Written by Jerry Buckley for Professor Goodales and The Brew-Score
At our most recent home brewers’ outing, my editor: Ken Carman, asked me to write another article for his on line journal. When I protested that I was stymied as to any interesting topic I might bring to light, I was jostled into gear when Ken suggested I write about “whatever” it is that inspires me to brew my own quirky concoctions. I’m that guy in our homebrew group known for “doing something stupid” to each batch. And no, I never was very good at dot-to-dot, paint-by-numbers, or coloring inside the lines either for that matter.
From what I can observe, there are two basic breeds of home brewers: there are those who rigidly follow the rules, and then there are those who bend them. I’d say the fair majority of our species are technical-minded individuals who plan and execute their brew days with the precision and attention to critical detail of an allied invasion.
Every ingredient is thoughtfully selected according to its intended purpose; is measured to the gram, and interjected at just the right moment and under optimal conditions. The mash and boil temperatures are monitored to the exact degree, and the timing is kept on a stopwatch; or so it seems. Home brewer software programs are utilized to insure that the train stays on the tracks. And these techno-brewers produce some excellent, award-winning, brews!
Others of us seem to prefer to brew like my grandmother cooked; with a dab of this and a pinch of that; getting along as much on intuition as attention to detail. A recipe is considered a suggestion or a shopping list, and not much more. We tend to adapt our brews to the capabilities of our equipment; we navigate by “feel”, and then we stretch to over-compensate for our lack of technical proficiency by jazzing up our brews with flavoring agents in whatever shape, form, or fashion we can devise.
Is there any method to our madness? Well, maybe no; and maybe yes! A good place to start for the “seat of the pants” home brewer is simply to look around his or her backyard (and those of his friendly neighbors) to see what seasonal gifts are begging to be put to use. We can be found picking seasonal peaches, crabapples, or blueberries, and then “goggling” for ways to utilize nature’s bounty in our brews. We pull quince flowers or hawthorn berries, and dirt-bomb our carboys post-ferment; allegedly because the Chinese have found these ingredients to be heart-healthy in the diet, but mostly because “they are there”. We ransack the World Food Market for fresh ginseng, sundry barks and roots, passion fruit, pumpkins, monk fruits, peppers, and various sorts of exotic sweeteners. We save back our orange and lime peels for grating and adding to our boils. No freeze dried fruit is considered “out of bounds” for our experimental forays. Pure and simply put, we love purees and pie fillings of any denomination, since they are “instant karma” for our craft.
The second major resource for our “resourcefulness” is the spice rack. We “wingers” delight to grind or pulverize coriander seeds, cloves, caraway seeds, star anise, and peppercorns to add to the final stages of our boils. We gleefully add a splash of lemon, or coconut, or rum, or vanilla extract without bothering to measure. We add cocoa or popcorn, or sunflower seeds to our mashes. We routinely toast quick oats and add them to our grain bill to improve “mouth feel” and head retention. We have been known to smack down a perfectly good ale with chili powder, allspice, or saffron. (Heck fire, I’m even studying up on a scheme to brew a Curry IPA. It is an “Indian” pale ale, so why not?)
And no deck of cards is complete without a couple of wild cards, right? There are those of us known to sabotage a carboy with rum, or bourbon, apple cider, or vanilla beans, or jolly rancher sticks. I once crushed a bag of “Red Hot”candies into a ferment primed with Nottingham yeast, which coalesced into a clog in the neck of my carboy that could have dammed the “Cumberland River”. The clod prevented any carbon dioxide from escaping through the blow-off tube, eventually exploding like Mt. Krakatau, and slinging krausen all over our guest room closet. I’m still catching grief over that one!
No sir; intuitive home brewers may not win very many blue ribbons in competition. We may not be able to rattle off what was our mash efficiency, or our attenuation, or even recite the final gravity of our finished product. We may not be able to pin-point the forty-seven different nuances to be noticed in a Belgian Farmhouse Ale. Be what we can promise, is that our brews will be “interesting”, and that even our mistakes are better than Budweiser.