With almost every batch, homebrewers chart their way between the two ideals of structure and anarchy. If you're brewing to win medals or to hone your skills, you probably pick a particular beer style and brew within its constraints. By contrast, there's always the siren call of originality, whether it's a case of tossing in unexpected ingredients, cross-pollinating between styles (Belgian stout, anyone?), or just turning things up to 11.
One challenge that we seldom take is to aim for something with mass appeal. Most hobbyists never consider it or they might see it as selling out. The irony is that some of those same brewers dream of opening their own place someday, and if they do, part of their success will likely hang on having at least one flagship beer that lots of people enjoy drinking.
If you need a concrete example, just look to New Belgium's Fat Tire Amber Ale, which took the brewery from its homegrown roots to the giant it is today. Some of that was savvy branding, but it's significant that Fat Tire has been a gateway beer, whose flavor profile has introduced many unschooled palates to craft beer.
Even if you don't plan to go commercial, there are rewards in brewing for the popular palate. Seeing how quickly your keg empties at a summer barbecue can be every bit as satisfying as nailing that lambic that impresses the three or four other sour beer heads you know.
Blueprint For Mass Appeal
The lowest common denominator is centered around light bodied lagers, but your target beer doesn't need to pander to that audience. Instead, the key is what Alaskan Brewing founder Geoff Larson refers to as "moreishness". That is, you want to create a beer that tastes good on the first sip, but invites the next glass or more. To pull this off, three qualities have to come together: the beer has to be drinkable, it needs to have some reasonable character, and it should be sessionable.
Even the most extreme beer is drinkable to its fans, but in this context, you should be thinking about harmony and balance. The palate pleaser we're looking for should be smooth, avoiding rough edges and stronger, polarizing flavors. The first sip should be more pleasant than challenging. That means you should tone down harsher elements like roast malt or sharp bitterness, softening them with some malt sweetness.
That first taste may go down easy, but if the beer is too bland, no one will be that interested in finishing their glass, much less getting another. Within that drinkable balance, there has to be something that calls you back for another swallow. It can be an interesting malt, a unique hop character, or some specialty ingredient like coffee or cacao nibs. Once you choose your hook, you want the beer to be distinctive, but don't overdo it. Even the most pleasant flavor can become cloying if it's too strong.
Brewers often fall under the spell of "bigger is better". In this case, though, we want people to come back for more. Your beer doesn't necessarily have to be session strength (usually under 4.5% ABV), but a lighter touch is a good idea. Think of it this way, even if you brewed a deceptively smooth Russian Imperial Stout, most people would be unlikely to rush back for a second glass.
Within those guidelines, you still have some interesting directions to go. You could stay traditional and consider styles like light Scottish ale, pale ale, ESBs, or Czech Pils. On the other hand, you could follow a creative muse and increase the intrigue by introducing spices or fruit. Fashion can also be at play. For instance, gose has become fairly trendy lately, with many interesting variations. The best of these offer a softer tart flavor that can be quite refreshing.
If you already have a fairly popular beer, you might want to think about how to make it an even bigger hit. Of all my regular recipes, my Kölsch is probably the biggest crowd pleaser, but it still needs an original twist to take it to the next level. I've been toying with the idea of breaking from tradition while maintaining the original recipe's balance. My current idea is to introduce some tropical fruit flavors by adding Falconer's Flight or Zythos hops at flameout.
This summer, I'll put this idea to the test against a batch of my normal Kölsch. With both on tap at a party, we'll see which one wins the popularity contest.
That's my plan. Tell us what your path to moreishness looks like.