If you asked me to create a cake recipe from scratch, I would probably stare blindly at you for a few moments before giving up. Yes, I know you can make a cake from some combination of sugar, butter, flour and flavoring, but honestly I would have no idea where to start on a recipe without opening a recipe book. The same is true for many homebrewers who want to make a beer recipe. We all know that you make beer from barley, hops, yeast and water, but some of us don’t know where to start when designing a beer on our own.
The Two Schools of Beer Recipe Design
In the broad sense there are two basic approaches you can take to beer recipe design. I like to call these the artistic and the mechanical. The artistic approach involves pushing the boundaries of a beer — using new or unusual ingredients in outrageous ways to create something new and unique. This is where many homebrewers excel since they are willing to take risks, experiment and try unconventional things. Jalapeños in your beer? Why not? Maybe it will go well with pizza! Try some juice, berries, cinnamon, fennel, chili, chamomile — or any other flavor combination you can think of. Brewers in this camp often make beer from whatever they have around, often throwing ingredients together in rough proportions on the spur of the moment. This is how I think an artist might approach making beer.
In contrast, the mechanical approach takes a much more methodical approach to beer design. These recipe designers start with a known beer style or commercial beer they want to make, carefully research the ingredients and proportions used, and then calculate out the bitterness, predicted gravities and color to get exactly the combination they desire. It’s an engineer’s approach to beer making.
The artistic school is perhaps embodied best in Randy Mosher’s book Radical Brewing, while the mechanical approach is best captured by Ray Daniel’s book Designing Great Beers. Of the two, the body of knowledge around the mechanical approach is, I think, much better developed. I believe this is true, in part, because many of the major contributors to the beer brewing community over the last 25 years happened to be scientists and engineers, and these same people had early access to the Internet and tended to dominate the conversation as the body of work developed — especially in the 1990s when homebrewing really started to explode.
This isn’t to say one approach is better or worse, and saying that there are only two paths to follow is a simple way to look at it. Often times designing a recipe is a bit of both schools of thought. It’s like saying that John Coltrane was not artistic because he really and truly understood and applied music theory to his improvisational style. Radical Brewing does not require a brewer to be ignorant of brewing calculations. And these calculations can be applied to funky ingredients like peppers to help maintain balance. When I started creating my first homebrew recipes I was decidedly in the artistic camp, though in most cases I was finger painting as opposed to building great works of art. Later on my approach became much more methodical, but as I’ve matured I’ve moved back towards a balance. I think many of the best brewers do achieve a balance between art and science — much like Coltrane did with music; they know the numbers, but they also know how to use the ingredients to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
A Structured Approach to Beer Recipe Design
For those of you just starting out in beer recipe design, it’s important to understand a structured (more mechanical) approach to building recipes. There will be time as you grow to add more artistry, complex ingredients and techniques as you become more advanced and build up your understanding of ingredients. However, a structured approach will benefit a less experienced brewer in building a new recipe.
The basic process I follow when building a new homebrew recipe is a series of six steps:
1. Start with a well-defined goal for the beer
2. Research the target style and beer
3. Select the ingredients
4. Develop the specific grain bill, hop schedule and fermentation schedule
5. Apply specific techniques to help enhance the beer
6. Brew, judge the beer and iterate
Let’s look at each of those steps more in depth:
Start With a Defined Goal
The first and most important step in creating great beer is to start with a well-defined goal. If you are stumped over what to brew next I recommend doing some personal reconnaissance at your local supermarket, craft beer pub or homebrewing event to sample a variety of beers and find something that piques your interest.
Some examples of brewing goals include:
• Making a clone of a popular commercial beer
• Brewing a specific style
• Making a beer for a homebrew competition
• A beer centered around a particular ingredient (such as smoked oats)
• A beer to serve at a certain event (like an Oktoberfest )
• Something really unique (Jalapeño- flavored Atomic Hop Bomb)
I highly recommend writing down a line or two defining what you are trying to do before you start coming up with a recipe. It could be really simple like, “Bass Ale clone,” or could include a detailed description of the style in the case of a competitive beer. Define what is different or unique about your beer so that you have a solid plan to stick to when you start choosing ingredients.
Research the Target Style or Beer
Once I have a clear idea or goal defined of what I want to brew, I next will research the beer I’m going to make. Usually my first stop is the style guide from the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) at bjcp.org. The BJCP style guideline includes 28 major categories of beer, mead and cider styles and some 96 individual descriptions. Each has aroma, appearance, flavor, history, key ingredients as well as the vital statistics such as bitterness level, original and final gravity and color ranges for the beer style. This is a great starting point.
Another major resource is books — including design books like those I mentioned earlier (Ray Daniel’s Designing Great Beers) and also style and recipe books like Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer, or Jamil’s Best of Brew Your Own 30 Great Beer Styles special issue. If you like a particular beer style you can also consider the many style specific books such as IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale by Mitch Steele or any of the Classic Beer Style series of books.
If you don’t have a large brewing library you can also find a huge amount of brewing information online. A quick search will reveal articles on brewing various beer styles, blogs, forums and recipe sites, such as my own BeerSmithRecipes.com site and of course at byo.com. Compile a few recipes that are similar to the beer you are trying to brew, and take a close look at what ingredients they used and in what proportions.
Finally, my favorite method of research is first-hand research. Sample some beers similar to yours from the supermarket, a local craft brewery or those of other homebrewers. With practice you will be able to discern the major ingredients and also get a good feel for what the beer should taste like. This knowledge will come in handy when you go back later to judge and improve your own recipe.
List Potential Ingredients
At this point, make a complete list of the ingredients you want to use in the recipe, including the yeast to be used. (More advanced brewers can also include the water profile. More on this later in the article.) Don’t try to determine the exact proportions yet — just focus on identifying the key ingredients and what they contribute.
Start with the ingredients that define the style. For example you can’t make a Belgian wit without unmalted wheat, or a Bavarian weizen without the proper yeast to provide the banana/clove flavor. A complex, fruity ale yeast is a key ingredient for a classic English ale. This is where your research will really come in handy.
Next, consider what alternatives might be possible. Could you substitute an American hop variety for an English one? Use a specific barley variety like Maris Otter to give the beer more character? Add something really unique and off the wall like peppers or cocoa?
Finally, go through the notes and ideas that you’ve come up with and simplify. Many beginning brewers try to put everything but the kitchen sink into the beer. In contrast, most commercial beers are made with just a handful of ingredients because commercial brewers can’t afford to maintain a huge inventory of dozens of types of grains and hops, but also because simpler is generally better. The best homebrewers are also ruthless in simplifying their recipes. They don’t add any ingredients to the beer without a specific purpose in mind.
One way to get used to brewing with fewer ingredients as well as understand your ingredients is to explore the Single Malt and Single Hops (SMaSH) style of brewing. In SMaSH you brew a beer with only one malt and only one hop variety. Surprisingly a wide variety of styles can be made including: Pilsner (all kinds), Vienna lager, saison, Munich dunkel, wild ales, IPAs and even barleywine. The advantage of SMaSH is that it gives you a really great feel for what each base malt and hop adds to the overall beer. It also gives you a good appreciation of what can be accomplished with few ingredients.
SMaSH Brewing: Making single-malt and single-hop recipes
SMaSH brewing is an approach to homebrewing based on simplicity taken to the extreme — a beer made with just one hop variety and just one malt. It cuts to the heart of the flavor of the ingredients and is a great way to get to know your ingredients and also make great beer with less time and effort.
Most brewers, myself included, trend towards complex beer recipes when they start to design their own beers. We tend to add everything but the kitchen sink, but since our knowledge of ingredients at that point is limited, the result is often mediocre beer.
Some dedicated homebrewers have coined the term “SMaSH” based on simplified brewing. SMaSH stands for “Single Malt and Single Hop” beers. By breaking brewing down to its simplest elements you can gain a great understanding of the specific flavors that malt and hop varieties add to beer.
A large variety of popular beer styles can be made with SMaSH. When selecting grains, choose a flavorful malt such as Maris Otter or Munich as a base for more flavorful beers, or a simple pale malt base if brewing, say,
For hop choice, many SMaSH brewers prefer medium- to low-alpha hops for beer balance using a single addition, but some brewers have been experimenting with high-alpha hops as they have more distinctive flavor and aroma profiles. You can use any hop you want, really — SMaSH is a great way for you to try out a new variety.
Once you have made your ingredient choices, I recommend running the numbers through your favorite beer software or spreadsheet to ensure that the beer is properly balanced and hits proper gravity and bitterness levels. Also you may want to consider multiple hop additions such as steeped/whirlpool hops and dry hopping for hoppier beer styles, such as an IPA, to maximize aroma and flavor.
Obviously SMaSH can be extended to include more than one malt or hop addition, though it is no longer strictly SMaSH at that point. Most of the BJCP beer styles can be made with just two malts — one base and one specialty malt. The key, again, is simplicity — add only the minimum number of ingredients needed to achieve your objective.
The key with SMaSH brewing is to take the time to learn more about the individual ingredients we use in beer, and also understand that simplicity is important in beer design. The “kitchen sink” approach is not the path to award-winning beer. The best brewers actually accomplish more with less by truly understanding what each ingredient contributes, and how to combine them to achieve their goals. Here is a great SMaSH recipe written by Drew Beecham, who has a lot of experience with SMASH brewing and has done many dozens of recipes:
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.055 FG = 1.012
IBU = 27 SRM = 11 ABV = 5.8%
Be sure your Munich malt can self-convert. Some of the Munich malts in the 20 °Lovibond range will have trouble. Ask your local homebrew shop if you are unsure.
12.5 lbs. (5.7 kg) Munich malt (9 °L)
6.8 AAU Centennial hops (60 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 9% alpha acid)
11.3 AAU Centennial hops (0 min.) (1.25 oz./35 g at 9% alpha acid)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California V)
Priming sugar (if bottling)
Step by Step
Heat 4.5 gallons (17 L) of strike water to 165 °F (74 °C) to stabilize the mash temperature at 154 °F (68 °C). Rest at this temperature for 60 minutes then raise your grains to a mash out temperature of 168 °F (76 °C) and begin lautering. Collect 6.5 gallons (25 L) of wort and boil for 90 minutes. Chill wort to 65 °F (18 °C), pitch an appropriate yeast starter and aerate the wort thoroughly. Ferment at 66 °F (19 °C).
Develop the Specific Grain Bill, Hop Schedule and Proportions
After simplifying the ingredient list, the next step is to develop a specific recipe. At this point I highly recommend using some kind of recipe software or spreadsheet. Full disclosure: I develop and sell BeerSmith recipe software, but there are a number of free and paid alternatives. No matter what package or spreadsheet you decide to use, some kind of system for estimating the bitterness, color, gravity and alcohol content of your recipe as you build it is critical to designing a good, balanced recipe. It is even better if your software or spreadsheet can also take into account your specific equipment since equipment volumes can significantly affect these estimates.
Start first with your grain bill (or extracts). It is easiest at this point to start with percentages such as 80% base grain, 5–10% key grains and the remaining specialty grains (for example). Once you have the percentages right you can scale the weights for each grain up to reach your desired original gravity for the style.
Next, work on the hop schedule. While many homebrewers extol the advantages of continuous hopping additions, I prefer a simpler hop schedule. I will use one or two boil additions followed by an aroma addition at flameout. The boil addition provides bitterness, and the aroma addition the fragile hop aromas.
Recent research indicates that most of the hop aroma oils you want to preserve with late hop additions are boiled off in just a few minutes. So rather than adding hops the last 20, 15, 10 or 5 minutes of the boil, you are better off steeping hops at flameout, using whirlpool additions or a hop back. These options preserve the critical aroma oils in the beer.
Similarly, long exposure periods are a thing of the past with dry hopping. Recent research indicates that shorter dry hop contact times result in a better overall aroma and flavor. In fact as little as 24 hours of contact time when dry hopping can deliver peak aroma. I recommend dry hopping from 24–72 hours.
When selecting a yeast, you can rarely go wrong selecting the traditional strain to match your target style. However sometimes it is worthwhile to go “off-style” to achieve a particular effect. For example, I might use a dry, clean yeast like a California ale yeast if I want a very clean finish even if I’m not brewing a California ale.
A yeast starter is very important if working with liquid yeast. Liquid yeast has a shelf life of only six months and degrades about 20%/month. A typical large vial or smack pack has about 100 billion cells when produced, but that can degrade to 50 billion or so by the end of its life. In contrast, the ideal pitch rate for a 1.048 American ale is about 164 billion cells — so a 1-2 liter starter is required if you want to pitch plenty of yeast. Dry yeast does not usually require a starter — just hydration 15-20 minutes before use.
Water is often overlooked as a major beer ingredient, and can be a pretty complicated subject for new and intermediate brewers. Understanding how hard or soft your local water source is and what minerals it has is critical to making good beer. Hard water is high in calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg), which is usually good for brewing, while soft water is low in Ca and Mg, which usually needs to be improved. The actual problem is Alkalinity (carbonates) where high alkalinity is nearly always bad, and low alkalinity is nearly always good. In general, pale lager beer styles such as Munich helles benefit from lower amounts of minerals in the water, while the typically more assertive ale styles such as IPA and porter benefit from higher levels. If you have water issues, consider using bottled water. Adjusting water and mash chemistry is a pretty complex topic, and if you would like to learn more, there is a book available, Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers, by John Palmer and Colin Kaminski (Brewers Publications, 2013).
Apply Brewing Techniques
The last major stage in building a great beer recipe is to decide which techniques best apply to the beer you are brewing. This can be highly subjective as different techniques drive different effects, and you need to know which ones work best with various styles. Again, this is where your background research will come in handy.
For extract brewers, I recommend the addition of fresh steeped specialty grains to enhance your recipe. Steep grains like caramel, crystal or chocolate malt for 30 minutes at 160 °F (71 °C), then add the extract and start the boil. Another popular technique is to add the bulk of your extract late in the boil (last 10-15 minutes). This technique is called a late extract addition, and will reduce the darkening of the wort and production of atypical flavors that are associated with high gravity boils intended for later dilution in the fermenter.
All-grain brewers should vary the main mash step temperature to adjust the body of the beer. For a light body beer, mash in at 148 °F (64 °C). For a medium body use 152 °F (67 °C) and for a full body beer use 156 °F (69 °C). Changing the temperature alters the fermentability of the wort, resulting in a light or full-bodied finished beer.
I recommend a single-step infusion mash for virtually any all-grain beer. If you want to use unmalted grains or cereals with a single-step mash, just use the flaked or torrified versions, which require no cereal mash step. If you are just getting into all-grain, I also recommend looking seriously at brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) techniques. Brew-in-a-bag uses a grain bag in the boil pot instead of a separate mash tun. This lets you get into all-grain brewing with less equipment and also saves some time when brewing.
For very dark beers, segregating dark grains and steeping them in a tea is another great technique to consider. Mashing very dark grains for a long period can lead to additional bitterness. If you separate them into a steeped tea as I described above for extracts, you can reduce the bitterness and get a smoother flavor. This can be a plus for certain dark beers like mild porters and milk or sweet stouts.
A variety of hop techniques are available depending on style. I’ve already mentioned the use of steeped/whirlpool hops after the boil as well as dry hop additions to enhance fresh hop aroma. Obviously you can vary boil times to change the bitterness of your beer. The other hop technique I recommend when all-grain brewing is first wort hop (FWH) additions. A FWH addition is added to the boil pot at the beginning of the sparging process. This allows the hop to steep for a short period before boiling. The net effect of FWH is to provide a smoother, more pleasing bitterness. So FWH is appropriate for beer styles where you are not looking for dominating bitterness.
For fermentation, I’ve already mentioned the importance of a good yeast starter. Aerating your wort with air or oxygen before pitching the yeast will also enhance your fermentation. Temperature control is very important — ferment in a controlled vessel if possible.
Judging and Improving Your Recipes
It is no coincidence that just about every top-level competitive homebrewer I know is also a certified beer judge. Judging beer is a separate skill, but if you really want to make great beer it is one you need to master.
The BJCP score sheet available at bjcp.org provides a great guideline for evaluating your own homebrews.
I like to use the following evaluation process for tasting my homebrews:
1. Evaluate the external appearance of the beer
2. Capture the aroma up front — right after the beer is poured
3. Evaluate color, clarity and head retention before testing
4. Taste the beer, noting the overall impression first
5. Evaluate finish, malt, hops, aroma, mouthfeel and obvious flaws
During all of this take notes on a score sheet so you can honestly evaluate what the strengths and weaknesses of your recipe are. Use these notes to make adjustments on your next iteration. A lot of homebrewers never brew the same recipe twice, but I can tell you that commercial (and competitive) brewers spend a lot of time perfecting a recipe on a pilot system before they brew 30+ barrels of it. If you want to brew your best beer it’s wise to follow suit by brewing your recipe multiple times until you get it to where you want it. Your goal in judging and iterating is to make a better beer each time you brew that particular recipe.
Learning the art and science of beer recipe design and beer brewing is a lifelong pursuit. Even those who have dedicated their life to the study of beer are constantly learning new things. If you are just starting on this journey, I urge you to take the first steps by creating your own recipes from scratch using a structured process as outlined here. If you are an advanced brewer, take the time to become an expert in beer judging and also expand your repertoire of brewing techniques and you will be rewarded with ever better beers.