Brewing Beyond Basic Styles By: Kay Witkiewicz
Turns out I’m really not that conservative when it comes to brewing beer. Knowing how to brew basic styles is an unshakable foundation upon which to build your homebrewing prowess. However, you have to have some experimental fun in the process, and for me combining two disparate styles into one harmonious homebrew is a challenge of creativity and craftsmanship. Brewing a blend of two styles, such as a Belgian IPA or an American-Irish red ale, forces you to carefully consider and choose the merits of each individual style to create a new, wholesome homebrew.
Once you’ve become acquainted with brewing a variety of styles, thinking outside of the box is not only easier, but also natural, and the homebrewing progression that makes the most sense when you’re bored of brewing true to style is to fuse two different styles. In order to more or less successfully create a fusion beer you have to know the origins of its individual style contributors, which reinforces the importance of knowing how to brew basic styles before you venture further. For example, I have brewed a Belgian IPA and an American-Irish red ale, the former turning out to be a more harmonious blend than the latter. Since these homebrews tried to amalgamate disparate brewing traditions, they presented unique challenges and lessons, so let’s investigate them individually.
The idea to brew a Belgian IPA sprung from a mighty tasty saison I had brewed. As in most Belgian-style beers, hops take a backseat to the unique contributions of Belgian yeast, in part because hops have been geo-historically scarce in the tiny country with the big brewing tradition. Since I had a hankering for a hoppy beer as my gums still smacked of saison, I decided to combine the two. To me, the key to brewing a saison is to keep the grain bill simple (60% pilsner malt, 30% malted and unmalted wheat, 10% CaraVienne) and to let the yeast (I prefer WLP 565 Saison I) ferment at whatever temperature it wants to go to after pitching around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I believe an American IPA benefits from a similarly simple grain bill (say 85% 2-row, 10% Munich 10L, 5% Crystal 20L) in order to let the hops dominate your palate. So, for a Belgian IPA, I combined the two grain bills (50% pilsner, 25% 2-row, 15% wheat, 7.5% Munich 10L, and 2.5% Crystal 20L) and picked Simcoe, U.S. Brewer’s Gold, and Cascade to compliment the fruity esters and spicy phenols my saison yeast would likely produce. Lo and behold, the pine and citrus of the hops actually complemented the yeast perfectly, while the grain bill provided just enough malt backbone to shoulder the 7.7% ABV, and the wheat made for a puckering, pearly head!
While the Belgian IPA turned out on point, not all fusion homebrews will—case in point, my attempt at an American-Irish red ale. Redemption combined with my love and admiration for hoppy red ales fueled the production of this beer because I had previously (mis)used WLP004 Irish Ale Yeast by allowing the fermentation temperature on a stout to kick up to 74 degrees Fahrenheit and because Cigar City’s Tocobaga Red Ale and Oskar Blues’ G’Knight Imperial Red are two of my favorite commercial craft beers. Since I had already brewed a wee heavy, I had an idea on how to approach the grain bill of an Irish red ale: preferably a British base malt, such as Maris Otter, but pilsner malt would do, a good proportion of crystal malts (I chose CaraRed, Crystal 45L, and Special B), and a touch of roasted barley. Overwhelming maltiness is the hallmark of Irish beers since hops have also been geo-historically scarce on the isle and importing them from Britain or elsewhere would have cost a pretty penny and a hearty gulp of swallowing that infamous Irish pride. Instead, I turned to a hodgepodge of American varieties because I figured that a hefty floral, orangey, and citrusy touch from Amarillo, Ahtanum, and Cascade would complement the juicy malty center of this beer, while Summit would offer a savory, herbal punch to go along with the roasted barley. The trick with fusion beers, such as this one, is that in theory they not only make sense, but they sound really tasty; however, when there are too many ingredients competing in your mouth—toffee maltiness, a hint of roast, a touch of diacetyl from Irish ale yeast, and a bunch of American hops—the result can be a muddled mess of flavors that neither complements nor clashes, but, even worse, merely leaves you scratching your chin, wondering what you just tasted. Nonetheless, I’m proud of my American-Irish red ale because even though it succeeded conceptually and failed on the palate, I redeemed myself by fermenting WLP004 Irish Ale Yeast as low as possible (even below the recommended range) and achieved a proper fermentation profile. Lesson(s) learned.
Everyone thinks about beer and formulates recipes differently. I prefer to think along style guidelines and then add my own touch, such as by fusing disparate brewing traditions into one homebrew. Brewing beers to style is the foundation to brewing any other beer over the course of your homebrewing career, but to alleviate the inevitable boredom of meeting certain guidelines, try setting your own. Some fusion beers will turn out better than others, but the intellectual challenge of thinking about different beer styles and the multitude of ways you can combine them into a harmonious union will do wonders to improve your homebrewing creativity and craftsmanship.