Pop quiz! What do the following dishes have in common?
- Chicken Marsala
- Chicken with Cashews
- Chicken and Dumplings
- Chicken Kiev
If you said “chicken,” congratulations, you can read. And no, you didn’t get re-routed to a foodie blog. The point is, these four delicious meals all have the same common base ingredient (chicken, for you slowpokes). But they’re all delightfully different because of the other ingredients used to enhance the dish.
And this is related to beer….how?
We’re naturally creatures of habit; we set our alarms for the same time, go through our morning routines, get to work over the same route…. You get the idea. And there’s a certain comfort in repetitive tasks. After all, Taco Tuesday is sacrosanct. But there’s also the danger of becoming a hamster on a wheel, especially when it comes to our brewing.
Ask yourself: Do you make the same recipes or styles over and over? I know some homebrewers who make only IPAs or Belgian-style ales. They have their reasons, I suppose, but they’re missing out on dozens of other styles.
Do you use the same techniques and procedures every batch? Some folks first wort hop every beer they make, or dry hop each batch. Others never deviate from the 60-minute, 20-minute, and 5-minute hop schedule.
Hey, these recipes and procedures work. There’s a reason why they’ve become standard. I’m not knocking them. I’m not knocking chicken quesadillas, either, but I don’t want to eat ’em for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day.
Developing new recipes (for beer and chicken) can be fun. It’s what keeps the hobby interesting for me. I like researching styles, exploring the possibilities of specialty grains, and selecting the ratio of malts. It’s a challenge to determine the hop bill, and then there’s making that all-important yeast selection.
There’s also the satisfaction of tasting the beer and seeing how close you came to what you imagined and–if it doesn’t quite hit the mark–going back to the drawing board and tweaking this or that.
There are over 80 types of hops, each with their own characteristics (List_of_hop_varieties), and over 60 types of malts and grain adjuncts (https://www.homebrewtalk.com/wiki/index.php/Malts_Chart).
That’s a lot of information to take in, especially for weekend warriors like us. So where do you start when you want to develop or change or improve a recipe? Grains are a little easier to deal with, at least for me. The chart in the above link gives information on colors and flavors, and from there it’s just a matter of how much you want in your recipe.
Hops are a little tougher.
Researching online sites is tedious, and the descriptions of hops are sometimes too similar to allow for the subtleties from one strain to another. Still, it’s helpful to know Alpha Acid percentages, whether the hops is citrusy, woodsy, earthy, floral, or fruity, and what styles they’re typically used for.
Talking with other brewers can be informative, although you’ll be getting their preferences, and your tastes may not match up with theirs.
If you’re lucky enough to have a very helpful LHBS, you can try to describe to them what you’re after, and they may be able to make suggestions to direct you.
After going all those routes in my quest to learn about hops, I came to realize that the best way to learn was by doing. So I created Hopsperiment, a recipe designed to help me highlight and focus on a single strain of hops with every batch. Of course, its utilization was limited (you can’t go through every strain), but it helped refine my awareness of the influence of the strains I did use. It also gave me more confidence in trusting my instincts.
This made sense, considering that I’ve learned to cook the same way. Just give me some chicken filets, a full spice rack, a hot cast-iron skillet, and I know I can make a tasty meal. I’ve used those spices before, and I know what works well with chicken. And, after experimenting with some hops, I’ve expanded my range and can confidently pick the hops that will work well in a Pale Ale or an Oktoberfest.
The idea behind Hopsperiment was to create a base recipe that derived the bulk of its personality from whichever hops I chose. As in all experiments, there has to be a control, so my grain bill and yeast always stayed the same, as did the amount of hops and the scheduling of hop additions. The only variable was the hop strain itself.
It wasn’t strictly a SMaSH beer, since I wanted to get a little bit of color, taste, and body to the basic 2-row base, but the Chocolate Malt and 40L was a miniscule amount; one ounce of each compared to five pounds of base malt per 2.5 gallon batch.
Each time I brewed this recipe, I added the hops of choice as follows: 0.5 Oz. @ 60 minutes, 0.25 Oz. @ 22 minutes, 0.5 Oz. @ 7 minutes, and a 5-day dry hop with 0.75 Oz.
The results were eye-opening. Everything from strong IPA-type beers (Chinook) to pleasant, mild session beers (Saaz). Also, as expected, it got the gears turning as far as combining hops; not only in future recipes, but as a way of beefing up existing ones.
I realized I didn’t have to brew over 80 individual batches to get comfortable expanding my hop selection. The differences in hop strains can vary widely or they can be extremely subtle. The more aggressive the hops, the more unique their fingerprint. Centennial is used in a lot of IPAs, and it’s very recognizable. Other, milder strains, like Hallertau and Tettnang, are nearly indistinguishable to me. Knowing which hops are traditionally used in which styles can make selections easier.
Tastes like chicken!
When someone wants you to try a new dish, sometimes they’ll reassure you by telling you it tastes like chicken. You know why? Because chicken by itself is bland and inoffensive.
Beer can taste like chicken, too. I mean, if you take enough 2-row barley, add some hops, and put yeast in it, that’s the definition of beer. Okay, it’s a fairly rotten, overly simplistic definition, but the point is, it doesn’t have to be too complicated.
Unless you add some spices and sauces and outside flavor to it, chicken tastes like chicken. And unless you tweak a basic beer recipe with a couple of specialty grains and some creative hop choices, beer can just be … beer.
When the time came to put my Hopsperiment knowledge to the test, I chose one of the first original all-grain recipes I created: FedoraDave’s American Ale.
At the time, I was just dipping my toe into all-grain recipe formulation, so I had made it as simple as possible: A SMaSH brew using two-row and Simcoe hops. The fact that I had created a balanced Pale Ale recipe that tasted pretty good was so satisfying that for a couple of years, I left it alone.
Eventually, though, as I got more experience creating more intricate recipes and exploring other styles, my “signature beer” was beginning to feel a little one-note. Pleasant, but bland. It was time for this chicken to cross the road.
I started with grain additions. I chose three simple things with specific goals in mind:
- 20L for color, body, and added sweetness
- Rye malt for some bite and to keep it from being too sweet
- Melanoidin for color and to increase malt aroma and flavor
I also knew I needed to add more depth to the hop influence, and during my Hopsperiment trials, I had made a note that Amarillo might work well with Simcoe. Both have citrus aspects that suit an American Pale Ale, and I felt the tropical and floral influence of Amarillo would balance the pine/resin of the Simcoe. I was also told by a fellow homebrewer that Simcoe and Amarillo go together like chocolate and peanut butter, and that helped my confidence, too.
I still wanted the Simcoe to take center stage with its high Alpha percentage, so I decided to leave it as the sole bittering hops. For the flavor addition, I used Amarillo and Simcoe in equal amounts, and for aroma, twice as much Amarillo as Simcoe. In the dry hop, though, I used three times as much Simcoe as Amarillo. I wanted the dry hop aroma to foreshadow the bitterness, with just a hint of Amarillo’s flavor to come.
The result was a much more intriguing, layered beer. It had more character and depth. It popped from aroma to finish.
FedoraDave’s American Ale Recipe
Brew method: All Grain
Style name: American Pale Ale
Boil time: 60 minutes
Boil volume: 6.5 gallons
Batch size: 5 gallons
9 pounds two-row
2 pounds 20L
1 pound rye malt
2 ounces Melanoidin
¾ Oz. Simcoe @ 45 minutes
¼ Oz. Simcoe @ 20 minutes
¼ Oz. Amarillo @ 20 minutes
¼ Oz. Simcoe @ 7 minutes
½ Oz. Amarillo @ 7 minutes
¾ Oz. Simcoe dry hop – 3-5 days
¼ Oz. Amarillo dry hop – 3-5 days
WLP001 California Ale Yeast
Mash at 155 F for 60 minutes
Two equal sparges at 170F for 15 minutes each
Not better; just different
Tweaking recipes can improve a bland beer; that’s just common sense. But a little experimentation can also teach us some things that we can use from time to time to make our beer a little different. Not necessarily better; just different.
I’ve tried various techniques that I liked for that beer. I won’t first wort hop every batch, or do continuous, ten-minute bittering additions every time. I won’t add Crystal malts “just because.”
But it’s nice to know I can. And it’s fun to go back to a recipe and think about how some small changes might make a big difference. Go ahead and try it with one of your “standard” recipes and post the results in the comments section below or at our private Facebook Group here. Unless you’re too chicken.