Did you know you can radically alter a beer without changing the ingredients? One thing I love about brewing is all the tools available.
First you have the ingredients: grains, hops, yeast strains, water profiles, herbs, spices, vegetables, wood, fruit....
Factor in different amounts, ratios, varietals - and you can see that we'll never, ever "run out" of beers to brew. The possibilities are already endless and we're only getting started.
As if ingredients don't give us enough possibilities, there are many MANY ways to change the flavor of beer without changing the ingredients.
Here are 5 ideas for you to try:
1. Mash Temperature
Ask any all-grain brewer what they really love about all-grain and 9/10 of them say "the control." Brewing all-grain means you can craft the wort to your desire. One of the best ways to do that is to adjust the mash temperature up or down.
Brew the exact same beer - say a porter - at a very low mash temp and brew another batch at a very high mash temp. Even a noob will notice the difference.
The lower temperatures favor the beta amylase enzymes and will get you a more fermentable wort. Want a super dry saison? Mash lower.
The higher temperatures make the alpha amylase enzymes happy. Want a stout with a big ole' body? Mash at the high end of the range.
Here's a real ninja move for you: When brewing a hefeweizen conduct a ferulic acid rest by mashing at 110F. The weizen yeast uses the ferulic acid to produce more clove-like flavors. So the mash temp releases an acid that the yeast uses to produce a desirable flavor - now if that's not brewing geekery at its best...
Mash temperature is one of my favorite variables to play with - and not an ingredient touched.
2. Fermentation Temperature
Brewers really underestimate the effect the yeast has on beer flavor. If you've ever split a batch between two different yeast strains you know exactly what I mean. Finding the perfect yeast strain for a recipe can take it to a new level.
Or maybe it's not the strain that needs changing - maybe it's the fermentation temperature.
Yeast do funny things when the temperature changes. Just a few degrees higher or lower and they can excrete totally different flavors. Weizen yeasts are notorious for this. Brewers are constantly searching for the temperature that will give them just the right balance of banana and clove.
Try it for yourself. Normally ferment low? Boost the next batch up 5 degrees and see what happens.
Belgian yeasts are especially cool to tinker with. You could spend a lifetime experimenting with them.
3. Boil Duration
A few years back I moved from a wimpy burner that could barely eek out a bubble to a rocket ship of a burner. I immediately noticed the difference. The increased kettle caramelization (Maillard reactions) gave my beer the rich, toasty flavors I was lacking.
A longer boil is another way to get those rich malty flavors so desired in beer styles like Scotch Ales. If you normally do 60 minute boils, try 90 minutes. You may love the results.
The boil duration also affects something we haven't mentioned yet: color. A longer boil results in a darker wort. (Extract brewers are well aware of the effects of boiling on beer color.)
4. Hopping Technique
Let's see...we have:
First Wort Hop
Randall the Enamel Animal
You get the point. The same hop bill can be used in soooo many different ways. Each technique lends something a little different to the beer. Bitterness, aroma, and flavor can all be tweaked to create that truly unique IPA - an impressive feat considering the number of IPAs out there.
It's easy to get stuck in a single method of hopping. Maybe you always dry hop? If so, give hop bursting a shot. Or even hop oils. It's an exciting way to brew that house IPA with a different twist.
5. Fermenter Geometry
Had to throw in one not process-related.
Yes, the shape of your fermenter will alter the beer's flavor. Think about your small, flat-bottomed carboy compared to a giant 100 bbl conical fermenter. The yeast at the bottom of the conical is under much more pressure, and as a result they will behave differently, and it's not just fermenters. Really, anytime you change equipment you are going to change the beer. Just ask any professional brewer who either just transitioned from homebrewing or just upgraded their equipment. In almost all cases they need to adjust their recipes outside of just scaling them up.
Is it your recipe or your process that needs tweaking?
Sometimes our recipe looks perfect but the beer just isn't turning out the way we hoped. Maybe the balance is off or the malt just doesn't "pop" like it should.
In this case I encourage you to think outside the recipe. Use one of these 5 techniques and see just how dramatic the shift can be.
What's your favorite non-ingredient method for tweaking batches?
Billy Broas heads up The Homebrew Academy, where you can find tips, videos, and online courses for brewing world-class beer at home. He's co-author of the book Craft Beer for the Homebrewer, a certified BJCP beer judge, and his beer philosophy is that "we should all be beer geeks, not beer snobs."