- Following a recipe designed by someone else
- Using a kit prepared by someone else
Eventually, I started making my own recipes, which initially tended to consist of tweaking an existing recipe designed by someone else to make it a little hoppier or lighter or darker or whatever. Eventually, as I started becoming more familiar with my ingredients. I started designing my own recipes.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, I got a great bit of advice from one of my fellow homebrewers, "Taste your ingredients."
With malt, you can just chew a bit of it. Nobody is going to complain if you do this in a homebrew store. Or at least they've never complained when I've done it, and if they do complain, is that the sort of place you want to be shopping? But the chew and taste method requires some mental math on your part. When tasting you need to remember that the taste you're getting will be diluted a lot and sweetened a bit. And the aroma will change as well.
To get a better understanding of malts you might want, try super-mini mashes with an ounce or two of various malts side by side. For example, Aromatic @ 21.6 lovibond, Biscuit @ 19.3 lovibond, Victory Malt @ 25 lovibond and Crystal 20 @ 20 lovibond will all add approximately the same color to your beer. You can figure that out with math. But what tastes will they add? You'll be able to tell a bit by just chewing some of the malt, but you'll get a better picture of the taste and aroma my mashing just a little bit of each.
As I found out one day long ago, you probably don't want to chew on your hops. On that fateful day I popped open a bag of Simcoe hops, and put my nose in it. The smell was glorious. I picked out a pellet and chewed. Not so glorious. Apparently, human saliva does a pretty good job of isomerizing the alpha acids, the resulting taste was nearly painful. Fortunately, there are other options. One is to smell the hops. The best way to do this is to take a bit of the hops and rub them together between the palms of you hands.
To get a good idea of the taste of various hops, this "tasting experiment" seems like an incredibly good way to evaluate them side by side. One of the "Lite" beers seems like the best test media, because they have little else to get in the way of the hop taste. I'm planning to try it soon. The Mikkeller brewery did this on a professional level by brewing a series of single-hop IPAs with the same malt bill and yeast, but different hops. Great for them, great for any homebrewers who took advantage of the tasting opportunity.