Pushing Style Limits: Tips from Pros

The craft beer industry is constantly evolving. brewers are always on the lookout for new, unique ingredients, ways to pump up IBUs and ABVs, and peering beyond tradition for other stylistic boundaries that can be pushed.

Brewer: John Maier, Rogue Ales in Newport, OR

Any style is open to interpretation — if you vary a specification of a stylistic guideline by one iota, then that is your interpretation. While I am known for not brewing to style, there are certain classic styles I respect and try to emulate like Oktoberfest Märzen and Altbiers.

As a brewer, I believe it is up to you to brew what you like and introduce customers or your friends to new tastes. I brewed a Cascadian dark ale and a session IPA 10+ years ago if that tells you anything! When guidelines of a style are pushed, you have to decide whether it should be labeled as an entirely new style. I believe Cascadian dark ale (or black IPA) deserves to be its own style because it is completely unique. Double IPAs are above and beyond most American and definitely English IPAs, so they had to call it something!

Of course, it takes real consideration to design a new recipe that breaks away from the ordinary, not just making changes for the sake of it. I’ve tasted a few commercial beers that went too far – annoyingly cloying hop flavors with no framework or just really odd ingredients.

When it comes to designing a recipe that strays away from convention, just as in culinary arts, you look for ingredients that complement and contrast certain flavors and/or an inspiration comes to you.

Brewer: Tony Hansen, Short’s Brewing Co. in Elk Rapids, MI

We have always been internally driven and very passionate about creating new and unique beers; not only to introduce customers to new tastes, but to enjoy them ourselves too!

I feel every style is open to interpretation, as long as the brewer explains to the consumer exactly what the intention is. For example, if you’re going to make a beer that is technically a German Pilsner, but use American hops instead of Noble hops, tell people the reason you chose American hops. Don’t try to pass it off as a “classic” German Pilsner.

Brewing to style is like learning the basics of any art form; it’s a good way to measure your skill level and accuracy. I don’t often attempt to brew strictly to style, but when I do, I think it’s important to keep the classic styles true to the original form in order to preserve tradition.

Whether you can push too far is subjective, but yes, a brewer can go too far. I have done it, and I have tasted beer from others who have done it. I think it is more common to go too extreme now. There are a lot of new brewers popping up that may not have mastered the basics first, and instead jumped right into the crazy beers to gain recognition.

When designing a style-pushing recipe the thought process is a little different each time for me, depending on the inspiration. Usually it starts with isolating conventional ingredients and characteristics that will enhance or complement the new idea in order to make it work. Once I have the base of the beer and the conventional ingredients sketched out, I move on to figuring out the best way to introduce the non-conventional ingredient or technique into the brew. Then, it’s time for trial and error.

If you’re nervous about messing up a full-sized batch, scale your recipe down to 1 gallon (4 L) and try that first. An advantage homebrewers have is that it is cheaper if you fail, and it’s easier to keep it a secret!

Brewer: Matt Brophy,  Flying Dog in Frederick, MD

We’re continually experimenting in the brewery with new ideas. Barrel aging, experimental firkins, and pilot brews — it’s these programs that introduce us to beers we love.

There is nothing wrong with brewing to style if there is a specific style you’re looking to replicate. At the same time, if you want to push the limits, you can get creative with any style. But do just that; be creative. Just bumping alcohol and slapping “Imperial” in front of a traditional style is not the pinnacle of creativity.

“Styles” are good reference points to aid the conversation surrounding a new beer concept. Don’t look at it as pushing the limits, as the creative process should not be limited. Reverse-engineer the concept. Start with the vision of the finished beer then work backwards. If then the beer lends itself to certain style descriptions, then great. If not, describe what it is and call it what you want. A brief description of the beer should provide the customer with what they need to know to make an informed decision. When it comes to homebrewers, the stakes are lower when brewing 5, 10, or 20 gallons (19, 38, 76 L) of wort. Losing 50 barrels (~1,600 gallons) of wort or beer can be a big deal. Flying Dog is currently in the process of moving from a 1 bbl pilot brewery to a professionally fabricated, complete 15 bbl brewery. This will allow us to experiment without tying up the resources of our 50 bbl production brewery and limiting our risk if a recipe or concept does not play out the way we were planning.

The craft beer industry would not be where it is today without homebrewers who have pushed the limits. If you don’t have an experimental beer go awry now and then, you’re not trying hard enough. But remember, it’s more of a challenge to truly innovate than it is to throw some crazy process or ingredient in a recipe.

Issue: July-August 2014