Homebrewers use the term “cloning” as the most common way to describe what we are trying to do when we attempt to make a replica of a favorite commercially available beer. The best way to do this is to get the recipe right from the brewer’s lips and then scale down to your brew system. If you use the same ingredients and the same process then it should yield the same results, right? Reality is that the answer is no. Many details like water profile, hop profile, and yeast dynamics can play a big role in the final beer’s character. For these reasons, you should never truly be disappointed in a clone attempt, especially if the beer you make is still really good . . . even if it’s not a close match. But there are some things we can control to get close. And at worst, it’s a fun endeavor.
Coming Up With A Recipe
Once you settle upon a beer that you would like to try to recreate, the first step is to develop a recipe. This will often be the most involved process as there are a lot of nuances to consider. The obvious first stop should be a visit to Byo.com/recipe to see if you’re in luck and we have a recipe for the beer you’re looking to clone. Also take a look at the brewery’s website to see if they share any clues to the ingredients. Some of the common information that is published includes OG, ABV, IBU, and hop varieties. If you’re lucky, some breweries will even provide details for homebrewers. But if you strike out on both of these fronts, a general web search will hopefully provide some clues or even a recipe, but considering there are now hundreds of thousands of beers that have come and gone through the years, there is a good chance you may come up empty.
No matter what, a little primary research of your own is not a bad thing. If the brewery is nearby, make a pit stop. A lot of smaller breweries may have their grain bags in full view of the public. Make note of the various types of specialty malts they’re stocking. If someone is available to chat, even if it’s the bartender, see if you can glean some information. I often like to try to come up with a recipe on my own using as much information as I can gather, then, as a final step before brewing, send it to the brewer to see if they could provide some feedback.
If the brewery is kind enough to provide details, hopefully you can get the grain bill as percent malts and the hopping rate per barrel. Then you can scale to your batch size and system efficiency. And be sure to thank them effusively.
If all else fails, email the Replicator (email@example.com).
Getting The Ingredients
So now that you’ve spent hours researching (hopefully including having a few samples of the target beer for “scientific” purposes of course) and you’ve come up with a recipe, it’s time to procure the necessary ingredients. But the recipe calls for Crisp 77L crystal malt and your local homebrew shop only stocks crystal 60L and 80L. It’s at a time like this that you need to figure out how dedicated you are to the cause. Are you going to be a purist or are you going to “good enough” it? That’s up to you, but again, I’ll argue that there are so many other factors that are going to alter the flavor profile enough that I may just go for the 60L/80L mix or just 80L. However, opting for a basic North American 2-row pale base malt versus Maris Otter pale ale base malt may make a large, noticeable impact. You will need to draw a line in the sand somewhere.
Hops are going to be one of the biggest factors that homebrewers have to contend with when cloning hop-forward beers. Many of the bigger breweries get to select their hops right from the fields. That often means they get prime selection while homebrewers will get those lots that were not selected. The good news though is that hop growers have gotten extremely good at what they do and even the “leftovers” can be very high quality these days.
When it comes to water, try to get as much information as you can on this matter from the brewery. Building a water profile up from reverse osmosis water would be ideal. Also, it’s fun to experiment with various salt additions.
Yeast can be tricky as well since their metabolism and the characteristic flavors can change depending on things like fermenter height. Those big fermenters seen at breweries change yeast by-products when compared to our smaller, homebrew-sized fermenters. You can use the same exact yeast strains they use, same exact ingredients, same water profile, and still end up with a beer that doesn’t match.
The Devil Is In the Details
Just like in the prior section, your brew-day techniques for this beer are not going to match what the professional brewer is doing. But honestly, does it matter that much? The key is to keep it fun and realize you’re brewing beer . . . in other words, it’s a good day. Use sound brewing techniques, the kind a professional brewer may use, but don’t feel like you need to go overboard. Just because Sierra Nevada sparges their mash tun with carbon dioxide prior to mashing in, doesn’t mean you need to for brewing their Pale Ale clone. If all goes well, you should land in the ballpark of the beer you were trying to clone. Heck, you may actually get really close to matching the flavor profile. But if not, take notes and don’t be deterred to give it another go.