I love homebrew recipe books. But it’s not always because of the recipes.
When you read a bunch of recipes it’s like a casual reminder of all those different styles of beer that haven’t been “top of mind” recently. (“Oh yeah, I haven’t brewed a bock in a while.”)
And I’m always impressed by the incredible variety of flavors and styles you can get from four simple ingredients — malt, hops, water and yeast.
Another reason I love recipe books is that writers are often at their best when they’re straining for just the right adjective to explain this particular pale ale, or what the chocolate malt adds to this other porter recipe.
I have a friend who — before he puts a new style of beer to his lips — asks what he should be looking for. That’s a good idea. The more you know about the varieties of experience you can enjoy from different styles of beer, the more you’ll appreciate the beer you drink.
That’s what you need to focus on in a book of recipes, because that will give context to the slight variations in the ingredients.
At first, the recipes can look awfully similar, because the variations can be rather small. You might think, “Isn’t this one pretty much the same as the last five I’ve read?”
+ 6.6 pounds LME
+ a pound of some specialty malt
+ bittering hops
+ flavoring hops
+ aroma hops
If you look at it that way … yeah. That’s about the shape of it. They’ll all about the same.
And if you went into a homebrew store with that as your shopping list, you really could make a decent beer.
But … what kind of a beer would it be? It could be almost anything, depending on what kind of LME you bought, what the specialty grain is, what hops you used (and when you used them), and what yeast you chose.
That’s where all the fun comes in. Small changes in the recipe make a world of difference in the finished product.
I recently had a side-by-side comparison of two homebrewed beers that were identical — except for the yeast. And I mean as identical as they could be. They were from the very same 10-gallon batch, split into two 5 gallon batches.
The different yeasts gave a completely different character to the two beers. Some yeasts will dry out your beer, while some will leave it more malty. Some will enhance the hop bitterness. Some will emphasize aromas. It’s actually rather amazing how much difference the yeast can make.
And that’s just one ingredient. What about the malt?
Advanced brewers can fine-tune their beers in the mash tun. For example, a stiffer mash at a higher temperature will make a less fermentable wort, which will make a beer with more body and more malt flavor. And an infusion mash will make a different beer than a decoction mash.
Extract brewers need to approach this a little differently. They need to pick the right brand of extract, since somebody else has already done the mashing. Laaglander and John Bull are said to be less fermentable (resulting in more body and maltiness), while Muntons and Alexanders are more fermentable.
If you add a specialty malt to your recipe, that can be a big game changer as well. A pound of rye is going to add an entirely different flavor to your beer than a pound of Munich malt. (Next time you’re at the homebrew store, nibble a few grains of a few different malts to see how different they taste.)
In short, making a good beer is about having good ingredients and following correct procedures. You could walk into the homebrew shop and somewhat randomly pick your ingredients and, if you follow best practices, make a good quality beer. Of some sort.
Making a particular style of beer is about paying attention to the details.
You need to pick your malt, hops, yeast and — if you’re an advanced homebrewer — even your water, to match the style you want to achieve.
So the next time you read that homebrew recipe, pay attention to the details, because that’s what’s going to make the difference when you’re aiming for a particular flavor or style.