Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer. -Dave Barry
Well today is a great day to talk about what makes a great beer great! It starts with the recipe of course. It’s truly amazing to think about all of the different combinations of ingredients that can come together to make beer. There are millions of possible beers using the four main ingredients alone. Factor in the countless variations of techniques of brewers, adding adjunct ingredients, and the portal to recipe formulation opens up to a vast cosmos of possibilities.
So where do you start? I would recommend with choosing a style reference category. Do you want to brew an India Pale Ale, brown ale, Dopplebock lager, gose, or any of the other 175 approximate styles?
Now once you have a general direction of your brew, you are at the formidable formulation phase. You need to take theory into relative possibility, an idea into liquid art, and a dream into an accomplishment.
Here are some factors of the beer you need to decide so that you can start dialing in your new hand crafted beer.
Balance – Even with very bitter hoppy beer, or malty sweet beer, balance is in my opinion the most important factor of them all. A double IPA without a strong malt undertone is not enjoyable. The same is true for a very malty Scottish Wee Heavy, if there wasn’t a small hop bitterness to support this beer then it would also not be enjoyable. Creating balance is easy in theory but difficult in practice.
Alcohol By Volume – Usually referred to as the ABV, it is the percentage of alcohol you are aiming for in your new creation. Average ranges are 4.5%-7% for most beers. It is true that there are always exceptions to the rules. Session IPA’s are very popular and can be around 4% abv. On the other side of the spectrum, high abv beers can start around 8% abc all the way up to 30% abc or more! Many European countries use the measurement ABW or alcohol by weight. The conversion is fairly close, a 4% abv beer factors to about 3.2% abw.
International Bittering Units – Also known as IBU’s, this is the quantifiable measurement to calculate the bitterness of your final product. This is where balance and ABV really come into play. If you want to showcase a higher bitterness quality then you will need to back it up with more sweet malt. The malt produces sugars in the brewing process which in turn effects the ABV. Depending on the style of beer you have chosen, this is how you can manipulate the final product.
Standard Reference Method – Commonly known as the SRM, this is the quantifiable way to show color. The range is from 1 being light straw colored, to 40+ being a opaque deep black.
Body – Body or the mouthfeel of the beer is very important. There are standardized thinking when it comes to this category. The idea that a lightly colored beer has to have a light body or a very dark beer has to have thicker body is not always true. Manipulation during the mashing process can affect the body of the beer in several different ways. It has to do with the grain and how much of the starches and tannins come into play. A higher temperature during the mash will extract more starches from the grain causing a heavier mouthfeel and visa versa.
Carbonation – First you must choose to use a natural or artificial carbonation method. Natural carbonation involves using the live yeast in solution to create an environment where the excess carbon dioxide is captured in the respective vessel (bottle, firkin, or a whole fermenter). Artificial carbonation involves forcing pure carbon dioxide into beer that does not have any live yeast present. Artificial carbonation is the most popular method used in the present, natural carbonation was the only way to do it in the past but it offers really great flavor.
Yeast – Along with the other main ingredients, yeast is a huge factor for your final product. This makes a great impact of the final flavor of your new beer. Styles selected often have yeast strains that are very suitable for their particular style.
The best way to know what ingredients work with others in to assess their ability to be a complimentary or contrasting flavor. The idea that a caramel malt will go well with a chocolate malt is a great start. Mixing citrusy hops with piney forward hops is also another good idea. When you decide to mix cantaloupe flavors with a hop that shows a dill flavor then now we are talking!
Basically the possibilities are only as endless as your imagination. My advice is to not go too crazy at first. Work with what you know, build controlled experiments, and only change one factor in a beer to maintain a control in order to test effectively.
Most importantly….HAVE FUN AND HAPPY BREWING!!