- Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr
It's not unusual for beginner home brewers to make a few mistakes even when playing it safe, but experienced brew-kettle commandos intentionally pushing the envelope have their own tales of woe and victory to share, too.
Pine Sol porter
How to make a spruce beer in Texas when we're so far away from a source for fresh spruce tips? Brewer Markus Haas and a brewing partner ordered up some liquid spruce essence and calculated how much would approximate the real thing. They overshot. "The first bottle tasted just like Pine-Sol," Haas recalled. "And it still tasted that way even after a year."
Another experiment was a Christmas beer started with a strong Baltic porter as the base and then added nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and other spices. From the first taste, Haas says, "it was nothing but ginger. I just kind of gulped it down out of sense of responsibility to learn from one's mistakes." Over time, the beer began to improve and he slowed down consumption. The remaining bottles were enjoyed seven years later when they were declared perfectly aged.
Weizen to risk more for
"I don't think you have enough room on the page for the things that went horribly, horribly wrong," says home brewer Raimey Roberts. There was the time he repeatedly warned his toddler daughter to stay away from the hot brew kettle and then preceded to open the spigot on his own foot. It was a teaching moment, he says. "I'm taking physical pain to show you what not to do."
An infusion of raspberry, hibiscus, and chicory in a quart of stout sounded like it would go well together but fell flat. "That's a common theme," he says, "either not enough to taste or too much to be good."
Roberts brews a lot of wheat beers, but isn't a fan of German-style weizen beers, which use a yeast that imparts banana and clove-like flavors. But a home brew supply shop gave him a vial of weizen yeast for free because it was about to expire. The resulting dunkelweizen went on to win a category first place in the vaunted Dixie Cup Homebrew Competition in Houston. Unfortunately, he hadn't had enough confidence in the beer to submit enough bottles to qualify for Best of Show judging or a national competition he qualified for. "That's just the universe telling me not to be so down on my brews," Roberts says.
Blue cheese Belgian-style
Some home brewers make beer so far out of the box that disaster surely awaits. But Les Locke, who brews at his home in New Braunfels and assists at various commercial breweries for the experience, said he has been able to rescue even the oddest experiments.
He's waiting for graham cracker brown ale with honey and a Belgian-style lambic ale fermented with a prickly pear cactus tea to prove their worth, for instance. But a blue cheese milk stout made last year was probably the most daring and costly. Copious amounts of pricey blue cheese went into the boil and added a lot of fat to wort, which is the sweet, unfermented liquid. "That took a lot of straining," because beer is a naturally fat-free delight. While some found it an acquired taste, Locke and this writer found it to be both delicious and impossible to spread on crackers.
Magical mushroom stout
One local home brewer who asked not to be identified by name found the perfect accompaniment to a Pink Floyd laser light show in his home batch. Or did the beer cause the show? The brew was made with mushrooms picked at the height of their magical powers. The adventurous brewer couldn't remember exactly how it tasted, only that it was definitely far out, man.