Brewing with Voltaire: Simple Recipe Cheats

"The best is the enemy of the good."  This old phrase and even older idea, popularized by Voltaire, means that in trying to improve something further you may actually screw it up.  Let's say you're working on something.  It's more than good enough - you can stop now and enjoy it.  But you don't.  You keep trying to make it perfect,  And you never actually get to perfect, so you don't get to enjoy it.  I find that brewers are particularly susceptible to this trap, and I'm writing today with two goals: 

1. To convince you to recognize that perfection isn't the goal, and probably isn't attainable anyway.

2. To share a few simple tricks you can employ to get to "good enough" that will save you all kinds of time and effort compared to the "might get me to perfect" methods.  And not for nothing, but who said that complexity was the road to perfection, anyway?

Addition by Subtraction

Starting with the philosophical side of this, it probably shouldn't surprise you that here at Beer: Simple we're in favor of the idea of "good enough."  If you want to make great beer, geeking out is fine, but hardly required.  If you're having issues and you aren't happy with what you're making, then certainly some geeking out might be in order, but you don't necessarily need to do so if you're enjoying the beer you're producing.  Some of the very best brewers I know are brewing in battered kettles on top of ancient plywood held up by nothing more exotic than sawhorses, and they don't think all that much about the thousands of technical details that go into brewing.  Despite what some might call this lack of "care," they're still producing great beer.  

Some of that might just be luck - a good water profile, a lucky guess on mill gap, etc. - but a lot of it can be had by affirmatively simplifying your beer and brewing.  Be willing to let go of what might be unnecessary, especially when it's taking up your time or money.

In my brewery, empiricism rules the day: if I'm not sure I need to do something, I'll drop it out of the process (or replace it with something easier) and see what happens.  If I don't see a noticeable difference in flavor, or stability, or competition scores, then I leave it out.  Sometimes it backfires and I need to double back (direct oxygenation really is crazy beneficial), but far more often there's no meaningful impact (or it turns out better).  

Am I abandoning the possibility of making that perfect, mesmerizing, 50-point beer?  Maybe.  But I don't care, because that wasn't the point of brewing it in the first place. The point was to make enjoyable beer, and Step One in the process is "brew."  I'm more likely to do that if I can do it quickly and easily.  It doesn't much matter how perfect that beer would have been if I decided that I didn't have time to make it in the first place.  

Let's also not forget that trying to make it perfect might mess it up, too - or to quote another fine author (Billy S.), "striving to mend, [we] mar the subject."

So you might consider some editing.  This week is about recipe choices, but in the future we'll also get into some process and equipment ideas, too.  But it has to start with a willingness to, in the words of yet another immortal author, "Let it Go."  [God, I hated that movie.  I know it's for kids, but kids aren't (all) morons.  Plot holes everywhere.  Singing that's a little "shriek-y."  That f***in' snowman.  And if she could control the ice the whole time, then why did we need the entire movie???]

Recipe Cheats

As always, let me start with the disclaimer that these things may or may not work for you. There's a whole universe of potentially unobvservable differences between us.  But they've worked for me, and they (or variations on them) might work for you, too.

Season Everything.  This is a truism of cooking - don't miss an opportunity to add a flavor.  For that reason, I almost never use generic 2-row base malt.  To forestall the e-mails, yes, I know that it does have a flavor, but it's a flavor that's relatively easy to overshadow.  When in doubt, replace that 2-row base addition with a 50/50 split of Maris Otter and Pilsner.  I think you'll find it adds a great biscuit/honey background note to most beers, and might enable you to skip some light crystal additions.  

Work Low to High.  With new recipes, start with less of (whatever) then you think you actually need, and walk it up in successive batches.  You're looking for a minimum required amount - overkill can be hard to spot, so you're probably wasting money on over-used ingredients.

Sugar, Sugar.  Sugar additions aren't just for Belgian beers.  Any time you want to be sure that a beer finishes nice and light and dry, replace 5% of your gravity points with corn or cane sugar.  It's a little nudge in the right direction because it completely eliminates some long-chain sugars which might linger.  Sure, you could do the same by mashing lower, but that introduces a lot of error, whereas this is as simple as breaking out the scale.

Think "Results."  Don't focus too much on the original flavor of an ingredient - it may not taste that way when your process is finished (I still remember thinking about the great maple flavor I was going to get out of that maple syrup....or not, because it all just fermented off!).  And don't obsess about the "right" way to get a flavor: yes, you should probably use a lacto strain to get lactic acid in your Berliner Weisse, but if it didn't get sour enough you can also just spike it with.....LACTIC ACID (good enough for BOS at one competition).  There are some shortcuts you should never use (Liquid Smoke, anyone?) but a great many more that are perfectly useful.  Try, then trust.

Focus your Malts.  Fewer ingredients is usually better than more.  You don't need four types of crystal malt - one or two will be fine.  You probably don't need three kinds of chocolate malt - you'll likely only taste one of them.  In fact I'm of the opinion that, with almost no exceptions, no recipe needs more than four malts: a base malt, a light character malt (think Victory), a crystal malt (Fawcett 45L is my favorite - that thing can do damn near anything), and a chocolate malt (Chocolate Rye is fun).  In addition to making it easier to discern the flavor contributions of different malts and train up your palate, your LHBS grist guy/gal will thank you for making their life easier.

Focus your Hops. Same thing as malts.  Keep it simple.  Choose a hop from a particular family, whether it's a geraniol-focused hop like Styrian or big-time citrus from a linalool-rich hop like Amarillo (for some great guidance, check out this recent piece at Craft Beer & Brewing!) and use it the whole way.  The one exception would be low-Alpha-Acid-percentage hops that would require too much hop matter in your beer (and can cause vegetal flavors).  If you're going to have more than six ounces of any hop in your five-gallon batch, cut it down by using high-AA% bittering hops.

Don't Obsess Over Water.  I didn't adjust my water for years.  It tastes fine, so I used it to brew.  Eventually I got a water report (think Cologne, Germany) and worked out a basic treatment plan (1/4 teaspoon of Gypsum in light beers, 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in dark beers, nothing for ambers).  The simple fact is that for a great many brewers, obsessing over water is a massive time and energy suck.  If you've got crazy hard well water then get on that stuff right away, but if not?  Deprioritize it.  I know it's the single largest ingredient, but most drinking water is perfectly fine as-is for brewing.  And trying to "re-create" brewing center waters so your beer is uber-authentic is a sign of pretension that's almost as egregious as using the modifier "uber." 

Recipe Your Way Out.  Sometimes process is what we use to get flavors - for example, pushing temperature on a yeast to get certain phenols, esters, or fermentation characters.  But be willing to "recipe" your way out of that situation - process is simply less reliable than ingredients.  YOU control the ingredients.  The yeast control the fermentation byproducts.  So if you're looking for pepper flavor in that Saison, consider just adding some...cracked pepper.

Know Thy Yeast.  I've already covered this elsewhere, but I firmly advocate using a few go-to strains of yeast rather than switching it up for every single recipe.  Yeast performance dictates a lot of what you get out of the other end here, and if you stick with one strain for similar beers (I do one ale, one lager, and one Belgian) then your other recipe adjustments will be more reliable and educational.

If It's Stupid but it Works, it Ain't Stupid

We could probably go on forever with little things like these.  What's more important is a willingness to try out different things and see how they work.  Don't be tied to the orthodox or the dogmatic.  And keep an eye on what you want out of your brewing: if you want a peach beer, consider adding peaches before delving into the academic research on the molecular nature of peach aromatics and hop oils and how they present in alcoholic solutions post-fermentation and post-isomerization.  Be willing to double back to the orthodox (it often exists for a good reason), but be just as willing to try something obvious, even if it sounds stupid.  If it's stupid but it works, it ain't stupid.

Please feel free to add your own tips below in the comments, and I'll be back here soon with another round of Brewing with Voltaire.  Don't let the best be the enemy of the good in your brewing.  And for those who would criticize you or tech-talk your ears off for bucking the trends or relying on something as simplistic as adding lactic acid to your sour beer, I would offer my favorite Voltaire witticism in return (ironic and hypocritical as it might be):

"A witty saying proves nothing."

Keep it simple.