I recently happened upon an excellent article on HomebrewTalk.com, where homebrewer Chris Callahan shared his Top 10 Tips for a Super Hoppy Beer. His tips are quite good, and I will definitely be using many of them in my upcoming Maris Otter/East Kent Golding IPA, but I also loved the way he presented the article, not claiming to be any kind of expert, but offering up some humble bits of advice in the form of lessons learned during the homebrew process. This caused me to reflect on important lessons I've learned throughout my own homebrewing process, ultimately asking the question, 'What makes my beer better now than it was when I started brewing six years ago?' Turns out, quite a bit. Let's explore:
On Cleanliness (Cleanliness is Godliness):
Sanitation is the key! Keep your stuff clean, and you'll be well on your way. The only reason I had any hope early on as a brewer was because I paid close attention to sanitation. You are never in too much of a hurry to make sure your stuff is clean, even if it just means one more dunk in the sanitizer. As sanitizers go, I really like StarSan. It is food grade, you don't have to rinse it, and you can reuse it as long as it maintains its acidity. I buy a big bottle of the stuff once in a great while and it lasts me forever. Keep it clean, y'all!
On Fermentation (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Starters):
Every time I have made a yeast starter for a batch of beer, I'm all like, why the heck don't I do this every damn time? Whenever I pitch a nice, healthy starter into a fresh batch of wort, fermentation is always speedy and beautiful, and the resulting beer is excellent. Happy yeast makes for happy beer. This is why I now make starters EVERY. DAMN. TIME. Whether it's a one-gallon experimental batch or a starter of simple wort on the stirplate, starters will make your beer better. You give the yeast more opportunity to do what it's supposed to do when you let it grow in the right conditions. While you don't need starters for dry yeast cultures, there are far more strains available in liquid form, and given my penchant for experimentation and recipe tweaking, I use almost exclusively liquid cultures, so it's important to always make a healthy starter.
On Fermentation Temperature (Keep it cool, man):
When I first started brewing, I was happy fermenting ales around or even above 70. My beers tasted fine, but once I started dialing my temperatures in and getting them closer to the ideal range for the yeast strains I was using, I noticed much cleaner, more nuanced flavors. This was especially effective in the crafting of English and American beers, and in the use of the German Hefeweizen yeast strain. Belgian strains do better at higher temperatures, but I still use similar methods to keep the temperature in check. I don't have a fermentation chamber or anything, but I have had a lot of success with the "swamp cooler" method. I put a wet T-shirt over the fermenter, and the evaporation of the water lowers the temperature significantly below ambient. I keep an eye on the temp and adjust the dampness of the shirt accordingly.
On Experimentation (A reminder to always be beer-curious):
Experiment as much as you can. This means exploring new styles AND perfecting familiar ones. It means brewing classic styles AND inventing perfect, inspired hybrid beers. It means conjuring up complex, inspired recipes AND seeking brilliance through simplicity with single malt and single hop (SMaSH) and other stripped-down recipes. Take risks and experiment as much as possible. This is one of the greatest joys of being a homebrewer (and human being), so get out there and get experimentin'! One of my favorite summer beers of all time was last year's Nuptiale, which was a summer wheat all-Citra pale ale with Shelburne farms honey and a generous helping of apricots...talk about brewing like a homebrewer! NOTE: Don't poo-poo fruit beers, if you do them well and still pay proper care to the base beer, you can end up with some great stuff with the fruit really complementing the other flavors. Additionally, if you are interested in experimenting with fruit, dried, unsweetened apricots do AMAZINGLY in beer. The two apricot beers I have made were magical.
On Belgian Beers (Big beer, good yeast, can't lose):
I feel like I could fill all four taps on my kegerator with different beers all fermented with WLP500. I have recently pledged to keep the Beehive Blonde as a semi-permanent fixture of the home kegerator. A delicious, complex beer resulting from a relatively simple recipe that SWMBO and I could drink all day, erry day. Here are a few points on the success I have found with Belgians:
-Higher alcohol (>5%) is good. Yeast/ester/phenol/fermentation character is so important to the flavor of Belgian beers, more sugar->more alcohol production->more fermentation character
-Some of this gravity should come from simple sugars. There are lots of great Belgian candi syrups and sugars out there, but this is also a great opportunity for experimentation. Honey, treacle, and other raw, unrefined sugars can create wonderful results.
-Find a strain you like. I love WLP500, which is the Westmalle Trappist Abbey strain. It is complex and wonderful, and it does really well at good ol' room temp.
On Roasty Beers (Brew simply so that others may simply drink):
In addition to having a pretty regular craving for a good Belgian-style ale, one of my main everyday beer cravings is for a good roasty toasty beer. I love stouts and porters, and I've made many good dark beers, all slightly different, all with some pretty key common denominators:
-Simple recipes. I find that simple recipes often give birth to the most complex and well-defined flavors I've ever experienced in my homebrewing. For me, this actually came out of a historical look at the porter/stout tradition. I realized that some of the most tried and true recipes in history were outstandingly simple, so when I gave my first go at an Irish dry stout, it was a very simple recipe. When I gave it my second go, it was with an even simpler recipe. Same goes for my historical porter, which only has a few ingredients. These beers had wonderfully well-rounded flavors and great roast character, with no muddiness.
-Skip the crystal/caramel malt. You just don't really need it. Brown malt has been one of my secrets to great porters, and I think it adds an amazing character to the beer.
-Session it up. I'm pretty sure the most alcoholic dark beer I've made has been about 5% abv, and I've never felt like I was sacrificing flavor. I contend that a session stout or porter is easily the best bang for your buck as a homebrewer, especially because most of the time, the only hop addition is at the beginning of the boil. Save some money and calories, and relish in a flavorful beer that you can drink all day long. I will definitely brew a big ol imperial stout someday, but for everyday enjoyment, I prefer a good session brew.
-Bonus:add a little roasty kick to other malty beers. I like an English mild or brown ale with a little hint of roast to it. Also, one of the best things about the only Irish red I ever brewed was the little bit of dry roast on the finish, which was achieved through some pale chocolate malt (highly recommend this).
On Hoppy Beers (Read the article I linked at the top!):
I have made many tasty pale ales, especially as single-hop beers. Like everything else, I try to keep them simple and balanced, with some nice citrus/pine flavors. It's time for some IPA experiments. First will be my Maris Otter/East Kent Golding SMaSH IPA, whose ingredients arrived in the mail yesterday! I also think I'm overdue for a go at a Belgian IPA (which I think will be good for summer) and I really want to try my hand at a big-ass imperial/double IPA, so there will be more on hoppy beers to come very soon!