As craft beer fans, we have our favorite beer styles; as brewers, we often work to perfect our own versions. Somewhere out there is the ideal German Hefeweizen and we’ll strive for that beer, both in our fermenters and in our glasses. From the Great American Beer Festival for commercial breweries to your club’s local competition, brewers are recognized for their ability to make the best beer in a given category.
But just as the world’s best musicians aren’t all playing in the top-end symphony halls, the greatest brewers aren’t necessarily brewing to a particular style. Some of them are blazing new trails which may eventually be codified into new beer styles or they may always stand alone.
While beer styles are a great tool for communication and marketing, they shouldn’t be straitjacket for your zymurgical creativity. If you have a set of recipes you always use or if you usually stay within the bounds of the BJCP styles, challenge yourself once in a while to ignore the style guide and go where your muse leads. If that sounds hard, here are some tips for getting your creative brew on.
Hack #1 - Make a New Niche
Think of the style guide as a map and each category is a neighborhood. Some of those places are pretty close together -- Ordinary Bitter is right next door to Best Bitter -- but there are gaps between styles that are ripe for staking a fresh claim. For instance, a Scottish Wee Heavy can contain hints of roasted malt, but you could add a more significant amount, without quite falling into Imperial Stout levels of roast.
Hack #2 - Twist the Knobs
The BJCP guidelines outline a style’s aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel, and they also define the color, gravity range, and bitterness. Choose a base style and read through the description, then pick one of the characteristics to change. Avoid the tweaks that just move you into a different category. Instead, ask yourself a what-if: What if Schwarzbier had a strong hop flavor?
If your initial idea doesn’t seem very appealing, pretend you’re facing an Iron Brewer challenge. Think about how you might adjust the base style to accommodate the new element.
Hack #3 - Bring in a Guest Ingredient
Beer styles can also be defined in part by the ingredients they normally contain, like chocolate malt in a porter, or Saaz hops in a Czech Pils. Dropping a foreign ingredient into a style can be a radical change. For instance, using a distinctive fruity hop like Citra would transform a German lager. Similarly, you might consider fruits or spices, but if you do, try to avoid the common combinations.
Remember, you may need to make some adjustments to help your guest fit in. For example, when I brewed a smoked Kölsch, I knew that the rauch malt would need to be fairly low in the mix, but I also kicked up the malt profile a bit by increasing the starting gravity and mashing at a slightly higher temperature. I wanted to create a balance between my starting point and the special ingredient.
Hack #4 - Randomize the Variables
Take a cue from the Beat poets and the Dadaists before them and use random choices to come up with a beer. Color, malt character, bitterness, hop flavor, hop aroma, alcohol level, and body can each be defined with the roll of a die. If you want to get even more creative, you can assign values to other more interesting flavors like salty or acidic (gose, anyone?), or combine this with the guest ingredient hack and include specialty ingredients.
Once you’ve determined your Franken-beer profile, it’s time to bring it to life. Build a recipe to deliver on each of the characteristics that the Fates dropped into your lap. Don’t be afraid to use your judgment, though. If a combination seems problematic, see if you can find a path to harmony.
Take a Risk
Even if your creative leap doesn’t land as well as you hoped, you will gain experience and the resulting beer will be one you remember. I look back with pride in some of the odd beers I made. Beyond my smoked Kölsch (and other smoked malt experiments), I’ve made an imperial nut brown ale, a spiced IPA, a Belgian-yeasted stout, and numerous malty pale ales.
Drop in a comment about your most creative batches, or the one you'd like to try.
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