I recently tried a peculiar product that a friend brought back from a trip to Japan. It's called Beer Rich, and it's a beer-sized bottle filled about a third of the way with various flavoring ingredients, in this case rose petals and other botanicals. The idea is to mix it with hot water, let it cool in the fridge and then mix it with beer to create a freshly infused "beertail."
Any time the topic of beertails comes up, there's a good deal of scoffing — after all, if your beer needs a flavor infusion, aren't you simply drinking the wrong beer? Some restaurants refuse to provide salt and pepper at the tables, in deference to the chef's vision for his or her food. Shouldn't beer be held to such lofty standards?
No, it shouldn't. Beer is supposed to be fun, and infusing beer with flavors can have really cool effects. The rose-flavored Beer Rich certainly was interesting, but it had a fatal flaw: dilution of the base beer by adding what was essentially a fresh-steeped botanical tea.
Delaware's Dogfish Head brewery has a solution for the enterprising home beer-infuser. A spin-off of its proprietary hop-infusion chamber — Randall the Enamel Animal — the Randall Jr. is a 16-ounce infusion vessel you can fill with whatever weird ingredients you want. At $20, it's a cheap piece of beer hardware that you'll undoubtedly get good use out of.
But many adventurous beer drinkers are infusing beer at home with a household item that many people already own: a French press.
If you don't already have one, pick one up (your coffee will get better, too). Next, come up with some ideas. Fresh fruit, herbs and botanicals, whole spices, coffee and the original beer-infusion ingredient, hops, are all fair game. Make sure you have at least 22 ounces of beer; 36 ounces is a good amount for 12-ounce bottles and cans, and I'll explain why.
The key things to consider are quantity, time and carbonation. Quantity is obvious: Play with the proportions until you find an amount that gives the flavor you're looking for. Time is also pretty simple: The longer you allow something to infuse, the more intense the flavor will be. French-pressed coffee only takes a few minutes, but this is due to the high temperature. Cold-infused coffee takes hours. I recommend starting with 10 minutes for infusions and adjusting from there.
Carbonation is an issue. Pressing down on the French-press filter will cause a significant loss of CO2, which will lead to fairly flat beer. Many ingredients used to infuse beer also contain oils, which also lead to flat beer. If this bothers you, take two bottles or cans of beer, infuse a little stronger and longer than you might otherwise, and then top off the finished infusion with fresh, fully carbonated beer.
With this technique, you can try to recreate impossible-to-obtain beers. Can't get Goose Island's Proprietor's Bourbon County Brand Stout? Neither can anyone else. Instead, get your hands on some regular Bourbon County Brand Stout and infuse it with toasted coconut (you can do this on the stove at home). Finding Cantillon Fou Foune a bit scarce? It's truly a poor man's solution, but you can always infuse some high-quality gueuze with fresh apricot and use your imagination.
You can also go old school and infuse your beers with the original Randall ingredient: whole-leaf hops, which you can get at any homebrew store. You're basically doing a form of dry-hopping at home, which can increase the aromatic intensity of beers with floral, spicy and citrusy oils from the hops. Try it on a relatively mild beer, like a light lager, to experiment with different hop varieties. It's tasty and a good learning experience.
While some readers might start assembling a shopping list to make homemade Hunahpu's (go easy on the vanilla bean — it's expensive and a little goes a long way), I recommend getting as creative as possible. Make yourself a mango-coffee double IPA, or basil-lemon-aji pepper saison. Some may complain that you're not enjoying beer the way it was meant to be enjoyed, but they're just jealous of your new bootleg Tart of Darkness with Cherries and Vanilla. Press on!