The Science of Tweaking

beer
beer

In just over a week we'll be releasing a brand new beer style that we've had floating in and out of our radar for quite some time now. It's sitting calmly in one of our fermentors, going through the final stages of conditioning, having just received a healthy dry hop of Amarillo and Centennial. The truth is, the idea for this beer started as a quasi-joke, a threat almost, that we should finally brew the 'amber' everyone in the brewpub is always asking for. And though I was planning to go into detail about what this beer tastes like, what you can hope to find in the aromatics, and what kind of alcohol content it packs, I decided this morning while looking at the brew schedule, that we should really be taking a look at the bigger picture. A new release is just a fraction of the work and preparation that goes into making beer, a mere tip to what is an entire iceberg of discussions, agreements, disagreements, tastings, trials, and tweaks that result in a carbonated beverage we think is delicious.

Sure, yeast ferments wort and creates, through the production of CO2 and alcohol, beer. But this is only the science. What's unaccounted for in this equation is the creative process and the intuitive elements -- or rather, the bulk of the story. So what does go into making a beer? How long is the process? And are we ever happy?

In the beginning, each beer starts as an idea or fragment of an idea, which is then presented to the group (about 6 of us) for a round table of vicious critiques and general discussion upon which one can base their self-worth. Of course I'm sort of kidding, because we tend to be pretty supportive of new and creative ideas, but we're also a quite an honest bunch. Cherries with Hellwoods, for example, was a safe idea that worked well. The result, of course, is 3 Minutes to Midnight. Bee pollen in a cask for the 2013 Cask Days Festival, was decidedly less successful (and never made it to the public). Yellow plums in a batch of barrel-aged Grandma's Boy worked beautifully, but lemon rind in a similar Tripel yielded a beer reminiscent of floor cleaner.

We accept that some experiments will work and others won't, it's just the reality of taking creative leaps of faith. But we also recognize that this is the benefit and strength of a small brewery. Our prime objective isn't sales or producing an identical light lager a million times over -- it's being inspired by the art of fermentation and making beer that tastes great. And this leads us to another important truth in the Bellwoods brewing regime: there will be small variations between batches. Though there are recipes that we've brewed and barely changed over the course of our relatively short career, like Lost River Baltic Porter or Roman Candle IPA, the most popular and most brewed styles (almost all the hoppy ones) are always being tweaked ever so slightly.

We do this because we're hard on ourselves. We try the first iteration of a beer and talk about what we like (Good body! Herbal hop aromatics! Great malt backbone!), but within minutes, similar to the Real Housewives of Orange County, the conversation turns to what we want to change (More mango aromatics! Less earthy bitterness! Bigger butt implants!). And so a variable is altered, the beer is brewed again, and we start the scrutiny anew. It's the circle of life, Simba.

I thought it would be interesting to break down, in more detail, the development of three beers we love (with considerable history of change). Let's examine:

Wizard Wolf
Wizard Wolf

Wizard Wolf Session Ale: If you frequented Bellwoods in the very beginning, you may remember a simple beer called "Common". It was a good start, sessionable and relatively light, but it needed work. Our goal was refreshing, with low bitterness and bright aromatics (without being tropical). So we laid Common to rest, considered it a good predecessor to something better, and started over again. We played around with malt bills and malt to water ratios, refining the ABV to just below 5%. We dialed back the bitterness, and decided to stick with citrusy Cascade and Simcoe hops, rather than anything earthy like Northern Brewer, or dank like Summit. With these changes established and agreed upon, a new beer was born: Wizard Wolf (a name we had originally shot down as 'completely ridiculous and never going to happen'). In more recent batches we've changed the hops again, decideding that we prefer a Cascade/Centennial hop mix, as it provides the light, refreshing, and citrusy result that is our goal.

Stay Classy
Stay Classy

Stay Classy Light Session Ale: This modest lil' ale with tons of flavour and the lightest ABV in our line up began as the simple "Belgian Table Beer". Of course, this meant that the first batches were brewed with a Belgian yeast, as the goal had been to create a very easy-drinking, super light blond. But quickly we realized that our specific yeast choice wasn't doing anything to further the beer. We wanted a cleaner flavour profile, and therefore turned to our usual american ale yeast. The complex malt bill has remained relatively unchanged, but we took out all the early hop additions (that contribute to bitterness) and upped the whirlpool and dry-hopping additions (that contribute to bold aromatics). Our goal with Stay Classy is low alcohol with lots of body and strong tropical hop aromatics, which we've been able to achieve by tweaking rest temperatures and late hop additions. It continues to be one of the most difficult beers to brew, but we labour through it because we love the results!

Witchshark
Witchshark

Witchshark Imperial IPA: Like Wizard Wolf, Witchshark has been with us through the long haul. The very first batch we brewed was on tap when we opened, and for a long time, each subsequent batch was just an attempt to recreate the intense mango and apricot aromatics in the OG. The reality of such a big beer is that it's hard to keep all those bold flavours in balance, and there were some factors working against us we couldn't control. As the beer grew in popularity, we were forced to buy larger quantities of hops, and the new crops varied greatly, as did the years when they were harvested (2013 hop crops were not the 2012 hop crops). When we expanded in 2013 we started brewing into larger fermentors, and the new tank geometry was enough to throw things off yet again. We adapted quickly, but Witchshark brew days were tense for a long time. We would learn that it was better to ferment it a bit cooler than we had been, and we eventually added Amarillo into the dry-hopping (in addition to Centennial and Simcoe).

The process of altering small variables at a glacial pace is, ultimately, the process of making beer. With time we arrive at a version that we feel is best, but we're never too complacent in its finality. Even when we think we've changed all that we need to change, something like a hop shortage can force us to alter things once again. And who knows, perhaps this upcoming Amber Ale will be one that doesn't need tweaking, but if patterns have taught me anything, I suspect that it'll shift in slow and subtle transformations over the years, eventually arriving at its best version.