There is no question about it, homebrewing is undergoing a stage of rapid growth in Sweden. There are greenhorns on every street corner, intermediate brewers flocking to brew each and every different beer style, and experienced brewers dabbling with the professional scene. No matter which level of brewer you are, it can be refreshing to step back and gather some perspective on what you are doing. Too easily can we fall into routines with our brewing, following what seems to work best and using the resources we trust or first read when starting this hobby. And what is wrong with that? Good beer is good beer. Why mess around and risk brewing something you will not be happy with? But I challenge everyone to step out of the box a few paces, break your routines. If you are a technical brewer, release the chains and do not adjust your water, or run a fermentation in your closet rather than in your temperature controlled refridgerator. If you are less of a technical brewer, use a water calculator to make adjustments to your water, or try a multiple step mash schedule. In short, get uncomfortable. As a friend and filmaker once said to me, there is beauty and success in working outside of your comfort zone.
Pop Chart Lab sells a poster entitled ‘The Very Many Varieties of Beer’. A complex web of beer styles crowds this somewhat confusing poster, which displays the many different styles of beer that exist along with well known commercial examples of each style. It is easy to become overwhelmed when looking at this poster and, as a brewer, it quickly becomes reality that to brew all the different styles of beer would take an eternity, or a very cooperative wife. But many of us are style brewers nonetheless, checking off each style in rapid succession. And, what about sticking to the style? A Baltic Porter with 50 IBU is not a Baltic Porter, right? Well, if you are competing with your beer, following the style guidelines is important, and these guidlines become the bible for this type of brewer.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is the experimental brewer. Let us listen in on the thoughts of an experimental brewer. ‘Um, yea, I ate a peanut butter ice cream sandwich and it was seriously good. Bingo! A peanut butter ice cream beer!’ This type of brewer is not scared of anything, guidelines are only a hindrance on their creativity. They are willing to try anything and everything just to fulfill their wild idea of brewing a beer that tastes like a peanut butter ice cream sandwich. I give this type of brewer a lot of credit, and I can guess that he is probably not German. Stepping this far outside of the box is certainly a risk, but that is what makes it so exciting.
How much of a role do numbers play in the brewing process? You could easily argue that keeping track of temperatures throughout the brewing process is important. Dropping in a lager yeast to your primary at 24 C might not be the best idea. What about weighing out your ingredients? 100g of Warrior cooked for 60 minutes in a 20L batch would probably give less than desirable results. But I question absolute exactness. How many of you have doughed in looking for 68 C and landed on 65 C? How many of you have broken your thermometer or hydrometer on brew day at that crucial moment? I can bet that most of you are smiling right now. I only write from experience. Accidents happen all the time when we brew, and our beers still end up in our bladders. It was not too long ago that I ran a great experiement. The plan was to brew a beer following the techniques a brewer may have used 300 years ago and then brew the same beer applying modern theory and techniques. The old style brew was a ‘feeling’ beer, I felt out the process. The modern brew was far less so. I followed my calculator and the exact numbers I wrote down in my recipe notebook. In the end, both beers were very nice, different, but very drinkable. If you want to label your beer and have each person who drinks it experience the same thing, then ‘feeling’ out the hop additions is maybe not the right technique. If you have a great recipe that you want to re-create time and time again, then exactness might be the best approach. But as a homebrewer, you have the freedom to feel. I know, that sounds a bit corny and flightly, but do not forget the freedom you are blessed with when you brew beer in your kitchen.
Now take a second to think. I believe every brewer should have an identity. And like a business, differentiation is key. For some of you, it may not be that easy to put down in words which type of brewer you are. For others, to say you are a technical brewer is easy. For myself, I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle. While I do not stick to style guidelines when brewing, style does drive many of my choices. I like numbers, but I like beer better. I am not so traditional that I only use water, malt, hops and yeast, but I do not experiment with anything much more exciting than honey or flaked adjuncts. Wow, if I consider honey exciting does that mean I’m old? Whichever type of brewer you are, I challenge you to step out of that comfort zone a few times a year. Challange your identity and your thoughts of what is right and wrong. If you fly sparge, run a batch sparge. If you are an IPA brewer, brew a biere de garde this time. If Tettnang sounds like a city in China to you, brew with some Tettnang hops. Create. I guess I may regret saying all this because now I’ll need to live up to my challenge. Any suggestions for hops in my peanut butter ice cream beer?