What do I mean by "Brewing with intent"?
Instead of digging right into it, I'll start with a few personal examples. My very first solo batch of beer was supposed to be a chocolate banana stout, and one of my first batches of mead was supposed to be strawberry lemon. The beer turned into bottle bombs because I just chucked in chocolate and banana whenever, and the strawberry lemon had neither of those flavors.
I knew what flavors I wanted, and I used them at some point during the making of my batches, but I didn't use them in the way that would make them the most impactful. And I see this in a lot of other homebrew as well. Things like alcohol based extracts ruining batches, and brewers tweaking recipes that were designed with intent and not being happy with the end result.
That got me thinking about how I brew now. By imagining a flavor and working backwards to achieve that, whether it be beer, mead, cider, wine, or whatever. When designing a beer I make intentional decisions that, to the best of my ability, will match a particular flavor that I'm imagining. How bitter do I imagine this IPA when I think about drinking it? Do I want this stout to taste more roasty or chocolatey? How sweet a FG do I think I'll need to balance out the insane tartness of all of these black currants?
What do I intend this beer/mead/etc. to taste like at the end of the day?
I think in some ways brewing with intent is both a beginner and an advanced topic, which is why I thought it would be fun to type something up and start a thread about it. Much of what I'm going to say it just personal opinion and suggestions for self exploration in your own homebrewing. This isn't defacto information, just a write-up on thoughts that I've had, and things that I feel I've done to improve my beer over the last few years.
I think, based on what I said above, that this can be broken out into two main parts:
- Designing and implementing your own recipe with intention
- Understanding the intention of already created recipes when using them as your own
So then first let's talk about recipe design. I think we can mostly focus on the basics:
I think many people here have heard the basics regarding Gypsum and Calcium Chloride so I'm not really going to dig into that. Rather, I'd like to talk about actually tasting the minerality in beer. I'd suggest putting together a small glass of RO water, a glass of water with just gypsum, a glass with just calcium chloride, and then work on some blends and taste them. Other minerals too if you feel so obligated, but I don't usually adjust with much else besides these two. It takes an impressively low amount of brewing salts to affect the flavor of water in pretty noticeable ways.
When designing a recipe, imagine the type of malts blending into each kind of water. Is the hardness of the water going to make your stout taste better or worse? Will the bitterness of your IPA be more in line with a softer water profile?
I've personally had the best luck with the Bru'n Water spreadsheet for calculating my salt additions and pH, but have since dialed back nearly 50% from most of the recommendations on that sheet. I go a little by gut feeling on what's going to be appropriate, but I think my lagers have been far more malt-forward and my NEIPA's have been far less "chalky" since doing this. NEIPA's, in particular, were impacted the most for me. I still keep a fairly large 2:1 chloride to gypsum ratio, but just scaled far back. Something closer to 75:35 ppm chloride to sulfate, rather than 150:75 or 200:100. I know others that go even higher at times.
I think that, as we're learning with thiols, more is not necessarily always better.
Chew your grain! I can't say this enough. Even your dehusked carafa III, give those a few chomps.
There are so many malts that I've used in the past by just blindly following recipes that I now, after really tasting them, have decided I don't like or aren't actually appropriate. I used honey malt for years in my hazy IPA's because of how many recipes had it listed. When I finally started munching on it as a snack one day during a brew session, however, I was surprised how little I cared for it. I didn't really get much of the advertised "honey-ness" from it, and instead thought it tasted more cardboard-like. Brown malt is another that I see in random recipes off of the web. If you've ever tasted it, you'll know that it's not just a "brown malt" that's added for the color. It has a very distinctive flavor and, I think, belongs in very few styles of beer.
I'm sure there's more to say here, let me know!
By far one of the more complex ingredients we have to work with as homebrewers.
Hop selection and usage is going to be one of those things that will come with experience, but you can still use intent to derive some options. If you're brewing a Czech beer you'll likely be using a fair bit of Saaz. If you're making an English ale you'll likely want to stick with English hops (Golden Ale maybe being an exception). There's a reason these styles evolved from the ingredients that were local to them. That's not to say you can't play around, but again I think that will have to come from experience.
One thing I'd like to bring up here is to mind your AA% when creating AND brewing your recipe. I'm guilty of this too, but I know many brewers who have/still create a recipe, then order ingredients, then just go and make the beer as written without looking at the percentages on their hops. If you made a recipe assuming 2.5% AA EKG, but the EKG you received was 4.5%, that's going to have an impact on your beer.
This, again, is going to be another one of those that will have some basis in personal experience but can also be picked apart a bit while deciding what the intent behind your beer is. Many beer styles can use many different kinds of yeast with great success. I've used Kolsch yeast to make Irish Stouts, 34/70 to make Blonde Ales, and Scottish Yeast to make Russian Imperial Stouts. You don't always have to match up a yeasts origin to a style, just focus on what the outcome should be.
In the case of my RIS above, Imperial Tartan is a malt-forward strain that has a pretty low ABV tolerance (10% or so). This yeast is extremely consistent for me and rarely goes above 10.5%. I love that, because I don't like my big beers much above 10% anyway and it let's me be really precise when it comes to the FG of the beer. Because I know what my FG will be at for sure on such a big beer I can really hop the beer exactly how I want it and know that there's going to be some sweetness in the end to back some of that up.
I'm brewing a beer with an intent for it to taste a particular way and selecting ingredients to ensure it tastes like what I have in my imagination.
These are by far one of the first things that many homebrewers use to express their creativity and probably one of the worst offenders for ending up with weird mediocre beer. Again, I'm an offender here! Hearken back to that chocolate banana beer up top. Tossing in fruits and wood and spices willy nilly isn't going to end up with a result that's satisfactory unless you specifically sit down and figure out what flavors you want and how you want them displayed.
If you want a beer to be sweeter, lactose is going to give a higher FG but may not actually taste as sweet as it's not a particularly sweet sugar. If you want maple flavor in your brown ale then using Walmart brand pancake syrup in primary isn't going to give you any flavor at all. Fruits taste different when fermented vs. fresh. Vanilla extract tastes different than vanilla pods.
In general, with fruit I'd try to use 1-2 pounds per gallon, stray away from alcohol based extracts, use most everything that's not a "normal" beer flavor in secondary, and experiment with stabilizing beer post fermentation before adding back anything that has a fermentable sugar (like fruit.)
Again, these are not hard or fast rules. These are just things to look into when adding non-standard flavors to your fermentable.
I think it'd be a fun thought experiment to go through and make a recipe for a chocolate raspberry stout or something. I've never made one before, but I don't think it necessarily needs to be included in the body of this post. I'll maybe write a comment later.
Which then brings us to understanding the intent behind pre-existing recipes. I don't nearly as much to say here, but I think that it's important to bring up. There are a near infinite number of homebrew recipes to springboard off of online, with the common advice of "tweaking" them to your own tastes. But, sometimes those recipes were designed in very specific ways for very specific reasons.
Perhaps a specific yeast is being used to maintain a specific gravity, like how Scottish yeast typically have a lower ABV tolerance. Or maybe a specific hop was selected for it's cohumulone content because, despite all of the other flavors in the hop, the cohumulone is what adds the particular flavor that the brewer wanted.
Very rarely is intent ever mentioned with a recipe, so when you discover one you want to brew I'd challenge you to imagine the ingredients and really see if you can figure out what that beer is going to taste like before you brew it and only then go on and tweak it. It'll take experience, but that's another great joy in this hobby.
I want to end by saying that I am in no way advocating for not experimenting and playing around. That's a ton of fun and really what brings a lot of joy into this hobby. What I am saying, however, is that when playing, imagine what your end goal is. What your outcome should be. If you're boiling down cider to concentrate it, how are those concentrated acids going to play with the extra sugar? If you're boiling down some wort for a Scottish beer, how intense of a flavor are you looking for? Things like that.
Cheers and happy brewing!