Avoid Brewer’s Block

There are endless ways to brew a tasty beer, but sometimes we all get writer’s block — or in this case, brewer’s block — and are not sure what to brew next. When the tried and true recipes and ingredients are starting to become mundane and you can’t seem to think of a recipe that excites you, it’s amazing how often ideas strike if you just keep your eyes and ears open to possible influences that we encounter daily. When I have any issues coming up with a new recipe idea I will go over the following list of topics in search of brewing inspiration.

Water Source

Whether you are an amateur brewer or a water guru, having a basic understanding of your water source and profile will be a great deal of help by telling you where your starting point is with writing a recipe. This is true even if you plan on leaving the water untreated with salts. I have three separate 5-gallon (19-L) water jugs that I specifically use for collecting water from outside my home for my homebrew batches. Some of my alternative water sources come from tap water from a travel destination, a particular brewery, mountain spring run off, mountain streams, unique well water, rain, and snow.

I have been blessed with living in some secluded areas of the Appalachian region, and have always been able to find a clean source of water. My advice to sourcing water is to pay attention to your surroundings. Where are you located, and what is up stream? Even snow and rain in the cleanest of areas collects dirt and smog from the atmosphere. Once collected (and melted if snow) you will notice the dirt settling and oils, if any, floating on top. I always take the middle clean section and run it through a carbon filter before brewery use, discarding the wastewater. It is amazing how your beer’s final taste will differ when using different water sources. If collecting water is not an option for you, you can always use distilled water and build to style.

Style & Historical Procedures

We all have our favorite styles that we have brewed time and time again. Once your taste buds are ready for a change we can look at the endless styles of beer that are out there. As a professional brewer, I have found joy in brewing my lesser favorite beer styles just to see if I can do it well. A beer style is not just a flavor of beer, rather a historical picture of time, location, and procedures of the time period showcased in a glass. Each region of the world has spent thousands of years perfecting and refining their brewing techniques to produce the best beer they could with what was available to them. Many of these variables include water, climate, and agriculture issues that will bring about many styles of mashing, lautering, boiling, airborne yeast, cellaring practices, and serving methods.

The ingredients will vary from region to region, along with the brewing practices, as they are unique to that location. Most brewing methods are similar with a few minor differences. Brewing a style in the way it would historically have been brewed can be a fun change of pace and may incorporate things like: Cereal mashes, step mashes, turbid mashes, decoction mashes, caramelized wort with removing crystal malts, kettle reductions/extended boils, open fermentation, and the use of coolships, just to name a few.

When you get into beers with specific requirements such as the German Reinheitsgebot or the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), you end up building your recipes based on those requirements.

Another fun way I have found to brew a batch of beer is to build a fire pit, and brew over a campfire like they did many moons ago. It adds a few more hours to your brew day, but the journey is definitely worth it.

New Ingredients

Amarillo®, Huell Melon, Black Prinz®, Golden Naked Oats, and honey malt. I remember when these products first hit the market, and we all wanted to try them in our upcoming beers. We are lucky to be in an age where our farmers, maltsters, and yeast biologists are always coming up with new products quicker than we can try them. Pick your favorite new ingredient, or even a random one you haven’t brewed with before, and build a recipe around it to showcase that ingredient. You may just find a favorite you’ll add to your regular brewing schedule.

Shop for Local Ingredients

Supporting local businesses is always a great thing to do to help your community. Do you have a favorite coffee shop, produce stand, or corner mom and pop store that offers fresh or organic local products? Or you can go the more traditional route with brewing ingredients — in the past few years there have been a number of hop and barley farms, as well as malting companies popping up in many states to choose from. Look around and see what is available to you.

By going to the farmers markets you are not only supporting your local farmers, but you will have access to some of the finest and freshest produce that you can get. The majority of the time you will be able to talk directly to the farmers who grew and cared for the produce, which can help in formulating a proper recipe. The farmers and staff usually enjoy hearing about how their products are being used, especially when it’s for something as awesome and unique as brewing beer. There are various ingredients that you can find at your farmers market depending on your location, and from my experience, they are reasonably priced. When looking at ingredients you can choose either simple sugars like fruit and honeys, or starches like pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and grains. I have also seen a wide range of spices that could be used for brewing, and some places you can even buy herb plants from which you can pick and dry ingredients for beers.

Home Projects

For me this is where I like to get many of my brewing ideas. Most of these home projects are single projects that each take a great deal of time to do, or even master over the years. Gardening and growing brewing ingredients is a hobby into itself, which is why it will get its own section later. Even on a professional level I enjoy putting in the extra effort by doing special unique techniques like home toasting malts (even if it is 200 lbs./90 kg), smoking malts in a pan on the grill, or French pressing a barrel’s worth of espresso 8 oz./237 mL at a time. Doing home projects that add to the beer flavor, or spirit of the beer, not only makes for a great beer and story, but it also expands your knowledge in topics that you normally might not have gotten involved with.

Other home projects could include home malting, beekeeping for honey, home coffee roasting, making homemade candi sugar using your favorite sugar source, using your favorite wood (like cherry, apple, peach, hickory) to smoke your favorite base malt, building new equipment and gadgets, or even building a yeast library. Any project that you undertake will no doubt take a bit of your time, giving you plenty of time to plan a beer recipe around your project goals.


I have fond memories as a child helping family members in the garden, and have found agriculture to be fun. As I got older and took an interest in brewing beer, I began to pay more attention to the soil and nutrient needs of what I was growing. Gardening takes a bit of dedication, knowledge, and trial and error to fully master the craft, however the feeling of pride you get when you reap a great harvest is amazing. Right now I have a 12-year-old Cascade hop plant that keeps getting ridiculously bigger each year, and I have been doing small trial and error barley plots for three years. There are plenty of brewing ingredients that you can grow to use in your recipes. Things such as: Barley, wheat, oats, rye, berries, stone fruits, melons, corn, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins and other gourds, or even hot peppers if you’re brave enough. Remember that gardening is not just growing something, it is also harvesting and properly packaging it. It took me three years of hop harvests to fully get down home drying and packaging techniques.


I love to hike the forests with my family, and we have learned that nature provides many snacks for us if we know what to look for. Because of this, I have picked up the hobby of understanding local plants and foraging for nature’s treats. I once had massive blackberry and raspberry bushes that I was able to harvest enough berries to dose into a few kegs of a Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrel aged Belgian blond. There are endless styles that you can choose from, however the most adaptable style for foraging would be gruits.

Start at the beginning of the year by keeping notes on what times each plant starts to sprout, grow, bloom, and is ready for harvest. Some of my favorite plants to keep an eye on for brewing purposes are dandelions, chicory roots (which I roast), yarrow, raspberries, wild cherries, wild blueberries, brambles, blackberries, wineberries, mulberries, a variety of nuts, blue spruce tips, rose hips and petals, thistle, and wild apples, pears, and peaches for ciders. Some of the more extreme versions of foraging that I have done for beer was collecting red seaweed and kelp from the ocean to use as my Irish moss additions, hiked two miles off a mountain side with a hand truck and jugs to collect mountain spring water, located a cherry tree in the woods then chopped a portion off for smoking Munich malt, and went into the rainforest in the Dominican Republic to get fresh vanilla bean that was pressed into an extract.

Before you start foraging, a word of warning: Always know 100% the identity of the plant that you are working with. Some mistaken plant identities can prove to be a fatal choice. I would also advise against foraging for honey and mushrooms due to the hazard risk involved. Leave those to trained professionals, assuming that you are not one.


Smoking Grains:

We have already discussed foraging for wood for smoking grains. If you can’t forage for your wood, you can call your local lumberyard and ask for fresh or untreated rejected pieces of your choice of variety. Tree services and many online marketplaces are also a great place to source fresh wood.

Toasting Wood For Aging:

Instead of using it to smoke grains, you can also toast wood and use it to age beer on. In the past year I have been doing research with toasting wood for aging purposes and, with the help of the famous wood toasting chart floating around on the internet, came up with my favorite toasting schedule outlined below (note: while this procedure has never caused the wood to catch fire for me, it is a good idea to closely monitor what is happening in case of a fire):

1. Preheat the oven to 300 °F (149 °C). Spread the wood chips over a cooking tray, then place in the oven once it reaches temperature.

2. Bake the wood at 300 °F (149 °C) for 20 minutes as this temperature promotes an oaky/sweet character.

3. Raise the oven temperature to 320 °F (160 °C) and once at temperature, bake for 20 minutes. This temperature promotes a full sweetness character in the wood.

4. Raise the oven temperature to 400 °F (204 °C) and once at temperature bake for two hours to promote a rich vanilla character.

5. Raise the oven temperature to 440°F (227 °C) for 20 minutes to promote a toasty character.

6. Turn off the oven, then take out the baking tray to set aside on the stove top to let cool. Roughly a quarter of the toasted wood will have a light char (charcoal) to it, and might have red hot embers in some spots. The char should be similar to the char of a commercial oak whiskey barrel.

Once the wood has cooled down it is ready to be used, or it can be packaged in a sealable sandwich bag for later use. You can use this process as a guide and play around with the temperatures, times, and char level to meet your liking. You can also use many different wood varieties, however the oak varieties are the most common. (That said, I highly suggest trying peachwood). You can take this process a step further by soaking the toasted wood in your favorite spirits before adding it to your beer for aging.


Wooden cask barrels are fun to work with, but can be tricky. The classic barrel size is a 53-gallon (200-L) oak barrel freshly emptied from the distillery, leaving much essence inside, however smaller sizes are also available. Depending on styles and storage conditions, you can usually get a couple uses out of a barrel before the flavor contributions from the barrel are minimalized. After your second use, if the staves are still intact, you can get more uses if aging sours. Keep in mind that different sizes, storing temperatures, humidities, and other atmospheric factors will play a major factor on when it is time it rack the beer out of the barrel.


Base your recipes off of new yeast strains that you haven’t used. Along with new strains from the companies homebrewers are most familiar with, there are a handful of smaller yeast manufacturers out there selling unique strains — you might be surprised by the new selection if you haven’t searched in a while. Another fun thing to do is to blend yeast strains, especially lager and ale strains. If you are ready for more advanced practices you can do bottle yeast harvest or wild yeast isolations (for more on how to harvest your own yeast, here’s an article on the subject: Or, instead of trying new strains, you can designate a “house strain” and see how many generations you can take it by making a lineage chart.


We all have that one beer that we absolutely love. Some professional brewers have no problem helping you out with a clone recipe or just flat out give you their brewing notes with all the brewing specs. However, other brewers may be contracted by their employers to not give out any information. No matter what path you choose, making clones and doing side by side taste testing is always a fun experience. Learn more about formulating clone recipes here:

Type of Bubbles

Most people find their favorite way to carbonate their beers and stick to that process. Usually it is force carbonation for kegs or adding priming sugar for bottles. There are many ways to create bubbles to help enhance your recipe. If you have a way of using a spunding valve (building instructions can be found in this article: then you can cap off your fermenter using natural carbonation for your beer.

There are plenty of other sugars that you can use to prime a beer, such as: Table sugar, beet sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey (many unique varieties), and maple syrups. I once made an Oreo cream porter carbonating it with the vanilla cream center fillings (it worked well, but there was a lot of wax to deal with).

Once you feel like going the extra step, take a look into the CAMRA requirements. Working with pins, firkins, and casks are one of my favorite things to play with. A well-made cask ale is a glass full of joy in my opinion. Choose a style that goes well with lower carbonation levels for these types of beer.

Aging/Vintage Beers

Another idea you may want to try is brewing a beer with the purpose of long-term aging. Designing a beer that will age well, one that will blend and mature into one harmonious beer over time, can be a rewarding exercise. You can either age in a keg, or packaged in bottles. The neat thing about kegs is that you can age a hoppy beer and redose it with dry hops before packaging. If you grow your own hops, or have your favorite recipe with one thing changed each year, then you can brew a vintage series.


The more you know about beer styles, their cultural history, brewing practices, and ingredients of that area or time period, the greater the list of ideas to produce a unique (to you) beer becomes. As with most brewing habits around the world, use what is local and easily available to you. There are plenty of great brewing opportunities as long as you keep a watchful eye out.

While looking at pictures to choose from for this write up, it brought back many great memories. My family and children have always been there to participate in these brewing projects. Gardening lessons, harvesting hops and barley, long hikes to collect berries and water for projects, and eating lots of Oreos. Beer is much more than a beverage if you look at it from a different perspective. This way of thinking should give you endless recipe and beer style ideas for your next batch.

Issue: January-February 2019