Asheville Beer Week’s Just Brew It! Homebrew Festival is one of the most interesting events of the year. All stripes of homebrewers showcase all sorts of beer, with no commercial constraints (you know, like worrying if anyone is willing to buy it). So if a brewer is passionate about classic styles, she might serve a stellar Belgian golden strong or altbier. The IPA-obsessed keep multiple taps of hoppy goodness flowing. And of course there are the mad scientists.
I was a little suspicious when I first walked up to David Maida’s table at this year’s event, because in addition to beer, there were a half-dozen squirt bottles filled with colored liquid. It turns out the beers were being spiked with syrups. The signage also seemed ominous. There were bright colors, and the beers had silly names.
But as a judge, it’s your job to try as many beers as possible. So I ordered a Rick James, which turned out to be a tropical-tasting blend of IPA and saison. It was very good. And the saison with a splash of coconut? Turns out it was surprisingly tasty as well.
The Beginning of the Blend
Maida started experimenting with nontraditional beer flavors thanks to Asheville’s oldest brewery, Highland. “My girlfriend loves Cold Mountain, but I have to admit that I’m not really that into it,” says Maida. “And I brew my beer in big batches, between 12-14 gallons at a time.” So the best way he could create his-and-hers kegs of a winter ale was to blend spices into only one half of the batch once the brewing and fermentation process was finished.
“To figure out the right ratios, we made extracts of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla and did trials with small pours of the beer,” says Maida. “We ended up with a beer that wasn’t exactly like Cold Mountain, but it was really nice, with sort of a cookie flavor … and we had a ton of fun playing with the flavors.”
When Just Brew It rolled around, Maida thought other beer lovers might have fun with the idea as well, but since it was May, his plan had a summery twist. “I started experimenting with different flavors [for infusions], and that’s when I tried combining the beers as well. The fruity character of the saison yeast was there, and so was the aroma from the large amount of American hops. … It was unique and intense, just what you need for beer festivals where more exaggerated [flavor] is better.”
Taking It to the People
While the beer blend, aka the Rick James, proved to be popular on its own, Maida says many were more drawn to his custom syrups mixed with the saison. “The yeast for the saison had a pineapple character so the syrups that went well with that tropical flavor were very popular,” says Maida. In fact, he noticed people were coming back for seconds and thirds of coconut saison and ginger-carrot saison.
While Maida has no fear when it comes to playing with beer at home, he also cautions that you’re just as likely to end up with something that tastes terrible as something that tastes wonderful at first. “I find it helps if you think about it like food,” says Maida. “If you want to add some flavor to a chocolatey porter, think about what might go well with chocolate in a dessert.” In other words, raspberry or coconut might be a good idea, in that case, but stay away from lemon and apple.
If you’re looking for a couple of recipes to get started, here are some recommendations from Maida:
Lemongrass Kolsch: Combine one lemongrass stalk (chopped), 1 cup water and 1 teaspoon of sugar in a blender. Blend and strain to remove any pulp. Add a splash of syrup to your glass and top with one can of French Broad Kolsch.
Bold Mountain: Combine 1/4 cup vodka, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract in a small bowl. Cover, let the spices infuse overnight (or for a few days for stronger flavor) then strain. Add a small amount of the tincture to your glass and top with one bottle of Green Man ESB.