Strange Brews

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We all know what beer is: water mixed with malted barley, a few hops, and a dash of yeast. If zee Germans say it, then it must be so. Of course, we must concede the occasional introduction of a large amount of wheat, though we really prefer it to be of the malted variety. Everything else? Forget about it! Just look what corn and rice has done to the American beer scene. Why then, is it a home-brewer’s first impulse to start adding all sorts of shit from the cupboard into a perfectly good batch of pale ale? Pure animal instinct, or something like that. After the jump (click “read more”), get an overview of some of the processes and ingredients that might help you come up with some new ideas to brew your next batch a bit outside the box…

Beer is a really old beverage. It wasn’t always what we know today. Over the ages, beer (or something like it) has been brewed from ingredients ranging far and wide—from quinoa to camel’s milk. While they may have been pushed out of the beer scene by the beautiful simplicity of the hops + malt + yeast equation, many of those ingredients deserve a good second look, because they can often be used to really enhance the beers we’re brewing today. At the very least, your kids will have something to write-up for the science fair.

Of all the exotic ingredients available to us, alternative grains are probably the least exotic. Might as well start with those. At some point or another, brewers have probably tried making booze from just about every cereal grain that man has cultivated. Barley is the default these days because it’s easy to grow and easy to malt. Does that mean it’s the best to brew with? Sometimes. Most of these alternative grains aren’t malted, which makes them a little more difficult to use effectively. Extract brewers, that means you: beware, or be creative. Most of the following grains won’t steep very well, because they require mashing!
Unmalted Barley- Doesn’t add much flavor, but can be used increase head retention when used at about 5%. Usually comes as a flaked product, which means it doesn’t need to be cooked before mashing.

Buckwheat- This stuff is gluten-free, but contains lots of protein and fat, which means it doesn’t store super well. Lots of brewers report a nutty, grainy flavor and aroma. Available in flakes and whole berries (called “glumes,” whatever that means), which need to be cooked prior to mashing.

Corn- Basically, corn is cheaper than barley. Use lots of it if you want to make a killer malt liquor. Available in whole kernels (you’d have to pop it first) and flaked forms, but your best bet is to use flakes. Or just go with corn syrup. I mean, if you’re dead set on ruining your beer, you might as well do it the easy way.

Oats- Oats contain tons of fat and protein (relatively speaking), which add a slick, silky texture. At 5-10%, oats enhance mouth-feel and improve head retention. Flaked oats and quick oats are pre-gelatinized, and can thus be added directly to the mash (as can malted oats). Steel-cut oats need to be cooked prior to adding to a mash. Above about 15% of the mash, you’ll start to see slow runoff rates and significant chill haze. Malted oats can be used in greater quantities.

Rice- See corn, unless you want to use something like brown rice, basmati rice, jasmine rice or wild rice (which isn’t really rice). Any of these will actually add a bit of character to pale, lightly hopped beers. Rice flakes are available to lighten the color and body without adding much flavor, and can be added directly to the mash. Any other form of rice needs to be cooked prior to mashing.

Rye- Sort of like wheat with a grainier, spicier flavor and lots of sticky beta-glucans (like oats). Available in flaked and malted forms. Weyermann produces several types of malted rye, including Caramel Rye Malt and Chocolate Rye Malt. In general, 10-20% of the grain bill is a good place to start when adding rye character to any base style, but malted rye can make up to 50% of the grist. It doesn’t have a husk, so plan on using some sort of filter aid.

Sorghum- Brewers have used juice pressed from the stalk of the sorghum plant as well as extract of malted sorghum kernels. Gluten free. Sorghum syrup is available from several malting companies, though whole malted sorghum kernels are tough to come by. Prepare to be creative.

Unmalted Wheat- Common in witbier and lambic, unmalted wheat brings a lot of protein to the table. Adds body and improves head retention when used up to about 10% of the grist. Flaked and torrefied forms, both of which can be added directly to the mash. Whole berries should be cooked until tender before adding to the mash. There are lots of different wheat varieties available, including red or white, soft or hard, and spring or winter. Soft white wheat, soft red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat are most commonly used in breweries.

Herbs and Spices
Once upon a time, all beers were brewed with a spice or two. Then we discovered hops, and brewers haven’t really looked back. But if you want to degenerate, try tossing in some spice in addition to your regular hop bill. Or, if you want to get crazy, substitute all of your hop additions for spice additions. Suffice it to say, if you’ve cooked with it, you might consider brewing with it. Here’s a short list of spices used to varying degrees of frequency in beer these days: Anise, Cinnamon, Licorice, Pepper, Basil, Clove, Coffee, Coriander, Ginger, Grains of Paradise, Heather, Juniper Berries, Orange Peel, Peppermint, Rosemary, Sage, Spruce…

Some spices benefit from a little bit of time in the kettle (pepper, coriander, and orange peel, for example), while others are best added to the secondary. Often, the thing we want from these spices is a delicate aroma, or subtle flavor. Typically, these volatile compounds are driven off during a long boil. Do some research on your spice of choice; you shouldn’t have trouble finding tales told of someone brewing with the spice you have in mind. If no info is available, feel free to utilize your instincts.

If you want a complete listing of all manner of spices ever used in the production of beer (with descriptions) check out the additional reading section, especially Mosher and Buhner.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fruit can be used in a lot of different ways in the brewing process. Some work well when added to the kettle near the end of the boil, others come through best when added to the secondary. Keep in mind that many fruits have a considerable amount of pectin, which will cause a permanent haze in your finished beer. Before adding any fruit to your boiling kettle, stop and think about whether you’ve ever seen a jelly made from what you’re about to put in the pot. If so, you may want to wait, and add this fruit to the secondary. Sometimes, a combination of the two may be in order. Chiles are a good example of fruits that can be used both in the boil and in the secondary.

You can use all sorts of fruit preparations in your homebrew, from fresh fruit to canned or bottled fruit, fruit juices and fruit extracts. That’s a lot of fruit. Fresh fruit is often desirable, for both practical (e.g. you just harvested a bunch of prickly pear fruit from your back yard) and aesthetic (homebrew is fresh, not canned, god dammit!) reasons. It can be added directly to the secondary, but usually harbors various communities of wild yeast and/or bacteria, which can cause undesirable off flavors if left alone. You can throw those bugs off their game a bit by freezing your fruit prior to adding it to the secondary. This has the added benefit of rupturing the cell walls, releasing delicious gooey fruitness into your beer. Just make sure to thaw your fruit in a sanitized container before racking your beer onto it. Yeasties don’t deal well with thermal shock.

Keep in mind that freezing probably won’t kill any of the microorganisms you’re worried about, but any stress you can introduce into their lives is good for your finished beer, in my opinion. A more secure option is pasteurization. Puree or coarsely chop your fruit, then bring it to about 170° for 5–10 minutes. Do this in a double-boiler type of set up, to avoid hot spots and scorched fruit.

Canned fruits are easy-to-manage options (they’re already pasteurized), which can yield great results. Purees or fruit juice concentrates are also used with great success, as have small amounts of jams and jellies. Fruit extracts should be added to the finished beer just prior to bottling or kegging, and can be used on their own or in conjunction with real fruit. Sometimes, whole fruit can be added directly to the serving vessel for extra kick. Just make sure it’s well contained in a nylon bag, and the temperature stays well below the yeast’s active fermentation range.

Generally, all of the above applies to vegetables, though sometimes veggies are a bit starchier, and may require a bit of mashing in order to get the most out of them. Potatoes, yams, pumpkins and squashes are good examples of veggies that could use a bath in the mash-tun. However, lots of brewers like to add a bit of fully-cooked pumpkin or squash to the secondary as well, so you may just have to follow your gut when wandering down this road. My advice? If your gut tells you to put onions and broccoli in a pilsner, you may want to stick to the reinheitsgebot.

Home-brewers have an odd and often conflicting relationship with sugar. Many of us started out making a kit that called for a portion of malt extract coupled in an unholy union with a huge dose of white table sugar. After a little bit, we learn from the guy at the homebrew shop (who probably sold us this kit in the first place) that “real” beer isn’t brewed with table sugar. So we busy ourselves brewing batch after batch of all-malt beer, only to find out at some point that—holy crap!—the Belgians (and their English bretheren) use sugar all the freakin’ time! Once we come to terms with this, there are a lot of different sugars available, each of which contributes a unique character to beer. In general, sugar tends to ferment completely, leaving a drier, thinner beer, all else being equal.

We’ll start with our old friend table sugar, which is pure sucrose refined from cane or beet sugars. Sucrose derived from beets is pretty much chemically indistinguishable from cane sucrose; yet Belgian brewers swear by their beets, and good bakers won’t use anything but pure cane. Clearly, this means either there must be some difference, or these people are all crazy. Take your pick.

There is also some debate about sucrose’s contribution to beer flavor. Most brewers claim that using sucrose increases levels of acetaldehyde (green apple or nail-polish off-flavors) in finished beer. The theory goes like this: sucrose is a combination of a glucose molecule and a fructose molecule, which must be separated before the yeast can haul them inside the cell for dinnertime. An enzyme is required for this separation, the manufacture of which requires certain proteins, one of which is a cofactor for the conversion of acetaldehyde into ethanol. More sucrose requires more enzyme, which means there’s less protein available for this crucial conversion. Thus, we have a bit of extra acetaldehyde lurking in the finished beer, the amount of which increases proportionally with the amount of sugar we use. As long as your yeast is healthy and you provide it with plenty of nutrients, you shouldn’t have to worry. If this still concerns you, try inverting your sugar before use by heating it with a small amount of acid. Or you can simply use a different type of sugar, like…

Corn Sugar—pure, sweet dextrose (which is glucose in disguise). Corn sugar ferments easily and cleanly. Will lighten the body and color of a beer. Dissolves pretty easily, which makes it a good candidate for use as a priming sugar.

Candy or Candi Sugar—supposedly oft-used by Belgian brewers, Candi Sugar is super cool-looking, expensive rock-candy. Candi Syrup is a cheaper option, which accomplishes the same goals. Both the rock-candy and syrup come in clear, amber and dark forms, which are each special in their own way. Amber contributes caramel-sweetness, while dark contributes a rum-like, sometimes almost burnt character. Tastes better than it sounds.

Raw Cane Sugars—Demerara, Turbinado, Muscovado, Barbados, and Piloncillo are all names for various types of raw cane sugars, though there are many others out there. They are all a bit different in the way they’re processed, and can vary a bit in color and molasses content. As such, they’ll all probably contribute a little something different to the flavor department. Common descriptors are toffee-like, caramel, nutty, rummy, or brown sugar-like.

Molasses- Contributes a wide variety of flavors to beer, depending on how dark and sticky it starts out. Flavors range from toffee and rum, to burnt and bittersweet.

Treacle- British for Molasses. There’s a wide variety of production techniques for these syrups of a different name, so there may also be some flavor differences between things labeled ‘treacle,’ and things labeled ‘molasses,’ but there are no rules. Always use unsulfured varieties.

Jaggery (palm sugar)- Derived from palm sap, jaggery is an east-Asian sugar used in a lot of deserts. It lends a nutty, creamy, toffee-like flavor that’s a bit different in character from raw cane sugars. Also known as “gur,” which certainly doesn’t sound as tasty.

Honey- There are lots of different honey varieties available to homebrewers, from orange-blossom to mesquite (and lots in between). Local varieties will certainly add distinct characteristics to your beer, but don’t expect the finished beer to taste like honey! The stuff is basically sugar and water, composed of mostly fructose, and glucose, with a touch of maltose and a dash of sucrose. That means it’s about 100% fermentable, and will make a drier, thinner beer.

Maple Syrup- Sweet nectar of the gods. Pure ambrosia. Mostly sucrose, with lots of amino acids and minerals. Many brewers prefer to use lower grade maple syrup because it’s usually darker and more flavorful than Grade A. Again, this won’t make your beer taste like a maple log from Tim Horton’s, but it’ll dry it out and add a certain ‘je-ne-sais-quois,’ as they say in Quebec.

Lactose- Completely unfermentable, lactose is one of just a couple of sugars (including malto-dextrin) that is actually used to make beer sweeter. Crazy, huh? A staple in milk-stouts, a little lactose could be interesting in other styles, perhaps.

But enough of all this. Beer is more than a sum of its parts, am I right?. By manipulating the processes and techniques we use to produce our beer, we can make a simple recipe really stand out. Often, this means taking a step back in time, and re-learning a process that modern brewers have left by the wayside.

Wood Aging
Used to be, all beers were wood aged. There were no stainless steel cylindro-conicals, or glass carboys. You might get by fermenting in an urn, but people would’ve laughed at you and called you “old-fashioned.” Oak was the wood of choice for many brewers, for many reasons. It was—and still is—widely available, durable, and tastes pretty good. Lots of options are available for oak aging your beer. You can go buy yourself an authentic barrel, in sizes ranging from 6 to 60 gallons. Whiskey and wine barrels are fairly easy to come by, which add additional layers of complexity. Oaks ‘spirals,’ ‘chips’ and ‘beans’ are perhaps better options for use in the home brewery, since they can simply be added to any secondary fermenter. These are basically pieces of oak staves, that have been reprocessed into more a more manageable form. They also increase surface area in contact with wort, so less contact time is required to get the full flavor from the wood.

If oak can be used, what’s to say that other flavorful woods can’t be used equally well? In a word: nothing. Commercial brewers are utilizing all kinds of cool woods, from pine to palo santo (one of the hardest woods on the planet); cedar to cigar-boxes. If anything, it should be even easier for homebrewers to use these woods, since we need so much less of them. Only catch is that we may have to get creative in order to make them usable.

Wild yeast/bacterial inoculation
Long, long ago, (this is starting to sound familiar) brewers didn’t know what yeast was, or how to keep it happy and healthy. So they’d stir their fermentation with a magic stick, or just mix a portion of the last batch with the new. In some places (Belgium), beer is still inoculated by just opening the brewery door and letting any ol’ wild yeast come right in.

I’m not suggesting that we do the same, but we can add known entities to our beers to give it a known character. White Labs and Wyeast Labs both package wild yeast cultures, wild yeast/bacterial blends, and bacterial cultures for use in specialty homebrews. Usually these are added to the secondary, after a “normal” yeast does its duty, but it doesn’t have to be that way… Here are some options:

Brettanomyces- often described as mousy, barnyard, sweaty, or horse-blanket, these wild yeasts will ferment many sugars that regular brewing yeast cannot. As such, they tend to produce drier, funkier beers than most ale or lager yeast strains. They tend to work slowly, so their effect will increase with age. There are three major species of “Brett” widely used in the brewing world today. B. lambicus is the most intense of the brett strains, producing intense horsey, smokey, and spicy flavors and aromas. B. bruxellensis lends a lower intensity flavor and aroma profile, and is used by Orval. B. anomalus is the mellow cousin, lending subtle brett aromatics, and lower flavor characteristics. Sometimes described as fruity.

Lactobacillus- a lactic acid producing bacteria, this creepy crawly will produce distinct acidity and intense sour characteristics. Again, it works pretty slowly, and its contributions will increase with time.

Pediococcus- another lactic acid producer, pediococcus is usually described as acidic with low diacetyl (butter or butterscotch flavor).

Smoked beers
All malts were once dried over an open fire. The smoke from the fire both heated the malt, speeding the evaporation of water from the grain, and imparted its woody, earthy, and smokey flavors. Of course, as soon as maltsters figured out how to separate the heat from the smoke, brewers wanted nothing to do with the old smoked malts, and concentrated on brewing clean, grainy beers that allowed the hop and malt to really shine. It’s been a while, and all that is getting boring. Classic rauchbier (a marzen-like lager brewed with a high percentage of alder-smoked malt) is making a comeback, and brewers are beginning to add smoked malt back into a few seasonal brews from time to time.

There are two major types of smoked malt available on the open-smoked-malt-market: peat smoked and rauchmalt. Peat-smoked malt is pretty self-explanatory. It gives an earthy, chewy, and subtle smokey flavor to beer. When used in excess, it makes beer taste like scotch, and not in a good way. Rauch malt is a German pilsner malt that’s been dried over an alder or beech-wood (reports vary) fire. I bet a creative homebrewer could smoke their own malt using pretty dang much any type of wood they can get their hands on… Mesquite, cedar, leaky bourbon barrel, you name it.

Mash-Up Beer Styles
Ever had a rye-meal Stout? How ‘bout a West Indian Cream Ale? Sometimes the most exciting beers are not reinventions of the wheel, but simply beers that pull elements from many different sources to create something unexpected. Ignore style, be creative. That’s what homebrewing is all about!

Additional Reading:
“Radical Brewing” by Randy Mosher
“The Homebrewer’s Garden” by Joe and Dennis Fisher
“Wild Brews” Jeff Sparrow, Stan Hieronymus
“Extreme Brewing” Sam Calagione
“Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation” by Stephen Harrod Buhner