7 Considerations for Making Better Homebrew

1. A complicated recipe does not a delicious beer make
You’ve likely heard this tip before, it’s certainly nothing new, but it absolutely bears repeating. I’ll never forget the urge I used to experience when I first started homebrewing to use 10 types of grain and 8 types of hops in a batch, wholly convinced the menagerie of ingredients would add to my beer’s awesome complexity. Complex they were, awesome they were not. I produced a few batches that were decent, just odd in their own odd ways. It wasn’t until I hesitantly made my first single malt beer that I realized base malt imparts heaps of flavor all on its own. While there are some styles that absolutely warrant the used of myriad grains, it’s imperative the brewers carefully consider the impact each one will have, not just toss them in all willy-nilly. I’d encourage every homebrewer to try their hand at brewing a few beers with 3 grains or less. Similarly, simplifying hop usage to 1-3 varieties tends to amplify their great qualities while avoiding that muddled, or what I refer to as grey, hop character. My 8th grade math teacher said it best: keep it simple, shit head.

2. There are more base malts than just 2-row and Pils
It’s easy to get confused by all the terminology used by brewers– base grain, specialty malt, adjunct. I’ve found many newer brewers, even some with more experience, mistakenly categorize certain malts as specialty when they are actually base malts perfectly capable of self-conversion even at 100% of the grist. Two such examples include Vienna and Munich malts, both kilned to impart their own unique version of toasty-bready goodness. If you’ve ever wondered how you can get more malt character into an American Pale Ale or IPA without loading it with Crystal malt, using either of these 2 base malts as 30-70% of the grist may be just the ticket! For the adventurously curious brewer, consider replacing 100% of the 2-row in a well-known recipe with Vienna malt, keeping all other grains the same, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. I’ve found that lighter Munich malts, such as Gambrinus’ Munich 10, produce a pleasantly subtle cherry Icee like character when making up 30%+ of the grist, while darker Munich varieties produce flavors and aromas I perceive to be similar to toasted sourdough bread. Another thing I like to do when making an ale is replace a few pounds of 2-row with a chunk of Pils malt to get a bit more bready malt character, I know a few people who swear this is the key to making delicious Session IPA (or whatever it’s called).

3. There’s life outside of Chico
We’ve all drank delicious commercial beers we know are fermented with what has become the most popular yeast strain in the universe, WLP001 California Ale/Wyeast 1056/SafAle US-05, commonly referred to as the Chico strain due to the location of the brewery it was apparently sourced from. This is a great yeast for producing super clean, hop forward beers with little malt character that taste like… every other beer on the market! I don’t mean to bag on those who truly love this strain, my perspective really is driven more by disinterest than dislike. While many Chico fermented beers I drink are good, they usually lack that oomph of uniqueness, leaving me bored halfway through the pint. There are so many yeast options available to homebrewers these days, strains that produce any number of amazing flavors and aromas, there’s no excuse for not playing around a bit. If clean is what you’re after, consider WLP090 San Diego Super Yeast or even WLP002 English Ale Yeast fermented cool (around 65°F). Want to emphasize the fruity hop character in your next IPA? Pick up some Vermont Ale Yeast from The Yeast Bay, known for producing strong juicy stone fruit flavors. While those who prefer to use dry yeasts are slightly more limited, there are still some great options such as Danstar BRY-97 West Coast Ale and Mangrove Jacks M4 West Coast Yeast, among many others. Or how about fermenting a typical IPA wort with a Saison yeast? This inventive approach to brewing is how new favorites are created. Plus, it’s way more fun and interesting!

4. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery…
…but it may not lead to the best homebrew. Of everything I’ve learned from the xBmts, what stands out most is the fact that many commercial practices and concerns do not appear to carryover to homebrewing. While emulating the setups and process of the pros might make us feel cool, we have the luxury of nipping many unnecessarily cumbersome parts of the process without significantly impacting the quality of the beer we make. In fact, I’ve known a few guys whose beers actually improved drastically when they swapped their pro-esque systems for simpler equipment. We owe a metric shit ton of credit to professional brewers for bringing craft beer and, consequently, homebrewing to the place it is at today. But there comes a time when interests diverge, new knowledge is formed, and we’re left with a choice– either stay the course or peel away. I suppose I’m an advocate for the latter. We are in an interesting era of this hobby where the methods we develop, homebrewing methods, will be what future homebrewers refer to as traditional practice. I think this is pretty damn cool. Now, I fully understand and appreciate that there’s a swath of homebrewers out there who find pleasure in the act of emulation itself, viewing the brewery-building almost as if it’s its own hobby. Also, this consideration isn’t speaking to those who enjoy emulating professional recipes, which can be a great way of honing your brewing skills.

5. Ease into the weird stuff, then when you get there, take it easy
I introduced a buddy to the hobby a couple years back, went to his house and walked him through brewing a simple all grain Amber Ale. A couple days into fermentation I get an email from him asking if I’d review a recipe he created. His first batch hadn’t even been bottled, he had no clue if he’d done it right, and he was already designing recipes. Hey, right on, when the bug bites it often sinks its teeth in deep. Looking over the recipe, I experienced a feeling not terribly different than when I walk into my kitchen to discover my 18 month old standing square in the middle of the dinner table with no one around– argh, don’t move, stay right where you are, this isn’t a game, I actually mean what I’m saying right now… how the hell did you get up there?! The recipe included an oddly unbalanced blend of multiple base and specialty malts, a few pounds of honey, and about 8 hop varieties with just as many additions, plus a couple tablespoons each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger. Laughably, and understandably, he had a valid reason for each and every ingredient he planned to use, which I guess is a good thing. I’ll echo my response to him here: it might be best to get a few (at least 1) drinkable beers under your belt before venturing into the world of Jackson Pollock brewing. I’m not at all contending that a brand new brewer can’t produce a fantastic self-designed beer with a ton of adjuncts, just that I think it’s valuable to understand the process a bit before taking such leaps. I was one of those guys who jumped right into the recipe design game and ended up making quite a few mistakes that I learned a lot from, so I guess some positive did come of it; however, I do think it might serve homebrewers (and their pocketbooks) well to at least consider first making minor tweaks to established recipes as opposed to trying to invent something new. Ultimately, “not good” adjunct-laden beers tend to be way fucking harder to drink than beer-flavored beers that are slightly off.

6. The prescribed way isn’t always the right or best way
I just pontificated about not pushing the limits too far and now I am touting the virtues of going against the grain. If this seems contradictory, that’s not my intention. More than anything, my hope with Brülosophy is to encourage other brewers to think outside of the box, consider the how as well as the why, not just accept something as fact because someone you perceive as an authority said it. And I certainly mean no disrespect to those authority figures, if it weren’t for them, there’s no way this hobby would be where it’s at today. When I bought my first kit, it came with a baggie of gypsum with a note reading something like, “add 1 tsp to your boiling wort for added flavor.” I’ve since learned there is so much more to water chemistry than just add-a-tsp-of-gypsum. If certain instructions or ingredients seem off, don’t shy away from questioning, researching, and testing it until you gain better understanding! There are many things I do that others view as terrible practice, like using PET carboys that previously held sour beer to ferment clean beer, but it works for me. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend others follow my lead, but don’t be afraid to question convention and try your own thing. Without this type of limit pushing, we become stagnant. And that sucks.

7. Have fun!
You see it often, an acronym coined by the great Charlie Papazian– RDWHAHB. Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew! While not one for regurgitating popular internet memes, I can’t deny the solidity of this bit of advice. Homebrewing is a hobby, hobbies are supposed to be fun. If you find yourself stressed out, annoyed, maybe even angry because of something homebrew related, I’d strongly suggest you take a step back and reevaluate what it is you seek from this gig. Maybe you’re upset with your scores in a competition or feeling defeated because you can’t discover what’s causing batch after contaminated batch. Regardless, there are solutions, all of which will come much easier with a level head and, of course, a homebrew in hand.

from Brülosophy

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