Not much going on in the Applied Zymurgy Brew Works (otherwise known as my basement). The Pumpkin Ale is nearing ready to bottle, the Kottbusser is about to go into “lager”, so I thought I’d write a bit about my personal philosophy as to what makes a good beer.
First is always “clean.” It has to be flawless, no obvious unwanted fermentation characteristics, no graininess or astringency. I’m not a huge detractor of diacetyl, if it belongs in a style or complements the flavor I don’t mind. But at Homebrew Night I’ve tasted a lot of beers I’d call bad, excessively phenolic or estery, fusel alcohols, chlorophenols, solvent flavors, so many I’ve developed a code. I’ll call the beer “interesting” if it’s flawed. Then if the brewer can assure me they want to know what I think, I’ll tell them as professionally as I can. But a flawed beer should be dumped, life’s too short to drink bad beer.
The second quality I look for is balance. Maybe you can call it drinkability. While I may appreciate the flavor of an imperial IPA or a uber-strong Scottish Ale, they’re not my favorites. For all my brewing, I’m not a heavy drinker so I want my one or two beers a day to be good examples of style. I don’t mind hoppy, as long as there’s enough malt to balance out the flavors. I don’t mind high alcohol as long as the beer doesn’t drink like motor oil. What I do like is hoppy in the sense of a Dusseldorfer Altbier, assertively bitter but with great malts. Or malty in the sense of a good ESB. But spare me the quinine or cloying sweetness.
The final quality I look for can best be described as “everything else”, that certain something that differentiates a good beer from a great beer. It may be the exact balance of roast and nutty base malt or the hint of herbal hop from good Saaz in a pale yellow pilsner. It’s subtle but when you find it unmistakeable. Maybe it’s color or head, hop nose or subtle dark fruits but when you find a beer with these qualities, you know it.
I try to brew my beers to these standards and every time I come up with an improvement to my brewing process, I close in on number three. Anyone can get number one right, just keep your stuff clean, pay attention to your sparge temperatures and ferment at the right temperature. Number two is not hard, either, just don’t put too much of anything in. Keep the IBUs in double digits, the alcohol in single digits and you can do a great job of keeping things in balance. The final quality, the third, is the Holy Grail of the craft brewer. I keep pursuing it, getting closer, but still pursuing it in each brew. It keeps me brewing and that’s a good thing.