Concept Beers

Bringing ideas to fruition

Concept beers are a concept that seems to be conceptualized in different ways. Confused yet? See, that sentence was about as convoluted as what people think concept beers are. For many (most?) homebrewers, concept beers have strange exotic blends of ingredients . . . a marshmallow raspberry mango imperial mild with lactose and oak, for instance. But we’re here to tell you that every beer you brew is (or should be) a concept beer.

dark beer with several grain types and hop pellets all in tulip glassware
Developing a new recipe from a concept involves understanding what individual ingredients bring to the table. Photo courtesy of

Concept beers are most assuredly not just about how unusual you can make the beer. Concept beers are about defining a goal and figuring out how to reach that goal, not an off the wall collection of ingredients that looks like they were chosen blindfolded while walking the grocery aisles. An IPA can be as much of a concept beer as a fruited sour whatchamacallit. We’ll return to that in a moment.

One of Denny’s most famous concept beers is his Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter. The concept was to make a beer that replicated a barrel-aged porter in enough aspects that it was a plausible substitute. He wanted to give it to people for Christmas and the time was short, so he broke down the components of what a beer like that would taste like. 

There was no time for barrel aging, but adding some Bourbon could give some of the same flavor. The beer had to be able to withstand the “heat” from additional alcohol, so he needed to make sure it wasn’t too bitter or roasty. Those flavors would conflict, so he went with a high final gravity to match the high original gravity. The result was a recipe that’s been brewed and enjoyed by thousands of homebrewers.

For a more notoriously out-there example — consider the Clam Chowdah Saison from a few years back. We were in the process of writing our book Homebrew All Stars. We had sent out questionnaires to homebrewers about how/why/where they brewed. The respondents were slow getting back to us. Understandable, our schedule wasn’t their schedule! 

In an attempt to speed up the process, Denny spun a tale that Drew was threatening to make a Manhattan clam chowder saison to unleash on the world if they didn’t hurry! Drew immediately responded that he’d never do that. It would be a New England clam chowder saison, as his heritage dictated! Ten minutes later he sent Denny a recipe. Here’s his thought process on the design . . .

Drew: I wanted to make a beer that had the initial squick factor — firing the part of your brain that seeks to continue procreation by discouraging dumb behaviors — but rewarded you with a rich and shockingly “normal” beer drinking experience.

To that end, what I really made was an herbal-laden saison with two adjuncts — potato flakes and a bottle of clam juice. Having played with potato in a beer before, I knew that they’d provide a level of creaminess and body that would provide a luxurious mouthfeel. The potato flakes were mashed just like any other grain. (Incidentally, potato flakes induce way less weirdness to your mash calculations than the shockingly water laden raw potato.)

The clam juice was the one weird addition, but I knew that against the other flavors in the beer, it really would just read as “briny.” The eight-ounce bottle went in at knockout to allow the juice to be pasteurized. In later re-brews I skipped the juice in favor of a small addition of salt. 

The final key to the concept was the spiciness. One doesn’t normally think of New England food as “spicy,” but clam chowder is full of herbal flavors like thyme, black pepper, and bay. So each of those went into the boil. Plus remember the spices from the characterful yeast. 

The end result then was exactly what I wanted — a rich-presenting, yet dry-drinking saison full of herbal characters. But note what wasn’t there (no clam chowder)! 

Concept beers are most assuredly not just about how unusual you can make the beer.

Here are some of our rules for coming up with a concept beer recipe:

Have a concept! — Yeah, this seems obvious, but all too often it’s a case of “put all this stuff in there and see what happens.” Now, that may be a concept, but it’s not what we’re talking about. Start by using your taste imagination to taste the beer in your head. Think about the flavors you want. Think about the mouthfeel and how that plays against the ingredients and style of the beer. Think about what level of hopping will complement the other flavors. Don’t just use numbers to do this. You’re not at that stage yet. Think about how it’s going to taste. (Besides, you can’t taste a number!) 

Is your concept focused? What’s the story it’s telling? — With the world as your brew supply and the pantry just a short walk away, it’s easy to keep gilding the beer with “just one more perfect touch.” Remember that the more you’ve got going on, the less distinct each element will be. So looking at that, is a chocolate raspberry jalapeño sour smoothie beer really a good idea? 

What kind of story are you telling with the beer? Is it culinary (see the Clam Chowdah)? Is it “high concept” – (Drew’s Gonzo Imperial Poppy Spirit Wine as a Hunter S. Thompson tribute)? Is it a flavor exercise (Denny’s BVIP — aka barrel-aged beer in a hurry)?

How does it flow and how will it taste? Think about your next IPA – how many varieties are you actually going to smell and taste? Do you really need nine different malts in your Russian imperial stout? Don’t do it because you can, do it because it sounds delicious! Do it because pragmatism brought you to this place.

Recreate the experience, not the ingredients. — If you want to create a beer that’s reminiscent of marshmallows, think about what marshmallows actually taste like. Vanilla, right? So don’t put marshmallows in your beer, use vanilla! And they have a kind of full, pillowy mouthfeel, so maybe some lactose to get that. Same if you want to make an Oreo beer. Don’t use Oreos; use dry cocoa and vanilla. That’s what Oreos taste like without all the additives. 

Remember Drew’s Clam Chowdah example? Notice that the beer uses a number of different ingredients, but nary one can of clam chowder went into the boil or the fermenter! Instead, the focus was on using ingredients that gave you the sense of the concept, not a 1-to-1 usage of the components. 

A More Practical Concept Example — IPA

As we said up front, as much fun it is to talk about the crazy, goofy, and stunt-laden ideas, the concept beer is really all beer. So, back to the “ordinary” and let’s look to our recent brewing collaboration with North Park Beer Company out of San Diego, California — the Denny Kong IPA. There’s absolutely nothing unusual about making yet another IPA, right? But the concept for this beer was clearly driven by the explorations we’ve been doing around the evolution of the West Coast IPA. We wanted a beer that would reflect the sensations of the “Modern West Coast IPA” to help drive the talk we gave in San Diego at the 2023 HomebrewCon. 

The concept — make a clear, golden, crisp beer with a dry, cracker malt character and all of the fun fruit and punchy hop aromas so desired in today’s IPAs (both hazy and clear) with the hop blast that made Denny and Drew the bitter IPA people we are. We also wanted to explore new ingredients and techniques that were all in service of the concept. 

Working with North Park’s Owner/Brewer, Kelsey McNair, we settled on a base of the ultra-crisp Rahr North Star Pilsner malt with a touch of Weyermann Vienna malt to provide color and character. Yes, there was debate on the use of a crystal malt, but the beer was settled around Vienna to better reflect the modern Southern California IPA experience. 

For the hops, the beer has a push/pull in its mission statement — classic yet fun and fresh. For the classic we stuck with loads of Cascade, the OG American craft hop and then blended in some other classics like Citra® and Simcoe® before adding the “new” with loads of berry-forward Mosaic®. 

To push stronger hop aromas with less “green” plant and tea flavors, we used a blend of standard hop pellets mixed with the more concentrated Cryo Hop® pellets from Yakima Chief Hops (YCH). And then just to keep the learning going (and the lower vegetation) we used a new liquid Citra® product called Trial 702 from YCH. 

The hopping schedule blended classic first wort hopping (hops added to the kettle during the sparge) with “Coolpool” hop additions (a 30-minute post-boil whirlpool performed at 170 °F/77 °C), a bit of dip hopping (the Trial 702 was added to the fermenter and mixed with some warm wort and steeped while the beer was being whirlpooled) and, of course, multiple dry hops for short exposure times. For fermentation we used Wyeast 1217 (West Coast IPA) yeast, which is a fairly mild yeast in terms of esters with a clean and attenuative fermentation profile.

Every choice that we just described was in service of the concept. We stayed focused because of the parameters we set. The end result was a dry IPA that mixed classic West Coast citrus  bitter notes with heavy berry-ladened aromas. It was crisp and easy drinking with a hop slap to remind you to respect the beer. 

That’s not to say that by having a concept we nailed it perfectly — all three of us behind the beer agreed that it could use a touch more bitterness than we got from the initial first wort addition. Something to give just a bit more teeth and cut to the citrus and sweet fruit notes in the rest of the beer. 

Take that same example into your everyday brewing life — some concepts will be radically simple. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in a cream ale recipe for instance, but that didn’t stop Drew from trying malted corn in his. 

Don’t mistake the simple for bad. Don’t confuse the complex with the good. With a clear and focused concept or story you can help drive the development of the flavors in your beer. You can make a beer that has purpose behind it instead of feeling like a product developed by unlucky dice rolls and bad AI language models.

Between you, us, and the trees, which of those previously mentioned beers would you find yourself reaching for?

Issue: October 2023