More than 150 times now I’ve sat down to share some stories, recipes, tips, ideas, suggestions, and thoughts as part of this “Make Your Best” series. But even the best of series eventually come to an end, so rather than jumping the shark we've collectively decided to end things on a high note.
Life is change, and change can hurt, but all progress depends upon it. So, in my final "Make Your Best" column, I wanted to share some strategic thoughts about brewing your best of any beer, for whatever they may be worth.
Try to recognize that style guidelines (and style nomenclature, appellations, identifiers, and more) are just that: guidelines. They exist to help you as a brewer know what they (and you) as beer drinkers will be expecting when you say, “this is an Oatmeal Stout.”
That expectation-setting function is valuable, because it primes us to be able to appreciate and recognize what we’re drinking. Without that priming, not only can it be hard to identify and classify what you’re drinking, it can be a challenge to pick out flavors you’d otherwise notice immediately. What we see depends on where we look; likewise, what we taste depends on what we expect, to a certain degree. We can probably pick something obvious like Berliner Weisse out of a lineup, but only because it and a few other styles have clarion, obvious markers that cut through the subtlety. For the rest, the nudge in the right expectations direction makes enjoying beer easier.
However, they’re still just guidelines. Brew to the limits of them, and even beyond them. Use them as a reference point rather than a hard boundary. They’ll still work as intended (cueing perceptions), and you can enjoy your freedom and creativity. Every beer fits in there somewhere, even if it’s outside the margins on something in the style description (and remember, there’s always the Experimental Beer category).
I take recipe design seriously, and for good reason—it’s the one part of your brewing you control absolutely. I don’t get to decide how long ingredients have been sitting on the shelf, or the precise temperature everywhere in my mash, or whether my yeast feel like working the way I hope they will, but I control my recipe decisions. I’m fond of the advice legendary golf coach Harvey Penick gives in his Little Red Book: “Take dead aim.” Pick a target. That’s what recipe design is, in brewing—selecting your target. Not the whole green, but that one square inch where you want your ball to land. The smaller the target, the closer you’re likely to get to it.
Taking dead aim doesn’t have to mean overcomplicating the recipe, though. In fact, quite the opposite. Embellishments and accents that don’t get you closer to your target aren’t “dialing in” anything—they’re just confusing it. Sometimes they’re necessary, sometimes they’re not. Start simple, and then add in the flourishes once you determine they’re necessary to create the most parsimonious, focused recipes you can. That’s taking dead aim.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. I always bristle when I hear someone talk about changing up process to get a different result. I’m not saying it can’t work, I’m saying that it seems too risky and uncertain (compared to recipe adjustment). If you’re going to change your process, do a complete tear-down and start over rather than jiggering things around every batch. If you’re brewing different recipes with different processes on different days it can be hard (or impossible) to get a good read on what in your recipes or your process is working and what isn’t.
That’s why I say brew a bunch of batches when you’re new to brewing (or in a rebuilt process/using new equipment), and dial in your process using one standard recipe. Once that part is nailed down, change up your recipes to get closer to that target you’ve selected. It takes a little more effort, but if you want real control then a stable process is a laudable goal.
You don’t have to want that, incidentally. Lots of brewers make perfectly good and even great beer without a lot of planning or process or control… they just might struggle to make that great beer again.
I have to admit there’s a certain poetic fit to signing off now, as we approach the “end of the guidelines.” This series has covered nearly every style in the (2015 BJCP) book, and several that aren’t in there. I mean, sure, Sahti never got its moment in the sun, but that’s because I’ve literally never brewed one nor particularly enjoyed those I’ve had, so it was never going to happen anyway. I hope you’ve found these recipes and discussions useful, and continue to as you keep brewing your way around the wide world of beer styles.
I love brewing. I love the people I’ve met because of brewing. I love getting e-mails from you all in a panic because you forgot something from the LHBS and want advice on how to adjust, or telling me about how good (or bad) your attempt at my recipes turned out, or informing me that I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what I’m talking about (at least you care enough to educate me, and I freely admit there are things I don’t know and get wrong). While this is my last column (at least for the time being), I don’t think I’ll ever stop brewing, and if the powers that be at Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® allow it I don’t think I’ll ever fully stop writing about beer, either. So, with that hopeful thought in mind let’s call it “see you soon” rather than “goodbye,” and thanks for coming along for the ride.