I estimate I’ve done about 50 batches of beer and every beer has been an experiment. Some of my beers have been obvious experiments (mushroom beer anyone?). But adding strange ingredients doesn’t help you become a better brewer.
Other experiments have been more subtle: changes to one small element of the process while otherwise using the exact same recipe as a previous beer for example. And these are the experiments that have really helped me become a better brewer.
A couple of friends of mine recently started home-brewing under my guidance. This got me thinking about which avenues for experimentation a beginning brewer should try with their first batches. These are the steps that I think have the biggest effect on the final beer. They give a brewer thousands of possibilities for experimentation when tried with different ingredients.
Kit or Partial Mash
A low fermentation temperature generally results in a dry, clean taste. A high fermentation temperature generally results in a fruitier taste.
When experimenting with fermentation temperature, check the temperature range on your package of yeast and aim for either the low or high end and taste the effect. The differences between yeasts at low or high temperature can be subtle or dramatic depending on the yeast. You can spend years trying each yeast at the high and low end of the temperature range, so get started early.
Some people have sophisticated temperature controls wired to a dedicated fridge, but I find I’m able to get noticable results by finding a warmer or cooler area of my home and turning up the heater or adding ice as necessary (letting your fermenter sit in a pool of ice water can be quite effective).
One thing to watch for is that yeast can produce a lot of heat when fermenting. So, if you’re cooling your fermenter, it’s probably better to do it in an open container to let the heat rise out. I’ve noticed this more with ale yeasts than lagers.
Adding hops at the beginning (boiling hops) with long boiling times adds bitterness to your beer. Adding hops at the end (finishing hops) with short or no boiling times adds hop aroma and flavour to your beer. Adding hops after fermentation (dry hops) adds more hop aroma to your beer.
To experiment with hopping, vary the boiling time of your finishing hops from 0-5 minutes and see how that effects the aroma and flavour. Try recipes with and without dry hops. And, of course, try different hops.
The effects of using different boiling hops and making intermediate hop additions (5-30 minutes) are a lot more subtle. I confess that I can’t really tell what they do, but there are plenty of people who swear they make a difference. Maybe someday I’ll be able to recognise their effect. Until I can tell the difference, I’m not going to do much with intermediate hop additions or different boiling hops. I don’t recommend beginner brewers bother until they get comfortable with hopping basics.
IPAs are an obvious platform for experimentation. ESBs are also good. The hops won’t be as evident, but learning to balance hops with malts is not an easy or trivial skill.
The easiest, most common mash is the infusion mash where you soak your grains at about °65 C +/-°5 (°150 F +/- °10 F) for between 1 and 1.5 hours.
A low mash temperature of about °60-°63 C (°140-°145 F) results in a more fermentable wort. This means more alcohol and fewer unfermented sugars in your beer. The resulting beer will have a fuller body and be drier.
A high mash temperature of about °67-°70 (°)results in a less fermentable wort. This means more unfermentable sugars and less alcohol. The resulting beer will have a lighter body and be sweeter.
To experiment with mash temperature, you will obviously have to do a full mash. I recommend getting comfortable with hopping and fermentation temperature first because full mashes are more work and it’s possible to mess them up completely. But when you’re ready to try them, full mashes are worth it.
Experimenting is Fun and Satisfying
When you start experimenting like this, you’ll notice that that different ingredients will be affected in different ways. I’m slowly learning to anticipate how my beers will turn out. I’m both pleased when an experiment turns out the way I anticipated, and delighted when I discover something new.