. I’m a pretty seasonal drinker and generally stick to the traditional seasonal beers. Not sure why that is.Keith: What’s one piece of your brew setup you can’t live without?Nick: Thermapen. It stays in my pocket during the entire brew day. The ability to very quickly get an accurate temperature reading on anything (mash, refract reading, cooled wort, lunch pizza) puts me at ease.Although my 7′ keezer/lager-er just died, so I’m starting to learn how much a burden that is.

Keith: What’s the worst product you’ve ever used?Nick: Nothing in particular comes to mind. Cheap kitchen thermometers I guess. I’m usually of the “buy once, cry once” mentality so I tend to do my research and lay down the cash when necessary.I guess the used Craigslist chest freezer I bought that never got below 45F probably wins the category but probably doesn’t qualify…Keith: Why do you home brew?Nick: I like to cook and always thought this was a natural extension. I like making things with my hands in general. I like to say that I like to be able to make whatever crazy beer idea I can come up with but 90% of what I brew is traditional styles. I guess in general I like having beer on tap and being able to choose what they are 5 gallons at a time.Keith: What are your other hobbies?Nick: I used to have a Ducati that I would take to the track. That gets expensive, quickly. Sold it a few years ago. Wife wasn’t all that thrilled with the hobby as at the time we just had our 2nd child so I gave it up. For now.

Keith: What’s your home brewing style – extract, partial mash, all-grain, biab, or ?Nick: My first two beers were extract. The first beer I ever made was a 1.032 ordinary bitter kit from Northern. It turned out pretty well I thought but was obviously on the low end of the abv. spectrum.I decided to try all-grain on a whim after work one day. I had previously bought a 5 gallon Igloo cooler that I had planned on converting. I had stashed it in my basement and sort of forgot about it. It was early November, and we were throwing a New Year’s Eve party that year. I decided I wanted to have a porter on tap for the party, so I ran to northern brewer, bought a weld-less bulkhead and ingredients. I didn’t end up going to bed until about 1:30am. The beer didn’t turn out, it had got infected. So in that sense it was a bit of a waste, except it got me into all-grain brewing. I haven’t brewed extract since.Now I use a 52 quart Coleman cooler with a bazooka filter. I batch sparge, and it works pretty well. I have a 15-gallon spike brewing kettle I boil in.Keith: Do you know what you did wrong with that beer?Nick: No, nothing definitive. It was probably a matter of trying to do too many new things at once. It was 4 years ago now and I lost all my notes.Keith: Tell us about one of your most memorable home brewing experiences.

Nick: Well, my most memorable experience was when I almost started my house on fire. It was my first brew day with my new keggle. I was heating sparge water in it, and I was carrying it inside from the back porch to put it on my stone top table so I could start transferring. Well, as I stepped inside the door, I lost my balance, and had to set it down…on the carpet. I quickly picked it up, but the damage was done. A nice, solid, burn ring. My wife wasn’t all that happy.Story doesn’t end there, however. We decided instead of replacing the carpet, we decided to put hardwood in that hallway. I was removing some trim in one area and the drywall just came right off in my hands. It was soaking wet. On the other side of that hallway was our master bath shower stall. We discovered it was leaking. That led to the eventual tear down and rebuild of the entire master bath. I posted a thread here about the finished product. It looks nice but it was a lot of work.That misstep cost me about $10k. I try to tell my wife that “we would have found out about the bathroom eventually”. Sometimes she buys it. I did get to use that incident to convince my wife of the benefits of a single-tier stand however the build got severely delayed.

Keith: Describe the perfect beer – style, aroma, flavor, etc.Nick: I’m not the biggest hop guy, although I’ll drink an imperial IPA on occasion. I generally prefer porters, stouts, or malt-forward lagers. I brew more porter than anything else. 2nd would probably be ESB’s. Lately I’ve been brewing a lot of German lagers. A few bocks this spring, just tapped a helles, and probably brew an Oktoberfest or Vienna lager with the next few weeks. I generally keep sours at an arm’s length. I used to drink Cantillon’s stuff when I was able to actually get them here. But I would always have to split the bottle.Keith: How do you decide what to brew next?Nick: I take requests. My friends and I have similar tastes in beer. Otherwise it’s a matter of planning for the season. I just brewed and ESB and Porter for the fall, and I’ll brew a doppelbock pretty soon for the winter.

Keith: What’s your dream brew rig, and how would you assemble it?Nick: This is actually a pertinent question because I’m in the process of designing a single-tier system. I’ve wanted to build one for a while but certain events (see above) pushed it out.I’m still going back and forth on a few things but I’m 90% certain on single-tier, 3x 15-gal vessels, direct fired propane. HERMS vs RIMS is still a discussion. If you asked me today I’d probably say HERMS.Otherwise it probably won’t differ too much from a traditional BRUTUS design. I plan on having some level of automation but that’s still to be decided. I plan to start the build in October. So, watch for the thread.Keith: We can’t wait for that build thread. Is it all in your head or have you drawn out plans?Nick: Still mostly in my head. I have some rough sketches but nothing concrete. It’s definitely more complicated than I thought.Keith: What is the one piece of advice you wish someone would’ve giving you when you first started?Nick: Fermentation is everything. My initial thinking was to just add yeast and keep it in the temperature range for that strain. I always respected the benefits of temperature control, and it was pretty straightforward for me to accomplish it due to the nature of my work. However I was still more or less ignoring the advice on pitch count and oxygenation until about a year ago. I was making basic starters and shaking, but ever since I started paying closer attention to detailed pitch count (and bought a stir plate) and bought a bottle of O2 I have been consistently getting really good, clean fermentations. Especially on lagers.Keith: What’s your line of work and how can you apply it to home brewing?Nick: I’m an engineer at Johnson Controls, in the Building Efficiency (ie, controls) division. So I’ve always been able to dial in fermentation temperatures. If you look closely at the above carboy pic you can see some stainless thermowells I had my dad make for me. It’s just 3/8″ 316 stainless that he cut and welded one end, then I flared the other with a brake flaring tool. I have a temp probe in there to monitor temps.Usually that temp probe is driving the freezer; the only reason for the makeshift swamp cooler is because the freezer is dead.
Thanks go out to Nick for letting us into his life for a bit. I have a ton of interviews I’m working on right now so keep checking back each Friday for brand new Brew and A.

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