Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Beer Ingredient Difficulty Ratings

Being quick to raid the kitchen cupboard for wacky crap to bung into beer is one of the more easily mocked craft beer tendencies. And to be honest, I tend to a certain purism myself - not religiously, but out of a pragmatic feeling that unless they're very good, brewers are more likely to make a complete hash of a beetroot and smoked paprika Porter than they are of a straightforward American Pale Ale.

But I also don't like to rule things out, because normally whenever I come out with a definitive statement about how X is Always Bad And Wrong, a little voice at the back of my head points out something I love that does exactly X. And hence for my own brewing, rather than define a set of Things I Will Not Use, I've come up with a set of rule-of-thumb "difficulty levels" - roughly, the further down this list something is, the more competent I'll need to feel that I am before I start using it.

This isn't based on decades of brewing experience - for a given ingredient, it's largely down to a) how often I come across decent beers with it in, b) how often I come across awful beers with it in and c) how difficult I find it to imagine what a good beer with it in would taste like. This is all work in progress, though, so if someone wants to come along and tell me that you can't really go wrong with lacto-sour beers then I'll bump that up.

Thus my current list goes:

  1. base malts
  2. hops (pretty much any variety)
  3. character malts
  4. interesting sugars
  5. funky grains and adjuncts (rye, wild rice, spelt, oatmeal etc)
  6. coffee
  7. chocolate
  8. smoked stuff
  9. oak
  10. fruit
  11. vanilla
  12. chilli
  13. spices
  14. brett
  15. lacto-sour
  16. herbs
  17. vegetables


  • Stuff that's used in a totally bang-to-style traditional recipe gets a bit of a pass.
  • I'm annoyed to put brett so far down, as it's one of the things that I'm most interested in using.
  • Barrel aging gets a lot of flack, but apart from the faff involved it seems like one of the harder things to go wrong with.
  • In practice I'll probably use brett before chilli and smoked malt before chocolate nibs because that's the sort of beer that I tend to like more.
  • This list doubles as a buyers' guide of sorts - I'd probably buy a coffee Porter from any random brewery, but a beetroot sour would have to be from someone who I've really got a lot of trust in.

Update - 24/01/16 - after reading this Boak and Bailey post about Mikkeller Spontanbasil, I'm half wondering whether part of the reason that some nontraditional ingredients are easier to get right than others is that some ingredients tend to bump up flavours that you'd already expect to find in beer, while others are pretty much foreign to it. So anticipating what cocoa nibs are going to do to your stout recipe or what grapefruit is going to do to an IPA is pretty easy if you've ever had a chocolatey porter or a grapefruity IPA, but working out whether a packet of cassia bark is going to taste good if you dump it in a batch of raspberry saison takes quite a lot of imagination, and is all too easy to get wrong...

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