I live in Tampa, FL. Florida in general, and the Tampa Bay area specifically, is fast becoming the craft beer mecca of the country. Craft microbreweries are popping up all over the place. Green Bench, 3 Daughters, Big Storm, Florida Avenue, 7eventh Sun, Cycle, St. Pete Brewing, the Wild Rover, etc. And the “bigger boys” like Tampa Bay Brewing Company, Cigar City and Dunedin Brewery have all been around for a while. It seems every month there is a news article about a new craft brewery opening (Coppertail is opening in a month) . As the marketplace gets more crowded, the question I ask myself is, how do each of these places set themselves apart from each other? For the most part, everybody makes beer the same way. The process in general is the same. And the grain and hops that are used by everybody mostly come from the same handful of sources. Yes, the process and recipes can be tweaked, equipment setups may vary, and quality control can be better or worse at different places. But sometimes I think that, just like the explosion of the number of wine brands on a store shelf these days, the only thing that differentiates one from another is the cool label and branding and not necessarily what’s in the bottle. Not everyone is a beer snob or a tasting aficionado with a well developed palate to be able to differentiate X’s hefeweizen from Y’s hefeweizen. However, taste aside, the craft beer drinker does enjoy the experience of visiting each brewery’s bar or tasting room and the individual ambience that each provides.
I fell in love with Sam Adams when I was in college. They can be considered the grandfather of craft beer in this country. And they now have quite the portfolio that includes almost every style out there. But somehow they make a Sam Adams taste like a Sam Adams, no matter what the style. They somehow impart a unique flavor component to their beer and I have no idea how they do it. But for most of the breweries, it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other on just taste alone. So as a homebrewer, I have to ask myself what my philosophy is as a brewer and how does that manifest itself in my beers? What is my identity?
What I’ve found in the homebrew community is a tendency to do “crazy”, to make extreme beers. What’s considered a great IPA? The one that is the hoppiest. What makes a great porter? Why not add smoke, peppers, bacon and whatever else you can throw in there. The crazier the better as the thinking goes. I think this is because we treat our homebrew setups like a mad laboratory. We want to be creative, and we want to make something that we can truly call our own and have it be unique. And it’s just fun to play around. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think my philosophy is a bit of the opposite. I attribute it to being more right brain than left brain. I don’t want someone drinking my IPA as if it’s a challenge, a trial by hops if you will, like when somebody dares you to eat the hottest pepper at the table and take it like a man. I don’t want somebody to sip my IPA and immediately do the squinchy face and say “oh man that’s bitter, that’s like plants in a bottle”. I want somebody to say, “ooooh, that’s really nice, good solid hop flavor.” I’m not into self torture and I’m not into torturing others. I don’t want to overdo it. My Quantum Deep Stout I just brewed is a good example. The coffee in it is over the top. But that was unintended, a learning experience. I want balance. I want subtlety. I want my recipes to have “good bones” and I just want to brew them to the best of my ability.
A friend of mine recently requested that I brew him something with lime in it. I replied, “like a bud light lime?”. He said yeah. Automatically I thought, I don’t want to brew a bud light clone. Bud Light and its ilk embodies everything that craft brewing rebels against. But then I thought about it. What’s the most difficult beer to brew? A light pale ale. Why? Because it’s beer at its most basic. There are no bold or busy flavors to mask the imperfections and off-flavors brought about by a non-robust brewing process and poor quality control. It is the ultimate test of a homebrewer. So I accepted the challenge. It will be the litmus test of where I’m at as a brewer. It won’t be a bud light clone because I’m going to stay away from the adjuncts that are found in bud, and it’ll be an ale, not a lager. But it will still be a basic light pale ale. And if anything, I’m going to underwhelm with the lime. I’ll feel successful if the beer tastes “clean”. Another reason I’m doing it is because there is no better reason to brew than to brew for your crew. So I guess my philosophy is, “Stick to the basics, brew a solid beer, and brew it well.”