It’s the Great Divide: classical vs. romantic, yin and yang, two radically different ways of looking at the world. Yep, we’re talking about science and art as they apply to beer making. Is brewing a science, or is it an art? Well, obviously there’s a lot of both involved, and the scale of those two extremes tips one way or the other depending on the times and the beer, brewery, or homebrewer.
In a way, maybe the science/art thing is why we started this whole homebrewing, brewpub, and microbrewery movement. Perhaps it was all a reaction to the brewing of beer having swung too far toward science at the expense of art and creativity. Mainstream American beers through the 1970s were certainly a great example of that effect. The science of mainstream breweries was, and is, very good, ensuring consistency of the product batch after batch. By the time many of us came along, though, the creativity of the big breweries was long gone.
According to its advertising, the typical big brewery started with some German immigrant whipping up one heck of a batch in the 1880s or 1890s and winning a gold medal or something with it. Creative brewing, usually of quite a few varieties of beer, continued until just past World War I, when the brewery was shut down by Prohibition. Those few breweries that reopened in the 1930s standardized their product to a light American lager style, very good in its way but kind of boring and with very little difference among brands. The stage was set for us rebels of the 1970s and ’80s to start brewing our own, often in styles that didn’t exist, and to apply art in the extreme over science.
Well, the pendulum swings, and homebrewing is getting awfully scientific now compared with the wild early days. Retailers who deal with homebrewers every day sure hear a lot of talk about SRMs, sparge efficiency, and yeast glycogen levels. A lot less common is the phrase, “I wonder what would happen if I threw some (whatever) in.” Now, that’s not to advocate that we get wild again with our brewing. In the early days of the modern homebrewing movement, we weren’t afraid of creativity, but we produced some beers of inconsistent quality, mostly because we didn’t always pay enough attention to good brewing practices. Still, it’s unfortunate to see homebrewers following recipes simply because they may not know how to design their own. Creating is where the fun is!
Good brewers know that you can’t cut corners with the basic brewing practices. Strict sanitation, a good boil, rapid cooling to pitching temperature, proper balance between malt and hops, correct fermentation temperature, the right yeast for the style — these are the things that make good beer. Within those good practices, though, there’s lots of room for art and creativity. The art is what makes the beer unique and your own.
How can you bring a little more art into your brewing and learn practical recipe design? Published recipes are a great starting point. There are lots of good recipes in homebrewing publications, so pick a beer style that interests you and a recipe that sounds appealing and brew it. It’s generally best to follow the recipe exactly the first time. This gives you a starting point to work from and, after all, the author of the recipe liked it well enough to publish it, so it must be pretty good. When the beer is finished, bottled, and aged, taste it carefully while enjoying it. It’s probably a good beer in that style, but is there anything about it that you think would be interesting if it were a bit different? Sure there is.
First, notice the basics. Judge it according to your taste; that’s who you’re brewing to please. Does the beer seem too heavy or too thin? If so, make a note to adjust the next batch. Malt extract beers can be adjusted easily by increasing or decreasing the amount of malt extract, so with the next batch adjust the amount of extract used by one pound, up or down, in a five-gallon batch. Grain beers can be adjusted by increasing or decreasing the amount of base malted barley used. To be noticeable, two-pound adjustments of grain are usually needed for five-gallon batches.
How is the balance between malt and hops in that recipe? How do you like the hop flavor and aromatics? These are easy and fun to adjust. If you think the beer is too bitter or not bitter enough, adjust the amount of the first hop addition in the recipe. That first addition is where most of the bitterness is coming from, so adjust it in such a way that the total bitterness (ounces times alpha acid) will increase or decrease from the recipe level.
Hop varieties used for bittering (the first addition in the recipe) are basically interchangeable. It doesn’t matter what hop variety you use, because it goes in at the start of the boil, so most of the flavor and aromatics will be boiled out and only the bitterness will remain. It takes a very experienced taster to discern the difference between two well-boiled bittering hops. This means that there are two ways to adjust bitterness from a recipe’s level. Let’s say you want to reduce the beer’s bitterness by 25 percent, and your original recipe calls for a bittering addition of one ounce of a hop with 10 percent alpha acid. To adjust, you can either use three-fourths ounce of that same hop or you can use one ounce of another hop with only three-fourths of the bitterness (alpha acid of about 7.5 percent). Easy.
Hop flavor and aromatics give the brewer a lot of scope for recipe design. These are the hop additions that go in the brewpot from the middle of the boil to the end. Flavor and aromatics boil away, so the less time a hop addition is boiled, the more flavor and aromatics are retained in the brew. Don’t be afraid to interchange hops. Each hop variety has a distinctly different flavor and aroma, and combinations of different hops yield still different qualities. This is where the brewer has an opportunity to brew a beer that is truly unique.
The important thing to remember about hops is that they belong in groups. Following are lists of several hop varieties, because it’s important to keep these groups in mind when interchanging hops in a recipe. This is not a complete listing of hop varieties, but all these are readily available to homebrewers right now, and this list will cover most varieties you may run into.
Great for bittering but mostly useless for flavor and aromatics are the bittering hops Brewer’s Gold, Bullion, Cluster, Galena, Nugget, Magnum, and Columbus (sometimes called Tomahawk). Some of these actually have unpleasant aromatics, so don’t add them late in the boil in any beer.
There are some hop varieties that can be considered general-purpose hops. They can be used for bittering, flavoring, and aromatics, and they are not specifically identified with any beer style. There are some great hops here, and the possible combinations when you interchange them are almost endless. This class of hops includes: Northern Brewer, Pride of Ringwood, Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Eroica, Ahtanum, and Ultra. The Northern Brewer/Cascade combination in particular is a classic, used in many great beers.
There is a group of hop varieties mostly identified with ales. They can be used in any combination for bittering, flavoring, and aromatics. They are Northdown, Fuggle, Goldings, Willamette, and Target.
The hop varieties usually associated with lagers are Crystal, Mt. Hood, Perle, Liberty, Hallertauer, Hersbrucker, Saaz, Tettnanger, and Spalt. German-type lagers usually have no aromatic hops added at the end of the boil, but these hop varieties can be used interchangeably for bittering and flavoring — and aromatics in beer styles where appropriate.
That’s more than 20 hop varieties, each of which has a unique flavor and aroma. If you keep these groups in mind and watch the total alpha acid content that’s going into your beer (so you don’t throw the bitterness level off), there’s a lot of room to be creative. Never be afraid to switch hops.
Specialty grains are another great field for playing. Crystal, black patent, roasted barley, and chocolate malt are used to adjust the color and flavor of beer. These specialty grains are usually included in the grist of an all-grain beer or simply steeped to 170° F in a malt extract beer. The effects of combining specialty grains are enormous. Roasted barley changes a porter into a stout; dark crystal malt makes a weizen a dunkelweizen. A couple of ounces of uncrushed chocolate malt even puts a great nutty flavor in a light lager.
Do some reading on specialty grains, look at the descriptions of the various grades in supply catalogs, and talk to your homebrew supplier about them. Like hops, each specialty grain has a distinct flavor and adds a different characteristic to beer. Don’t be afraid to experiment with these. If you use these in reasonable quantities, usually no more than one-half pound of a specialty grain variety in five gallons of beer, you won’t hurt anything and you will add interesting characteristics to your beer.
Yeast is still another area in which to adjust recipe designs. The variety of yeast used has a profound effect on the finished beer. Choose a yeast strain that is appropriate for the beer style you are brewing, but be aware that this is not the only strain that is appropriate.
If you are using liquid yeast and your recipe calls for an American Ale (Wyeast 1056), try the same batch next time with Special London Ale (Wyeast 1968). You will see a big difference, and this is true of the dry yeasts, also. A beer made with Nottingham dry yeast will be very different from the same beer brewed with Edme, Doric, or Muntons. Stay within general guidelines of course, lager yeast for lagers and ale yeast for ales. But don’t be afraid to experiment. You can certainly change the beer in a published recipe, and you may very well make a significant improvement.
There’s a lot more to homebrewing than just being able to accurately follow a recipe. Designing a recipe from scratch or improving upon a printed recipe adds to the pleasure of the hobby (and it produces some great beer, too). To do that a brewer needs to become like a good cook, knowing what each beer ingredient does, the flavor, color, and aroma it will produce, and how to use it.
The science of brewing is vital, but once the basics are mastered it takes the art of brewing to produce fine beer. Let’s learn our hobby and keep the balance between science and art. We’ll brew a lot better beer if we do!