This shouldnâ€™t come as a surprise. It was homebrewers, after all, who launched the microbrewing revolution by turning pro. And it was homebrewers who originated many of the recipes that were refined for commercial products.
Judging by the homebrews I sampled throughout Philly Beer Week, Iâ€™d say weâ€™re in for a round of big, unusual flavors that taste a lot better than they sound.
For example, Salted Caramel Chocolate Stout.
Yeah, it sounds like a treat youâ€™d munch on the Wildwood Boardwalk. But this rich, dark ale was superb; Iâ€™d gladly drink another glass.
It was crafted by Sean and Andy Arsenault, a pair of 30-year-old South Philly twins who have been brewing together for about five years. The beer was the â€œPeopleâ€™s Choiceâ€ at Home Sweet Homebrewâ€™s Extreme Home Brew Challenge at Jose Pistolaâ€™s in Center City.
â€œWe just kind of winged it,â€ said Sean a 30-year-old engineer. His brother, Andy, is actually a professional, working at Victory Brewing where the beer tends to be decidedly more conventional.
Sean said he was inspired to duplicate the flavor of the salted caramel ice cream he enjoyed while living in Lyon, France. It was made with English brown malt, the type used in mild stout and porter, plus sugar and a dose of lactose to amplify its sweetness. Only a small bit of sea salt was added to give it the kick it needed.
While many homebrewers are still pursuing prosaic pilsners, thereâ€™s a growing subset of do-it-yourselfers who do it to the extreme.
â€œItâ€™s just a chance for us to spread our wings a bit,â€ Andy Arsenault said.
Thus, during beer week, I tasted varieties made with licorice and mugwort and heather and pepper and blood orange and banana. I enjoyed a jalapeno espresso porter and a honey-and-vanilla imperial stout. And I splashed back a shot of stout aged in oak and appropriately named Lemmy after MotÃ¶rheadâ€™s whiskey-swilling frontman because, the brewer reasoned, it was made with an â€œampleâ€ pour of Jack Daniels
And then there was the kimchi brew.
Thatâ€™s right: beer made with fermented cabbage.
That strange one, made by Jimmy MacMillan, co-owner of Barryâ€™s Homebrew Outlet in North Philly, was served at Memphis Taproomâ€™s annual Home Brew Beer Fest. When taproom co-owner Leigh Maida got a taste, she described its flavor as â€œthe same you get from a post-pepper burp.â€
How did homebrewing get so weird?
â€œA lot of it is the Dogfish Head influence,â€ explained Tim Patton, a longtime homebrewer aiming to open his own commercial brewery near the Temple University campus.
Dogfish Head, of course, is known for its many unusual flavors, from the beet sugar and raisins of Raison Dâ€™Etre to the pureed raspberries of Fort to the rooibos tea of Urkontinent. Founder and president Sam Calagioneâ€™s â€œExtreme Brewing,â€ is a mainstay on the bookshelves of hundreds of homebrewers.
More broadly, Patton said, beer drinkers are increasingly enjoying the exotic flavor of Belgian ales â€“ tart Flemish brown ale, spicy saison and funky lambic. None taste like what we used to call â€œnormalâ€ beer, he said, â€œand now thereâ€™s no definition of what beer is supposed to taste like.â€
Weâ€™ve already seen the impact on corporate beer. Anheuser-Busch, for example, bottles beer that tastes like lemon, blueberry, tomato and pumpkin spice.
Small brewers are taking it yet another step. The talk of Philly Beer Week, for example, was No Crusts from Floridaâ€™s Funky Buddha Lounge & Brewery, a brown ale that tasted like peanut butter and jelly.
Still, thereâ€™s no better place to see how far the envelope can be pushed than at a homebrew event. Thatâ€™s mainly because, as homebrewer Christina Burris noted, â€œItâ€™s much easier and cheaper to risk five gallons than a 30-barrel batch.â€
Thatâ€™s why her co-collaborators at the burgeoning home-based Bombshell Brewery didnâ€™t overly object when she suggested adding lavender to their saison recipe. It was just one small batch, but the payoff was big: a sensual, spicy flavor that wouldâ€™ve been at home in a picnic basket on a summer day in the park.
How about chocolate and peppers? A homebrew club called Speed Bump Brewery crafted a Smoked Habanera Dunkelweisse that was served in glasses rimmed with a powdered mix of cocoa, sugar and bacon bits.
Really love your bacon? Ryan Hudak, who calls his outfit Gnarly Beard Brewing, turned out a Canadian Bacon IPA, an unusual combination of smoked malts and aromatic Magnum hops.
â€œIâ€™m happy with it,â€ Hudak told me, â€œI just didnâ€™t want it to taste like a dirty ashtray.
Well, even homebrewing has its limits.