I am often asked by the aspiring homebrewer what they can do differently, or what they can focus on in order to bring their craft brew to the next level. It’s well enough to take proper precautions with sanitization, but if you are still finding your beer ordinary, or too “driven by the kit”, here are some pointers to make your beer even better:
1. Take Notes. As much as we try to limit the number of variables that affect a beer, we can never predict exactly what may change, right or wrong, during the brewing and fermenting process. And on those rare occasions when you’ve captured lightning in a bottle, you want to be able to go back to your recipe notes and see an honest account of your process. Forgot to add those flavor hops at the last 20 minutes of the boil and added them at 10? You never know, that could be the thing that did it. Write it down. Barring that, amend your recipe to account for changes.
2. Mono Hop. We are awash in a sea of new hop strains. How to keep track? If you find a hop you really, really like, why not try making a very malt-neutral beer, something like Pale Malt, or even Pilsner Malt, a touch of crystal malt for color and mouthfeel, something like Crystal 20 or 30, and don’t even do a one-hour boil. Just go 40 minutes, let the flavor and aroma dominate. Play around with the timing of your additions, but favor the last 5-minutes and flame-out. This will give you a keen indication of what this hop really has to offer, and you’ll pick it out better in beers that have several hops. Even high Alpha Acid hops can have interesting flavor profiles, just be discreet with how long you boil them. A simple software recipe calculator will give you an indication of how bitter it will be, aim for around 20-30 IBU. It doesn’t have to be bitter to be flavorful. Wyeast 1056 or 2112 is a good pick for yeast.
This one time I got to put my beer and cider into cans. Awesomeness.
3. Side Boil. If you have burners that can boil, and if you have pots that hold liquid, you could fill your stove out with experimental variations on your primary brew. There is such a thing as too small (you have to taste these, after all, and at intervals during the conditioning process), so I recommend just a under a gallon, so that you can ferment in two growlers (I know you have a box full of these things), but be sure to get the right sized stopper, a #6, and don’t forget the airlock. Just make sure to follow rule 1—take notes on what’s going on! Cooling can be a hassle, but with a small size like this, an ice bath is easy enough, just never put glass in an ice bath, put the pots themselves in there. Because of the low commitment, this is a fun time to play around with exotic fruits and spices. As much as you loved that Habanera Ale, upon looking at a case of 56 bottles, regret will set in.
4. Taste Boldly. See what commercial micro brewers are doing, track down limited releases. Take time studying the flavors as you taste, is it the yeast that makes the beer? The malt? The strength? (It’s always the strength, but beyond that, what is it?). Often, you’ll get a good description of the recipe on the brewery’s website (or even the bottle!). If you trust them to do well, try out beers you would not ordinarily drink. Back in 2012, Elysian made a Beet (yes, the infernal tuber) Bock beer, and because it was Elysian, I had to try it. The beer was a total disgusting mess, but still.
5. Reverence for Classic Styles. It is fun to go off the map, and it is fun to brew for just one’s self. But it’s also helpful to calibrate you technique, your palette, and your brew system by brewing a beer according to classic style. This also helps orient you to the basic building blocks on which you can experiment and invent. This also helps remedy bad habits and certain ruts you might be stuck in without knowing it. For instance, it might turn out you really don’t love that Abbey Ale yeast in your IPA as much as you thought you did. No to mention, it’s a great reason to submit your beer into a competition and get feedback from judges who are considering it as a classic style. And if you really blow it, just never admit to having tried for a classic style in the first place. But seriously, keep aiming for a perfect example of a classic style and you might be amazed at your results. Some are obviously harder than others, you aren’t going to get a Light American Lager that tastes like Pabst Blue Ribbon, but you might just like what you make instead. My recommendation is 11B, Southern English Brown, to get started because you aren’t going to see that in the States very often.