Ben Stange on July 8, 2015 6 Comments As a hobby, brewing tends to start modestly. You get an equipment kit from a friend or loved one and brew your first batch using an extract kit that likely came with it. You boiled, chilled, and pitched in a two gallon pot on your kitchen stove, and two weeks later you made an unholy mess of your kitchen floor the first time you bottled. But, a few weeks later, you finally get to taste it, and it’s actually good. You’re hooked, and you know you’re never going to give up the hobby. Whether you recognized it or not, that first batch of beer was risky. You didn’t really know what you were doing because you had never done it before, but it made drinkable beer, so the risk was worth the reward. At first, growing as a brewer simply requires practice. Refining your processes, taking vigorous notes and making sure you have your system down is the first step to brewing consistent beer. But, once you have established your methods and systems, how do you continue to make better and more interesting beers? This is a common scenario that every brewer finds themselves in at some point. Take Some Risks In order to grow in any profession or hobby, it is important to try new things and push your boundaries. Whether you are trying out a new piece of equipment or trying a new ingredient or method, risk-taking will help you become a better brewer. So, as a brewer, are you still taking risks? In my career as a brewer, I make it a point to make one batch of beer that has a very decent chance of being horrible. Seriously. I try a new ingredient, brew a “theoretical” beer, or try something I’ve never tried in my brew house. You can do this, too, and pushing your boundaries as a brewer will make you better. So, here are seven risks you can take as a brewer that can help make you a better brewer in the long run. 1. Go All-Grain This one’s a very common one for fledgling brewers to take. Transitioning from extract to all-grain is always a bit scary, but the payoff is huge. As a matter of fact, I know a few guys who went straight into all-grain without ever having brewed an extract beer. Why it’s a risk: Brewing an extract beer is like making soup from a can of a condensed soup. You may be adding a few extra ingredients to it, but you’re essentially adding water and following some instructions. Brewing all-grain requires more technical knowledge, additional equipment, and a bit more time every brew day. Why it will make you a better brewer: Malt extract is simply dehydrated wort, which means the manufacturer has all of the control over your mash temperature. Going all-grain takes that control to your brewhouse, allowing you to adjust the sweetness and dryness of your beer and providing opportunities for further experimentation. It is also an excellent reason to make your brew day last a little longer. The Best Books About Homebrewing 2. Fruit the Beer One of my favorite “risk” beers was a Belgian Blonde to which I added 10 pounds of tart cherries. You can find the recipe for this beer here. This is a risk that can be taken any time in your brewing career, even if you have not yet gone all grain. Why it’s a risk: This one doesn’t sound like much of a risk on the surface, but adding fruit to your beer is a scary concept when you consider that wild yeast live, grow, and thrive on the skin of all fruit. Introducing wild yeast to your beer is almost never a good idea, and can have adverse effects if not done carefully. There are a lot ways to do this well, including buying pasteurized fruit purees or freezing the fruit beforehand. This will help kill many wild bacteria and yeast and will slow down the rest. Why it will make you a better brewer: Adding fruit to your beer is a great way to add a breadth to the flavors you can include in your beer. Developing your own recipe for a beer that includes fruit will help you learn more about how balance is achieved in beer. It will also taste excellent in the summer. 3. Use Some Oak One of the best ways to add depth and flavor to a beer, especially a stronger or dark beer, is to use oak. Whether you use cubes, chips, or a full-sized barrel, the addition of vanilla, caramel, or even bourbon or rum flavors to a brew can add a whole new level of flavor not present before. Why it’s a risk: Contamination is a risk here, for sure. Properly sanitizing the oak is absolutely key to making sure that the beer doesn’t end up a sour beer. Not that a sour beer is necessarily bad, but it can be if that was not your target. Also, adding the flavors in oak can make a beer much harder to balance. With most beer, you can concentrate on the perceived bitterness and the flavors coming from the malt, but when you add oak, you are also adding vanilla, caramel, toasted wood, some tannins, and maybe whatever liquor used to be in that barrel. Why it will make you a better brewer: Brewing with oak makes you concentrate on a wider array of flavors and accommodate them within your original recipe. In addition, you will need to periodically sample your beer to be sure you don’t over-oak it, which will help your palate determine the subtleties of the flavors oak can contribute. Plus, it’s just really delicious. 4. Brew a Sour Beer As I stated above, brewing a sour beer isn’t a bad thing unless you weren’t aiming for a sour beer. If you are aiming for a sour beer, it can be a truly fantastic experience. (If you like sour beers, that is.) Why it’s a risk: Contamination, contamination, contamination. It’s important to plan for having the wild bugs in your brewhouse, because if you don’t manage a sour fermentation properly, your next pale ale might end up tasting like a lambic. If that happens, you may be investing a bit of money in replacing equipment. Why it will make you a better brewer: Working with wild bacteria and yeast give you a much greater understanding of the fermentation process and how different aspects of brewing affect the health of your yeast. While some “bugs” like long chain starches, the typical brewer’s yeast requires short chain sugars. In addition, brewing a wild beer will help you reduce your fear of contamination. While you learn how to manage a complex fermentation and wait patiently for the results (be prepared to wait a long time for your sour beer to work itself out), you will be making a very unique beer. Even if you follow the exact same recipe every time, you will quickly learn that these wild bugs can’t be tamed, and will make the beer they want to make. All you can do is wait, taste it, and blend accordingly. 5. Go REALLY BIG Sometimes, you just have to make a beer that is so deliberately out of balance that you are overwhelmed by its brazenness. Go big. Make a Russian Imperial Stout, a big barleywine, or a Double IPA. Pick a flavor in beer you really like and make it so big you challenge your own taste buds. Why it’s a risk: It could turn out terrible. You could decide to make a Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout with maple syrup and have it come out tasting like someone burned your breakfast. Or, your Imperial IPA could come out tasting like eating a hop cone straight. (Don’t try that, by the way, it’s miserable.) Deliberately making a beer that is out of balance could result in the beer being REALLY out of balance, but that’s part of the fun. Why it will make you a better brewer: Know your boundaries. For the beer you are making, this can help teach you where those boundaries are. You will either stretch your taste buds to enjoy this new extreme, or you will find that you could have gone further. Either way, you’ve learned something about yourself and your beer. 6. Join a Club One of the greatest things about this hobby is sharing it with other people. Joining a homebrew club is a great way to share your beer with others that will truly appreciate the work that goes into the brewing process. Why it is a risk: Meeting new people is always a bit scary. What if they think you’re a nerd? What if they all know way more about beer than you do? What if everyone is an all-grain brewer, but you only do extract? It can be intimidating. Why it will make you a better brewer: Because each of the things I mentioned above are all great things to have in a brew club. If they all know more about beer than you do, they will teach you a lot. If they are all-grain brewers, they will share that knowledge with you. Nothing will make you a better brewer faster than sharing ideas and methods with people who are already excellent brewers. And trust me, if they think you’re a nerd in this community, that’s a good thing. To be honest, though, there’s really not that much of any of these things being true. Homebrew clubs are typically very diverse in their skill levels, passion levels, and nerdity. 7. Go to School The ultimate risk lies here, but it also has the biggest payoff. An education is a great thing to have if you want to be better at anything. Why it’s a risk: It’s a major commitment of time and money. Brewing school is intended for pro brewers, but there are also a lot of homebrew schools out there. They will all teach you a lot about your favorite hobby, but there is a cost. You will have to pay tuition, for one. That can vary significantly depending on the type of course, and you will have to put in the time and work to really get the most out of it. Why it will make you a better brewer: Because school. Actually learning from an organized institution will build the best possible foundation of knowledge available for a brewer. For you, this means you will be able to make much better beer far more consistently, and you will understand to a greater degree what effects your decisions in the brewhouse and beyond will have on your finished product.