Essay’s on Failure: Ignorance v Imagination

By Retrofit in Essay's on Failure, Home Brewing on Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Ignorance can be defined as a lack of knowledge.

Imagination is act of forming a mental image never before perceived.

In my previous essay I established that failure is a reoccurring theme in my brewing.  Specifically I discussed the knowledge a brewer learns can be flawed, and I touched upon the notion that the speculations a brewer makes can also be flawed.  I wanted to elaborate more on this second point.  The speculations a brewer makes can also be limited by his imagination.

There is a vast realm of information out there for brewers to draw from- some of it is wrong, and that’s a stumbling block.  However a lot of it’s right, the styles are combinations of ingredients that ‘taste good.’- they sell.

And yet there is a larger world- an undiscovered beer country!  The beer styles are a product of time and location.  Technology and regional ingredients coming together to produce something that tastes good, a ‘style’.  Having learned ‘this works’, there isn’t much motivation to do more.  The English built the English Bitter and it sold- the end.   The Germans built an Octoberfest- it sold- the end.  Make more of this!

All these things were figured out in the past and they are the cumulative history that present brewers can learn from, but how does one find this undiscovered beer country?  They have to enter the world of ignorance, the places where there is a lack of knowledge- they have to use their imagination to discover something new!

Dark malts have existed for a long time, so have IPA’s, but only recently was the Cascadian Dark named an official style.  The idea, of making an IPA and putting dark malt in it- just hadn’t occurred.  Or it maybe it happened, but nobody sold it.  In the cumulative history of mankind, this beer is ‘new’.

And for every new style that is developed, how many failures are there?  Who knows, a lot, more than a lot!  One of the things about my brewing is I have an interest in exotic ingredients.  I want to understand what they contribute to a beer.  I do this because I want to make beer that I can’t buy at the store.

Consider that once upon a time there were seasonal beer, regional beers.  They were specific to a region because that’s the only place you could get this malt, or hop, or spice.  Seasonal because these ingredients were only available this time of year.  Historically beer might be common, but specific beers were time and place specific.  This is no longer the case, you could if you wanted, find a Christmas beer on the Fourth of July.  A Trappist Ale in Jamacia.  It could happen.

To make something rare or exotic, one has to enter the realm of ignorance and pack a lot of imagination.   Fool around with ingredients no one uses, or in a combination no one tries, see what happens.  Maybe someone did discover this tastes terrible, that it won’t sell.  The problem is, there isn’t a lot of documentation on what won’t work- just what will.

Since I want to find something rare in a world that has made beer common, I pursue unusual ingredients.  Sometimes with success, but many are terrible.  I’ve made a Dandelion beer (tastes like dirt, smells like lawn), and cough drop beer (tastes like menthol) , yarrow and oak  gruit (tastes like wet tree).  None of these will earn me the title of a style developer.  They are just bad- failures.

However, like my other failures I am learning from them.  I’m putting together an arsenal of unusual ingredients.  I can see a day making a Christmas ‘warmer’ that makes “the nose tingle”, the secret ingredient- a cough drop!

If every bad beer is an expression of ignorance, it is also an opportunity to improve your next beer!  The next time you make something terrible.  Tell everyone, ask them what’s wrong with it.  Take notes, drink several bottles yourself.  Take more notes.  Detail what is off and what is right.  Don’t focus on the good elements, consider the bad.  Think creatively, use your imagination.  Could these off flavors ever help a beer?  In some styles they might!  Is your beer sour?  There are sour beers!  Can your brew this again intentionally as a sour?  Is it to sweet?  There are sweet beers, can you do this again?  To dry, when is that appropriate?  All the bad things can be good- if you can imagine an use for them!

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