In an average year, I'll brew about thirty times. Sometimes it ends up being more (NHC coming to town, lots of celebrations/parties), or less (busy semester, equipment rebuild/repair chewing up brewing time), but it's usually within a few of that.
Which means that in any given year I'm filling a surprisingly limited dance card. And I brew more frequently than the average homebrewer (if surveys by the AHA are to be believed, the over-under is something like 15).
When I came to that realization it got me thinking about how I decide what to brew, and largely without realizing it I've been following a few rules. You don't need to follow these, of course, but it might be worth your while to think on why you choose to brew what you do. You might be surprised...
If I Can't Buy It, I'll Brew It
First up, I generally brew things I can't buy regularly. Even living in the beer market I do (gotta love Philadelphia, for both the local beer AND what we get imported), there are beer styles that just don't pop up all that much.
Altbier probably tops the list. Good English Bitter (though there's more of it than there used to be). Eisbock. American Amber, oddly enough. And I'll definitely brew clones of things that are outstanding but just not available in our area, even if I can get something in the same style!
But IPAs? I'll usually just buy them. Seasonals are usually thick on the ground, so it's not necessary to brew them if I'm running short on time. We're also getting to the point where good light lagers are now abundant, though I know that's not true everywhere.
Scarcity, then, becomes an important part of figuring out what I'll be brewing.
Speed v. Strength
I also tend to brew things that I know will be consumed quickly, and without turning my friends and family into Oakland Raiders tailgaters about ten minutes before kickoff. I currently have a keg of Baltic Porter on, and that sumbitch is probably going to be there until December.
When I'm properly planning, I keep the stronger or more-esoteric stuff in bottles. Or I don't brew it at all. Unless it's specifically going to be aged/rationed (for example, every four years I brew a small batch of English Barleywine, of which I drink three bottles per year!), I'll typically pass on brewing it.
I simply won't drink (or give away) enough of it, or fast enough, to justify it. I find that I'm happier with three pints of 4% Munich Dunkel than one pint of 12% Strong Scotch. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Finding the Right Challenge
At least a few times a year I brew something that comes under the heading of "experimental" beer. But when working out what that will be, I'll often pair it with a base beer that will let me pull double duty.
Split batches are your friend. Instead of making two or three small batches, make a regular-sized beer with a common grist and hopping, and split it out on the cold side.
And as a corollary to that, choose your challenges with care. There's certainly value in making a Gueuze, but before you head down that path, consider the impact on your other brewing. How much fermenter space are you tying up? How much time and effort to age your hops? How long before you get a drinkable product? And how willing are you to dump it if you don't like it?
Path dependence can be a real pain, so before you set yourself a brewing challenge, make sure it's something you're committed to, and put yourself in a position to learn from it no matter how it turns out. Push yourself, but do so in a way that doesn't waste your efforts.
A lot of us keep a tap or two set aside for "everyday" beers. I'll usually have a German lager or English bitter on tap, just for the "not really into craft beer" crowd. Standard beer. "Watching the Ryder Cup on a Sunday Afternoon" beer. Dare I say, session beer.
But for the rest of my beers, I tend to stick to styles that produce home runs when done really, really well.
Not every style can claim that. I've never been to Cologne, so maybe it's a different experience there, but I've never in my life had a Kolsch and thought, "GOOD GOD, WHERE HAS THIS BEER BEEN ALL MY LIFE!" Ditto for Helles. Or whatever "summer ale" is.
If I'm going to brew a roasty beer, I'm going to brew a Robust Porter with lots of late hopping. If I'm going to brew a wheat beer, I'll brew a Weizenbock. Not super-strong, or mega-bittered, or ultra-estery. But something with a lot of flavors, and more importantly, a lot of choices on the part of the brewer.
If it's just going to be approximately the same thing that anyone else brews (hello, Hefeweizen), then I'm just not as interested. I want something customizable. It's like deciding to make an egg dish, and making a hard-boiled egg. Is there a difference between a phenomenal hard-boiled egg and a horrific one? Sure. But the gap between the 20th percentile and the 80th percentile isn't all that large, and it's a lot larger between the same examples of (for example) Eggs Benedict.
Call me crazy, but it makes me feel like I'm making "My" beer, not just the best imitation of someone else's.
Brew What You Want
I mean this both as a general disclaimer (to head off the nattering nabobs who will knee-jerk the response of "DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO BREW!"), and also a plea to think about what you want out of beer when deciding what to brew.
"I want something that tastes good."
Yeah. Got it. But what else? Why are you doing this?
Do you brew because you want to say you brew your own beer?
Do you brew because you're not satisfied with the beer in your market?
Do you brew because you like to play around with flavors and pairings?
Do you brew to save money?
Do you brew because you're a mad scientist that wants a new strain of yeast named after you someday?
The more you know about why you're brewing, then the more satisfied you'll be with the brewing choices you make.
Keep it simple.
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This piece began as a half-joking list of beers called "S--t I won't brew."
For fun, the Beer Simple Condensed Version of the list (in-progress) is below:
- American IPA - too many good ones out there
- Most sours (with the exception of quick sours like Berliner Weisse) - blessed with lots of breweries making great sours, just down the road from me
- Spruce beer - I had a bad experience once (picturing Jurgen Prochtnow in "Beerfest")
- American lager - just...why?
- Barrel-aged anything - I almost always end up just tasting barrel
- Blueberry beer - I'm not convinced it can even be done well
- Black IPA, White IPA, Red IPA, Brown IPA, Belgian IPA... (seriously - the whole "tag the name with IPA because it's high in bittering and flavor hops!" thing is annoying)
- Beers that involve adding petals to them
- Lots of Belgian Strong ales, but I do occasionally get a hankering...
- Gose - not only is it trendy, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus among brewers and beer drinkers as to what constitutes a "good" one
- Cream ale - just because