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One of the reasons I really love homebrew is the chance it gives you to learn what individual beer ingredients taste like. Make enough brews with centennial hops, and you start to detect its bitter citrus flavor when you taste a beer. If you add chinook or warrior hops next time you might note the differences in aroma and flavor.
Homebrew was where a lot of today's biggest craft beer makers got their start. Guys like Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione and Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman first developed their love for brewing over five-gallon DIY batches the very same way thousands of enthusiasts do today. If you take a look at the lineup those two companies produce, they have a decided homebrew feel to them: a willingness to experiment, to stretch their arms, and endeavor for the unique.
You'll also notice on Sierra Nevada's website a clue that the company still holds homebrew dear in its heart: all of its beers have a rudimentary recipe listed on their description pages. Just by listing the ingredients and the numbers like begining and ending gravity, homebrewers can figure out -- for the most part -- just how this beer was made. Sure, the amount of hops and exact strain of malt needs to be guessed at, but everything else is pretty much there for you to decipher. Homebrewers even use programs to help them calculate numbers like gravity and IBUs.
For the non-homebrewer, these recipes can do a very similar thing: they can help train your palate to figure out how certain flavors are produced in beer. Take Sierra's Anniversary Ale for example. If you look at the breakdown, you see it's made with two-row pale malt, which is a very sturdy barley that acts as a backdrop for the beer. You'll also notice caramel malt on the list. If you pour an Anniversary Ale, you can see the caramel color and taste it in the brew. Munich malt is reddish and sweet, which is why this beer's hue has a tinge of peach to it.
Same thing goes for the hops. Cascade, for example, is citrusy, piney, and floral; you can taste all those things in Anniversary Ale. The beer's bitter notes come from chinook, a hop with a very high alpha acid content, which is the substance in hops that bitters beer. The result of the combination of these two is a beer with a lot of citrusy, grapefruit notes and a very robust bitterness. But since the caramel and Munich malts used are on the sweet side, those flavors end up balancing out and creating a very drinkable beer.
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Another great reason to experiment with homebrew is it's as fun as it is educational. Tonight, I'm heading over to my brew partner's house to work on our latest beer, a hoppy vanilla wheat ale. This time we used ingredients we never had before, so tasting the product before we transfer it another container should be very exciting (we're transferring it to remove the excess debris that accumulates during fermentation, but that's another subject). But once we see how these new flavors work in the beer, we'll be able to use them better in the future as well as appreciate them better in other beers -- tasting other beers being a big part of the fun too.