Some things are hooks for our senses.
It's the time of year that we start to see "pumpkin beers" on the shelves and taps (don't panic - this isn't a piece about pumpkin beers). As most of you know, though, "pumpkin" beers aren't really "pumpkin" beers: they're pumpkin pie spice beers. What we tend to think of as "pumpkin beers" often don't have a single gram of actual pumpkin in them. Some use another type of squash. Some don't use anything except the spices we associate with pumpkin pie. And even the ones that actually do use pumpkin...well, it isn't as though we all have a great sense memory of what a bland squash adds to beer flavors.
So why do we call them pumpkin beers? Because that's what they make us think of. Fall. Leaves. Thanksgiving. Pumpkin Pie. We're servicing our expectations - nothing more. And if you point out to someone that their favorite pumpkin ale doesn't actually have pumpkin, they won't care. Why should they? The name creates an expectation, and the organoleptic experience verifies it.
It's like how, to me, "Christmas" smells like bourbon and ginger ale. At my great uncle's annual Christmas party, the most common drink by a mile was Jack and Ginger. So, in my mind, every time I smell that combination, I think "Christmas."
There's a useful lesson in that for us brewers (home and commercial). When we make our recipes and build our flavor profiles, we should start with the end in mind. It does us no good to get dogmatic and stickler-ish about what's actually in the beer - we should be focused on whether we're generating the flavor experience that we're shooting for. How we get there is our business, and no one else's.
It's often useful to include in recipes multiple elements that might yield essential flavors. If you want a significant amount of citrus, you might consider a classic American hop (for the aromatic oils), a mild Belgian yeast (for its orange and nectarine esters), the introduction of some lactic acid (since we often associate that bright, tart flavor with some citrus fruits) and an actual addition of some kind of citrus fruit.
Obviously this will take some trial and error to ensure that you're not overdoing the element in question, but there are clear benefits. First, you're not putting all of your flavor eggs in one basket: if you accidentally select a yeast strain or hop pairing that nulls out the presence of the flavor you want, you're screwed if that was the only thing contributing that flavor. This way, you're covering your bases.
It's also been my experience (having judged a large number of Specialty flights over the years) that brewers tend to undershoot their flavor targets rather than overshoot them. It reminds me of a story that golf teaching legend Harvey Penick told about a student who wanted to be taught how to put backspin on the ball.
"When you hit your shots, do you usually go long, or come up short?"
The student replied that he almost always came up short.
"Then why the hell do you want to know how to put backspin on the ball?"
Give yourself every opportunity to get that flavor hook into your beer - you can always back it off in future versions.
Another golf truism is that "they don't draw pictures on the score card." However you get the ball in the hole, it's in - so don't worry about how it happened. By the same token, in brewing we should be conscious of the fact that the people who drink our beer don't know what went into it.
If using white squash gives you the mouthfeel you want, then to hell with pumpkin.
If you're making a Rhubarb Stout (true story - my wife had to make one once) and you're concerned that the flavor of rhubarb is too subtle and too much an unknown, then add in some cranberries to fake out the drinking audience. If they believe that tart/sweet flavor is just your magical, alchemic, superlative method of extracting flavor from rhubarb (instead of just an equal dose of cranberry), then who needs to know?
If you're making a seaweed beer (true story - I have to make one for a brewing competition this winter) and you want to make people think "ocean," then there's no harm in adding some salt to the recipe even if seaweed doesn't actually taste salty.
Again: what matters is hooking the flavor to something the drinker is expecting to find, or can relate to the expected flavor profile.
Rough it Up
Once upon a time I made a 14% ABV Eisbock. That's not that hard, really, but it's important to the moral of the story.
Being a lager, and a tough one to make due to the high ABV and the effect of concentration on off-flavors (freezing and concentrating the beer is going to amplify the hell out of any faults), I was ecstatic when my samples of it were as smooth as glass. Nice malt character, toasty, some dark pit fruit flavors - I had a winner on my hands, and I knew it.
Not the beer, but how it was received. Every pair of judges that had it noted that it was "lacking alcohol." Yeah, NO, it wasn't - and if it weren't really irresponsible I'd have challenged them to drink a pint of it and then try that knife trick from Aliens.
So I tried it as a Dopplebock.
Finally, as a Traditional Bock (now a Dunkles Bock), it found a home - in a beer style that typically has an ABV of about half what this was rocking.
The lesson? That beer would have been a better example of the style if it wasn't quite so clean: I wasn't giving people what they'd expect, even though by-the-numbers it was spot on (and in fact on the very high side) and the result (a clean beer with just subtle warming despite the ABV) was what you'd claim to want.
So always ask if you're working against yourself, from the receiver's perspective.
Brew with the End In Mind
Every time you sit down to work up a recipe, the first thing you should do is decide what you're trying to accomplish beyond "making a [blank] beer." If it's a particular flavor, work backwards from that and incorporate lots of avenues to get it. If it's a particular experience or impression, don't constrain yourself to what the name suggests should create it (the Pumpkin Syndrome). If it's a certain style profile, make sure you're not "fixing" your way out of the style.
Brew deliberately. Brew with an eye towards what you want the people who drink your beer to take away from it. Brew in a way that increases your odds of getting what you want. Brew with the end in mind.
And, as always...
Keep it simple.