Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Designing Great Beers: The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles

Ray Daniels wrote a required guide to beer recipe formulation with his book Designing Great Beers. I have been putting off reading this since I received it as a gift for Christmas last year because it seems a little overwhelming. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Daniels' writing style has a nice flow to it and he can discuss very technical details without making it too dry.

This book is not a how-to book, it presupposes a knowledge of the various brewing tasks including those for all-grain. In fact, Daniels assumes you are an all-grain brewer but does discuss extract and how extract brewers can modify the information to their purposes. Speaking as an extract brewer, you can get a ton of useful information even though he's speaking to an all-grain audience.

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which is a discussion of the various ingredients found in beer. Chapters on malt (with gravity calculations), hops (with IBU calculations), yeast, water, and color. Daniels shows that he's a serious brewer in the first part as the discussion is extremely technical. His chapter on water is the longest chapter of part 1 and probably the most technical. I spent most of the chapter wondering what the heck he was talking about, but by the end I had been sold on its importance. I had never really even though about water, I always buy it bottled. I found a water analysis of Poland Springs (my brand of choice) and discovered it is much too soft to be using without treatment when making IPAs. It explains why I never get the crisp bitternes I find in commercial examples. Something to think about.

Part II has a chapter devoted to many of the classic beer styles. Included are German Ales (Altbiers/Kolsch), Barley Wine, Bitters/Pale Ales, Bock, California Common, Fruit Beer, Mild/Brown, Old Ale, Pilsener, Porter, Scottish/Scotch Ales, Stout, Vienna/Märzen, and Weizen. He begins each chapter with a very interesting look at the history of the style and its progression to modern examples. Then he anaylyzes the ingredient makeup and brewing techniques used by commercial examples of the style. Finally, he analyzes the same information used by the second round entries in the National Homebrew Competition over a two year period to see how homebrewers have found success brewing the style. The information Daniels provides in these chapters is invaluable when constructing a recipe for a style. Armed with this information, I'll never have to copy recipes from the internet anymore...I'll be able to start experimenting myself confident that I'm using appropriate ingredients and methods. Conspicuously absent from Part II are any chapters that discuss Belgian-styles. He makes mention of Lambic a few times, but doesn't devote any real space to it. I wonder if these styles are not a specialty for Daniels or if they just encompass too much material for individual chapters in a broader book.

As much as I enjoyed reading this book and found it immensely helpful, I think it suffers from a minor "dating effect." Some of the information he mentions is dated because the book was written in the nineties, right at the beginning of the craft beer boom. Many of the commercial examples he lists are no longer available and he fails to mention some iconic examples that were produced after the book was written. Also, there are some issues with regard to style parameters that have since evolved. For instance, in his discussion of IPAs, Daniels mentions that English hops should be used to stay traditional but many homebrewers use American hops and judges seem to be rewarding them. Obviously, since then the IPA style has split into English and American styles, with American hops being the vastly more favored approach in the United States. Not to mention the "double IPA" style didn't even exist when he wrote the book and now it's an extremely popular style. I realize this "dating effect" is not Daniels' fault and to stay on top of the trends in the beer world he'd need to rewrite Part II every few years.

I would reccomend this book to any homebrewer who has made a few batches and has a good understanding of the basics. I think after the basics are down, anyone can pick up a lot of good stuff in this book...from the intermediate brewer to the most advanced brewer. I know I'll be consulting it frequently as I continue to learn more and more about making good beer.


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