Tweaking Recipes: Tips from the Pros

Even if you’ve brewed a great beer, there is likely still room for improvement according to these pros, who are never satisfied enough to close the book on recipe development.

Ian McCall, Head Brewer at Riip Beer Co. in Huntington Beach, California.

I am a big believer in the evolution of a beer. With almost every original recipe of a new beer we create, we have a good idea of what the final product will taste like, based on past experience. That being said, I have a hard time accepting or thinking that a beer is ever “perfect” or in its finalized form. There is always something that can be tweaked or improved upon in subsequent batches (e.g. water profile, bitterness, mouthfeel, flavor, aroma, carbonation, etc.). We are always striving to make the next batch better than the last. We don’t have any static or untouchable beer recipes. 

The first thing I teach my brewing staff is to enjoy what they have made (assuming there are no glaring flaws or assertive off-flavors). We all got into brewing in the first place because it was fun! When we release a new batch of every beer, I encourage the brewing staff to pour a full pint and let themselves thoroughly enjoy it. After all, they worked hard to get it from grain to glass. Once they have enjoyed the fruits of their labor, the real work can start. With each subsequent taste or pint, I want them to critique the hell out of it so we can start to make the next batch better. At that point, we ask ourselves an endless series of questions — did we hit the profiles (water, grist, hop flavor, hop aroma, special ingredients, etc.) we were shooting for? Did the changes we made to the previous batch make the beer better, worse, or have no distinguishable effect? Etc.

A good example of how our recipes have progressed over the years is in our West Coast IPAs and DIPAs. We have definitely skewed the calculated IBUs of our hoppy beers lower than they used to be. A lot of our hop-forward beers used to sit in the 80–100+ calculated IBU range, but now fall in a range closer to 50–70 IBUs (much lower for our hazy offerings). The perceived bitterness of our beers has not changed much, but our focus on how we utilize bitterness has changed. 

We rotate through our recipes on a weekly, monthly, sometimes yearly basis, depending on the recipe. I guess I would say that the majority of our recipes are “semi-core.” They will likely come back around at some time, in some fashion in the future. But our customers can expect that we will make tweaks to the original recipe to try to make it better than last time. 

In addition to smaller tweaks to these recipes, we have the opportunity to brew a significant amount of one-offs. We sell the majority of our beer through our taproom and that allows us the financial freedom to constantly experiment with new products. These are a way we can keep the job exciting and fun for our entire staff. At Riip, we do the majority of our experimentation with new hops and hop products. The most important part is knowing how to create a clean base in order to be able to evaluate the final product. 

If you want to do some one-offs at home, my advice is to experiment as much as possible, but do it with purpose. Dial in a few base recipes (e.g. a West Coast IPA, pale ale, imperial stout, and an American lager) before you start to play with it. If your base beer is no good, how can you expect to compare tweaks batch-to-batch? Choose one or two variables to play with at a time so you can note the differences, good or bad. If you are going to go off the deep end with new malts, yeast, and adjuncts all at once you won’t have anything to compare or relate your experiment to. That said, I am all for creating something brand new, out of left field, just be prepared if it doesn’t work. 

Ryan Marcom, Head Brewer at Westbrook Brewing Company in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina & Co-Owner / Head Brewer of Free Reign Brewing.

Sometimes you nail a new recipe on the first go and sometimes it takes 3 or 4 attempts. However, even when you brew up a great beer on the first go, I tend to think there is always room for minor adjustments here and there. If you don’t make adjustments and brew multiple iterations, how will you really know if you brewed the absolute best version you could have? One example is with our Belgian-style witbier, White Thai. It’s one of our staple beers and one of our best sellers as well. It was brewed for years with a combination of malted wheat and flaked oats, amongst other grains. One day we decided to nix the oats, dial down the malted wheat, and add in some flaked wheat. We really thought this gave us a better version of White Thai and we’ve brewed it this way ever since.

Over the past couple of years we have really started to amp up our small-batch, one-offs as we look at ways to improve beers (and have fun). We invested in a 5-BBL pilot system for the sole purpose of being able to brew experimental small batches. Trying out new malts, different hop combinations, different yeast strains, or maybe even the same yeast but fermenting at a lower or higher temperature to see the different flavor profiles that yeast will produce. And then obviously with the pastry stout and smoothie sour craze nowadays, the possibilities are endless with all the different adjunct combinations you can try.

A one-off that we recently brewed on our pilot system was a banana milkshake IPA. In this case we brewed our normal milkshake IPA grain bill but the beer was fermented with a different yeast strain than we normally use. This yeast strain, when used to ferment at slightly higher temperatures, produces very pronounced banana flavors. So although the yeast was the only different thing about this beer, it provided a whole new flavor profile from what we would normally see in one of our milkshake IPAs. I think it turned out great!

Ultimately, the only way to get better is to build up your experience; and the only way to do that is to brew as much as you can and get a feel for what you like and what you don’t. Beer is constantly evolving so there will always be new things to try. 

Jon Kielty, Head Brewer and Production Manager for Big aLICe Brewing with three locations in New York State.

On average it probably takes 2-4 times brewing a recipe before I’m really pleased with where it’s at. Even still, there are times when I’ll make a minor adjustment on a beer that we’ve been brewing for years because I see something I didn’t see before that could be improved.

Start small when tweaking a recipe. When you take the time and energy to put together a recipe that you’re happy with, usually the only tweaks that will need to be made are the small ones. For us it’s usually a touch more or less of a malt or hop, a few degrees difference in mash or fermentation temperature, or slightly changing our water profile. 

I love doing one-offs and we do quite a few of them. As a New York State Farm Brewery we put a heavy focus on brewing with locally sourced ingredients, so brewing one-offs is a great way for us to experiment with a lot of these different local malts and hops to see what we like, what we want to use more of, and how we can use these ingredients in other ways. It also adds to the taproom experience here as customers are always coming in to try new beers from us. 

While a good amount of one-off brews have remained just that, many of them have become beers that we re-brew and bring back into our rotation because of the positive reception they get in our taprooms. Many of my favorite beers that we brew started off as what we anticipated would be just a one-off. 

Beer is a great storyteller. One of the things that has made our brewery so special is that we’re willing to take risks and experiment with different ingredients in an effort to create bold and flavorful agriculturally focused beers. I’d encourage homebrewers to experiment more with locally grown grain, hops, fruits, etc. wherever they are. There are some great locally grown ingredients all around us that can produce great beers with a great story. 

Issue: December 2021