Non-Conventional Brewing can be summed up as making a brew that does not fit the guidelines for the style of beer you are making. This can be as Simple as changing the base malt to one not normally used or as complex as using herbs, spices and exotic sugars to enhance a brew. It is best, if starting into non-conventional brewing that you keep it simple at first. Use a recipe that is tried and true for you, for example your favorite pale ale recipe and only make one change, for example swap your normal base malt out for Oat Malt, rye malt, Wheat malt, Vienna Malt, Munich malt, etc. This will give you a totally new beer with only one change to a solid recipe. Keep clear and concise notes in a note pad every time you make a change.
The problem many people new to non-conventional brewing have, and I myself was guilty of this when I first started brewing beer, is to try to be “too radical” right off the bat. They attempt to combine many untested elements into one beer, sometimes you get lucky and it works, but most of the time, you end up either with a bad tasting beer that is still drinkable or you end up totally wasting 5 gallons of beer because it taste so foul you cant drink it. Small Simple changes to a tried and true recipe one at a time are the best way to approach non-conventional brewing, this way, if you produce a beer that is great, or that is truly horrible, you know what you did and you can either repeat or not repeat it based on the outcome.
Base Malts changes are not the only changes you can make to qualify your brew as non-conventional, you can also do something as simple as changing the yeast that you use. For example, take your favorite porter recipe, and swap out the yeast you normally use for a Belgian yeast strain or a Saison Yeast strain. You will get a porter unlike any you can buy in a brew pub or your favorite beer store. Much Like Malt changes, only make one yeast change at a time, this way you can tell what it adds or takes away from your beer. Using for example, 5 different strains of yeast at one time as your only change leaves you wide open to making a poor brew you will not want to try drinking, but if your only change is to add a second yeast strain to an already proven recipe, you can end up with stellar results. So make up a porter or Pale ale, and add a second strain to your tried and true recipe, see what it adds to the beer, if it works well, then brew it again this time adding a third strain of yeast, doing it this way ensures that you know exactly where you went right or wrong and can repeat the success or avoid the failure a second time.I have found through trial and error, that subtle changes are often the best in non-conventional brewing. Adding a second yeast strain that is similar but slightly different often produces amazing results that can not be achieved using a single strain of yeast. For example, try brewing a pale ale, with two different English strains of yeast or try using one English and one Scottish strain of yeast, the results can be amazing.
Base malt and yeast changes are a fine starting point, but what about sugars? My advice on sugars is simple, do not be afraid of them.There is much talk in the brewing community to this day about a “Cider Like” off flavor from using sugars in your brews, this talk dates back to the 1970s when malt extract brewers would cut their malt extract with up to 50% corn sugar to make more profit, then the extract brewer would further add corn sugar or other simple sugars to the recipe and would end up with a strong cider like off flavor. Turns out that there brews were sometimes as much as 75% corn sugar, and at that level they were getting the off flavor. Most Quality Malt Extract Producers today do not add corn sugar to their extracts, so even if your an extract brewer, you have nothing to fear from simple sugars, if you are using a quality extract.Which sugar to use,depends on what you are looking for, if you just want to boost the ABV (alcohol by volume) with little change to the flavor then simple corn sugar or white table sugar is best. If you wish to experiment with new flavors in your tried and true recipes, they you should aim for the more exotic sugars, such as Palm Sugar, Date Sugar, Or any one of the many other specialty sugars on the market.As with all other changes, start small by simply adding a pound or two to your already perfected recipe.
Now that we have covered Malts,yeast and sugars let us move on to spices. Spices can greatly enhance a beer, and can be used in any beer, not just your wheat beers. How to use the spice,however is a matter of much debate, some say add them to the last 5 mins of your boil. Some say throw them in the boil at flame out,some say soak them in vodka and add at kegging or bottling,some even say just throw them in the fermentor with your brew, and some people even add them to the bottle or keg directly! How you use them however all boils down to how you are comfortable using them, if your worried about a bacterial infection, then soaking in vodka is likely best for you. Its a matter of personal taste. What spice you can use, is only limited by a two factors,how much you want to or can afford to spend, some spices such as saffron, are very expensive and your taste buds. If you love a spice do not be afraid to try it in a brew. Others may not like the brew, but as a home brewer, only you have to love your brew, unless of course your making it for someone else.
Last but not least, herbs. Herbs can be a wonderful addition to a home brew, as long as you use a little common sense and follow the same method as above. One herb at a time used in small amounts. Herbs can also add possible health benefits to your brew. Golden seal root for example is thought to boost the immune system, Passion flower is thought to be an effective sleep aid.The last of possible herbs to use is a very long one, Google is your friend on this one, research the herb you want to use,find out its potiential benefits and side effects before you use it in a brew.Some of the side effects can be bad,even deadly, so never use any herb in brewing that you have not done ample research on first, this is very important. Also, if you use any non-standard brewing ingrident in your beer, make sure you tell anyone that wishes to try it exactly what is in it, that way you do not unknownly give a friend something they are allergic to. A long Soak in neutral spirits, is at least in my personal Opinion, the best way to add an herb to a brew, if you plan to use an herb, lets say passion flower, put it in a small sealable jar,cover with vodka or other neutral spirit,and let it set the whole time your brew is fermenting, for me, this is always 30 days,no matter when it finishes, i always give all my beers a full 30 days in primary.
In closing, the only true rule of brewing is to make sure everything you use is safe, other than that, you are only limited by your own willingness to break out of the BJCP box and your own willingness to experiment. You can make fine beers following BJCP guidelines to the letter, we all know this, it has been proven many times over, but you can also make very fine beers by throwing the rules out the window and trying new things.I will leave you with this thought, if you are brewing a beer, that you can go into any good beer store and buy why are you home brewing in the first place?
The Art Of Non-Conventional Brewing.
by Vance Hanna(Author of Bizarre Brews 101), our guest author.
Vance's book is linked! Just click on the book
can be Made BY you!