I love malt, so I tried creating a recipe with a huge grain bill (similar to a famous amber from Fort Collins), but ended up with something a little weird. Its hop profile is very low along with its carbonation. It tastes like freshly milled malt smells. I like it, but some might say it’s “grainy.” Do you have any rule of thumb on balancing a beer?
In my brewing opinion many beers with an assertive profile of whatever, be it malt, hops, alcohol, yeast character, etc, are often not well balanced beers. This does not have to be the case, but many brewers get a little carried away with the theme ingredient (maybe because of watching too many episodes of Iron Chef).
I don’t know the specifics of the famous amber from Fort Collins, but can state with a fairly high degree of certainty that Fat Tire does not begin with a “huge grain bill.” Fat Tire is not a high alcohol beer and the malt character is more finesse than brute force. BYO published a Fat Tire clone in the 150 Classic Clones special issue. You can order a copy at www.byo.com/store for more information about this beer. One thing offered by Peter Bouckaert is that you need to use a blend of various paler special malts to get the malt complexity.
I think I can answer this question by explaining one of the beers we seasonally brew at Springfield Brewing Company, our Märzen. This beer has undergone many tweaks since we first opened in 1997. This beer was actually a full-time part of our lineup until I decided to turn it into a seasonal beer to give me more brewing freedom and to also allow me to make fairly large tweaks to the recipe without being too obvious (I find it easier to make big changes when beers are seasonal since there is not this big comparison between two consecutive batches).
I wanted to move the balance away from malt because I thought the beer was too malty and lacked drinkability. By my definition, a beer has drinkability if you can drink a few of the same beer without feeling like you just completed some sort of beer marathon. Not all beers need to have this quality, but I like Märzens that have drinkability. Our original recipe used a blend of Munich malt from North America and some crystal. Progressively the recipe went too far and I was again unhappy with the balance. By 2006 I had tweaked it too much and alas there was too little malt character.
I needed to try something different and was inspired by MTV’s show Pimp My Ride. Although fuzzy dice and low profile chrome wheels didn’t have much to offer my Märzen project, I did get the idea for a major redo and started looking for different malts. I wanted rich malt flavor without excessive sweetness because I don’t like sweet beers. The path forward was established after brewing two specials using a blend of Weyermann Munich I and Munich II. These malts have incredible flavor and have enough enzymes, like most Munich malts, to use as the sole malt if so desired. We used a blend of the two with great success and made a big change to our Märzen recipe last year and people really liked the change. This year we tweaked it a little more and I am very happy with the results; the grist bill is made using about two thirds of the total from these two malts.
When it comes to balancing a beer there are some rules of thumb about IBU/OG ratios that a lot of brewers find useful. But I think this sort of rule points you in the right direction and not much else. The real trick to balancing hard-to-balance styles like Märzen or “Fort Collins Amber” is experimentation. I know I reference music too often in my columns, but I really do think recipe development and musical composition have a lot in common. A tenor sax player, Brandon Mezello, has played at our brewery for about nine years and I talk to him a lot about his process of improvisation. Like most musicians he listens to a lot of music. We both agree that the process of coming up with a great beer or a great solo begins by developing an idea and then playing with things until you finally get it. Brandon has been working on a funky little techno piece with composition software for years and is still making changes here and there. Sometimes you have to resort to old-fashioned trial and error to get the balance and flavor just right.