Beer School

5 Easy Ways to Play Around with Your Next Homebrew

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)
(Image credit: Henry Chen)
  • Today’s topic: All the easy ways you can tweak a homebrew recipe
  • The Kitchn’s Beer School: 20 lessons, 7 assignments to brew your first 1-gallon batch of beer.
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With your first batch of homebrew still waiting to be bottled and a now-empty fermentation bucket staring you down, perhaps you’re contemplating … doing another homebrew? I fully support this plan! If you’re also feeling like stretching your creative wings with this next batch, I have a few suggestions for easy ways to start playing around with flavors in your homebrews.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)
(Image credit: Henry Chen)

There are lots of big and little ways you can start playing with a homebrew recipe and make it your own without necessarily starting from scratch. Find a basic recipe that you like, and then think about doing one or two of these things:

Add fruit, spices, and other fun things

Fruits, spices, herbs, and other ingredients are so very much fun to play around with in a homebrew. Anything from fresh strawberries and basil to vanilla beans and cardamom can really complement the other malty, hoppy flavors in a beer. Be cautious when you first start experimenting — a little goes a long way. You can always add more if the flavor isn’t quite strong enough, but you can never take it away once it’s there.

You can add these ingredients in two places during the brewing process: in the last five minutes of the hop boil, or to the secondary when you transfer the beer. Adding them at the end of the hop boil tends to give you a softer, more mellow flavor (and the boiling wort sanitizes the ingredients so there’s no worry of infection). Adding ingredients to the secondary gives a brighter, fresher, more vibrant flavor, but there is some risk of picking up an infection.

There is generally enough alcohol in the beer by the time it’s in the secondary that you don’t need to worry too much about adding ingredients, but even so, use your best judgement. Wash any fresh fruits or vegetables before chopping them and adding them. You can soak chopped fruit, whole spices, vanilla beans, and other ingredients in a little vodka or other alcohol before adding them.

Here are some of my favorite homebrew add-ins:

Fruit: Strawberries, apricots, peaches, mangos, dried figs, dried cherries. (I especially love fresh fruit in wheat beers and dried fruit in boozy, high alcohol barleywines and imperial ales.)

Spices and herbs: Cinnamon, cardamom, grains of paradise, fresh lemongrass, fresh ginger. (Word to the wise: Cloves are awesome, but be careful of adding too many or your beer will have a numbing effect in the mouth!)

Other fun things: Coffee beans, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, shredded coconut.

Make a “barrel-aged” homebrew

When craft breweries make a barrel-aged beer, they usually pick up some old bourbon barrels and stash their beer in there for a few months. An easy way to replicate this at home is by soaking oak cubes in the liquor of your choice, then adding both the soaked chips and the liquor to the beer in the secondary.

Like fruit and spices, you don’t need much of this to give your beer a nice oaky, boozy flavor. Use 1/2 ounce of oak cubes for a 1-gallon batch of beer (and 2 1/2 ounces for a 5-gallon batch). Pick the liquor you’d like to use, and soak the cubes in just enough to cover for a few days. Add them to your beer and let everything mingle for at least a week or up to two months – taste your beer as you go and rack the beer off the cubes when it tastes good to you.

Bigger, high-alcohol beers, like imperial stouts and barleywines, tend to be best for this kind of barrel aging, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. If you have a brilliant idea for infusing your pale ale with tequila, go for it.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Swap the hops

There are so many different varieties of hops available to homebrewers these days that staring into the hop fridge at the homebrew store can feel a bit like looking in the window of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Each of these hops has its own particular flavor and aroma, ranging from pineapple and apricots, to pine trees and woods, to grapefruit pith and lemon zest.

This is one very easy place to start playing with your homebrews. Just swap out the hops in your recipe for whatever hops sound interesting to you. Pay attention to the alpha acid percent (AA%), however – swapping a hop with a low AA% for one with a high AA% can make your beer more bitter than you intend. Use this formula when swapping hops so the overall bitterness of your beer stays roughly the same (or use this conversion as a starting point if you want to both swap your hops and change the bitterness of your beer!):

Calculating the Hops Based on Alpha Acid Percent

  1. Multiply the AA% of the recipe’s hop by the number of grams called for in the recipe.
  2. Divide that number by the AA% of your hop, and you’ll have the grams you need of your new hop.

Swap the yeast

While some strains of yeast are traditionally used to ferment particular styles, like hefeweizen yeast with German wheat beers and Belgian strains with Belgian trappist ales, you don’t have to stick to these pairings. In reality, any strain of yeast will work to ferment any beer – as long as there are sugars to eat, the yeast will be happy.

Besides fermenting the beer, yeast leave behind lots of great flavors and give the beer their own particular stamp — and every strain is a little different. California yeast makes a clean and crisp beer, saison yeast makes a subtly fruity beer, English yeast strains bring out malty and sweet flavors, and so on. Swapping the yeast in your homebrew is a fun way to change the character of a beer you’ve brewed before. Try fermenting the amber ale we made in our Beer School with an English yeast strain to make something closer to a classic British pub beer.

The only constraint is that it’s best to stick with ale yeasts for ale beers and lager yeasts for lager beers. Lager yeast needs a lower temperature in order to ferment properly, requiring some extra equipment we’re not covering in this Beer School.

Swap the grains

Want one more way to play with your homebrew recipe? Try swapping the grains!

If you increase or decrease the amount of base malts (those grains that make up the biggest percentage in your recipe), you can increase or decrease the alcohol in your finished beer. Swapping one base malt for another, like American pale malts for a British variety, will give you a feel for the subtle differences between them. You can also play around with the specialty grains (which make up a smaller percentage in your beer), like using a slightly darker roast than called for.

A Cautionary Note for the Would-Be Tinkerer

It’s easy to get swept away by all these fun ways you can tinker with your homebrew. But when you’re first getting started, I recommend keeping it simple. Try changing just one thing at a time – not only does this help you avoid making strange franken-beers, but it helps you learn how each individual change affects the finished beer. Make too many changes, and it becomes difficult to keep track of them and figure out how, exactly, you ended up with that delicious spicy, tropical fruit character in your pale ale — or replicate it again once you’ve finished the batch.

Brew Better Beer: A Companion to Beer School

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

I love brewing beer so much, I wrote a book about it! Brew Better Beer (May 2015, Ten Speed Press) is a complementary guide to Beer School. Take a look for even more nerdy details about homebrewing, how to brew 5-gallon batches, and plenty of recipes for different beers.

→ Find it: Brew Better Beer by Emma Christensen

With The Kitchn’s Beer School, we’ll teach you how to brew your own beer at home — and brew it with confidence. In 20 lessons and 7 weekend assignments, we’ll get you set up with your own home brewery, walk you through your first brew day, show you how to bottle your beer, and then toast you on your first pint. Ready to brew your first beer? Join us!