Once modern American brewers mastered a few of the basic beer styles, the urge to experiment kicked into high gear almost immediately. It’s why we now have such extraordinary and vast choices. Nailing down the basics before tackling the adventurous and radical is sound advice for homebrewers as well.
This inquisitive itch often comes early to homebrewers, and once a solid foundation of skill is built, there’s no reason not to expand the creative horizons. The desire to tinker should never limit your creativity. As the hobby has matured, very few stones remain unturned, so even the wildest ideas probably have sound and guiding precedence.
Brewing with unconventional ingredients requires consideration for the ingredient itself, proper fit within a recipe and sound implementation. Adjunct grains, fruit, sugars and syrups and flavorings like spices and botanicals can be pesky to use, but are most effective with standard, simple methods. That’s the beauty; no matter how common or outlandish, there is an optimal, familiar way to use different ingredients.
Know Your Medium
Experimental brewing is more complex than just adding something to the mash, kettle or wort. Every entity has unique flavors and properties, so put some thought into what you’re working with. What exactly does the particular ingredient contribute on its own? Are the merits a feature, a background note, an effect (wheat as heading and body-building agent) or a combination of those? Build some knowledge of each ingredient, eccentric or standard. There is no reason to venture blindly, given the information available these days from websites, literature and brewers (both pro and amateur).
Another consideration is the fit, either within a stylistic or personalized brew. A perfect, harmonious ratio of ingredients can make for a sublime creation, but a simple miscalculation can result in a hot mess. A seamless complementary ingredient that enhances an earthy and herbal saison, for example, may fall flat elsewhere. As we all know, even the commercial beer world is full of poorly executed and bad combinations. I find some newly hybridized styles to be mostly hit and miss, because certain marriages are bad from the start.
Integrating ingredients can be tricky, and more does not always translate to better. Beers that are too busy do not necessarily showcase good complexity. Complexity often comes from the nuance of singular ingredients first, and then their complementary effect. Most great brewers are expert at making stellar products with a minimum of ingredients. Unless you have sound, trustworthy advice or have tried something before, resist the urge to overdo things. There will be second chances, and another reason to dabble and refine.
The final step in integrating offbeat ingredients, and perhaps most important, is proper handling and application. Timing and dosage are vexing enough, but some require more attentive, unique manipulation. Solving these three issues (timing, dosage and application) will add both finesse and complexity to any brew, experimental or otherwise.
Properly dosing the wort is perhaps the stickiest problem. Spices and botanicals can be quite potent and should be used sparingly and with discretion. My rule of thumb for them is to use no more than 1 ounce of dried or 2 ounces of fresh per 5 gallons. Hot ingredients like cayenne should be used in even smaller quantities, while delicate, floral ingredients like heather or honeysuckle can stand higher doses.
Sugar and syrup additions should be between 1 and 2 pounds per 5 gallons, and bear in mind that excessive amounts may thin out the beer. Sweeteners range in effect from subtle (light honey, dextrose) to medium (raw sugar, maple syrup) to quite aggressive (molasses). Adjust the addition based on wort gravity, desired effect and aggressiveness of flavor. Consider the delicacy of the sugar/syrup and whether or not it will get lost in stronger-character beer.
Raw and flaked grains are excellent for flavor, body and heading, but cannot be used by extract brewers. Unless properly converted by diastatic base malt, they contribute nothing but haze and starch. If you do mash, use between 10 and 25 percent of the grist, with 60 to 90 percent base malt as the remainder. Retro-popular amber and brown malt, requisite in some historical English brews, also need to be mashed.
Spices, botanicals and honey should be treated like late-addition hops, as they are prized for flavoring and aromatics, attributes easily compromised with prolonged boiling. Honey is essentially an aromatic sugar, used like late-addition and dry hops. Most sugars and syrups can withstand more kettle time, but really only need to be dissolved near knockout. This will leave them in a “natural” state.
My rule of thumb for fruit is to start with 2 pounds per 5 gallons of wort. Since the aromatics are too coveted to squander, add to the kettle late, or pasteurize and dose the primary or secondary fermenter. Also be mindful of the fermentation that will kick in from the sugar in the fruit.
If you are unsure about quantities, err on the low side. It is better if the ingredient is underexpressed rather than overbearing.
Try side or split batches. Ferment a gallon of wort from a larger batch and scale down the ingredient(s) to figure out the dose. Or split a batch into two fermenters to test a recipe. If there is a miscue, the two beers can be blended to even out the miscalculation. Splitting will also produce two different beers. This is an excellent strategy for brewers who make 10 gallons at a time.
Experimental brews can be made to fit any season, be it with stylistic tweaking or a brainstorm of whim and alchemy. From historical ales to sour cherry brews, all great beers evolve from intelligent design.