Brewing the Perfect Party Beer
As homebrewers, we are often called upon to brew something special to celebrate a milestone: a wedding, a graduation, or just surviving another year in the cubicle. When the audience is entirely beer-maniacal, anything goes. But the real test of a brewer is to please those used to cold, chilly and canned, while upholding your homebrew oath to always brew something interesting. It’s a balancing act that requires the brewer to deconstruct the beer preferences of his or her audience and assemble a subtle, but compelling, recipe.
It’s obvious why you don’t want to brew a double imperial pale ale or bourbon doppelbock for the uninitiated. The intensity of these beers is a visceral shock to people unfamiliar with their charms, and won’t win you any converts. A lighter touch is needed. The trick is to hook people, ever so gently; then with a tug, set the hook. Who says you can’t change people? I’ve seen it happen over and over. And so the movement grows.
It’s no big secret that bitterness is an acquired taste. In fact, the bitter taste receptors on your tongue have evolved to warn us against eating plants containing toxins that have evolved to be bitter to give us just that warning. Western culture, with few exceptions, has little use for bitter foods, although many Asian cuisines employ it with relish. And, as you know if you travel in good beer circles, the quest for bitter beers can be a bit of an obsession. But for our party beer, we’re going to want stay away from high bitterness levels.
We do want a nice hop presence. This can be accomplished by the use of high-quality, low-alpha varieties like Saaz or Goldings, and employing them so as to get maximum aroma with minimum bitterness. This means late kettle additions are critical.
As a brewer, it’s a great trick to make a lighter beer that is satisfying quaff after quaff. Great malts, top-grade hops and careful attention to the details of brewing are all critical to getting it right. In our recipe, the low hop rate and the use of some darker malts should make it work with almost any good drinking water. If you know your water is very hard, it might be best to take steps to remove the hardness or simply dilute it, to avoid any harsh bitterness in the finish. Likewise, a good liquid yeast is always recommended. Choose one that fits the style or your artistic fancy.
Seasonality is important; different weather really does demand different beers. It also tells a compelling story about the ways that beer fits into life’s cycles. So for summer, something light and frothy, with a healthy dose of wheat, perhaps. Fall demands a richer palate—but not too rich—as you will see from the recipe below. Even the hearty beers of winter can be made to appeal to a wider taste, by the subtle use of richly flavored malts, at the same time thinning the body with a bit of ethnic sugar to keep them from being too cloying. Spring is all about being bright and fresh, but with a little more substance to ward off those last chilly breezes.
Dark malts can seem pretty scary to people, being linked in the novice’s mind with the dreaded “heaviness.” (For a country that practically mainlines Starbucks, go figure. Maybe it’s understandable, given the 150-year historical trend towards beer blandness.) So, for introductory beers, I would go no darker than a pale amber color and stay away from overtly toasty malts.
These accommodations still leave us a nice window in which to operate: pale-to-amber color; medium to dry palate; low-to-medium bitterness; a nice fresh dose of hop aroma.
This is the time-honored tradition of session beers, brews drinkers can enjoy pint after pint without falling over. Common, table or “ordinary” beers go back thousands of years, as people have always had the need for an everyday brew.
Beer styles such as Dortmunder, Vienna, bitter and witbier are easy to enjoy as they are, without being lobotomized. Bigger styles such as brown or Christmas ales may work if brewed with restraint. You may also forge off into the land between the styles and create something all your own. When I was first starting out, I brewed a beer called Wifey’s Tender Ale, a delicate amber ale with a kiss of hops that always disappeared quickly in the presence of friends trying to come to terms with my strange new hobby. Think about your audience, then select the malts, hop profile and yeast character to make this the perfect beer to tickle the taste buds of your partygoers.
So let’s put together our perfect autumn party beer. In keeping with the session theme, we’ll be shooting for a target of about 1046/11.4°P. This should ferment out to give us an alcohol content of around 4% ABV.
In large measure, the choice of hops will determine that national character of your beer. English hops such as East Kent Goldings will, of course, create an English bitter or pale ale character; Continental hops will tilt the beer towards the Germanic. Belgians, being caught in the middle, often use both for a very mysterioso hop profile. I think we’ll follow that middle path here and go with a mix of Saaz and East Kent Goldings.
Searching for a complex, but restrained malt profile, we’ll be looking at a mix of pils malt and a slightly more heavily kilned base malt such as pale ale or Vienna. A portion of wheat will add a little creaminess and great head retention, which can sometimes be lacking in lighter beers. On top of that, we’ll drop in a dollop of melanoidin* malt which will give a shimmery amber color and an inviting depth.
So put it all together with your best technique and roll out the barrel for your family and friends. If you do it right, all you’ll have to haul home are the empties.
* Melanoidin malt is a moist-kilned malt akin to a darker Munich malt, a name it sometimes goes by. Some maltsters call it “aromatic,” but not all aromatic malts are as dark as we’re looking for here. Confused? Just look for a moist kilned malt around 20–25° Lovibond. Amber/Victory/biscuit, although in the right color range, is too toasty for our recipe.