My homebrewing experience and skills are limited to extract brewing. It’s easier and faster than all-grain brewing, but it’s more expensive, and places limits on the kind of beer you can brew. I’d like to try all-grain brewing, but I lack the longer blocks of free time it requires. In the mean time I do the best I can within the limits of my techniques. My main goal is brewing beer I like to drink.
Beer is brewed from sugars which are extracted from barley grain. In Extract Brewing, a homebrewer purchases sugar which has already been extracted from the grain, adds other ingredients, and ferments it into beer. In All-grain Brewing, or a “full mash,” a brewer starts with malted barley and other grains, and extracts the sugar in process called mashing.
There are many varieties of malt extract available to the homebrewer: lighter or darker in either liquid or dry form, with different amounts of fermentable and unfermentable sugar, and extracts made from wheat or other grains. Even with all of these options, mashing the grains yourself can provide a much wider variety of results (along with a wider variety of possible mistakes). Using only malt extracts limits the styles of beer you can make accurately.
My equipment also limits what I can do easily. On my stove, I can only boil about 3-3.5 gallons of water: only part of the wort, for a 5 gallon batch of beer. Doing a partial boil with a higher concentration of sugar in the wort makes it more likely to carmelize the sugar in the wort. This darkens the beer, and makes it impossible to create really light, pale colored beers.
If I were to use an all-grain process and boil a full 6 gallons of wort, I could make any style of beer I wanted. But choosing to brew a particular style of beer would be self-imposing a different set of limitations on my process.
So instead of limiting myself with my process and by conforming to the requirements of a particular style of beer, I generally don’t brew beers to a style anymore. Instead, I determine the qualities in a beer that I care about, and try to brew beers which provide those qualities.
It seems to me that beer styles are similar to dog breeds. If you buy a full-breed dog, you pretty much know what to expect. But there are some really beautiful mutts, and they’re one of a kind, which makes them a lot more special when you find a really goodo one.
In the beginning, there was only “beer.” Eventually brewers came up with recipes they liked, so they kept brewing them. These brews were named, often after the places they were made (Kölsch, Pilsner, German Wire-Haired Pointer). Once styles had names, it became easier to exclude beers which didn’t conform. Beautiful dogs are easier to reject, when they don’t conform to the breed standard. Similarly, really good beers might not be accepted unless they are labelled with a style, and conform to the standard meaning of that label.
After generations of inbreeding, some dog breeds have become prone to genetic disorders. Similarly, some styles of beer tend to become uninteresting or run-of-the-mill, when so many microbreweries create nearly identical brews just for the purposes of meeting the customer’s expectations.
So, how do you brew what you like? If you like “free beer” then you’re pretty much out of luck. Otherwise, you first need to learn what you like, and learn how to brew; then, you can learn how to brew what you like.
Start by finding specific beers you like. Then try other beers of the same style. If you like other beers in the same style, then that style may provide clues to your tastes. If you don’t like other beers in the same style, then find out what makes the beer you like stand out from other beers of the same style.
At this point, styles can be very useful. The definition of a style and sample recipes can help you determine the important aspects of the beer: what makes it different from other styles, and what makes it a beer you like to drink. Now you’re looking for specific ingredients and flavor components. Give names to the flavors you like. Do you like the beer because it’s sweet, dry, bitter, spicy, fruity, clean, musty, smoky, or hoppy? Look at recipes, and find ingredients or processes used to make this style of beer taste the way it does.
You should also brew beer. You gain valuable experience by following recipes exactly, smelling and tasting the ingredients, and tasting the results as they change over time. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first round of homebrewing was not taking notes on the way a beer tasted when it was finished. I had complete instructions on how to reproduce any of my past beers, but I had no clue whether I wanted to or not!
Once you know what you like, and are comfortable with general brewing processes, feel free to start experimenting. If you know the parts of the beer that provide the taste you like, maybe try changing some of the ingredients that aren’t as important to that taste. Don’t worry about whether your recipe fits a style, and don’t bother trying to find a style which fits what you want to brew.
Extract brewing is fairly forgiving, because you’re starting with sugar, and sugar is fermentable. As long as you maintain proper hygiene standards, the worst case scenario will still be considered “beer.” It might not end up tasting as you planned, but that’s the risk when you start breeding mutts.