The Art & Science of Recipe Design

Whether you primarily brew with extract, conduct a partial-mash, or brew all-grain, the end result is your own homebrewed beer. When it comes to recipe design it doesn’t really matter how you brew. What many consider the “next-level” in homebrewing begins when they can design and create their own recipes. It’s art. It’s science. It’s flavor. It’s philosophy. Nothing quite like brewing beer can marry all these concepts and boil them down to fit in a pint glass!

When most people jump into recipe design, they are choosing a personal philosophy sub-consciously. Our brains typically push us toward either a left-brained or right-brained approach. On the left side, you have more mechanical and methodical ideas based around beer and styles you know. You might believe there’s a theoretical perfect recipe if your recipe follows the numbers and processes set forth previously in books and by other brewers. You may see excessive creativity as deriving something “out of style” for a particular beer, maybe even as a sloppy approach. On the right side, you have artistic expression that you may believe should not be constrained by beer styles, ingredients, and maybe even tools or processes. 

It’ll come as no surprise that to make beer you’ll need a little bit from both camps. What you typically have available is the information you’ve already gathered. This will be around ingredients you’ve seen used, equipment you have, brewing techniques and processes you’ve been introduced to and used, and outlined beer styles. Whatever knowledge you have is a starting point toward recipe design. Wherever you’re at on your journey, you can start working toward designing your own recipes. The further along you are the more knowledge and experience you might have. Being knowledgeable about ingredients, equipment, techniques, brewing processes, and beer styles will allow you to be a technically proficient brewer, as well as an artistic and original recipe designer.

Whether you lean toward non-traditional, highly experimental one-off beers or are looking to create and perfect your own recipe of a beloved traditional beer style, keep in mind that beer recipe design is going to require you to be artistic yet calculated. Understanding how beer is built and then understanding your own approach and philosophy will help you achieve the best results.

Artistic Brewing: Cultivating Your Creativity

Many folks are drawn to beer as a creative outlet, whether they know it or not. I’ve met plenty of brewers who derive satisfaction from the process of creating something. They may also be unleashing a small amount of their own creativity without even knowing it. For the most part they are simply crafting beer. There is a difference between art and craft. Art is personal expression; craft is creating using learned skills and techniques. They crossover quite nicely in homebrewing. You may be crafting beer but I bet you could get more out of the process if you put some of your vision into the product, even if that vision seems hard to find right now.

How does beer become artistic? Allowing yourself some artistic license is a great first step. By simply making one conscious decision outside a given set of parameters, like a recipe or style, is all it takes. Maybe it’s a process change or experimenting with a hopping technique. Any decision that deviates from the given or the expected that you made on your own is an artistic decision. The biggest challenge is knowing what can be adjusted, and what parameters you might need to stay within to get a good result.

A great starting place is changing a single ingredient in a recipe you’ve brewed with a specific intended result in mind. For instance, it may go something like this:

• I brewed this American pale ale and it turned out great using a recipe from BYO.
• I just drank this IPA at a local craft brewery with El Dorado® hops and I really liked the aroma.
• My American pale ale recipe calls for 2 oz. (56 g) of Cascade hops added at 0 min.
• I’m going to substitute 3 oz. (84 g) of El Dorado® for the 2 oz. (56 g) of Cascade hops in the same recipe next time.

You’ve made a creative and artistic decision! What has aided or guided you in this decision? 

• You brewed a successful American pale ale and now have a baseline recipe and process.
• You drank a beer with a hop profile that you enjoyed and took the time to identify the hop and appreciate the aroma.
• You also learned somewhere along the way that hops added at the end of the boil are used for aroma.

What’s allowed you to be artistic in this scenario are a handful of experiences — brewing a successful beer, drinking a beer and understanding what went into it, as well as learning along the way what specific hop additions provide in a beer. Without doing things like brewing, tasting, and studying or trying brewing processes, ingredients, and equipment, you won’t be able to unleash your creativity to its full extent.

We know beer can be artistic and a creative outlet, but let’s take it one step further — should it be without rules? Should it be abstract? Probably not in most cases. There are some guardrails that come with anything, even art. We do have boundaries, even if brewers are constantly pushing them, and these boundaries can be good. An abstract beer might be something that distorts what beer is or makes it something else. Maybe it’s brewed with just tomatoes and hops, open fermented with moldy bread, then carbonated and served in closed trash bags. It has many characteristics of beer, but if you handed someone that trash bag, their assumption isn’t that it’s going to be beer, or something they want to drink.

Use the guardrails brewing provides to your advantage, to help you imagine what your next beer recipe will be without giving yourself infinite possibilities. Just make sure those guardrails aren’t too close, restricting you from thinking about how you might brew artistically.

Technical Brewing: Applying Practical Principles

I have met many brewers who simply look to hone the craft of brewing beer. This in and of itself, without trying to take any artistic license, is a significant challenge. What it means as a brewer is that process and technique come before all else. For the technical brewer, a recipe should fall well within the guidelines of a style or be a very close interpretation of a commercial style. The idea of ingredient substitution may be non-negotiable. Unlike some creative brewers, the idea for many technical brewers is to repeat the process on a known brewing system, given a known recipe, until they can brew it to perfection. Sure, this may require some process and brewing system tweaks along the way, and maybe even some recipe adjustments. 

Applying yourself to the craft of brewing is important. Being able to brew using a variety of techniques and ingredients will hone your skills and will improve your beers. Those techniques will ultimately provide you with the ability to brew anything you want. 

Say you jump into recipe design and want to brew a sour beer, but have never experimented with different souring techniques, you may be severely limiting yourself. You’ll be better off learning what can be created via kettle souring, traditional souring techniques, or even experimenting with spontaneous fermentation or blending aged sours before you go too far down the road of exploring recipe design in the sour space. This will require you to take a step back and look at tried-and-true processes and recipes first.

Another reason some folks may choose the path of leaning toward being a more technical brewer is because they are looking to homebrew competitively. If you enter competitions, your beer will be judged on intangibles, around unique flavors, balance and other characteristics, but likely the majority of points to be gained or lost will be how well you brewed to the style guidelines. Technical brewing is critical when it comes to competing well. I’m sure it will be argued that creativity is needed, and I agree, just not to the extent of being a sound technical brewer.

Figuring Out Flavor & Philosophy

Two things worth touching on are flavor and philosophy. Flavor is the most critical aspect of beer. If you don’t enjoy how it looks, you might be able to move past that if it smells and tastes great. But if you don’t like how it tastes, you’re just not going to enjoy drinking the beer no matter the other characteristics.

Sensory aspects of beer, especially around flavor, make up a large portion of recipe design and being able to determine what those different aspects are is critical. The most difficult is flavor sensory. You must understand what ingredients will taste like, as well as beer styles, and how to describe them. This is oftentimes one of the hardest things to learn and overcome. Consider sensory understanding the magic ticket to beer recipe design. Aligning your own perception to others can be difficult. Your definition of fruity, floral, caramel, or chocolate may be different than mine. Ingredient manufacturers and brewers do their best to provide this information to you as a brewer and consumer, and it’s a great starting point to align with what’s generally accepted and understood.

Philosophy might be a bit harder to quantify but you likely see yourself as somewhere in-between an artistic brewer or a technical brewer. Are you targeting making the most flavorful beer possible, maybe around a particular hop, or even a fruit? Or are you usually trying to make the best possible beer to a particular style, or commercial example? That might give you some clues. What’s best is to make sure neither one completely defines you and you come out of your safe brewing space now and again. Challenging yourself to brew well to style, or out of style with new ingredients, is important to grow as a brewer and recipe designer.

Bringing it All Together: Designing a Dark Mild

OK, so it is important to allow for creativity while having a technical understanding of brewing and how they relate to recipe design. Now let’s bring this all together by going through the process of building a recipe together. I suspect that if we both go on the same journey, aspects of our beer recipe will be different!

Let’s say a recent trip to my favorite local brewery introduced me to a lovely English dark mild ale. I thoroughly enjoyed it and went to ask the brewer what went into his recipe, but there were no brewers in sight. There isn’t much on the menu about the beer besides some fluffy language and a stated ABV of 3.5%. Now the recipe creator in me kicks in. I start by making a few mental recordings: Not much hop character, a nice chocolatey note, and a bit of caramel note. It was also a bit sweeter than expected, but enjoyable. 

The next day I go looking around to see if I can find any other dark milds at my local beer shop or maybe from another nearby brewery to explore the style a bit more. Nada, nothing. Although I love the beer I just had, I also know its time on tap may be limited. Time to give brewing a dark mild a shot!

Right away I know a few things based on the beer I drank:

• It’s English in origin and it’s an ale. It likely was brewed with British hops and an ale yeast. 
• I also know an ABV I might like to target based on the beer I tried, 3.5%. 
• Based on the darker color I saw in my glass (not to mention it’s right there in the name), I know I’ll be using some dark malts to derive some color. I also know there are other ways to add color to beer, but that dark malt is the most common.  This fits nicely with the chocolatey note I tasted. 

You’ll always need to make some logical assumptions when a recipe isn’t given and starting with what is most likely is always good or you’ll spend a lot of time going in circles. Again, this is where it’s good to have a basic grasp of styles, ingredients, and basic brewing processes.

There is more information available and more tools to help me in my re-creation. One tool I can’t stress the value of enough is a recipe design app. Otherwise you’ll have the additional stress of doing the math, double checking it, and revising a recipe by hand until you get to the right color, bitterness, and ABV. It all becomes very tedious. There are numerous options available, and they all work well. Find one you enjoy using. There are free options available like Grainfather’s app, Brewer’s Friend, or Brewfather. Other subscription options like BeerSmith, Beer Tools, and a variety of other apps may offer more of what you’re looking for. Many will have style guidelines built in providing you the technical parameters you’ll want your recipe to align to. 

Another critical source of information is style guidelines defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and the Brewers Association (BA). Both have slightly different definitions, but either could be utilized to help determine what ingredients and brewing techniques we want to use. The BJCP will provide more detail around history, ingredients, and brewing techniques used, as well as commercial examples. This is extremely valuable to the recipe designer. You can find these guidelines on the BJCP and BA websites.

Alright, so we’ve set the scene — we have a beer we know a bit about, we have BJCP style guidelines we’ll use, and we have a recipe creator software we’ll bring it all together in. The specifications we’ll use are listed as vital statistics in the BJCP guidelines, as they provide a range of technical specifications necessary to get us as close to something of a dark mild as possible:

OG: 1.030–1.038 

IBU: 10–25 

FG: 1.008–1.013 

SRM: 14–25 

ABV: 3–3.8%

Starting with the grain bill, or extract and grain, is always a great starting point. You’ll need it to get the proper original gravity (OG) and final gravity (FG), along with what you’ll soon choose for the yeast. In the case of malt it’s easiest to start with base malt or extract. This will be the malt that gives you most of your sugar. Looking at the characteristic ingredients provided in the style guideline, you see pale British base malts are most common. If using extract, the easiest substitution is simply a light malt extract.

By having a few general parameters set in my recipe design program I can simply add 6 lbs. (2.7kg) of base malt and see that gives me an expected 3.1% ABV before I put any other ingredients in or change parameters. These assumptions preset in the app can be valuable (mine are 75% mash efficiency and 75% attenuation) and can be tweaked later. Knowing I’m targeting 3.5% and will be adding more malt and fermentables, I’ll leave it there. The style allows crystal and dark malts, as well as adjuncts and sugar. Time to have a play and get creative! 

I’m feeling adventurous and start mentally mapping all the options available and consolidating to a couple I might like to try:

• Corn flakes
• Wheat flakes

• Dark brown sugar
• Table sugar (sucrose)

Crystal Malts:
• Carastan malt (35 °L)
• Crystal (60 °L)

Dark Malts:
• Chocolate malt
• Roasted barley

What sticks out in remembering the dark mild I tried is that chocolatey note, so I want to get this into my recipe first. I decide to add a 0.25 lb. (110 g) of chocolate malt as I see it puts my mild right in the middle of the color specification at 18 SRM. If I wasn’t familiar with the fact that chocolate malt provides chocolate flavor and related cocoa notes, I would need to research my malts further. I do also know that other caramel notes help define the chocolate flavor in beer as our brains also need some of the other characteristics of chocolate to pull it all together, like sweetness and other sugary flavors.

From there I want to keep focusing on flavor and other attributes I liked — a caramel note and a sweetness. I may need to rely some on the yeast for sweetness (not sugar, which will ferment out), but can also consider it during my grain bill decisions. I’m considering crystal malt (60 °L) because I have it on hand, but through research I also found that many milds have Carastan malt, which mentions toffee as well as a slight bready note, which I didn’t pick up on in my beer. Looking at the crystal 60 I have, the manufacturer mentions that it’s sweet with a mild caramel flavor. I could continue looking for another malt, but can assess that what I have on hand will be close enough. If it’s a malt I’ve used, I’ll try to harken back to the flavor it may have contributed to other beers. I add 0.25 lb. (110 g) of this to my recipe as well. This addition brings my gravity and color up slightly, but anticipated ABV is still just under 3.4% ABV.

One thing that may have attributed to that sweetness was possibly some mouthfeel. By using some wheat flakes I know I can boost the mouthfeel. I decide to add 0.25 lb. (110 g), which may also aid in head retention. Something I’d like in this beer, even if I can’t recall the head from the mild I had at the brewery.

With no further tweaking this brings my recipe to an OG of 1.036, my color to 18 SRM, and my ABV to 3.5%. All within style specification! I have one more ingredient to consider and that’s the sugar I was originally thinking of using. In this case I don’t want it or need it. The beer finished sweet, not dry, and I know that adding something like sugar will likely dry my beer out. No sugar this time.

Brewing recipe software makes the process of creating your own recipes much easier as you can see the impact ingredient and process adjustments make in real time.

Time to move on to hops. Because hops can add a very distinct flavor at both high and low levels, hops can get quite personal in recipe design. In the case of a dark mild where the hops were practically imperceptible, my only task is to make sure they don’t show up too much in the beer. I look at the characteristic ingredients and it tells me I can use any hop. Likely because the expectation is that it’s barely perceptible in the beer. In this case, I could dig out any hops from my freezer and simply calculate my IBUs. Since the style allows for 10–25 IBUs, I’ll aim for the low end, and pull out some Willamette.

Knowing how hops affect beer is important. When added to the boil for the entire length you’ll simply boil off the volatiles and isomerize the acids, leaving the hop to impart a small amount of flavor compared to the bitterness it will impart. Mid-boil and later additions contribute more flavor versus bitterness, and late additions (in the last 10 minutes) or post-boil will contribute some flavor and lots to aroma. In this case, I will add these for my full boil, typically 60 minutes, so that the flavor and aroma isn’t too distinct. I have some Willamette on hand. My recipe calculator shows that 0.75 oz. (21 grams) will give me 14 IBUs. This leads to one other consideration — I had considered shortening my boil, but that would possibly leave me with more hop flavor and aroma. Plus, the tiny bit of kettle caramelization 60 minutes allows for will likely have a positive effect on this beer as I’m targeting a darker color, caramel flavors, and some sweetness. So, I’m going to stick with a 60-minute boil for this recipe.

That leaves me with the yeast. With the large number of manufacturers this may seem daunting. It really isn’t. In fact, it might be the easiest decision of the bunch. Most yeast are named based on style, region, or country a style comes from. If not, the yeast manufacturer typically provides a list of beer styles the yeast is recommended for online or even on the package. In the case of my mild ale, I looked at what was available locally and began researching the yeast manufacturers by style. When it came down to two choices I opted for White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) yeast. Why? It was recommended for the style, but it also had lower attenuation, meaning more sugar left behind. 

If you recall, I had preset my attenuation at 75%. My expectation for this yeast is only 70%, which means a higher final gravity, leading to a lower ABV. Once I change this to 70% in my calculator, my ABV goes down to 3.3%. A big deal? Not really, but that 3.5% ABV mild was great (and was the only real number I had to go off when starting this venture) so I want to adjust some accordingly. By simply adding 0.5 lb. (225 g) of British pale ale to my base to compensate for the loss in attenuation, I’ve achieved my 3.5%. I’ve moved my OG up to 1.038, right to the top of the style guideline’s range.

A few more calculations around water and mashing based on a bit more research and I know I’m going to be fine with a single step infusion mash at my usual 152 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes. Had this style required something more technical like a decoction mash to develop the correct flavor I would have needed to consider this. Fermentation will be as per the instructions on the yeast, nothing out of the ordinary. I’ll keg, and review what typical carbonation levels for a mild might be — it looks like between 1.3–2.3 volumes is acceptable.

This exercise we just completed is one way to create a beer recipe. Had you drank the same dark mild as me and wanted to brew a beer close to it, you may have made some different decisions. That’s OK, who’s to say which would be better? When it comes to beer design you can only use the tools in front of you, as well as your own knowledge of brewing processes, techniques, styles, ingredients, as well as your own equipment. And after tasting this beer I’ll have the pleasure of comparing my recipe to the original example and tweaking my recipe if desired. When you put in the work to become a better brewer and appreciator of beer, the world of beer recipe design will open wide. And what is left to be learned through experience is never ending! 

Don’t Hold Me Back! 

You may have the idea that beer styles are just “the man” telling you how to brew and are holding you back. Maybe you have an idea for a beer that doesn’t fit any style. That’s fine and great! To get beyond style guidelines takes a particular amount of knowledge of what styles are out there already and even the processes and techniques used. Beer doesn’t need to fit a particular style guideline. Beer as a beverage has a significant number of expectations that come with it — grain base, in most cases hops, carbonation, and some alcohol. This all provides a medium in and of itself, and sets the expectation for you as the brewer, as well as for the drinker. This is where style guidelines are great — a beer drinker can assume, based on what they know about beer styles, that a beer in a particular style will taste a certain way. It helps set an expectation, and they may be able to make an early assumption whether they’ll like it or not. If you give a drinker a beer with no detail around style they may be hesitant to try it, or come in with the preconceived notion that they won’t like it. Guidelines can be great for the brewer as well as the drinker, with the limitation that not all beer can be defined by a particular style guideline.

Issue: September 2022