John Looney, Systems Engineer on Brewing

My first beers were horrendous. I was blindly copying people from thousands of years ago who also had no idea what they were doing. It is the brewing equivalent of copy and pasting from Stack Overflow. I realised I would never improve unless I understood the underlying microbiology. With a lot of study, and the help of my local brew club, I started to make a completely different, competition quality, beer every week. I do not think it has changed my life yet, but someday I will retire from tech, and run a medieval microbrewery and tavern, where people can drink dark beer and throw axes.

Hi, my name is John Looney, and I am a Systems Engineer, running Intercom‘s Production Systems team. We look after the low-level AWS and database infrastructure for businesses. Before starting there, I spent a decade with various Site Reliability Engineering teams at Google, scaling their datacentre and ad-serving infrastructure. I have never lived, nor worked, more than 22km from Dublin city centre. My wife and I are pretty close to family, and it is a good place to bring up kids. I have enjoyed travelling the world for work, but it always makes me appreciate Dublin even more when I get home.

I have always loved making things, and working out how already-made things work. As a child, I would love to completely take apart a faulty sewing machine, oil it, and put it back together so it worked perfectly again. Distributed systems are just like sewing machines with more parts – once you deeply understand how they are built, you can make them work much better than before. Intercom has transitioned from a “fast-paced, scrappy start-up” to a “company a large part of the Internet depends on” and it seemed like a target-rich environment for someone like me.

Brewing takes up the most of my non-family time these days, besides my tech work. I probably put on a brew once a month, but it varies. Two years ago, I managed to make 20 litres a week. Since I upgraded to 65 litre pots, I brew less often, to protect my health!

Before brewing, I had been doing historical re-enactments for about 15 years. We did everything from Bronze Age experimental archaeology to bashing French knights in 1400’s Azincourt. You know you have gone too far when you realise a substantial part of your shed is given over to your three suits of armour… This history hobby kicked off my interest in brewing. I started out making historical shoes, armour, and clothes. Some of the source-materials I worked with touched on the beer and mead that was such a central part of people’s lives. I gave some of those ancient recipes a go. Some were amazing, and some went horrendously wrong. Today, some people will do anything to mess themselves up; I steer clear of any recipes that call for boiling the mixture in lead, and go easy on ones that call for hallucinogenic herbs.

John wearing his medieval armour

Brewing, like systems engineering, is trying to remember to take dozens of steps, in the perfect order, with perfect timing, consistently. Just like preparing a large database migration to make a massive change without disruption, the more steps in brewing you remember, the better the beer. Heat the water at the right time! Move the hoses around in the right order, so you do not spray boiling water everywhere! Remember to check the pH of the wort before adding salts! Sterilise the fermenter before the boil finishes! Rehydrate the yeast 20 minutes before pitching! It all has to be as perfect as possible.

I had been brewing for a few years with a 24-litre turkey-fryer someone gave me, and a picnic cooler for a mash tun. But my temperature control was not perfect, and my pouring of hot wort from pot to pot allowed the hot wort to oxidise, causing ‘stale’ off-flavours. I wanted to up my game.

The Electric Brewery‘ website has different designs for an Electric Brewery for 110V homes. I got a case made up and made changes to the design to allow me to power two 220V/4500W elements at the same time. I bought the parts and made it up over a few weeks. I have done a lot of electronics, but high current 220V wiring is kind of scary. It mostly worked the first time, with no deaths involved. I was rather proud of the steam hood over the boiler.

After several tests, I can now do pretty much any beer, perfectly, with the kit. My most ambitious brew to date was a 40-litre batch of Brewdog Cocoa Psycho Imperial Stout. It was a “Disastrous Success”, in that the beer was great, but I forgot that to make 40-litre of a 10% stout, you need 55 litres of water and 19kg of grain to fit into a 65-litre pot. There was a lot of swearing.

I like mastering complex systems, like building a brewery control panel with 50 components and 160 wires. Beer recipes that can use hundreds of types of grain, hops or yeasts in billions of different combinations. I enjoy that mastery by sharing it with my friends, who can appreciate the skill and effort.

I have done a lot of meads over the years, and my favourite is oaked meadowsweet mead, with a heather honey base. It is sublime. You will be able to see me making it in a cauldron, over a fire in the new season of RTE’s “Lords and Ladies” cooking programme! I also want to try to make a Norwegian Farmhouse Ale, using some of the Kveik yeasts that have been isolated from traditional strains that are probably very close to how Irish farmers made their beer thousands of years ago.

Technologists cannot be one-trick ponies. We need to remind ourselves that many of us have a creative side that we need to flex. Pairing that creative side with our scientific side is what makes us unique. I love building a recipe, putting my own twist on some common or obscure style, and then using the Beersmith software and my brewing expertise to ensure it will turn out amazing.

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