OK, here’s one that’s kinda zen. What is the thought process you go through when you begin formulating a new recipe? Do you work backwards from the end result, build it in your mind as you envision it, or something in between?
— Denny Conn
Most homebrewers start brewing by following established recipes (or making beer kits), in much the same way that home cooks usually start cooking by following recipes in a cookbook. When you’re just starting, you want to rely on the experience of past brewers to guide you to making great beer. However, as a homebrewer gains experience, he or she may eventually branch out into writing his or her own recipes. In this article, I’ll explain a few ways to formulate a beer recipes and hopefully encourage brewers interested in this to dive right in and get started. I’ll start out with some by-the-numbers advice, but throw in some “zen” near the end.
Tweak an Established Recipe
For many brewers, their first experience formulating a recipe is making an adjustment to an existing recipe. A brewer may have made a pale ale, for instance, and later repeated the recipe, but added more hops. Tweaking an existing recipe is a good way to start down the road to writing your own recipes because a little more or less of any basic beer ingredient isn’t going to ruin a beer. Making a beer a little stronger or weaker, adding more or less hops, or adding more or less of one of the specialty malts will make the beer different. However, in the vast majority of cases, you can’t really screw up. A beer recipe meant to produce a certain style of beer may no longer do so after tweaking, but the odds that the ingredients clash in a way that makes the beer not enjoyable is slim — especially if you’re basing the tweak on a personal preference and adjusting the amount of ingredients already present in the recipe.
Tweaks to an existing recipe can include adding more or less of any of the existing ingredients, subtracting existing ingredients, adding new ingredients, or swapping ingredients. It can also involve changes in your procedure; for example, mashing at a higher or lower temperature or fermenting at a a higher or lower temperature.
The strengths of this method are that you start with an existing recipe (hopefully reflecting the knowledge of an experienced brewer), and you put your own stamp on it. In addition, unless you add some new ingredient that’s terribly inappropriate, the success rate using this method is high.
Compiling an Average or Consensus Recipe
Sometimes a brewer wants to try something that is new to him and needs a recipe. In this instance, one approach he could take would be to assemble an average or consensus recipe. The idea would be to examine several recipes for the type of beer he wants to brew, and make a recipe based on the collective ideas in those recipes.
A simple way to do this would be to make an average recipe — write down the ingredients and their amounts from several different recipes, take the average amount of each ingredient and have that be your recipe. A similar approach would be to assemble a consensus recipe. Examine several recipes and see what ingredients appear in every recipe (or the vast majority) and include only those ingredients (at their average amount) in your recipe.
If this method appeals to you, Ray Daniel’s book, “Designing Great Beers,” has information on how homebrews that made it to the NHC in the ‘80s and ‘90s were put together.
This method also allows you to make use of the knowledge of other brewers, but there are a couple potential drawbacks. If you find three or four recipes that are very similar, you may think “this is the way to brew [beer X].” However, it’s also possible that those recipes are simply variants of each other, not independently formulated. Likewise, the best you’ll ever do with this method is make a middle of the road example of the beer you’re trying to brew. If that’s what you want, then this is how to do it. However, if you want your beer to be an example of a particular type or style, but also stand out from the crowd, this is not the way to go. If you plan to brew the beer several times, you could start with an average or consensus recipe, then tweak it to add your own personal stamp.
A Beery Vision
But what if you have an idea for a beer that isn’t an established beer style or a copy of another beer? What if you have a vision of a beer in your mind and want to assemble a recipe for it? In this case, you’ll need to have brewed long enough to be familiar with many of the malts, hops and yeast strains available to homebrewers. You’ll also need to know things like what happens when you mash or ferment beers at the high or low end of the normal ranges. Essentially, you’ll have to have some grasp of what different ingredients add and how different processes affect beer flavor.
In this case, I would start by asking what the basic idea of the beer is, and build around that. If you are envisioning a malty beer, start with the grain bill and focus on what malts are going to be front and center. Is is going to be a pale or amber beer with some Munich malt or aromatic malt flavor? Is it going to be a dark beer with some caramel notes?
If you’re thinking of a hoppy beer, start with the hops. Do you want the beer to be bitter, with relatively low amounts of flavor and aroma? Do you want the bitterness restrained, with tons of hop flavor and aroma? Or do you want it to be both highly bitter and highly aromatic? And what character do you want the hops to have?
If you’re thinking of a beer with strong character from the yeast — such as a Belgian-inspired beer or something with an aroma similar to hefe-weizen — you might even start by selecting a yeast strain and the fermentation conditions first.
Once you’ve figured out the centerpiece of your beer, add the remaining ingredients (and procedures), with an eye towards how they work with the main element of the beer. When it comes to malts, think not only of the flavor they add, but their effect on body. When it comes to hops, consider that the IBUs don’t tell the whole story. Hop character is influenced by the malt character, body and carbonation of the beer. Consider every element of the beer, including the level and method of carbonation. Might your beer taste best cask conditioned, or pushed with nitrogen? Should it be almost explosively carbonated to accentuate the aromas of the beer, or more restrained to enhance the perception of the beer’s body?
In order to approach beer recipe formulation in this manner, you’ll need some experience brewing and tasting beer. However, keep in mind that it’s hard to make a beer that is terrible unless you’re trying to. I’ve had plenty of beers turn out differently than I thought they would, but— with a few exceptions — they were mostly decent. Sometimes they were even close to my imagined idea and good. As an example, I formulated my Copper Ale recipe this way and it’s now one of my favorite homebrews.
One trap when formulating recipes is the idea that adding a bit of this and a bit of that adds “complexity.” (You see the same thing when guys make up spice rubs for their grilling and use every spice in the rack.) I would argue that each ingredient should have a purpose in the beer that you clearly understand, or remove it from the recipe. One man’s “complex” is another man’s “muddled.” For every additional ingredient you add, you’re taking some amount of focus away from the other main ingredients. Some very outstanding beers are made from very simple recipes — fresh ingredients and a skilled brewer can make good beer out of pale malt and some hops. Of course, some beers do have a lot of different ingredients, and this doesn’t necessarily make them bad. I think that some big, dark beers can benefit from a variety of specialty malts. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking more is always better.
Zen and the Art of Homebrew Recipe Formulation
OK, you asked for some zen. Here’s as close as I can get. When you formulate the recipe, try to think of the ingredients as they actually are experienced by you. Don’t be swayed by the names or descriptions of the ingredients, think about how they actually taste or smell to you. For example, you’ll sometimes hear that biscuit malt adds a biscuit-like flavor to your beer. However, biscuit malt doesn’t taste like biscuits, it tastes like biscuit malt. There are similarities — enough to name and describe the malt that way — but there are also differences. The same thing goes for hop descriptions. Some folks say Amarillo hops smell like grapefruits, but that’s really shorthand saying that they smell like hops, with sufficient grapefruit-like notes that we’ll describe them that way so you know how they differ from other varieties of hops. (In a triangle test between a grapefruit, Amarillo hops and any other variety of hops, you’d pick the grapefuit as the outlier.) So when you think of caramel malt, chocolate malt, coffee malt, biscuit malt, think of the malts, shorn of their names and verbal descriptors. Imagine the flavors and aromas in your mind, and base your recipe decisions on that . . . uh, grasshopper. Or something. I must now go investigate the ancient question — what is the sound of one hand lifting a beer to my lips?
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