This week I take a look at different approaches to designing your own beer recipes. Though beer recipe design is an artistic and very personal journey, few of us really consider that there are different strategies that one can use to create new and unique beers.
A Few Strategies for Beer Recipe Design
Beer recipe design is a creative exercise that reflects the personality and preferences of the designer/brewer. As such there is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach creating a new beer. In this article I’m going to suggest a few different approaches, and also spend a minute talking about the overall approach.
Artistic versus Technical Beer Design
To begin the discussion, I need to provide a bit of history about how home brewing has evolved in the almost 40 years since it was legalized here in the United States. First, you need to know that in the 1970’s and 1980’s the state of brewing knowledge for the average home brewer was quite primitive. Ingredient quality was low, and basic techniques for estimating bitterness levels or original gravity were not widely known or used.
This changed dramatically in the early 1990’s as mail groups and the early internet enabled collaboration. The quality of ingredients also improved significantly. However these early discussions were dominated by the people that had access to the early internet – mainly engineers and scientists. As a result, home brewing took on a decidedly technical bent that carries forward to this day.
Unfortunately this meant that the artistic, creative side of brewing was short changed until more artistic authors like Randy Mosher (a graphic artist) lauched his book “Radical Brewing”. While there has been some progress recently, beer brewing literature and recipe design techniques still tend to be technical in their approach, which can be limiting as recipe design is ultimately a creative and artistic process.
A Traditional Approach to Recipe Design
The traditional approach is a great way to start a recipe if you don’t have a lot of expert knowledge for a style or beer you want to brew. Here’s the basic process:
- Start with a Clear Objective – Perhaps the most important step is to clearly define what you are trying to brew. It could be a clone of a commercial brew, beer targeted for a single beer style, beer built around a unique ingredient or flavor or competition brew. Its critically important that you actually write a few words describing the beer you are brewing so you have a clear goal.
- Research the Beer or Style – This could include sampling commercial beers, looking at the BJCP style guide, reading books on the beer or style, looking up related recipes, or searching a recipe book or beer recipe site like BeerSmithRecipes.com. I’ll often use the style guide to set general guidelines for bitterness, original gravity and color and then look in depth at other beer recipes to get an idea of the ingredients that will work best and rough proportions before proceeding.
- Develop the Basic Ingredient List – At this stage the concept of simplicity is critically important. You want to include only grains, hops and other ingredients that have a specific well defined flavor and purpose in your beer. Don’t throw everything but the kitchen sink in – focus on the ingredients that are important to your brew. I usually focus on the grain bill first, and then select hops, yeast and other ingredients to fit my overall goal. I’ll often list a few alternatives also in case I need to make substitutions in the final recipe.
- Determine Proportions – Once you know which ingredients, you next need to assign how much of each one to use. Again I prefer to work with the grain bill and try to keep my base grains at 85%-90% of my grain bill in most cases. Specialty grains are used sparingly and with a specific purpose to accent specific flavors. For hops I prefer a single boil addition and then whirlpool or dry hop additions to capture aroma oils depending on the style.
- Apply Techniques – The last step for me is to determine whether any special techniques might apply to this beer. This could include things like first wort hopping, whirlpool hops, a special fermentation schedule, mash schedule, etc…
- Brew, Judge, and Iterate – Brewing the beer is usually the simple part if your recipe has been well planned out ahead of time. However it is much harder to critically judge your beer and determine if it has any flaws or room for improvement. Many of the best beer brewers are also judges, and this is no accident. Here’s a quick guide to judging beer. Finally after you brew and judge your beer it is very important to make adjustments and brew it again. Only by brewing a recipe several times will you be able to perfect it.
The traditional approach outlined above is a great way to approach a new beer style or technique you have never used before because it lets you leverage other people’s experience and recipes as well as the broad body of brewing knowledge available to home brewers today.
Next week in Part 2, I’ll take a look at an additional approach to beer design based on building blocks. It is useful for a more experienced brewer who has some knowledge of ingredient flavors and beer styles.
Thanks for joining me on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter or my podcast (also on itunes…and youtube…and streaming radio station) for more great tips on homebrewing. Also check out the How to Brew Video series I shot with John Palmer if you want to learn more about all grain brewing.