Wednesday, September 07, 2011


Upon reflection on my last post, it may have come across as kind of jerky. I'm not saying it is wrong to try new stuff, I am just saying don't try to cut corners. One of the great things about homebrewing is the ability to experiment. You are probably not going to find a cactus juice and peanut butter porter on the store shelf, but you could totally make some. There are some very interesting beers out there being brewed by people who are letting their freak flag fly.
However, this deserves a big HOWEVER. I have made some incredibly shitty beer because of off-the-wall ideas. I've put lime juice, fennegreek, maple syrup, wormwood, rum, sassafras, cocoa nibs, chai, scotch, apple juice, and all sorts of other stuff in beer. I even brewed a beer inside of a pumpkin once.
The results of all this weirdness? The cocoa nib stout was awesome and is part of my regular brewing schedule, I make it about once or twice a year. The fennegreek, maple syrup, pumpkin and sassafras were OK but I have never brewed them again. The lime juice, rum, chai, scotch and apple juice were bad but the wormwood was REALLY bad. So of the 55 gallons of beer in question, only five turned out top notch. Twenty gallons was marginal and 25 gallons sucked. That is a lot of bad beer to choke down.
The brewing lesson to take away from this train wreck is not to just brew bland beer. Just experiment in a controlled fashion.
Have a solid base beer. Your chipole stout might have been fantastic, but if it is infected or didn't ferment correctly it will taste bad. It should be drinkable on its own merit. You also need to understand beer and fermentation. Adding some sort of unusual sugar or fruit can make for interesting flavors, but it can also ferment out to the point the elements you want are untasteable. I have found much of the time it works better to add something during packaging. If you are kegging or bottling add the unusual element then. If you can keep the packaging cold sugars won't start fermenting again.
It works the same with unusual grain. You need to know how to check if starches are converted if you are going to brew with buckwheat or spelt.
Use logic. When thinking about making weird beer the most important questions to ask are: "Why am I doing this?" and "What do I hope to accomplish?" Anybody can whip up a pale ale and cram a habenero in each bottle, but why? It might look cool but what is the point? Why not just eat a habenero and drink a pale ale at the same time.
Ideally, you want whatever you are adding to your beer to compliment things and produce something better, not hijack the beer and smack the drinker in the face. Err on the side of caution.
Mix to taste. Start small, then mix in your additives a little bit at a time and taste it. When it comes out just the way you want it, package it. This will take a lot of the guesswork out of things because you can scrap something that is not working immediately. Another trick to using things like cocoa nibs and oak is put them in a keg, put the beer on top of them and taste it every day. Once the beer tastes the way you want, transfer it to another keg.
Start small. Spiced beers are great, but not every day. Brew up a five gallon batch of good stout and then add peanut butter and chocolate to a six pack. You can always make more of something funky but you can't unmake it.
The same goes for trying out new fermentables or found hops. Brew a one gallon batch. If it tastes good then go big. Otherwise you didn't waste much. Just don't go in blind.
Cheat. Once you have an idea of what you want the finished product to be, brainstorm more than one method to get there. Want a Dr. Pepper (tm) lambic? You wouldn't have to cut the beer with soda pop, you could use a small amount of syrup. In my experience, sometimes flavorings work and sometimes they taste like cough syrup. Hmmmmmm, a NyQuil Belgian Strong?
Take notes. Record your experiments and use scientific method. Recently I toyed with the idea of adding bourbon to a porter but was surprised to find at a ratio of a half a teaspoon to 4 ounces of beer the bourbon totally cuts the body of the beer. I took notes which will help in further experiments with adding stuff to beer.
So get out there and come up with freak show ideas for beer. Just control how its done and don't make a five gallon batch until you know it works. If it turns out horrible dump it, or give it to that moocher friend who is always stealing your beer. Just don't give it to me.

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