By Greig McGill
Despite “the never-ending events”, this year seems to have flown by, and I’m struggling to deal with the fact that the holiday season is almost upon us. My brain has turned to mush as I sit in my office at the brewery, trying to decide what beers to brew outside our core range for the new year, so I can plan my stock needs. I remember having a similar problem as a homebrewer, and I began to consider all the things I used to do then to bust myself out of a rut of uninspired brews. At the time, as a homebrewer, I had a lot more freedom! I didn’t have to worry about hop shortages, grain storage constraints, or “how will I ever prepare enough of THAT adjunct for a 12hL batch?” - nope, I could brew anything I wanted. So why did I so often struggle to decide WHAT I wanted, and what did I do to get inspired? Seems like a good topic for an article!
Ideas are all around, if we’re open to them. Some of my favourite ones are ones I think of as “in-sourced”. I used to keep a physical notebook of recipe ideas, along with what I wanted to achieve with that recipe. This could be a particular technique I wanted to experiment with, such as decoction mashing, or a specific ingredient or adjunct I’d like to try out to see the impact it had. Sometimes it would come from a previous batch of beer, where I thought “hrm, this could be great if I just…”. Well, those “justs” make fantastic ideas for future tweaks and experimentation. These days, the notebook is actually a folder in Beersmith. I have a series of template recipes for many styles, and will often clone one of those into my “ideas” folder, along with a note of what I’d like to achieve. When I feel lacking in inspiration, this folder is pure gold. Though, as you’ll see later in this article, sometimes the old physical notebook (or at least a note on your phone) is still handy too!
As for out-sourced ideas - ones coming from the environment, other people, or stray thoughts inspired by drinking, shopping, or whatever - the sources of inspiration are many and varied. At this time of year, sales are rampant, and there are many brewing gadgets to be had. Even a casual perusal of your favourite online brew shop can be a treasure trove of inspiring thoughts. New pieces of equipment unlock new brewing methods, or perhaps get you thinking of your own method to replicate the effect of the shiny brewing toy without buying it - shhh, don’t tell the Brewshop team I suggested that! Have you ever looked at a hop tube and thought to yourself “hrm, I wonder what ELSE I could put in that?” And it should go without saying that as you wonder, you’re writing it down in your notebook for later action!
Speaking of shopping, any time you’re out shopping for food, you’re assaulted by a cornucopia of amazing smells. This is prime notebook territory! Any given aroma is created by complex chemistry within an ingredient, or combination of ingredients. Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking “Oh, that lovely earthy note from this thyme would go great in an English Old Ale”. Sometimes it’s more abstract, when it’s not a specific ingredient, but a combination of aromas that gets you thinking about how to produce something similar in your beer, or brewing a beer that would pair well with a particular type of food you’re smelling. In the notebook it goes!
Of course, one of the more obvious and direct routes to brewing inspiration is your local bar and/or brewery. All brewers should be eclectic drinkers. That’s not to say you should drink far too much in service of your ever-ongoing beer education (not like your foolish author), just that you should be careful to not fall into the trap of drinking the same few styles over and over again. There are well over a hundred recognised beer styles in the world, no matter which system you use to group them, and drinking the same three or four all the time does nothing for your own creativity. Not to mention the “dumbing down” effect it has on the beer market as a whole if too many people do this - hazy IPA flood anyone? But that’s a rant for another day! The point is that you should drink eclectically if you want to think eclectically. There is so much more to beer than just the question of which hops should you put in your next IPA. Seek out beers you’ve never tried before, ideally in styles you’ve never tried also. Think about them as you drink them. Read about the style. Decide for yourself if the beer in your glass fits the style it is supposed to be. Don’t get judgey - it’s terrible what brewers have to do these days to sell beers, so don’t blame them if the “saison” you just ordered is more like a wheaty, highly carbonated IPA! But note the differences. Think about what you would do differently if you brewed a beer similar to that. There you go - an instant brewing project for your notebook.
There’s also the old “reverse engineer” inspirational trick. While not particularly creative, it can certainly be an instructive challenge to attempt to deconstruct a beer in your glass into a recipe, and try to brew it to see how close you can get. This is an excellent project for the more engineering-minded brewer, as it’s less about art and more about precision and technique. In the notebook with it!
The internet, it probably goes without saying, is full of stuff. An hour on the web, following your nose and reading random brewing articles or watching videos can provide a ton of inspiration for even the most creatively bereft. As with drinking the same beer styles, there is the peril of echo-chamber style reinforcement where you only see more of the same thing you’re already seeing. Just like your crazy anti-vax Uncle on facebook, all it takes to filter that is to engage the critical thinking part of your brain rather than work on auto-pilot. Train yourself to click on the things that challenge your beliefs and understandings rather than reinforce them, and always fact-check. In these weird times, that might be decent advice for the world outside brewing also!
Finally, or as finally as there can ever be in an open-ended musing article such as this, some of the best inspiration can be found from introspection. With the long summer pretty much upon us, if you find yourself in a beautiful location with great company, just imagine what beer would be in your hand in your own personal utopia. Think of the exact flavours you would want. What sort of body does it have? How’s the carbonation level? Do you want a good, solid malt base, or just enough to support the hops, or other adjuncts? Should it be drunk in large, quenching gulps, or sipped slowly as a companion to great conversation or further introspection? That notebook will be positively overflowing by now, and I’d love to taste some of the results of your inspirational journey!
Happy brewing, and happy holidays!