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Recipe Design: Our six philosophies to beer construction

This time around we’re talking about recipe design, how you think about it and approach it. No, we’re not giving you any “rules” for recipe design . . . we’re not those kinda guys! We’re going to talk about how you think about designing a recipe — the philosophy of design — not tell you what goes into it. We want to help you figure out how to approach recipe design. Knowing how you think about a recipe will help you focus on what the recipe should be. Exercising recipe mindfulness improves your brewing execution and reduces your number of “failed” recipes.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to design a beer recipe. You can use the bottom-up approach: Look at your ingredients to decide what to make. Alternatively, you can use the top-down approach: Start with how a beer tastes (physically or conceptually) and figure out how to get there. Both of those methods have their own merit. Sometimes you come across a stray pound of Galaxy™ and need to figure out what to do with it! (If this happens to you, call us.) Other times you think, “I want a bright, citrusy pale ale.”
Usually recipe design goes like this: “What do I want to make? IPA it is!” Then you look at the ingredients you have on hand and they don’t quite fit the bill. But you have a little of this and little of that, you plug it into your recipe software, and at least the numbers look right! You brew it and then probably think, “Hmm . . . that didn’t work. Maybe next time I should just go out and buy the correct ingredients.”

You have fallen prey to the common pitfalls: Too much stuff and not enough understanding of ingredients, processes, and style. You’re shooting in the dark and your beer suffers for it.

Over the years, we’ve identified a few types of recipe design.

  1. More is Better
  2. What Have I Got?
  3. Tweaking Another Recipe
  4. Every Beer Tells a Story
  5. The Roadmap
  6. Less is More

Let’s look at each of them.

More Is Better

OK, let’s be honest . . . who hasn’t done this? And if you answer “not me,” then you may be the only one! This is especially common in newer brewers. You’re so excited by the world of ingredients out there that you want to try them all. And you’re so anxious to try them that you can’t wait to add some of them to one batch and others to another. You want the world and you want it NOW! (insert Jim Morrison/Doors reference . . . what, you’re not that old?) This is an example of the bottom-up approach.

Exercising recipe mindfulness improves your brewing execution and reduces your number of “failed” recipes.

Let’s look at a “more is better” recipe. You start with some pale malt as a base. Then add some Vienna malt for depth. Maybe a bit of melanoidin malt for richness. You need wheat for head formation, and of course, some carapils for body. You think, “every recipe I see has crystal 60 in it, so I’ll throw some of that in.” A little brown malt for color, and some Munich malt because who doesn’t like Munich? Seven different hops will add complexity, and then you age it in a Hungarian goulash barrel (don’t ask!) just because you can. And you end up with a muddled mess. There is no direction, no point, to the beer. It’s just a bunch of ingredients thrown together.

Remember, more is not necessarily better, but neither is less. Use whatever it takes to make the beer you want, but understand why every ingredient is in there and what it brings to the beer party in your glass.

What Have I Got?

A variation on the “more is better” theme is the “what have I got?” method. Sometimes also known as the “kitchen-sink recipe,” this is when you decide to clean out the grain bins, throw it all together and see what happens. It may work, or it may not. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry, “are you feeling lucky?” The upside is that at least your grain bins are empty and you can start over collecting ingredients. And make no mistake; you can make a really good beer like this. You just won’t know until after you’ve made it.
And if you don’t take really great notes — you’ll never make it again! Although sometimes that might be the point.

Tweaking Another Recipe

You can use a previous recipe of yours, or one from a friend or book, and try tweaking it to make a different beer. This isn’t a bad place to start, assuming that the recipe you’re tweaking is sound. You need to decide that for yourself, or talk to someone who’s made the recipe before. At this point, Denny would like to implore you . . . make the recipe exactly as written before you start tweaking. If you don’t, then you probably have no idea what that beer is like (brewed on your system) and what you may want to change. Yeah, we know that almost none of you will do that, but for Denny’s sake, at least THINK about it!

Specialty grains should have a purpose in every recipe you design.

When you tweak a recipe, it’s important to change only one thing at a time so you can realistically assess the changes you’ve made. Before you do anything, think about how your tweak will affect the base recipe. The answer might even be, “I don’t know, but I want to find out how this hop works in there.” That’s valid. But just don’t change two hops at the same time!

Every Beer Tells A Story

This is one of Drew’s favorite ways to design a beer. Beers like his Cookie Celebration Ale, Saison Guacamole, and even the dreaded Clam Chowdah Saison. It’s a great opportunity to use locally- or home-grown ingredients to make beers that have a personal connection to them.

The thought process is pretty simple — what’s the story and how does that work in a gustatory fashion. Before the Cookie and Chowdah beers were pretty straightforward translations. What goes in an oatmeal raisin cookie? (One of Drew’s favorites for his favorite dog.)

The Chowdah was a bit harder because we object to the idea of chucking a cream-based soup in our beer. (Not that that stops a number of breweries out there.) Instead, that beer was designed to emulate the aspects of what makes chowder, chowder. . . potatoes lent a creamy silky mouthfeel; thyme, bay leaves, and pepper corn, the herbaceous quality; and finally the clams? Well, they gave the brininess! (And yes, you could just use salt water.) Break it down.

For things non-culinary, you need to break down the aspects that make the story work. When doing a beer in memory of the late Hunter S. Thompson, Drew used poppy seeds, mushrooms, hemp seed, Jack Daniels, and Coca-Cola to riff on Hunter’s legendary drug consumption. (Think about it for a few minutes.)

Find a story and let it guide you!

The Roadmap

This is how Denny usually approaches a recipe. He “tastes” the beer in his head and tries to break down the component flavors, then figure out what ingredients he needs to get those flavors in the beers. He imagines what every component will add to the beer as he builds it up in his mind. The main rule here is “if you don’t know why something is there, leave it out!” This is how his Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter recipe came about (see bottom of this page for Denny’s Bourbon Vanilla Porter recipe). He wanted to make a beer to give to friends for Christmas. Normally that would be a barrel-aged something or other, but time was short and he didn’t have a barrel anyway! So he thought about what a Bourbon barrel might bring to a porter. The first two things he thought of were Bourbon (DUH!) and vanilla notes from the wood. OK, maybe not vanilla like you get from vanilla beans, but it sounded good. He brewed a couple batches of the base porter to make sure it was going to work, then started working on the vanilla and Bourbon additions. (By the way, Denny is big on brewing test batches until he gets the beer he has in his mind.) The beer turned out to be a hit not only with his friends, but also with the thousands of homebrewers who have made it in the years since its inception.

Less is More

We started with the school of more is better, so it only makes sense that we end with its philosophical opposite. We think ultimately, this is where brewers drift over time. Denny’s philosophy of leaving out things of unknown impact is a loose way of saying, “use the least things needed.” But some folks really like structure.

The big one on the internet is the Single Malt and Single Hop methodology. The rule is there in the name. We often see a number of posts about, “I’m making a SMaSH pale ale with XYZ hops.” So many in fact, that it often feels like that’s the only thing homebrewers can think of! But look throughout brewing history and you’ll see a number of beers that fit the SMaSH profile – the classic being a solid Pilsner. Think about it — it’s a good Pilsner, properly mashed and then boiled classically with Saaz hops. That’s kinda it. You can make a classic English barleywine with a ton of Maris Otter and a long boil.

But if that’s too restrictive for you, Drew has a notion called Brewing on the Ones. It’s less restrictive than SMaSH, but the idea still remains — use only one base malt, one crystal malt, one hop, etc. Whatever you do — don’t go crazy with your choices. That’s how you get things that are unfocused. In the brewing world, this almost becomes a default because most breweries aren’t going to store 30 different types of malt used in weird quantities. You can see lots of beers in the wild that follow this principle — the classic pale ale, a hefeweizen, a Belgian tripel, etc.

Here’s the thing — you don’t have to hew religiously to any of these philosophies. Fanatical “Drewids” aren’t going to hunt you down for putting a second roast malt in your stout recipe. Denny’s not going to demand to see the map before he pulls over his mash tun. Mix, match, choose, but above all else be aware of what you’re using and why you’re using it!

Now that we’ve looked at how you think about designing recipes, it’s time to look at how you tweak an existing recipe and evaluate the changes
you’ve made. But we’re out of space, so that will have to wait until the next issue’s column!

Denny’s Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.086 FG = 1.028
SRM = 45 IBU = 32 ABV = 7.8%

Ingredients
12 lbs. (5.4 kg) 2-row pale malt
2.5 lbs. (1.13 kg) German Munich malt (10 °L)
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) brown malt
1.25 lbs. (0.57 g) chocolate malt (350 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (120 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (40 °L)
9.8 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.65 oz./18 g at 15% alpha acids)
2.4 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (10 min. ) (0.4 oz./11 g at 6% alpha acids) 1⁄2 Whirlfloc tablet (5 min.)
Wyeast 1450 (Denny’s Favorite 50 Ale) or SafAle US-05 yeast
2⁄3 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mash at 155 °F (68 °C) using 23.6 quarts (22.2 L) of water for 60 minutes. Lauter as you normally would. Bring wort to a boil. Total boil time is 70 minutes with the first hop addition 10 minutes into the boil and the second hop addition during the final 10 minutes. Add the Whirlfloc with 5 minutes remaining.

Chill the wort down to yeast-pitching temperature, aerate heavily, and pitch a sufficient starter (or 2 packets) of yeast. Ferment around 66 °F (19 °C).

When fermentation is complete, split 2 vanilla beans lengthwise. Scrape all the seeds and “gunk” from them and add it to the fermenter. Chop the beans into 2–3 in. (5–7.5 cm) long pieces and add them, too. Leave in secondary for 10–14 days, then taste. You want the vanilla to be a bit on the strong side since it will fade. If the vanilla flavor is adequate, rack to bottling bucket or keg and add approximately 375 mL (1.6 cups) of Jim Beam Black Bourbon. You don’t need to use an expensive Bourbon, and you don’t want to add a lot. The beer shouldn’t scream “BOURBON!” at you. You should have an integrated flavor of the chocolatey porter, vanilla, and Bourbon. This beer does not benefit from extended aging. I prefer it within a few months of brewing. The FG should be in the mid-high 20s, so don’t worry about trying to get it lower.

Denny’s Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.086 FG = 1.028
SRM = 45 IBU = 32 ABV = 7.8%

Ingredients
6.25 lbs. (2.8 kg) light dried malt extract
2.5 lbs. (1.13 kg) German Munich malt (10 °L)
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) brown malt
1.25 lbs. (0.57 g) chocolate malt (350 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (120 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (40 °L)
9.8 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.65 oz./18 g at 15% alpha acids)
2.4 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (10 min.) (0.4 oz./11 g at 6% alpha acids)
1⁄2 Whirlfloc tablet (5 min.)
Wyeast 1450 (Denny’s Favorite 50 Ale) or SafAle US-05 yeast
2⁄3 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Place the crushed Munich and brown malts in a large muslin bag. Mash at 155 °F (68 °C) using 9 quarts (8 L) of water for 45 minutes. Add crushed chocolate and crystal malts to a separate muslin bag. After the 45-minute mash is complete, add the specialty grains. Steep for 15 minutes. Remove both grain bags and rinse with hot water. Top off kettle to about 6 gallons (23 L). While the heat is off, stir in the dried malt extract, stir until all the extract is dissolved. Bring the wort to a boil. Total boil time is 70 minutes with the first hop addition 10 minutes into the boil and the second hop addition during the final 10 minutes. Add the Whirlfloc with 5 minutes left.

Chill the wort down to yeast-pitching temperature, aerate heavily, and pitch a sufficient starter (or 2 packets) of yeast. Ferment around 66 °F (19 °C). Follow the remainder of the all-grain instructions.