For most brewers, our notions of beer are strongly shaped by classic beer styles. Beers like pale ales, stouts and bocks are convenient landmarks, beacons of stability in a sea of possibilities. We tend to jump from style to style, and in doing so they give us support as we learn to brew.
Styles function as standards do for jazz musicians; great pieces to improve your chops and supportive bases from which to vamp and make your own. And the true classics really never get old. But I’m also a fan of free improvisation, both in music and beer. It’s risky, but I find a spontaneous approach often yields stunning and unexpected gems. Artist and audience are forced out of their comfort zone to confront the art in new ways. I always enjoy that.
Brewing without styles forces you to focus on what’s really important in a beer. You have to really think, because you can’t just assume that what others have always done is the right thing like you can in a classic style. What really are the flavors of all those different malts? What hop aromas work best with them? How does yeast change the big picture? These are questions every brewer should be considering with every recipe, but all too often we fall back on tradition—or habit.
Ideas for freestyle beers come from all kinds of sources. You might be experimenting with a malt or hop variety that’s new to you and want to showcase it. You could be looking for a seasonal different from the classics. Perhaps the new girlfriend has a sweet tooth or some other endearing trait that you want to indulge. Maybe there’s an occasion to commemorate. New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert often talks about being inspired by architecture or a museum visit. So, there’s plenty of fodder out there if you know how to use it.
But how to start? Perhaps with an unfamiliar ingredient like brown malt, something most of us rarely use. Originally associated with porter, it has a deep toastiness with a fair amount of sharpness, quite similar to bread right out of a hyperactive toaster. What does that suggest? Perhaps the flavors of jam, so the recipe might include raspberries or cherries. Brown malt’s sharpness needs some counterbalance, so perhaps the carameliness of pale-to-medium crystal malt, or the creaminess of malted wheat would take the edge off.
Now, for some reason, I’m thinking of Elvis and his famous grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, so let’s skip the jam. The caramelized and toasty notes of the malts can stand in for the grilled bread and roasted nutty flavors. You could hint at the fruity character by using a hefeweizen yeast, which offers banana notes aplenty, or go ape and use real bananas. I don’t think the herbiness of hops add a lot to this concept, so we’re looking mostly for a clean, dry bitterness and not a ton of aroma. So there’s one idea.
Other ingredients might suggest different beers. The super-creamy texture of oats might suggest flavors of a peaches and cream ale, which would be all the more ice-creamy with a hint of vanilla added. The profound maltiness of melanoidin (a.k.a. dark Munich or aromatic malt) might be able to stand up to a load of hops if they were of sufficiently refined character, so why not ramp it up with 50 IBU of Saaz or Tettnang bitterness and a fair dollop of aroma? Tie the whole thing together with a lager fermentation for a smooth, sophisticated beer that’s still right in your face.
Sure, ingredients are pretty obvious, but how might architecture inspire a beer? A craftsman bungalow might point to a beer made from a few high-quality organic ingredients, each one serving a clear purpose. Perhaps the rich brown fumed oak so commonly employed in that decorative style could be mirrored by oak-smoked amber (biscuit) malt, on a solid base of pale malt. One of Mies Van Der Rohe’s taut modernist skyscrapers might suggest a lofty construction of pure pilsener malt and Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops brewed to a fairly stratospheric strength.
The wild “painted lady” Victoriana demands a florid approach with lots of parts and pieces, so perhaps it’s an amber ale brewed with a couple of dozen different malts, a lusty mix of American and European hops and of course, some boldly characterful Belgian yeast strain. As you can see, architecture is relevant because it suggests an aesthetic approach, a way of choosing and organizing ingredients and techniques to achieve a particular artistic goal. The same is true of other inspirations.
The seasons have long been a muse for beer and other arts. With a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground as I write this, I’m definitely thinking spring and something fresh and clean, bursting with new life. Maybe I’ll start off with something herby, like the first shoots that will appear, hopefully soon. So the frisky spiciness of Simcoe hops should do. Let’s lay that down on top of a base of pilsener malt, fortified with a dab of Vienna, because it’s still pretty chilly out in the beer garden. It’s cool enough to lager, but I want the promise of fruit as well, so a kölsch yeast will be perfect. Strength? Well, it’s coming up on maibock season, isn’t it?
The sources of inspiration are endless. You might try your favorite abstract expressionist, manga character, national park, endangered species, pancake, beat poet, color, classical oratorio, pro wrestler, jazz clarinetist, Greek dramatist, renaissance painter, custom-car designer, monster movie, stuffed animal, carnival ride, drinking vessel, beach, silly hat, blues singer, bridge or dance groove. Find something that moves you, and translate it into your own beer idiom. Don’t be afraid to venture into uncharted territory. You might find it suits you just fine.