Creating your own recipe can be one of the most fun and rewarding parts of homebrewing. It takes creativity, a bit of daring, and a basic understanding of the brewing process.
Three pros share their techniques and offer advice. While each of the three has a different method—one relies on formulas, another uses trial and error, and the third recommends steadfast trials and notetaking—all of them repeat a few themes: Find and use some reference manuals. Study different examples of your chosen style (that means you get to drink a lot of beer). Choose a beer that you really enjoy drinking.
Brewer: Doug MacNair
Brewery: Redhook Ale Brewery, Seattle
Years of professional experience: Seven
Education: Practical training in three different breweries in Northern Germany; Courses with the American Brewer’s Guild and others; six years homebrewing.
We do a new product every two months, so we’re constantly in the process of formulating new recipes. We first figure out what style we want to do, which is no small feat in itself. There are a lot of different beers out there.
Once we’ve picked a style, the very first thing I do is gather as much information on the style as I can. There are all sorts of books available about the products and brewing history. Research materials that give set points for given styles give me a real solid technical feel for that beer’s spectrum. Take an India pale ale for instance. If you go back to the turn of the century, there were IPAs that had gravities of 18° or 19° Plato (1.070 to 1.075 specific gravity). These were huge beers. A modern-day English IPA is a pretty mild-mannered product. You have to figure out what you want to do in that spectrum.
After I get an idea of where I want my beer to fall, I base a lot of my decisions on intuition. I don’t try to model my recipes after any other beer; there’s no fun in copying what somebody else did. Trying to track down the amounts to reproduce a beer is also incredibly difficult. I have two breweries on opposite sides of Seattle. It took a huge amount of diligence on my part to get the product to be exactly the same between the two plants. The recipes are not the same to have the same end product.
While not trying to copy a beer, you do need to look at what’s out there to know that you are faithfully staying within the parameters of the style.
When I actually begin to put the recipe on paper, I always start out with the gravity, and I consider what kind of body the beer should have. Is it going to be a light product or is it going to be a big, meaty beer? I leave the hops for last for that reason. If you decide on a very light-bodied product with low gravity, you’re not going to want to hop it too high or you’ll end up with a really unbalanced beer.
For example the IPA is a really hoppy beer, but hops are just part of the beer’s characteristics. If you make a low-gravity modern IPA and a turn-of-the-century IPA, you end up with very different hopping rates. A beer that has an original gravity of 16° or 17° Plato is going to be able to withstand a lot higher bittering level. You just have to get out there and play with it. There is no magic formula.
When you begin formulating recipes, try something simple. Do an amber ale, not a stout. It’s basically a very straightforward recipe. Pick one element to experiment with. For example play around with the same amount of different malt crystals. Try some Crystal 40; try some Crystal 60. If you’re really wanting to learn about the ingredients, this is what you have to do.
Unfortunately, experimentation is very time consuming. If you change many variables at once—change your hopping, different malts, and mash program—you aren’t going to know which had what effect. If you do things a little slower, you really get a feel for what each component does.
Don’t forget to write things down. You need to keep records or by the time you get to the 20th brew, you’re not going to remember what you did on the first one. I’m scrupulous about writing out all the details on my brewsheets, including any problems such as boiling over. I also go back to that same brew sheet a month later when I taste the beer to I write down my taste perceptions.
You can get very precise, if that’s what gives you pleasure. But this is a hobby. And if you want to just be more relaxed, that’s great. Professional brewers had nothing at their disposal 300 years ago. They had no temperatures, they had very little in the way of volume measurement. And they were probably making pretty good beer.
To improve your recipes play around logically and take notes. But the bottom line—and the beauty of homebrewing—is that you can make an outstanding beer and you don’t have to have all that exactitude.
Brewer: David Sipes
Brewery: Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hübsch, Davis, California
Years of professional experience: 5 1/2
Education: BS in fermentation science at University of California, Davis. Homebrewer for six years.
I don’t really apply any science when formulating recipes; it’s a lot of personal taste and knowledge of styles. There are certain flavors I like. Being able to identify things about beer that I like and don’t like is basically knowing what kind of characters different malts and hops lend. I approximate various percentages for the ingredients based on the taste I want and the characters of the ingredients.
There are certain formulas around to help—”if you want this color then you need to use this percentage of that malt”—but I do it more or less by trial and error. For the most part I’ve been pretty successful.
When first formulating a recipe, I give beers I like in the style a critical evaluation. When tasting a beer, I can get a rough approximation of the alcohol content and accordingly what the starting gravity would be. Recognized styles are supposed to be within a certain range with starting gravity, alcohol content, residual sugars, and things of that nature as well as hop bitterness. That takes away some of the guess work and starts you off.
I’ve always recommended that less-experienced homebrewers stick to kits to get an idea of what the basic ingredients do. Developing one’s palate is of tremendous importance. If you buy a kit that mimics Dos Equis, you can decide what you like and what you don’t about the taste. The more you deal with the kits and the fundamentals, the better you can predict what a certain ingredient is going to do. The more experienced you are with those, the easier it will be to get into less-mainstream ingredients and play around with hops and things like that.
There’s an abundance of kits to choose from, but the main thing is getting to know the characteristics of different ingredients such as caramel, Munich, and chocolate malt, and Cascade and Chinook hops. Once you have a good understanding of that stuff, then it’s really easy to play around.
Above all, watch the sterilization. I’d say that 95 percent of the homebrews I’ve tried have some fermentation flaw or microbial problem. My advice from a formulation standpoint is to work for a balanced beer.
Oftentimes people—both homebrewers and professionals—seem to try to mimic a style like a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is known for being a really hoppy beer, and they neglect the malts. Sierra Nevada is very hoppy, but it has a very firm malt backbone as well. It’s a balanced beer. Often homebrewers seem to miss that. It’s the case with the chocolate malt as well. All the beer’s characteristics are supposed to come together and provide a balance. Play around. It’s trial and error, but it works for me.
Brewer: David Hartmann
Brewery: Empire Brewing Co., Syracuse, New York
Years of professional experience: 2 1/2
Education: Master Brewers Program, University of California, Davis.
The first step I take when making up a new recipe is figuring out which style I’m shooting for. There are fairly strictly defined guidelines as to what you’re supposed to hit to make the different styles. I use guidelines from books from the Institute for Brewing Studies.
While there are many guidelines for style, I look at the specifics for color, original gravity, final gravity, and bitterness to give me the groundwork for my brew.
After I get a feel for the style based on the guidelines, I run out to the store and pick up as many different examples of the style as I can. I taste them and read them based on my taste preferences. I might find one a little too bitter, and I’ll try to make a guess at how bitter it is. When I figure out what I like and don’t like in the samples, I will formulate the recipe.
I usually have a concept of what I want based on my brewing experience before beginning the process. In some cases I’m almost trying to copy what I consider the perfect example of a style. Guinness is the classic stout. When I made stout I tried to make something very similar to Guinness.
I think it’s a good exercise for homebrewers formulating recipes to try to match a particular model. At least it is for me. I find a beer that I think is very good and try to get close to it. Maybe I’ll vary it—make it a little more bitter, a little less bitter, a little darker. I like to shoot for that and see how close I can get.
Once you choose the style of beer that you want and pick a possible model, defining the color is a good next step, because it is an easy variable to figure out with the equations.
There are some easy tricks to simplify all the ingredient decisions. In terms of the malt, I try to pick pretty traditional ingredients. My idea is that I pick the color that I’m shooting for, and then I use the ingredients that would traditionally be used. For example in a pale ale, caramel is typically where you derive most of the color. I’ll use caramel solely for the color and then a very pale malt to fill it out. For something like a stout I use roasted barley, because the color that you’re shooting for is basically black.
Obviously, there are several kinds of malt that have different colors. Each gives a different flavor as well. Two different malts might give you the same color, but they would taste very different. That’s something you can play around with.
Calculations found in the brewing reference materials help you set up the amounts of ingredients. First, I figure out how much grain I want. Say I’m making a recipe for an amber ale starting at 13° Plato (1.052 specific gravity) using a 70 percent extraction rate. Calculations can tell me how much caramel 60 Lovibond malt I need to get a certain color. (Lovibond is a scale from 10 to 120 degrees used to measure the color of malt. The higher the number, the darker the color.)
I hope that amount gives me the right flavor as well. If not, the next time I will change it. The calculations usually work out very well. The guidelines and calculations help give you a balanced brew.
I hate to say this, but it seems to me that a lot of homebrewers tend to overdo the darker brews. A too dark, too heavy stout is pretty common. My advice is to hold back on the darker malts the first time you brew a particular beer, then add more the next times until you get it at a good level. I make beers professionally so I have to be more concerned with it, but it’s a good rule of thumb: Try not to overdo it on anything.