Sooner or later in your brewing life you get to a point where you just get an urge to be purely creative. For some, that’s sooner. For me, it was later (about three years in…what can I say, I’m not especially creative). It came in the form of a Yankee Candle.
Barbara and I were shopping at the largest mall in the United States (that’s the King of Prussia Mall, not the Mall of America – fight me), and it was fall, and the holiday season candles had just been released. I was sniffing away, and came across one that made me think, “wow, that’d be a great beer” – I turned the label and read “spruce.”
I’d heard of spruce beers, but never made one, and between the spruce candle and the whiff of ash in the candle-shop air, I thought I’d brew up a Colonial-era-inspired Stock Ale with spruce tips. I imagined I was memorializing the soldiers who’d camped just down the road at Valley Forge. I brewed my first version…and it was awful.
I brewed my second…it was still awful. I tried one with pomegranate added…it was awful and caused horrific headaches. But eventually, I got it dialed in and had made a beer that was a great example of…nothing at all. Enter the Experimental Beer category.
Experimental Beer (category 34C in the 2015 BJCP guidelines) is a catch-all style for beers that don’t fit anywhere else in the guidelines. To quote the preamble text to the style: “No beer is ever ‘out of style’ in this category, unless it fits elsewhere.”
That’s a great fit for my “Colonial Strong Smoked Ale with Spruce and Alternative Sugars”: no real base style, multiple special ingredients, multiple specialty category fits. Entering this style means providing the judges with a complete roadmap: a base style, vital statistics, specialty ingredients and methods… That level of detail is required since the beer doesn’t reflect an existing style (otherwise it’d be in that style) or commercial example (otherwise it’d be a clone beer), so to properly evaluate how well you hit the target the judges need to know what you were aiming at.
Suffice to say, the beers in this style get a little weird. Not only are there no limits or guidelines, if there were, the beer wouldn’t be entered in this style. Swing for the fences.
This recipe may have started with Ben Franklin’s spruce ale recipe, but it sure as hell didn’t end there. For one thing, “Poor Richard’s Spruce Ale” recipes tend to leave out an important factor: smoke. Ol’ Ben didn’t have access to modern kilns, so his malts were very likely smoky.
I also bumped up the gravity here, aiming for more of a Stock Ale that would survive through the spring, summer, and fall and be enjoyed in the depths of a snowy Valley Forge winter. Finally, it got some spruce and molasses, which definitely were in use in Dr. Franklin’s day.
Start with three pounds (1.4kg) each of Maris Otter, Rye malt, and Beechwood-smoked Rauchmalt. The Maris and Rye are there to provide a bready-spicy base layer, and the Rauch will increase the melanoidins and phenols (and, naturally, add a smoky flavor).
Then we add two pounds (0.9kg) each of flaked maize and Biscuit malt, rounding out the old school cereal grain profile. Last, we add one pound (0.45kg) each of Chocolate malt and robust molasses, bringing home the campfire roastiness and tinge of burnt sugar notes. It’s a hearty beer, coming in at about 8.3 percent ABV.
Hopping (and sprucing) are simple in this recipe, as we imagine they probably were in the period’s beers. One ounce (28g) of Cluster (a nice old-fashioned New World hop) at sixty minutes, then another ounce at flame-out. You’ll also be adding two ounces of spruce tips: one at thirty minutes, and the other along with the flame-out hops.
Finally, a nice English yeast brings home some light esters and mineral notes to offset the roast and spruce: Wyeast 1318 (London Ale III) does the job well.
Mash (152F) and lauter/sparge, adding the molasses while you’re running off into the kettle. Boil as usual, adding the spruce tips just as you would the hops (so, whatever your typical method is – free added, bagged, etc.). Chill, pitch, and ferment at 65F (18C) for one week, then raise temps to 68F (20C) or above for an additional week, to promote attenuation and clean up diacetyl. Cold crash, then package and carbonate to two volumes of CO2. For all the strangeness of the recipe, the process on this one is pretty vanilla! Oh, and this recipe is good with a touch of vanilla, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.
My early attempts here failed for at least one obvious reason: trying to use spruce extract. It’s gross – source vacuum-packed spruce tips instead, or cut your own in the spring and add fresh! I recommend aging this beer for a solid month before opening the first bottle, and it will keep long after that.
My last batch was about 18 months old before we kicked the last bottle, and it still tasted surprisingly fresh. This is just one experimental beer – there are an infinite number out there, though. Get to brewing up your own, but recognize that you’ll have to work extra hard to isolate flavors you want to change and successfully address them. Be prepared to brew the same batch (go with single-gallon batches if you can) several times in a row to really dial it in. No one said creativity was easy. Cheers!