New Hops Trellis

Spring has sprung a bit sooner than I anticipated.  I saw the hops buds peeking their noses out; it seemed like only a week or so ago.  Now all of a sudden they’re 3-4′ long.

I decided I needed a higher hops trellis this year, since last year’s yield wasn’t that good.  I suppose another way to look at it is: I haven’t actually used last year’s hops yet, so what does the yield matter anyway?  But where’s the fun in that? This is all about the process and not the result.

In past years, I saw others’ complicated trellis systems, but didn’t think much about building anything similar.  But I brainstormed a bit since last weekend, and came up with a plan for a taller trellis that lets me lower the top beam for picking. 

My previous trellis was made from 1″ galvanized pipe, and it seemed strong enough.  It was about 9′ high in the center, with twine running horizontally from there.  However, the main hops bines don’t like to grow horizontally, so that was mostly a waste.

The new trellis uses a 12′ 2″x4″ with a metal ring on top, screwed to my fence post.  A rope is attached to the top beam, through the ring, and down to a rope cleat mounted on the post.  I raised it above the ground somewhat, so the total height is closer to 13′.  The twines are tied tightly to the top beam, but they’re lashed at the bottom so I can tighten or loosen them there if necessary.  I also left a small amount of slack in the main rope in case it needs tightening. The twine goes slacker and tighter depending on the weather, and needs adjustment throughout the season.

Until the hop bine grows to the top, the weak link is the twine.  The bines are much thicker than the twine, so once it reaches the top the main concern will probably be with the pulley ripping out at the top.

Unfortunately, many of the strongest looking bines had their tops broken off before I could train them.  I cut a lot of spare bines off, and trained about 7 bines up the twine.

We’ll see how well it works as the season progresses, but I’m happy with how inexpensive and easy this was to set up.

Canned Monk’s Blood

I picked up an interesting case of beer this weekend: Monk’s Blood, by 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco. This is the first time in years I’ve bought beer in a can, but it would be totally unfair to judge this beer by its packaging.

This is a “Belgian Dark Ale” with a laundry list of interesting ingredients: Belgian candi sugar, cinnamon, vanilla bean, and dried figs.  The flavor definitely fits my profile for an enjoyable beer.  It’s not very hoppy.  It’s sweet and malty enough to hide they 8.3% alcohol content, but it doesn’t bowl you over as much as a barley wine does.  The yeast doesn’t seem to add much character: it has neither the sour nor “musty” profile of many Belgian yeasts. 

None of the special additions overpower the flavor; it still tastes like beer, not cake.  If I tasted the beer without knowing its ingredients I might notice it was slightly spicy, but I doubt I’d be able to identify the vanilla or cinnamon flavors. Everything else is fermented by the time I get to drink it anyway.

I was a bit surprised how similar the brew is to Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch. As implied by its name, Monk’s Blood is much darker and reddish in color. The only odd taste I had in the first can was a bit of metallic bitterness, possibly from the figs?  It wasn’t noticeable after the first few sips in any case.

Unlike most craft brews, this beer comes in cans.  I blame Pabst Blue Ribbon and the impression it’s been making on the hipster crowd in recent years. 

Overall I’m very happy with my purchase and I’d get it again, despite the silly price of beer in Pennsylvania.

Update: Epic Gruit

I hadn’t had any of my gruit in a long time, several months at least. I suppose with a limited quantity I wanted to savor it?

Well, today Marla was chopping a huge cabbage, and wondering what the heck to do with it, so I looked up making Sauerkraut. I was uninspired, bu I also remembered my gruit and decided to taste another bottle.

It tastes quite good. It’s sort of like a Belgian double style, with a bit of the sourness you’d expect in an Oud Bruin. There is a hint of the same herbal funkiness it has always had, but it’s toned down compared to what I remember from last time (Marla agrees).

So, I’m glad I still have some left; it would suck if it went bad and I wasted it. We’ll have to drink some over the holidays.

As I started to write this up, I went back and read my original post about the Epic Gruit. Coincidentally, I bottled a year ago today (November 22nd). The Epic continues, as all good epics do.

Midas Touch

6 months or so ago, Daniel sent me a link to an announcement that Dogfish Head brewery was going to be reproducing some ancient beer (or other fermented beverage) recipes, and I was very interested to try them when they were finally available. Then, a week or so ago Dad sent me a note about Midas Touch, an all-year-round brew that fits the category of “ancient beer.”

I finally managed to remember to pick one up at D’s, and tonight we tried it. I like it, it’s my kind of beer.

The beer is a crystal clear rich gold color (hence the Midas Touch) with a light head that doesn’t stick around. There was no yeast in my bottle. It has a bit of the malty bitterness of a barley wine or most American made Belgian style trippels. It’s malty, slightly sweet, and bitter but with no hoppiness. I’m reminded of some kind of wine, but I don’t pay enough attention to my wine to be able to place it. The flavor is very interesting, without slapping you in the face with “different.” I’d definitely get this again.

I also picked up a bottle of Palo Santo Marron, which seems slightly interesting, and a big bottle of Chateau Jiahu that I am very interested in trying. Now that I’m looking at the Dogfish Head site more carefully, it looks like I’ll have to try to find Theobroma and Sah’tea as well.

Unfortunately it looks like I’ll have to go to Delaware or Maryland to taste any of their distilled spirits. Maybe they could teach me to enjoy rum.

Hops: First Harvest

I picked my first batch of hops last week. I tried to get all the big ones and leave the small ones, but it’s a bit of a pain in the butt to be that picky.

After drying, I ended up with just under 2oz. of hops. That’s more than last year already, but I doubt I’m going to get this much again from the plant.

I expect if I want a lot more, I’ll probably have to put up a taller pole. I should probably also chop off some of the bines early on instead of trying to train them all, since “everyone” seems to suggest this is the best way to do it.

Hops: late June 2009

My hops are still going strong.

They’ve grown to the top of their lines,
and are starting to send out their horizontal runners. The two lines on the far left were a lawn mower casualty, but they weren’t growing very strong anyway. The strongest center bine, which broke off near the top, did start growing side runners soon after it was lopped off, and those continued up the line where the main bine stopped. The overall size of the plant is bigger than last year, but it still feels like it’s a bit crowded on this short trellis.

The hop cones themselves tend to grow on the side runners and not on the main bines. In this newer picture of the topmost section of the plant, you might be able to see several small hops “burrs,” which are the immature hop cones.

Regarding the twine used for training the hops up the trellis: I’m happy with the way it worked this year. The vertical strings make almost no difference once the hop plant gets to the top, because the hop bines themselves are much thicker and stronger than the twine. I used 3 pieces of twine across the top, with knots at 1′ intervals to keep them from untwisting. This has proven strong enough through our recent very large storms and winds (tornado on the South Side??) The gaspipe vertical poles have also worked fine.

We’ll see how much yield I get this year, but I’m considering a taller vertical pole for next year, because the “wide instead of high” theory doesn’t seem to be working as well as I had hoped.

Tour Des Sharps: 2009

On Sunday, five friends and I made our most ambitious attempt yet at the Tour des Sharps. This long bike ride visits all four Sharp Edge locations before returning home. Of course, you can’t stop at Sharp Edge without having a beer, so it’s a bit of an epic “pub crawl.” We planned the ride for Father’s day: the longest day of the year, and a good day for us all to get the “day off.”

Disclaimer: despite any appearances, this wasn’t a group ride, and I didn’t organize it. Because I don’t organize events when I’m not being paid, and I don’t go on group rides.

Our plan was to leave in time to reach the Peters Township location when it opened: noon, so we couldn’t really start before 10am. From there, the route would take us to the Creek House in Crafton, the Bistro in Sewickley, and the Beer Emporium in Friendship. We’d meet all our families in Friendship, have dinner, and then make the short 5 mile ride home. Our route planning on suggested it would be around 65 miles. There should be plenty of time to fit that in daylight hours, along with a few meals and beers. Right?

The first wrench in our works came in the form of a scheduling conflict: YAPC scheduled its arrival dinner for the exact time and location of our last planned stop: Sharp Edge beer emporium, at 6pm. Although me and one other rider were attending this conference, neither of us wanted to attend the arrival dinner. And, they booked the entire back dining room, which wouldn’t leave enough room for our party of 15 in the front. So, we reluctantly made alternate plans which didn’t include the Friendship Sharp Edge location.

The rest of our wrenches came in the form of Reality, which has a tendency to foil best-laid plans (let alone the rest of them).

We met and finally left at about 10:30am from Regent Square. The first leg of about 22 miles to the Peters Township location was not that difficult, but it did include a few long, if not steep, climbs. That’s pretty much par for the course in Pittsburgh, though.

Mom can skip this paragraph: Close to our first destination on a corner into a parking lot, I hit a patch of gravel, slid and fell down. Luckily I had gloves on, and wasn’t going very fast: it could’ve been much worse. I bumped my left shoulder, hip, leg, and hand, and somehow scratched my right arm, but there was no blood. I had to tweak my rear fender back into position, but there was otherwise no damage to my bike. It made the impending stop very timely.

I had a Grimbergen, a somewhat lower alcohol content Belgian beer (6.5%) because they were out of De Koninck on tap (closer to 5%). When I’m at the Sharp Edge, I usually only get Belgian beers on tap, since none of the locations have fewer than 20 different Belgian varieties on tap. I always remember liking Grimbergen, but unfortuantely I forget that when I actually taste it, it’s a lot plainer and less complex than I expect. It has a very clean, unsurprising taste, which is not often what I’m looking for.

This stop signalled an unfortunate trend for the day: although the bar had almost no customers, it was excruciatingly slow because they had no incentive to kick us out of our seats. It took far too long to be served and settle our bill.

The next leg to Crafton was shorter, maybe 13-15 miles? The pace of all riders was fairly well matched, but one of us was riding a single speed. With one gear they could keep pace on the hills, but “spun out” on the flats and couldn’t keep up with the geared riders… not that there were many flats anyway. None of our riding so far was particularly scenic: it was mostly suburban. I quickly decided I prefer urban riding over suburban, though rural is even better. We hoped to get some back road riding in when we left Sewickley up into the hills.

At the creek house, I had a De Koninck. My experience with this beer is the opposite of how I feel about Grimbergen: it is always better than I expect it to be. I’m not sure what gave me my long-standing idea that I don’t like it very much. Soon we noticed it was 4pm: this is when we expected to arrive at Sewickley, but we were far behind schedule. I called Marla and we tentatively rescheduled our family dinner, though it was seeming like we might not make it before the kids’ bedtime at all.

After a seemingly interminable wait we left for Sewickley, another 13-15 miles. But Wait: does anyone know the address? No? I thought you had it. A call to Marla and a GPS consultation got us back on the right track.

The day had really warmed up on the last leg, and this slowed us down a lot. We hit some long but not horribly steep hills, and the group really started to stretch out: some riders were starting to run out of steam.

We got to Sewickley at the 50 mile mark. None of us had been to this location before. Unfortunately, this hoity-toity “bistro” met all of my expectations: they really didn’t want a group of smelly cyclists in there. Having been to 2 other Sharp Edge locations that day made it really obvious that the prices for identical items were higher, the menu was smaller, and the beer selection more limited. The space was cleaner, but lacked the character of the older locations in Crafton and Friendship. We were all unimpressed by the bartenders/servers, and overall I wasn’t that interested in returning.

It was already almost 6pm. One of us decided to bail and call for a sag wagon, and the rest of us thought it would be best to eat dinner here. So, we cancelled the family dinner plans, and decided we’d tentatively stop at the Friendship location on the way home, since we could probably fit 5 of us at the bar even with the crowds.

Since I was also having food, I splurged and had a Karmeliet Triple, which I always really enjoy. It’s fairly sweet, but has a nice complex flavor. After that I tried Zotten, a “Belgian style pale ale” by Weyerbacher in Easton PA, and on tap exclusively at Sharp Edge. It was fairly good for an Amerian craft brewed Belgian style beer, but it’d be hard to mistake it for a true Belgian. It was sweet, but had “too much high end.” (I tend to use sound-related terms to describe the flavors or spices in food and drink: in my mind a good audio mix is comparable to well balanced flavors in a dish or beer. Sometimes I wonder if this is what synaesthesia feels like?)

By the time the remaining 5 riders set off, it was already a bit after 7pm! It was almost 9 hours since we started, and according to our plans we still had over 20 miles of riding and one more stop.

At this point, we started cutting corners. We decided to go back across the river and take Rt 51 back to town, instead of finding our way through Sewickley’s hills to the North. None of us were familiar with the back roads, and we weren’t that interested in getting lost up there with limited daylight left.

We could’ve gone across Neville Island for a flatter, straighter route home, but it was only after we failed to do this that we remembered 51 didn’t stay next to the river. More hills! We all managed to get up the hills in a fairly close group: we were keeping a good pace. What goes up must come down, so we had some really excellent descents. On one hill my GPS caught a maximum speed of 42mph as we pulled away from the cars which were following us. That record was soon bested by 43.8mph on a subsequent hill. If I were more familiar with the roads I would’ve known I didn’t need to brake for those curves, but unfortuantely that hindsight will likely go wasted.

The next corner to be cut was any illusion of making another stop. Even without a stop, we’d be pushing the limits of daylight, and the fathers in the group thought it prudent to try to see their kids before bedtime. So we took the most direct route back to our starting poing. When we got close to town, we entered the Station Square parking lot, met up with the South Side trail (smooth, flat) and headed towards South Side Works. Two of the riders left there, sore and badly in need of beer, after 66.7 miles of riding.

The rest of the ride was easy: basically my daily commute home. The last two riders other than me got to Regent Square at 73 miles, and I made it home at 74.4 miles and almost exactly 9pm.

According to my GPS, our meaningless numbers for this trip were:

  • 74.4 miles travelled, my second highest mileage day ever
  • 5823 ft of elevation gain
  • moving time of 6:02 hours
  • average moving speed of 12.3mph
  • max speed 43.8mph (maybe that’s the part Mom shouldn’t read?)

Overall, I have mixed feelings, and a few lessons learned.

Make no mistake: I really enjoyed the ride!

But it didn’t go according to plan, and it’s unfortunate we couldn’t all finish. I’m glad we had no mechanical problems, and that we all ended up riding well together though we hadn’t all ridden with each other before.

We were out for ten and a half hours, but my GPS said we were only riding for 6. I planned for our 6 hour riding time, but for only 2 hours of stops before reaching the family dinner. What the heck? Since we didn’t originally plan to eat at Sewickley, it only would’ve taken about an hour less waiting to get to the family dinner on time and complete the trip as planned.

A lesson learned: Sunday is Slow Day. The roads are empty, traffic is wonderful, and you’ll get a table with no waiting at almost any place you care to go. But since no one is in line behind you, and since they don’t pay high-end staff for low-end days, you wait. A lot.

For me, this was about a week’s worth of riding in a day. But we got a lot more than an average week’s worth of jerky drivers on the trip, especially considering the low traffic density. I expect it’s because there were 6 of us. The most common exclamation heard from seemingly friendly people is “Lance!” so I’m sure the jerks also found us indistinguishable from the average pack of racer-wannabes, despite the motley, unconventional appearance any “roadie” would see from a mile away.

The only other minor complaint I have for the Tour des Sharps in general, is that the most direct routes possible are also pretty bad. They mostly stay in the suburbs, riding on what would ordinarily be busy commercial streets. If I could choose any 75 mile loop starting from my house, this route would definitely not be it.

A day after the ride, I basically don’t feel any soreness as long as I’m sitting still, and I had no problem riding to and from YAPC today. It’s only when I try to be active that my muscles quietly say “please don’t do that.”

At this point, I’m still interested in doing at least one or two more 60-100 mile rides this year. However, it’ll probably be at least next year before another Tour des Sharps is in the cards. Beer and cycling are both very enjoyable, but I think I enjoy them more separately rather than simultaneously.

Brew Day

Since Ezra was sick and no one showed up for “brew day” today, I took some pictures.

I generally write down my final recipe just before I start brewing, to refamiliarize myself with the ingredients and process. I also collect my measured ingredients in one place, a practice I picked up while cooking. Here are:

  • 6 lb Wheat/Barley Dry Malt Extract
  • 2 oz Hallertau hops
  • 1/4 lb Crystal Malt
  • 1 oz Bitter Orange peel
  • 1/2 oz Coriander seeds, crushed
  • Irish moss

First I heat about 3-4 gallons of water up to 160ºF, put the grains (only crystal malt, in this case) in a grain bag, and steep them for half an hour. This is the chimpanzee second cousin of the grain mashing process used to extract sugar from malted grains in a full-mash brew, but it’s fine for the small amount of grain used in extract brewing.

I use the thermometer at a few important points during the brewing process, but most of the time the temperature doesn’t matter or is known (boiling water):

  • Measure the temperature for grain steeping
  • Make sure you know when the wort’s about to boil, so it doesn’t boil over
  • Keep it in the boil to sanitize it
  • Measure the temperature of the water and the wort I’ll be mixing in the fermenter, to pitch the yeast at the right temperature

Aftter the grains have steeped, I remove the bag and squeeze it out. Before turning the heat back on, I add all of the dry malt extract, and stir until it’s dissolved. Then, stir constantly while bringing the pot to a boil. Watch out: it is very easy for the pot to boil over when it gets to the boiling point, as well as smelly and annoying to clean up.

Once it’s boiling, I add the bittering hops (all of them in this case), and start timing. At this point I’m boiling the “wort” or unfermented beer. I boil for an hour total. The bittering hops boil for an hour. If I had any finishing hops, they’d be in for 10-15 minutes. In this batch, I boiled the bitter orange and irish moss for 15 minutes, and the coriander for 10 minutes.

After everything is boiled, the wort needs to be cooled to fermentation temperature as quickly as possible, so no bad bugs start growing in it. With a partial boil as I do, where I don’t boil the full volume of wort, it’s a bit easier: I have to add several gallons of cold water, which cools things down quickly.

But first, I cool the wort to a low enough temperature that it won’t require any more cooling once it’s mixed with water. For that, I use a wort chiller. This is just a coil of copper pipe, which I pipe cold water through. I put the chiller in the pot while it’s still boiling to sanitize it. After the boil I just pump water through the chiller and shake it, while keeping an eye on the temperature, until it’s down to about 110ºF.

After dumping everything in the femernter bucket, I stir thoroughly and try to introduce air, which helps the yeast get a good footing early on. Before adding yeast, I take a sample and measure the specific gravity. This original gravity measurement can be used to approximate the potential alcohol content of the beer. Further gravity readings show how far along fermentation has progressed.

Next I pitch the yeast. These days I use liquid yeast cultures. I create a “yeast starter” a few days ahead of time to increase the amount of yeast I’ll pitch. I also take samples of yeast from past batches of beer and propagate those, so I end up buying yeast less often.

I always make complete notes of what I do on brew day, and update them throughout the process. Sometimes I even remember to take notes on how the beer tastes.

Finally, and most importantly, clean everything up.

Review: The Brickskeller, Washington DC

I’m generally an easy going sort of diner, and never really understood the motivations of complaining restaurant reviewers who don’t have anything positive to say about the places they ate, but would rather nit-pick at the tiniest flaws they can find. Half of me wants to say “…Until Now,” but the other half is holding on to the notion that this post isn’t going to be a typical annoying restaurant review.

The Brickskeller (“Brick Cellar”) is an old beer bar in Washington DC. They’re proud of having been in business since October 7, 1957: long before there were any major national beer festivals, before home brewing was made legal, and before Michael Jackson (no, not that one) had his first sip of beer.

Well, I wasn’t born until 1971, and didn’t make it to the Brickskeller until 37 years later. While I appreciate everything The Brickskeller may have done to promote the cause of good beer in America over the years, they’re no longer the only game in town(s). Unfortunately, being the first is not the same as being the best, and I don’t think the Brickskeller is the best anymore. That said, they do have a great selection of beer, and it’s definitely worth going if you want to try something you’ve never had before.

The Brickskeller has decades more character than the beer bars I’m used to going to in Pittsburgh, in both the good and the bad sense. The overall feeling was, as you might expect, of a brick cellar. It seemed to have several smaller separate rooms. Apparently there is also an upstairs, where the taps are: it wasn’t open until 7:30pm, so we were limited to their large selection of bottles.

They have a large collection of beer cans on display, from the days when even good beer came in cans. Some of them looked like old oil cans: metal quarts with a screw-off cap. There was a nice model sailing ship behind glass next to our table.

Unfortunately the chairs and tippy tables also looked like they were circa 1957, but hadn’t been reupholstered frequently enough. A speaker from some remote juke box over our table was too loud for conversation, but only played music sporadically. The menus were flimsy photocopied paper, but far messier and more worn out than their disposable nature should suggest. There were many pages dedicated to their list of beer in bottles, but the list was not updated recently. Several more pages were dedicated to the history of the bar and their importance in the American beer scene. My overall impression was of a place heavy on character but light on charm.

Their beer list was impressive, numbering around a thousand different bottles. I limited my time to the Belgian selections, because they had several choices I haven’t found in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, it took me four tries before I found a beer on the list they actually had: Caracole’s Saxo. I enjoyed it, I’d get it again. Marla wasn’t driving either, so she had a Kasteel Rouge. For my second beer, I gave him a first and second choice of two more Belgians I hadn’t had before, and ended up with my second choice: Floreffe Triple. This one was also good, with a curiously different sweetness. The beer was slightly but not exceedingly more expensive than bottles in my normal haunts in Pittsburgh, which wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The menu was mostly very basic bar food. It wasn’t very expensive, but our meals also weren’t spectacular. The pizza was quite bad, actually. My sandwich and the fries were fine, and the cheese board and bread were very good.

Part of my problem might be my high expectations. Pittsburgh is a only small city: bigger cities like DC and Chicago must have better places than we do, right? I expected the Brickskeller to be better than Sharp Edge’s selection of taps, food and decor, and better than D’s selection of bottles. Unfortunately I was wrong. The beer selection was comparable to D’s, but you weren’t allowed to go pick up your own bottle. The food was worse than D’s, the decor was worse than Sharp Edge, and I never even got to see a tap list.

I’m sure I sound nit-picky and unhappy with my experience, but I’m glad I went, and I’d consider going back again (for the beer, but not for the food). I think I would’ve liked it better with more beer and fewer kids. But the biggest reason I enjoyed it was to remind me of what I have back home. I’m glad I enjoy my regular haunts better than a place I can’t go very often, and I’m glad I no longer have to wonder whether that’s the case or not.

Brew What You Like

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.