10 Things Homebrewers Need to Try

Homebrewing offers nearly endless possibilities to the homebrewer, but sometimes you get stuck in a rut. If you find yourself stuck in this situation, there are many ways to break out of it. With all the ingredients, brewing techniques, beer styles and other opportunities in homebrewing, you only need to look to something new to reinvigorate your desire and improve your brewing to boot. In this article, the second to last in our 10th anniversary series, I give ten things to try to stoke your fires and (hopefully) expand your homebrew horizons.

1. Make a Monster

At some point, every homebrewer should try brewing a monster — a big, burly, boozy brute of a beer. Brewing a massive beer offers several challenges. For the all-grain brewer, handling the large amount of grain required and conducting the long boil to condense the wort will stretch the limits of your system.

All brewers will need to pitch — and perhaps repitch — a large amount of healthy yeast to get the beer to ferment to completion. For exceedingly huge beers, you may even need to employ advanced techniques such as adding some fermentables after primary fermentation or employing multiple shots of aeration before the onset of fermentation. And, of course, brewing a massive beer teaches a brewer patience.

This patience will be greatly rewarded, however, when you unleash your beast on your friends, family or homebrew club buddies. A well-done big beer is sure to impress any beer lover. And, since a big beer keeps well, you can continue to enjoy it over a longer period of time than an average strength beer. You can also taste how its flavor evolves over time.

2. Attain Perfection

One of the great things about homebrewing is that you can make a different beer every time you brew. However, picking one of your favorite beer recipes and tweaking it to perfection can be a nice diversion from the “random roulette” of brewing a different style every batch. Rebrewing and tweaking a single beer can teach you how different variables affect your beer. The effect of individual variables might not be so obvious when you brew a cream ale one month and an oak-aged Russian imperial vanilla stout the next.

To successfully tweak a beer, take careful notes when you brew — noting not only what you planned to do, but what actually happened. Also, take careful tasting notes of the finished beer. Based on your tasting, identify aspects of the beer you want to change and brew it again, changing only one variable (or at most a few if they are unrelated). Take good brewing and tasting notes again and taste your first beer side by side with your tweaked beer.

Once you get your beer to the point you want it, brew it again with no changes to see how consistent you are. If you’re really serious, you may want to buy the ingredients for two (or more) batches in bulk to really keep every variable as constant as possible.

Brewing and tweaking a single beer gives you experience you can apply to any of the beers you brew. It also gives you a relatively long-term project to tackle and rewards you with progressively better and better beer.

3. Enter A Contest

A little competition can really get the creative fires going. If you’ve never entered a homebrew contest, this can be just thing to get you — and your burners — fired up.

At a bare minimum, entering a contest will give you some feedback on your beer. In many cases, this feedback will come from experienced homebrewers with educated and discerning palates.

At a contest, you are obviously in competition with others. However, if you enter the same competition every year, you can also compete with yourself to see if you can improve your scores each year.

4. Use an Unusual Ingredient

Malt. Hops. Water. Yeast. The Germans never seem to tire of this formula, but many homebrewers — including myself — do. If I’m known for anything in the homebrewing community, it’s the fact that I brew a lot of “strange ingredient” beers. (See, for example, my Jolly Rancher Apple Lambic recipe in the March-April 2005 issue of BYO.)

Incorporating an unusual ingredient into a beer is a fun challenge. At a minimum, deciding when to add the ingredient — in the mash, boil or secondary fermenter — requires a little thought. Often, doing some research into the ingredient will shed some light on the best way to incorporate its flavors and aromas into your beer. (Harold McGee’s book, “On Food and Cooking,” 2004, Scribner) is invaluable in this respect.) Other times, you just need to experiment. In addition, some experimentation with amounts is almost always required.

Not every ingredient tastes good when plunked down into a random beer style, but when you finally hit the right combination, you’ll love seeing other brewer’s reactions change from “You’re kidding, right?” to “Hey, this is actually good!”

5. Brew For a Big Event

If you’re lucky, at some point in your homebrewing “career” you’ll be asked to supply beer to a big event. I brewed eight batches of homebrew for my own wedding and had a blast.

Brewing multiple beers for an event can require some puzzle solving. Figuring out when to brew, rack and package your beers so that you always have buckets and carboys available for the next batch can take some time. You may want to experiment with high-gravity brewing — brewing a bigger beer than your target and diluting it when you bottle or keg — to maximize your output. Likewise, you may want to experiment with parti-gyle brewing or split batch beers to get two different beers from a single brewing session.

Seeing the reaction of the “unwashed masses” to your beer can also be fun and educational. You’ll likely be surprised at the number and types of folks who end up huddled around your Corny kegs. These people can often give you good feedback, if you listen to what they are saying.

“Random” beer drinkers most likely won’t know any beer terminology, so don’t expect them to give you the same sort of feedback a beer judge would. However, noting their likes and dislikes — and even which keg gets kicked first — can be useful information.

When brewing for a big event, many homebrewers recommend brewing a Kölsch or cream ale to try to win over the BMC (Bud/Miller/Coors) drinkers. I disagree with this approach. Making “fake Budweiser” isn’t going to impress the BMC crowd, especially if you’ve never brewed a light ale before and are just taking a wild stab at the style. Brew the kind of beers you like and are good at making — they’re what won you over to homebrew, after all.

6. See How the Other Half Lives

Most homebrewers identify themselves as either extract or all-grain brewers. If you’re looking for a change of scenery, try “switching sides.”

For extract brewers, brewing an all-grain beer can demystify the process — which is often presented in a needlessly complex fashion in introductory homebrew books.

Conversely, if you’re an all-grain brewer, trying an extract beer may open your eyes to the benefits of a quicker brewday. And, you will almost assuredly be pleasantly surprised at the quality of your beer. Brewing an extract beer may even convince you to reformulate some of your beers as extract beers and spend the extra hours doing something else.

7. Teach Someone to Brew

If you really want to understand a subject, try teaching it to someone. Teaching a friend to homebrew will force you to organize your thoughts on the subject. In addition, the questions your friend asks will likely require you to think. When someone knows nothing about a subject, the questions they ask are often “unstructured” and may throw you for a loop.

If you tell your friend that yeast converts sugar to alcohol, he may ask, “If I want more alcohol, should I add more yeast?” Or he may ask something completely bassackwards like, “How do the big brewers get rid of the bitterness in their beers?” Coming up with answers to these questions takes more than just reciting something from your introductory homebrew text (or BYO).

8. Make Your Own Signature Beer

Many, perhaps most, homebrewers have their own “signature beer.” They might call it their house ale or their go-to beer, but the idea is the same — a beer the homebrewer has tweaked to suit his or her taste buds.

Your signature beer may use an unusual ingredient (as in #4 above), or it may be a “just plain beer” kind of beer. It might, for instance, be an American pale ale with just the right balance of hop varieties, bitterness and flavor hops for you. Or, it might combine aspects of two or more styles, like an Octoberfest dry hopped with Amarillo hops.

Beyond the obvious benefit of providing a brew you enjoy, crafting your own signature beer may encourage you to bend, or even break, the “rules” to get where you want to go. In doing so, you may find out which rules are arbitrary and which are not.

9. Join a Homebrew Club

If you get fired up making homebrew all by yourself, imagine how ballistic you’ll go when surrounded by others who share your passion. Homebrew clubs are a great place to get advice on your brewing, bounce ideas off of others and generally just talk about homebrew. Plus, you get to drink other people’s beer.

If there is more than one homebrew club in your area, check them all out. One may fit your personality better than another. Most homebrew clubs are filled with fun-loving folks (called homebrewers), who are fun to hang out with.

10. Take A Trip Down Memory Lane

If you really want to kick your desire to brew beer into high gear, consider taking a trip down memory lane — arriving at the reason you started homebrewing in the first place.

When you brewed your first batch, which recipe (or beer kit) did you pick — and why? What were you drinking at the time? What did you want to brew before you knew which styles were easy or difficult to brew? What did you want to brew before you knew about the BJCP guidelines? (Besides dry-hopped pale ales, I was interested in a dark, malty beer called Hexenbrau that I tried once at Boston’s Sunset Grill and never found again.)

If you can go back and look at your brewing notebook, the margins of your first homebrew book or plumb the depths of your memory, figure out what it was you wanted to achieve. Then, brew the beer you’d want to hand to your former self if Marty McFly showed up in your driveway with his flux-capacitor-equipped DeLorean. If that doesn’t boil your wort, then maybe it’s time to take up needlepoint.

Issue: November 2005