Can You Turn Cheap Beer Into Good Beer?

You know what's great about cheap, shitty beer? The cheap part. The end. Sure, it's fun to be nostalgic about the first beer you ever drank or whatever, but if someone leaves a bunch of crappy beer in my fridge, I just want to use some kind of magic spell to turn it into something delicious. Could such a thing be possible?

It's Sunday, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science and alcohol. Let's polish a turd and toss one back!

The Concept

This project was inspired by the Dogfish Head brewery. For years, they've been making and selling a cool invention called Randall the Enamel Animal, which is a big rig you can use to add flavors to your favorite beers. Interest was redoubled recently, when they recently unveiled the Randall Jr: The Mini Enamel Animal. Maybe you saw the video.

It looks like a slender sports bottle, but instead of Lexan it's made of glass. It's double-walled to add insulation, and it has a fine mesh filter in there. You just pour in your beer, add your ingredients, let it sit for ten minutes, then pour it into a glass. Sounds simple, right? And sure enough it works really well for adding a lil' somethin' to an already-good beer. At just $US20, people went crazy over it. We figured that's what we'd use. Fate had other ideas; more on that in a bit.

The Technique

For our crappy beer, we decided to go with Coors Light [a US beer]. Are there crappier beers? Sure, but this one is very easy to find in the States. And nearly flavourless. We were going to change that.

I spent a good hour talking to Carl at Brooklyn Homebrew, and we contemplated the various possibilities. I ended up leaving with a bag of Simcoe raw hops (piney, and fragrant), a bag of "chocolate rye" dark roasted malt (which Carl ground nice and coarse for me), and a little bag of sarsaparilla just to mess with. Then I hit the supermarket for another grab-bag of ingredients.

Unfortunately, somewhere between my apartment and the Gizmodo Test Laboratory, the Randall Jr cracked and shattered in my backpack. The Randall Jr was such a huge hit that Dogfish is completely sold out of them. I called up to beg, but they couldn't help. Good news, though: They said I could do the same thing with a French press. Really? Well, OK...

Batch One: Just a Lil' Bit

I added three grams (a few pinches) of hops to the French press, poured in the 350mL of Coors Light, pressed it down until the ingredients were submerged, then put it in the fridge. I checked on it after five minutes and noticed that huge bubbles had formed around the hops, which was inhibiting some surface contact with the fluid, so I pushed it down a little further. After about 15 minutes I poured it off into a glass. The colour was unchanged, but there was a faint aroma of hops. Upon tasting, though, it pretty much tasted like plain old Coors Light, but flatter. One of the key components to Dogfish's Randall Jr is that it's a sealed system, which limits the amount of carbon dioxide that escapes. Hmm...

Batch Two: Darker and Harder

Knowing that I hadn't solved the carbonation problem, I decided to just go for more flavour for now. I tripled the amount of fresh hops I used nine grams, I added two tablespoons of whole coffee beans and three tablespoons of chocolate rye malt. The result was quite dark and a bit cloudy. Still lost most of the carbonation. The good news, though is that it didn't taste like Coors Light any more -- it had a lot more flavour. The coffee was a bit too much, but it was hoppy and malty. Still very thin. Dry. Like, y'know, a light beer. It had the colour and some of the flavour, but none of the richness. This is all the encouragement we needed to proceed, however.

A Change In Process

We weren't happy with the French press method because we lost most of the fizz. I flashed back to a recent camping trip and one of my favorite gadgets from it: the GSI Outdoors H2jO Coffee Filter. You pour the coffee into the basket, screw it on a Nalgene (or other wide-mouth) bottle, pour in the hot water and bingo, back country coffee. Seemed like I could do the same thing with flavours and beer.

Batch Three: Closer And Closer

I used the same ratios as batch number two (plenty of hops and malt), except I yanked out the coffee beans and added a teaspoon of sarsaparilla, hoping to add some sweetness. Rather than putting the ingredients into the basket of the H2jO, i just put them in the Nalgene bottle, added the beer, then used the H2jO as a filter when I poured it out. Carbonation loss is still an issue. Even with the sealed lid, the many points of nucleation created by the hops and ground malt really just pull the fizz right out. Damnit.

But wait, last week we learned how to add bubbles to mixed drinks. So I used the Perlini system on the beer and sure enough, it gave it a nice little bubble-boost. It wasn't bad, but the flavour was unfortunately overwhelmed by the sarsaparilla—too root-beerish. Foiled again.

Batch Four: Almost A Real Something

Just malt and hops this time, with the same ratio as before (nine grams of hops, three tablespoons malt) and this time I added the beer to the Nalgene first, then put the ingredients directly into the H2jO basket, and carefully inverted it. This did, indeed, save the bubbles much better than any other method. The result looked like a medium-dark coffee that hadn't been filtered quite enough. The flavour was underwhelming, though.

You could definitely tell that it was Coors Light underneath everything else. I think keeping everything in the little basket, while it helped reducing carbonation loss, also reduced the amount of flavour it added. The hops couldn't expand fully and so there wasn't enough surface contact with the beer. Damnit again. Okay, no more trying to make a real beer.

Batch Five: The Beerjito

Success! Miraculously, this one actually tasted good! This one wasn't designed to mimic a real beer; it does its own thing. I sliced all the peel off a lime, tore up a fistful of mint leaves and added nine large blackberries. I muddled them at the bottom of the Nalgene, then added the beer and left it for about 20 minutes in the fridge. It came out tasty, but flat. I put it through the Perlini system and that really worked. The end result was light, fruity and refreshing. Said one co-worker, "No one would ever guess that this started as a beer." Awesome:

Batch Six: Fiery Aztec Chocolate

Another success, if a weird one. I used four dried chipotle morita hot peppers, four squares of 85 per cent cocoa dark chocolate, a tablespoon of the malt and three grams of hops. The result? Well, I probably should have used half as many peppers, but it was actually quite flavourful. It did still have that unmistakable thinness to it, but if you didn't know it had started off as Coors Light, you probably wouldn't have guessed. It tastes like some experimental, small-batch that a craft brewery might try, but without so much body.

What Does It All Mean?

So, can you make crappy beer into good beer? Well, you can definitely make it into better beer, which is good enough to call this a success. The Beerjito and Aztec Chocolate were proof positive, but the one thing that was inescapable was that thinness. It always tasted just a bit hollow. Why? Kotaku's Chris Person is a home brewer, and served as one of my taste testers. He explains:

Cold infusing speciality malts might add some interesting flavours, but I don't think it's going to add that much body or sweetness to it. The starches in the beer haven't converted to maltose and other sugars in the mash, so what you're getting is kinda a dry, thin beer with a lot of chocolate and carmel notes... You get bitterness from hops at the beginning of the boil, not during the dry-hopping stage, so unfortunately you can't use hops to turn Coors into an IPA.

Fair enough, but we're still encouraged. Could we add malt syrup to get some of that missing sweetness? Maybe. This calls for more experimentation. The moral, though, is that you can make your beer better, using a coffee press, a water-bottle and strainer, or hey, The Randall Jr As soon as Dogfish Head has them in stock again, we'll be doing a full review, so keep an eye out for Round Two on a future Happy Hour. In the meantime, let's have some Beerjitos.

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