Dear Mr. Wizard,
Please solve an argument between my homebrew buddies and myself. What, in your opinion, is the hardest kind of beer to brew at home and what’s the easiest?
Mr. Wizard replies: I can’t believe a couple of homebrew buddies would argue over such a thing. I suppose these discussions are just part of this great hobby! I view beer in a similar light as music.
Music combines different individual sounds into a total sensory experience. In music, the extremes of this total sound combination seem the most challenging to produce. On one end of the spectrum, compositions that sound excessively simple (don’t you love oxymora?) are often difficult to play. The jazz standard “Four” by Eddie Vinson (often credited to Miles Davis) is an example of a really simple composition that requires an excellent group of musicians to play successfully.
The other musical extreme is huge orchestral compositions where disaster occurs if every note is not played at the right time and tune. Johann S. Bach composed pieces with amazing complexity that challenge both musicians and the instruments they play. Bach’s intricate compositions were commonly used in his day to tune organs.
In the middle are tunes like Sir Mack Rice’s “Mustang Sally.” This catchy little ditty is one that almost every local blues band can crank out with confidence and few mistakes.
The Mustang Sallies of homebrew are beer styles like pale ale, American-style wheat, hefeweizen, stout, porter and brown ale. If you have good ingredients, an appropriate yeast strain and know the basics of brewing, you can brew these styles at home with ease and consistency. These are the types of beers that are great to offer friends and watch the expressions on their faces. It’s like they are saying, “Wow! You brewed this at home?”
Notice that none of these beers are lagers. Since lagers are fermented and aged at temperatures that are much cooler than the average home, they require special equipment that put them into a more advanced homebrew category. The other commonality among these beers is that they have enough flavor intensity to cover up minor faults.
Styles that have light, subtle or refined flavor complexity are much more difficult to brew than big beers with over-the-top flavor. This is a point of debate among many brewers because it suggests that the big commercial brewers are actually producing a difficult beer style. You can beat up the “budmillcoors” of the world for brewing beer with little flavor, but you really can’t argue that they lack skill. If you are having a hard time swallowing this (no pun intended!), try brewing an American-style lager and compare it to a commercial example. European styles like Pilsner and helles lager also fall into this category because they have few ingredients and a simple, yet elegant flavor profile. Faults in these beers stand out like a coffee stain on a white shirt.
The symphonies of beer include heavy hitters like barley wine, doppelbock, all sorts of Belgian ales and styles that are intentionally soured by bacteria. Although these beers have a lot going on in the flavor department, they require balance to taste good. It’s tempting to go nuts with these beers and to over-emphasize one component of the beer. For example, over-hopped barley wines, cloying doppelbocks, over-spiced Belgian ales and soured beers that taste like some microbiology experiment gone awry seem more common than exquisitely balanced versions of these same styles.
I am sure that I have not solved your argument, but I have presented my opinion to this “no-right-answer” style question. I can honestly say that my best beers usually fall into the Mustang Sally category, although I have brewed really tasty lighter beers and some equally delicious big beers. I tend to be my own worst critic and find more faults with beers that venture towards the lower and upper extremes of flavor . . . happy debating!
For more of the Wizard's wisdom, pick up the latest issue of Brew Your Own magazine now available at better homebrew shops and bookstores.