Tweaking Out: The many ways to adjust a recipe

Photo by Charles A. Parker/Images Plus

Okay, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine . . .

In a world . . . where you make your own beer . . . you’re urged to design your own beer recipes. But Be Careful! Before you take that deep dive into the recipe abyss — ask yourself if you have the tools to focus and understand if you’ve made a beer worth drinking.

Say you’ve internalized all the ways you can design a recipe. You’ve decided which approach is right for you. Most critically, you’ve brewed a beer from the recipe you’ve designed. Maybe you’re really lucky and you’re one of the minority who gets it right the first time, congratulations! Sit back with a pint and plan on brewing that recipe over and over for the rest of your homebrewing life.

But what if it isn’t quite what you wanted? It’s in the ballpark or at least the same zip code, but maybe you’re thinking that you should have used a different hop, or more hops, or at a different time . . . or that maybe you should have added (or left out) a particular grain, or changed the amount. Or maybe treated your water differently . . . or, or, or.

There are a lot of places to tweak a recipe. How do you decide where to start, and how do you decide if you really improved the beer? We mean, sometimes a tweak is just a tweak.

Tweaking a Recipe

This process implies that you’ve gotten somewhat close to your vision, but it just needs a little “something” that would make it better. If you feel like you’re not even close, or that several elements need to be changed, you’re looking at major redesign territory — a back-to-the-drawing-board process.

The first rule of recipe tweaking: Tweak only one thing at a time. If you do more than one, you don’t really have any idea which element was effective, or if one tweak was counterproductive to another tweak. Remember, we’re talking about a recipe that is nearly there, but needs a little “something” to make it the beer you want.

The next rule: Understand your ingredients. Knowing the flavor impact a malt, hop, or yeast may have is key to knowing what ingredient tweak you need. Sure, sometimes you’re taking an established recipe and swapping out one ingredient for another in order to learn what that ingredient tastes like in a context that you’re familiar with. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But you also need to know that substituting 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of base malt for 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of crystal isn’t a good idea!

The final rule: Understand the interaction between tweaks. If your original gravity (OG) is low and you add more malt, the beer will have more body and maltiness. You may then need to make other tweaks to balance that.

So let’s take a look at some beer recipe characteristics and how you might manipulate them.

Tweaking Original Gravity (OG)

If you want to adjust the original gravity of your beers, there are two ways to do it. Change the amount of stuff you cram into your wort (mostly fermentables but also dextrins, proteins, minerals and little gladiators named Wortus Maximus – OK, we have no evidence of that last one) or change the amount of water. Those are pretty much your only options as a brewer.

Keep in mind that if you’re consistently off your intended OG, the problem might be because you haven’t matched the efficiency of the recipe to the efficiency of your brewing system. That needs to be sorted out before you do any of these tweaks or you’ll end up chasing your tail. (First thing to check is your malt crush — it’s very often the culprit!)

The first rule of recipe tweaking: Tweak only one thing at a time.

In terms of water, you need to key on your final volume after boiling. If your batch size into the fermenter is consistently low (which can make your OG too high), then you either need to start with more water or boil less vigorously. Algebraically and last momently, you can calculate the amount of boiled water needed to hit your target gravity. (Multiply your final kettle gravity points by the kettle volume. Divide that by your target gravity points and you’ll discover the total volume you need. From there it’s just a matter of subtraction. Win one for math teachers!). If your final volume is too large, flip the script — start with less water or boil less vigorously.

When you increase or decrease the amount of fermentables you use, you need to account for the tweak’s impact on the balance of the beer. Start by carefully assessing the malt/hop balance of the beer. If you perceive the beer as thin and overly bitter, adding more malt could be the simple change you need to do. If the balance is right but your OG is low after adjusting recipe efficiency, you may need to add more hops along with the malt to maintain the balance.

Tweaking Final Gravity (FG)

Opposite problem time — now your beer has finished with a higher or lower gravity than intended. Did you choose ingredients that have more or fewer fermentable sugars than you thought during the recipe design phase.

Every grain has a certain potential amount of starch and sugars it can contribute to a beer. Many factors can change this – it’s part of the glory of working with agricultural products. Sometimes the crop has a lower potential (or lower enzyme content), sometimes the malting process goes wibbly and you’ll get less yield. Basically for a variety of reasons there’s less sugar available than predicted. If you think this might be your problem, get a lot analysis sheet for the bag of malt you’re using. Bear in mind, this probably isn’t the problem as very dedicated and talented farmers and maltsters do their best to bring you what you expect.

For example, you can use sugar to achieve the OG you want, but because sugar is more fermentable than malts, the FG will usually be lower than it would with an all-malt beer. Crystal malts, on the other hand, maintain more sweetness after fermentation.

This can work to your advantage. One of the keys to making a great Belgian beer is making it, to use the Belgian term; “digestible.” That means a light body so the beer doesn’t fill you up when you drink it.

One trick to making a high-alcohol Belgian style isn’t necessarily a high OG. It’s the low FG that gets you there. (By the by – this is topsy turvy from many brewers’ thoughts – “need more booze? Need more fuel!” aka more sugar for a higher starting gravity.) So instead think more efficiency – consume more of the sugar to get more of the alcohol. If your beer, Belgian or otherwise, continually finishes at a higher FG than you find desirable, replace some of the malt with sugar. Remember though, that in the symbiotic world of beer ingredients, reducing the FG like that can also have an effect on the body and hop perception of the beer.

Extract beers are notorious for finishing at a higher FG than may be optimal for the style. Denny has found that substituting a bit of sugar (maybe 0.25–0.5 lb./113–227 g) for some of the extract can get your FG to where you want it to be. When subbing in sugar, a good rule of thumb is that one pound (0.45 kg) of sugar in a 5-gallon (19-L) batch adds about 9 gravity points. By the way, that holds true of dried malt extract also . . . one pound (0.45 kg) will add about 9 points to a 5-gallon (19-L) batch. One pound (0.45 kg) of liquid extract will add about 7 points in a 5-gallon (19-L) batch.

Mash temperature can also have an effect on final gravity, although not as much as in the past. You can choose a higher mash temperature, which favors alpha amylase in order to leave more non-fermentables and raise the FG, or use a lower mash temperature to favor beta amylase and reduce the FG.

But remember that modern malt varieties and malting procedures have given us very well-modified grain with a lot of diastatic power. They seem to convert from starch to sugar with a stern look from the brewer. That translates to malts that meet the needs of large commercial brewers – a sure conversion of starch to sugar with no drama, unless you don’t want a malt that’s all go and no slow — but also limits the amount of effect that mash temperature will have. Of course, this depends on the particular malt and maltster, but it’s something to be aware of.

Tweaking Bitterness

The best way to adjust bitterness is to use more or fewer hops. But there are a few other ways to go about it. For one thing, you can use hops that have similar properties but higher or lower alpha acid content. As an example, if you were using Magnum with an alpha acid content in the 12–14% range and decide that you can’t add a small enough amount to get the bittering level you wanted, a hop like Tettnanger, which is a fairly neutral hop with much lower alpha acids, could be subbed in.

Conversely, if you decided that you needed more bitterness and don’t want to increase the hop load that even a more efficient hop gives, one method other than simply increasing the amount of hops would be to add hop extract. If you use isomerized hop extract, you have the advantage of being able to use it in a glass of finished beer to be able to gauge how much to add to the entire batch.

Gypsum has the reputation of “increasing hoppiness.” In reality, the effect is much more like giving the beer a dry finish, which increases the perception of bitterness. On the flip side, calcium chloride can be added to tone down the perception of an overly bittered beer. Remember, neither of these tweaks affects the actual IBU level of the beer, just your perception of it.
You can also approach it from the other direction, tweaking your malt bill to balance out the bitterness. An example would be subbing in some Munich malt for part of your pale malt, or using a different brand of pale malt.

Tweaking body

The tried and true, oft attempted approach in homebrewing to increasing or reducing the body of a beer has been through mash temperature. As we mentioned earlier, using a higher temperature mash can increase your final gravity and the body perceived, but due to increases in the enzymatic power of malt, this doesn’t work as well as it used to.

Our favorite way to adjust the body of a beer is through recipe design. Although it’s trendy to diss crystal malts these days, they can make a significant difference in the body of your beer. (Compare Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to more modern pale ales – usually modern pale ales lack the crystal character of Sierra Nevada — often to their detriment.) If you want to increase body with little impact on flavor, then low-colored crystal malts, like Carapils®, Carastan, Carahell®, and Carafoam® are good choices.
Denny is partial to both the body-building and flavor impacts of using a bit of crystal 60L in an American pale ale and American IPA. Honey malt is a good choice to both increase body and add a bit of sweetness.

Drew, who’s less of a crystal fan, reminds you — be judicious in your use unless you like really sticky, sweet beer. (Denny: Only if you misuse it!) And personally, he prefers using bready malts like Munich or everyone’s favorite adjunct in New England, oats. (Drew: I was making weird oat pale ales years ago — if only I knew then where the market would go!)

As we mentioned body and FG have a symbiotic relationship. In general, increasing FG will lead to more body in the beer and reducing FG often leads to less body. But remember how we mentioned sugar — a high gravity contributor, but generally an undercutter of body!

Testing Your Tweak

If a tweak impacts more than one beer parameter at a time, you will be tempted to adjust more than one parameter at a time. After all, change is good — so more change is better!

If we’re reducing the body by reducing the FG, we can guess that the hop perception will be stronger. Well, shouldn’t we reduce the hops? No! Don’t be tempted to do that. Make your single tweak (reducing the final gravity) and assess the beer, then decide where to go from there. There’s really no other way to know what that second tweak needs to be.

How do you know if it worked? Well, sometimes it’s just so obvious that you know what it did. For example, turning an American pale ale into an American brown ale by adding some sort of dark malt. It’s going to be pretty apparent if it’s darker or not!

Other times, though, it’s not so apparent. Subbing one hop or malt variety for another, changing mash time or temperature, or making any kind of subtle change requires comparison between the before and after beers. And since confirmation bias is so unavoidable, the only way to know for sure if your tweak worked is to do a triangle test.

But that’s a story for another column!

Issue: November 2019