Made to be Broken: Style Bending and Thinking Outside the Box

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Rules are made to be broken. Admittedly, I may be a little biased in that regard. I grew up in a household that leaned towards punk rock rather than Pat Boone, my teachers wondered when I was finally going to straighten out (answer:32), and speed limits were more suggestions than limits.
That same slightly reckless philosophy applies to my love of beer and, more importantly, to my love of making beer. Oh, make no mistake; I am a great admirer of well-crafted, perfectly executed examples of classic beer styles. In many ways, I lament the way today’s craft beer world doesn’t fully appreciate a perfect English bitter or simple brown ale.
But when I’m standing over a hot kettle or about to open a bottle representing the fruits of my labors, there is always a little part of me that likes to thumb my nose at the expected and embrace the unexpected.
This doesn’t always work out of course. Carefree experimentation means you will brew some batches you won’t want to share with friends. But then, the risk is half the fun.
Here are the things I try to keep in mind when it comes time to experiment:

Know Your Rules, and Know Your Styles

There’s an old saying in art: you have to know the rules to break them. This applies to not just to painting, but writing, playing music – and yes, to brewing beer too. To make a great twist on a witbier, you have to be able to make a good witbier in the first place. You’re not going to make a deliciously offbeat brown ale if you can’t make a traditional brown, And so on.
This old saying also applies to brewing because effectively breaking the rules requires understanding why the rules exist in the first place. If you’re going to try a new technique that goes against what you’ve been taught, you have to ask yourself why you’re doing it. Knowing why we do things the way we do will allow you to assess what will result from your change before you even do it. A simple example: when you know why hops are added at the times they are, you can experiment with timing to get a different effect and have a good idea of how that will impact your beer.
That’s also why you want to have a good grasp of beer styles. Know what sets them apart from one another, have a strong grasp on their characteristics, understand what the defining traits of a style are. With that knowledge, you can start coloring outside the lines in ways that are surprising and innovative rather than sloppy, ill-considered and clumsy.
When you understand what make a witbier a witbier, you’ll be better equipped to come up with ideas that complement or contrast the traits of a witbier, and when you can brew a good one the traditional way, your unique twist on the style will get off to the right start.
Watermelon Wheat Beer

Drink Widely, and Know What Styles You Like

Knowing the beer styles comes in part through experience, and you can’t get beer experience from a book. You need to get it in a glass. Books are helpful, of course; they can be an invaluable tool in helping you crystallize your impressions of a style, or in helping you to understand the expected characteristics of one. However,you need to have firsthand experience with a wide array of beers to have the broadest possible knowledge of flavor profiles. Therefore,if you want to be a rule-breaking, style-bending brewer, you must drink widely. If you limit yourself to the hyped up IPA of the week or strictly drink elusive sours, you’ll be limiting your own creativity, too. If the art of creative brewing is like painting; you want as many brushes and colors as possible in your kit. The wider the experiences you can draw from, the more wide-ranging your creativity can be.
This experience, or ‘research’ includes sampling many examples of styles you don’t typically like. That’s right; I’m suggesting you don’t always stick to your favorites. I’m even saying you should occasionally drink a beer in a style you don’t care for. The reason is simple: having a sense not only for a wide range of styles, but for the subtle specifics of what does and does not please you as a drinker, is an invaluable tool in figuring out how to pair potentially clashing attributes into something you’ll love.
That coffee-laced cream ale I once made, for instance? Would have never happened had it not been inspired by a can of $3.99-a-sixer Genesee cream ale.

Complementary Flavors Vs. Contrasting Flavors

When you are brewing (and inventing as you do), you’re dealing with two primary flavor concerns: those that complement one another and those that contrast one another. Both can work, but they doso in dramatically different ways.
With complementary flavors, you want flavors that are similar to what is already present in the beer style you’re brewing. The rise of grapefruit IPAs is an example of this, though a more classic example is probably the chocolate stout. The hints of chocolate in a stout can be paired with actual chocolate for a big boost of flavor. There are endless avenues to explore here, as well. Think of the caramel undertones of a red, the bright grassiness of a crisp pilsner, or the peppery bite that accents a saison. With those attributes in mind, you can begin to imagine the added flavors that will complement those already in the beer.
One danger to keep in mind: too much of a good thing can make for a one-dimensional drinking experience.
Contrasting flavors do the opposite. These are flavors with stark differences that can accentuate one another in positive ways. Think of the sweetness of peaches with the acidic sourness of a wild ale, the bite of pepper cutting through a porter’s sweetness, or the zing of lemon highlighting the earthiness of a saison.
Like quiet songs that get loud or stark black and white images, contrast can be a powerful tool. Contrasting flavors add complexity to a beer, creating layers of flavor that seem to clash but that can paradoxically bring out the best in one another.
A good place to begin looking for basic concepts around which to build is in the culinary world, where contrasting flavors have been thoroughly explored. Sweet and sour can pair well, as can spicy and sweet, sweet and salty, and many more. For a while, I was a coriander fiend. I used its lemony-tinge to accent a wide array of beer styles.
One danger to keep in mind: finding balance with contrasting flavors can be difficult, and if you don’t, the result can be an off-putting mess. To help dial that in, I suggest you split your batches and put your fear of failure fear aside.
Split your batches to try different or off-beat ingredients.

Split Your Batches

One thing I learned when I started getting a little more free form with my experiments, and something I urge friends to try when they can, is splitting batches can be a great tool in getting a feel for what works and what doesn’t, salvaging experiments gone wrong. It also helps to diversify the homebrew available to you at any given time. We’ll keep this brief, since the art of batch-splitting could potentially be the subject of an article all its own.
Basically, if the way you’re going to use some offbeat ingredients allows you to split your 5- or 10-gallon batch into two batches, it’s worth considering. If I’m adding ingredients at flameout, I’ll quickly transfer half the batch to a separate kettle prior to tossing in the herbs, cocoa powder, or lizard tails I plan to use. (Okay, maybe not that last one.) If I’ll be adding ingredients in secondary, such as a fruit addition or wine-soaked oak chips, I’ll simply split the batch into two carboys and pitch equal yeast to both.If I’m adding something at bottling time, such as coffee or a chili pepper tincture, I’ll transfer half the batch, bottle it, then add the new ingredient while transferring the second half.
There are two primary reasons why I do this:
1) To allow myself side-by-side testing. Dialing in special ingredients is as much art as it is science. Yes, there are countless recipes online that can give you some rough guidelines, and the experienced people on forums like Homebrew Talk have done it all before, so they can help with some rough measurements for you, but taste is individual. This is especially true when you’re talking about spicing your saison with basil and sage, adding habanero to an imperial stout, or throwing your leftover birthday cake into the mash (yes, that is something that someone actually did).
Having your slightly off-kilter version of, say, an American amber right next to what the Amber is supposed to be can help you dial in your experiments so they better reflect your taste. I recently benefited from this with a basic Irish Red kit. I added some coffee and Irish whiskey to turn it into an “Irish Coffee” beer. Tasted great, but I thought the coffee was too conservative – until I had them side-by- side and realized the coffee was shining through quite a bit more than I thought. Had I added more, it may have been overkill.
2) Because variety is the spice of life, I am an unapologetic variety hound. If I can have 10 homebrew varieties in stock rather than five, I will. I don’t necessarily want more VOLUME –one can only drink so much before ending up in an early grave – but I do want more VARIETY. Splitting batches allows me to make two, and sometimes three distinct beers from a single five-gallon batch. This makes me feel as if I get more out of my brew day, and also affords me the ability to experiment more often. If I’m brewing a porter and I want, OR decide I want to see what a raspberry porter might be like, I can do BOTH in the same session. Win/win, as far as I’m concerned.
My Sour Pipeline

Leave Your Fear Behind

Perhaps the most important part of breaking the rules and doing so successfully is not being afraid to fail; because you will fail. You will brew sub-par batches. You may even brew some outright awful batches.
You need to know,that’s okay. It’s part of the learning process and it’s also part of the fun. It can be disappointing to have what seems like a great idea that doesn’t pan out – I’ve tried to create an American wheat / gose hybrid that I’ve never been able to dial in, and it frustrates me – but for us loosey goosey brewers, isn’t that why we do it? To get a crazy idea, give it a try, and hopefully create something unlike anything we’ve tasted before is what drives us.
A failed colonial porter experiment.
Sure, the analytical-minded homebrewers out there may find that a little nuts (and they may not be wrong), but no worries; you can learn from their approach, too. Incorporate their precision and exacting technique into your own experiments and use what you learn to benefit your technique.
That’s what creativity is all about; drawing from a wide range of sources, mixing and matching, and watching as something new results.
Happy brewing!
Nice write up. I started brewing very much inspired by Dogfish Head and the interesting things they were doing with beer but it wasn't too long before I realized the value of understanding the structures of classic styles. Since Ive been more focused on fundamentals, widening my feel for ingredients, and dialing in recipes. Not only has it made me a better brewer its also made it easier to be creative.
Thank you. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, too. When I first started, I threw caution to the wind and tried anything that popped into my head. That was fun, but it resulted in a lot of awful beer. Once I refocused on dialing in a few core recipes, all fairly traditional stuff anyone would like to drink, I was then able to more successfully put twists on them and more consistently make unusual brews that were actually drinkable.
I always tell people that beer styles are like classic cars. There are fine representations of factory stock models (classic styles like BJCP) and then there are modified cars, hot rods, low riders, trucks, retro rat rods etc. (those are all the other wonderful beers that don't fit in the first box) I appreciate them all! But I do hate when someone asks about a beer and demands a label, like is it an IPA? Is it an Amber? Then they say, well it's not hoppy enough for an IPA or it's too big to be an Amber. *sigh* It beer, it's brown, it's delish. Close your eyes and open your beer hole! My most loved house recipe is this, in between an amber brown ipa rye. What is it they tell me.
Well written and interesting article. Thank you for your viewpoints on this. Personally, I get a really big kick out of taking flavors from something like a banana split and transforming it into a beer. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about a beautiful well made Hefeweizen, but it adds a little more depth to the hobby to be able to play around and do something no one else (or very few other) have done before.
You're taking a very similar approach to what I do. I usually won't try to add anything out of style until I think I can do the base style well. I've always tried to caution friends who get started and immediately want to do a mint peanut butter stout. On the other hand, I also only really like light handed approaches to non-traditional flavors in my beers.
Very fine-- NO superb-- article. Well written, concise, trace of humor, and lots of facts. the entire article stayed on point and everything made sense. Thanks
Absolutely. That's the fun of it for me. Though I have my moments as a brewer, if I want a really amazing porter or whatever, there are dozens to choose from made by real masters, and they're usually better than mine. But if I can do something I can't readily buy, well, that's a lot of fun and very rewarding.
A really well written article. Very interesting and well presented. Thanks very much for sharing your process.
As a self-professed redneck brewer much what promote in this article also applies to those that just want good beer but are not looking at style as much as looking for something they like.
I always use the example of my "house ale" that used to be just called Redneck Pale Ale. After I was good at brewing and could hit my target temps, gravities etc, I also realized that I just really liked a nice flavorful beer like a bit more malty and full bodies Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In those days supplies were a lot more limited so I kept about 100# of base malt on site,ad 20-30# total split between three specialty grains. Each new harvest I would order 2.5 # of Goldings and 2.5# of Saaz (split 5 # bags with a brew buddy). RNPA was just a guideline of 1.050 OG, 30 IBU, 10-12 SRM,,,made from whatever was on hand but mostly 50/50 two row and American Munich with a splash of C120 and bittering with Goldings with a flame out addition of Saaz and fermented with the dregs of the last ale I did.
The beer was always subtly different but never disappointed. I still do the same with my (not really) American Brown Ale, Dark Mild and Lawnmower RyePA. All of them are loose recipes made with the ingredients on hand and I have at least one on tap at all times.
Style for me are the STARTING point for a great beer recipe.
Apologies for a super noob question, but just curious: What does the '#' represent when describing malt and hop amounts?
I am very interested in starting to split batching and trying new ingredients. I was wondering if anyone could go more in depth on when to split the batch to add your different ingredients? Before your boil after your boil? I
Great article! I am very interested in starting to split my batches and trying new ingredients. I was wondering if anyone could go more in depth on when to split the batch to add your different ingredients? Before your boil after your boil? I'm sure it depends on the ingredients you will use I'm just hoping for some extra knowledge.