Article

Improving Cloning Skills

Cloning — brewing a near-exact replica of a commercial beer — has a time-honored place among homebrewers. For one thing, it’s a great risk-aversion technique: If you’re brewing something new and you’re worried about getting a dog of a recipe, a simple way of increasing your odds of getting a decent recipe is to turn to a clone recipe. Someone must think it’s OK, right? People pay to drink that beer! Then again, maybe you just love a certain beer. There’s nothing wrong with brewing an homage to one of your favorites — especially if you can’t get it regularly where you live. Those are both good reasons to clone, but they ignore the best one: Clone brewing will make you a more competent, more confident brewer. You’ll build your brewing skills not only by executing a recipe, but by adjusting it to your system and fine tuning it. Cloning requires that you not only engage your brewing skills but also your ingredient and process acumen. Of course, tasting is an important part of the process as well, so you’ll be flexing your sensory evaluation muscles. Cloning is like cross-training for brewers!
So, you’ve decided to clone a beer. How do you go about it?

TAKE DEAD AIM

Step one is to find your target. This goes far beyond picking the beer you want to clone. By “find your target,” we mean you should get a bottle, can, or growler of that beer and start picking it apart using your senses: Organoleptic evaluation time! Specifically, you want to note any and all flavor perceptions that stand out. What makes this beer unique? It might only be one thing — Old Speckled Hen is a pretty ordinary English pale ale . . . except for what tastes like a pound of butter in every bottle. You’ll find any beer you’re trying to clone has one or two sensory “hooks” that really stand out and make it memorable. Those are the flavors you want to focus on. You can miss your gravity by a few points, or produce a beer that’s two shades darker than its original version, but you need to nail those one or two defining features. For example, if you make a Schlenkerla Märzen clone that doesn’t smell like a grilled sausage, then you’ve failed. Find that one thing and then, as the golfer Harvey Penick said, take dead aim.

You want those other elements, too, though. Take note of every detail you can suss out. They’ll eventually be what turns a good clone into a great one.

BREW YOUR OWN BEER

Once you’ve done your analysis and selected your recipe, it’s time to brew it. While the recipe will include specific parameters to achieve specific goals, only you know your brewing system. This means at times you’ll need to change what the brewery does, or what the recipe directs you to do, in favor of what you know will work. Every system is unique. You want to produce your “typical” beer in terms of process, because it will help minimize variability when you go back to fine-tune this beer. If you’re switching up your brewing process, you are adding to the possibilities of things that can go wrong.

Now, if there’s a method that is essential to the cloning effort, do it (if you’re making a lager, don’t put the beer on your back porch in summer just because you “usually” do it that way). However, if your normal mash is at 152 °F (66 °C) and the brewery mashes at 154 °F (68 °C) but doesn’t give you a reason to follow suit, then stick with your way. Likewise, adjust the grain bill to match your system’s efficiency.

There are a few processes to pay attention to time and again, as departures in any one of them can significantly affect your final product:

• Add mash/first wort/boil/whirlpool hops at the recommended times

• Follow the fermentation schedule (e.g. “Five days at 52 °F/11 °C, then increase over the next week to
72 °F/22 °C”)

• Dry hop or add specialty ingredients (spices, fruit, etc.) when the brewery recommends, using the same method, for the same length of time

• Carbonate to the same level

EVALUATE, ADJUST, AND REPEAT

Okay, you now have a beer. Hopefully it’s a good one and maybe even a close clone. However, if it’s actually a perfect clone from one brew day, you’re either lying to yourself or you’ve gotten very lucky. Why? Because there’s so much variability from one brew system, water profile, ingredients supplier, and process to the next that the odds of you hitting the exact center of the target the first time out is unlikely. You should be in the ballpark, but you’ll almost always need at least one more brew day to lock in your recipe.

That means it’s time to evaluate your beer. Take this part seriously: Don’t just buy a sample and crack it open next to yours. Buy a bottle as fresh as you can get it — if you can get it right from the brewery, even better. You want to know to as high a degree of certainty as possible what the exact age is because you’re going to “sync” their ages. Take your brewery bottle and put it in cold storage (near freezing, which will drastically slow its aging process). Then leave your sample at room temperature (pick a warm room, too) for “x” days until they’re both roughly the same age. Then, and only then, put them in the same fridge at service temperature. Once they equalize, pop them open and evaluate. To remove any bias, have a friend pour you three samples — yours, the brewery’s, and a third cup with either a second pour of one of the beers or a blended sample. Try to pick out the “odd” beer and/or note any differences.

Once your blinders are off and you know which sample was which, look at your notes and work back to the beer you were trying to clone. If yours was too bitter, make a note to reduce IBUs. If it wasn’t as smooth, look at your water chemistry or consider adding some wheat or flaked barley. If it’s “hot,” reduce your fermentation temperature to prevent fusels. Enlist friends to help taste and your fellow homebrewers to help tweak the recipe. Take two more bottles and taste them warm to pull out even more detail. Continue to take detailed notes to bring back to your recipe and process — then go again!

Once you’ve repeated this process and you’re convinced you have your clone locked in, do one last check: Brew the same recipe again, and compare your new batch to the last batch and to the original brewery’s beer — all three should be very, very similar, and in blind tastings you should have trouble identifying which is which.

Congratulations: You’ve cloned your beer.

MAKE YOUR OWN CLONE

While Brew Your Own has run hundreds of clone recipes over the years, and many more are available from other sources, you may prefer to create your own clone recipe. In that case, here’s my advice.

The first step is to scour the beer world for existing information about what goes into that beer. You may get lucky and find that the brewery already published the recipe, in a publication (thanks, BYO “Replicator!”), on the brewery’s own website, or in an interview. If not, go ahead and stop by the brewery or e-mail and tell them what you’re up to. Many will happily share the recipe, or at least provide guidance or hints based on your own best guess. If so, you’re well on your way. If not, look around for any information about the beer. Even breweries that don’t publish the whole recipe will often post vital stats (original gravity, SRM, IBUs), information about the ingredients (certain hops or malts, water profile information, yeast and fermentation characteristics), or process information. Even if you find a recipe online, look up this information. There’s a sliver of historian and archaeologist in every clone brewer: You’re looking for independent confirmation. I can’t tell you how many times we have received information direct from the brewery that contradicts what was listed on their own website — for example, one recipe was off on SRM by more than ten points. Figure out which version is the current recipe and make sure the current recipe is the beer you love. It will save you time and frustration once you get brewing!

At the same time, look for assistance from other homebrewers. Jump online and search for others’ clone recipe attempts and feedback. You’re trying to create a composite recipe that gets you as close as possible (the patent features you should have pulled out of your own analysis).

Also, if you can source the beer, go ahead and measure the final gravity; if you know a bit about the style, this can give you a good idea of what the original gravity might be. If you really focus on the core flavors from water, malt, hops, and yeast, you can come up with a pretty good guess of what may be in the beer. This can be further honed if you know some of the tricks of the style.

When you feel that you’ve exhausted all the angles, sit down with your notes and your research, and build your recipe — again, giving special attention to whatever unique and essential flavors define the beer.

Ordinarily, we don’t hold ourselves to that high a standard. We taste a beer and decide if we like it or not, whether it’s good enough or not, if we think it would do well in competition; those, though, are poor forms of evaluation and development. By cloning we’re aiming for a specific target, and we know almost immediately whether we’ve hit it or not. In many ways, it’s the ultimate test of your control over your system and process. Can you make what you want — or do you just make what
you make?

LESSONS FOR ADVANCED CLONERS

Let’s say that you’ve cloned a few beers already, and you’re on board with the basic methodology and general strategy (or you’re revisiting this article after a few months of bringing your cloning process into line, good work!). Now that you’ve found a groove in terms of cloning, we can take a few minutes to review some steps that might be useful moving forward and let you hit closer to the center of the target with each new clone batch and maybe even knock a few out on the first try! This is also the point where you know the rules well enough to consider when they can be bent, or even outright broken. Just like your brewing process has evolved and become more sophisticated over time, so too can/will your cloning process.

DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ

One of the great pleasures of my brewing life is writing “The Replicator” column for BYO. I get to reach out to breweries around the world, learn more about their people and their process, and work with their actual recipes and brew up clone batches of their beer. One of the first things I learned, though, was this: Don’t believe everything you read.

I’ve heard it said that if you want to know how much journalists get wrong, read something they’ve written about you. In even a short piece, you’ll find a half-dozen small errors that wouldn’t be obvious to anyone reading but that you know to be inaccurate. The clone brewing version of this phenomenon is this: Even if you have the recipe directly from the brewer, always take it with a grain of salt, because there are often small glitches that can cause you to badly miss the mark in your clone recipe. Sometimes it’s obvious: A brewery lists vital stats for their American stout on their website, and somehow you can’t square your recipe circle because you’re aiming for an SRM of 14. Once you realize that, you can do the math (pun intended) and correct that to what is probably meant to be something like 41. Often, though, it isn’t obvious. Cross-reference as much as you can. Compare original and final gravity numbers to the reported ABV — do they match? Try to find a general water profile for the area in which the brewery operates – are there anomalies that might change your grist percentages or hopping? Does the color seem right? You want to think critically about your recipes: Try, then trust.

I usually also recommend reading reviews of the beer at the various ratings websites; I know it can be painful, but if you scan through you might find that there’s a flavor that’s commonly mentioned that doesn’t seem to be present in the recipe. We might think about this as a “hedging your recipe bets” move on the part of the brewery, which maybe accidentally-on-purpose left out an addition of brown malt or a certain hop addition in their “we’re totally up front with you!” clone recipe to help them preserve a proprietary advantage. That’s fine — but it’s also something we can account for.

Be critical. Make sure your recipe makes sense for the beer you’re trying to make.

THE ROSTER EFFECT

In that same vein, breweries might be overstating the magnitude of some elements in the recipe. Have you ever been on a sports team’s website that published players’ vital stats like height, weight, etc.? If not, let me share an open secret with you: Those numbers are nonsense. Almost everyone on that roster is at least an inch or two shorter than published. This kind of “roster effect” can also happen in beer.

Brewing is a sales and marketing game. If “extreme” sells, then breweries have a built-in incentive to overstate the IBUs in their beers, or the ABV, or how much they dry hop with, or a dozen other things. They may also have an incentive (in places that tax by ABV) to understate the ABV (accidentally, I’m sure), which makes your clone taste weak or lack warmth or a spicy, perfumy alcohol flavor by comparison.

And, of course, it’s also possible that the brewery only thinks it’s getting those numbers. Remember that a lot of what we report out as brewers is calculated, not actually measured.

In any case, don’t necessarily follow that brewery, Thelma and Louise-style, over the cliff chasing IBUs, or hops, or ABV. Brew to a flavor target, not necessarily a numerical one and you’ll be all set.

BREW FOR YOU

Lastly, brew a beer that you want to drink, even if it isn’t a perfect clone. As I noted earlier, you’re brewing your beer. That means you shouldn’t necessarily mimic a brewery’s process for the sake of authenticity, but it also means that you’re the one who’s going to be drinking that beer when all is said and done. Use reference calculations like original gravity: IBU ratio or sulfate-to-chloride ratio to make the beer you like, even if it isn’t exactly what was prescribed by the brewery. If you know that you hate the flavor of Special B and prefer Briess extra special instead (as I do), then make the swap. If you know that your dark beers turn out better with a little extra baking soda in the mash, go ahead and do it.

This isn’t selfish, it’s pragmatic. Moreover, it isn’t even necessarily a deal breaker in terms of your clone. If you hit the right sensory notes in terms of the “hook” for a given beer, then your smaller adjustments at the margins that make it a better beer for you (and maybe your brewing system) aren’t nearly as relevant and can even help make a more well-rounded and enjoyable beer.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to clone a beer. Brewing isn’t some push-button process (even when it is). If cloning was as simple as “follow this exact recipe,” it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun or nearly so beneficial in terms of developing your brewing skill and knowledge of your system and process. Brew their beer — but brew it for you.