The first beer I ever made was a "beer". The second was a "bock". Needless to say, the first attempt hit a lot closer to the mark. Many shots at brewing my favorite beers followed - brown ales, wheat beers, porters, pale ales - all of them drinkable, and all of them not only missing the mark but frequently missing the target all together.
A year after that first brew, though, one of my beers earned a blue ribbon at the American Homebrewers Association national competition: an all-grain British bitter. Over the years I've developed much better aim and can generally pin down a good beer in a couple of tries. (Although I hedge my bets and steer wide of beers I have no hope of emulating, lambics being a good example.)
What happened over time was that I polished the art and craft of brewing. The art is something very hard, perhaps impossible, to teach. It's a sixth sense that nudges the brewer into adding a dab of this or a lot of that. Watch a chef at work some time, and you'll see what I mean.
The craft of brewing is the science part, and it1s the side that can be taught, studied, and learned. For the most part it's the craft side that is at work when a recipe is being developed.
Beginning brewers tend to look everywhere for recipes. Homebrewing texts are loaded with them, as are brewing magazines. Recipes from competition winners are also a good place to start.
Eventually, however, the brewer feels the need to strike out on his own. Other people's recipes don't quite make it, or the brewer's creative juices are running so strongly that someone else's beer just isn't enough.
A lot of brewers want to reproduce a commercial favorite, making a beer"just like" Anchor Steam or Cooper's Real Ale. Other brewers set their sights on winning competitions and wisely know that fulfilling the judges' expectations is often more important than brewing to their own tastes.
Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy
That was the title of a book by pioneer homebrewer Dave Line. In the introduction he promised "all the know-how to brew a beer just like your favorite pub tipple, but at a fraction of the price across the bar." But as even Line admitted, the book was about brewing beers like commercial versions. Using homebrew methods, it is impossible to turn out the same beer as a large brewery. What you can do is emulate your favorite beer with a fair degree of success. Similar flavor, strength, and color can be achieved, and in such a way that you may end up liking the homebrew version better than the original.
A lot has changed in homebrewing since Line wrote those words over a decade ago. We now have access to the same high-quality malts, hops, and yeast that commercial brewers use, and the adaptation of commercial processes to the home brewery has been well established. But the basic problem remains: You can brew something very close to your target beer, you may even (gasp) brew something better (well, for one thing, it's going to be fresher), but you're unlikely to reproduce it exactly.
To match a commercial beer you need to determine and acquire the same raw ingredients the brewery uses. You'll need to find out what sort of malts they're using, which can involve ascertaining the percentages of various specialty malts and blends of pale malt. You'll need to purchase the same or very similar malts, and these can vary considerably depending on their source. Malts from the Midwest, for example, run much higher in S-methylmethionine than those on the West Coast, and that adds a sulfury tone to beers brewed with them. If you want to match a Midwestern lager, you'll probably need Midwestern malts.
You'll also need to match their hop blends, which is a little easier. Most hop varieties commercial breweries use can be tracked down, either through a retailer or a mail-order hop supplier.
Getting some of their yeast is much more difficult, and the yeast strain can have a tremendous effect on the beer's flavor. But even that hurdle has gotten smaller in the last few years, with a great proliferation of yeast cultures available to homebrewers. It's not always possible to determine exactly which yeast strain a brewery is using, but with some experimentation it's possible to get very close.
Become a Recipe Sleuth
Probably the hardest thing to find is information. Touring the brewery is a big help, especially if one of the brewers is leading the tour and is willing to answer questions. Keep in mind, though, that this information is proprietary. The brewery doesn't really have any interest in sharing it with potential competitors. Asking a lot of nosy questions about mash temperatures and malt blends is likely to close off any potential communication. Look, listen, and above all, be pleasant. During the tour, wait for the right moment to ask specific questions. When the tour guide is explaining how hops are used, ask what types are added. Some breweries are surprisingly free with their information, and you can always learn a lot about brewing if you take the time to listen.
There are some factors that are impossible for a homebrewer to reproduce. Commercial equipment is very different from our carboys and camp-cooler mash tuns. The Anchor Brewery in San Francisco ferments its famous Steam Beer in shallow, open fermenters, and the procedure certainly influences the flavor of the beer. It works for them because the fermentation room uses positive air pressure to keep out unfiltered air and contaminants. Few home breweries have such amenities.
Furthermore, the scale of the commercial brewery is extremely important. Variations within a bale of hops, for example, are irrelevant when thousands of gallons are being brewed but are tremendously significant when only five gallons of beer and a few ounces of hops are concerned. Yeast cultures will behave differently in the huge amounts used in commercialbreweries.
If you are set on copying a commercial beer, get as much information as possible about the beer. Read the brewery's handouts and whatever you can find by other authors. (Michael Jackson's books, such as The Beer Companion, and Fred Eckhardt's The Essentials of Beer Style are excellent resources.) Find out whatever you can about the brewery's raw ingredients and their procedures. Determine whether the beer is lagered and for how long. Is it a true ale or a lager beer with an ale name? Once you've made your determinations, then follow the steps
below for beer modeling.
Brewing Beers by Style
Even when we're not trying to imitate someone else's beer, generally we have some image of what we're after. It may have elements of another beer, or several. "Sort of like Young's Special, only a little paler and drier, and I want to use a blend of Cascade and Willamette in the finish." It's an image that comes from drinking beers we like and imagining how we could do it a little differently or a little better. It's an image that is enhanced by learning how those beers are made and how they are defined.
Consider then the beer's original gravity: Is it high or low? If it's high, then will the beer have lots of alcohol or lots of body? Or a combination of both? If you're making a pale ale, then you
should know the ranges for the style. Take into consideration the level of carbonation your beer will have - whether a highly carbonated beer is appropriate for the style - because it will have an effect on your perception of the beer's body.
Next, you need to determine the color. How dark can a pilsner be? Is your beer really a brown ale, or have you crossed some mysterious line into porters? What sort of finish will the beer have? What sorts of aromas and flavors will greet the drinker? Will it be dry or sweet? Hoppy or malty? Or will it be something special: sour, tart, or redolent of cherries?
Finally, what sort of ferment will you be using, either by choice or necessity? Can you make a "real" pilsner without lagering, or does the unique flavor of an altbier come from a combination of warm ferment and cold conditioning? How can you control a lactic fermentation?
These days there are a lot of good research opportunities - more than there were 10 years ago, when I started brewing. For one thing it's much more likely that you have a good brewery in your neighborhood as well as some good brewers whose brains you can pick.
You've got plenty of options on the bookshelf as well. There are whole volumes dedicated to a given beer style and a constantly improving supply of homebrewing texts. The Internet offers a terrific array of possibilities and opportunities to learn from other brewers thousands of miles away. Pay attention, though, because along with the solid information is a lot of shaky thinking and some serious misinformation.
Define Your Own Style
The history of brewing is a history of innovation. Look at how furiously the British defended their beloved ale from the introduction of hops by Belgian émigrés and witness how inextricably hops and British ales are bound today. Look at how much difference the use of cold temperatures in the fermentation process has made or the use of single-cell yeast cultures (whether to good or bad effect, a subject for debate). No aspect of brewing is exempt from experimentation and innovation.
Which is not to say that chaos should reign in the brewhouse. The laws of good sanitation still apply, yeast cells still need oxygen and nutrients to survive, and fermentation will always produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. By definition beer must contain fermented grains, but which grains and in what proportions is open to debate. Homebrewers have a tendency to be hysterical on the subject of all-malt (that is, all malted barley) beers - partly because they're delicious, but mostly because so many commercial brewers use other grains to cheapen a noble product.
The Bantu people of Africa make a beer of maize (corn) and malted sorghum. The Russians make a beer of rye. Berliner weisse has the hops added in the mash, and some Belgians age the hops before using them to eliminate any unwanted flavor or aroma. The Belgians, apparently, will do just about anything to their beers, including adding fruit and herbs, using unmalted wheat, letting their mashes run on all day, and using spontaneous fermentation. Most commercial brewers, both here and abroad, are the product of brewing-institute educations and view that sort of diversion with horror, like a missionary who finds his congregation placing little dolls in the cornfield.
Homebrewers are an inventive enough crowd that there is a constant argument about which categories should be included in homebrewers' competitions and how those categories should be defined. No matter how carefully writers such as Eckhardt and Jackson chart a taxonomy of beers, the outline will always need to be expanded and revised, particularly if it relies on "traditional" beer styles for definition.
Which is all to say, turn your imagination loose. Then follow the same careful steps to implementation. Try in advance to determine a starting gravity and how the beer will finish.
What effect are you trying to achieve by smoking some of the grains over tea or by adding home-malted triticale? Will you be cold conditioning the beer? Would your purposes best be served by brewing two separate batches and blending them?
If you are truly a modern brewer, you've probably got some sort of Internet connection, and you've regularly run across little cries for help. My favorite runs along the lines of "Help! I need to brew a beer for my brother's wedding and I need a recipe for Pilsner Urquell. It has to be an extract recipe, and I don't want to use lager yeast. And hurry, the wedding is next week!"
Some beers require very special and demanding techniques or technology that may be difficult to reproduce at home. Others require special ingredients, special conditions, or a degree of skill you haven't mastered yet. Stick to simple beers at first - porters, pale ales, brown ales, and the like that will allow you to study the building blocks of beer (malt, hops, water, yeast, etc.) and the ways they work together. These skills and the sensibility that goes with them provide the foundation on which to develop more complex and challenging beers.
Building the Beer
If you're going to plan recipes, there are some important steps to take first.
- Learn your materials. The accompanying charts provide information on the color and uses of various malts and hops.
- Do the math. Plug the relevant information into the right formula for determining original gravity, color, or bitterness. I still do all my math on an ancient computerized spreadsheet program, but there is a lot of really good software available, developed by homebrewing computer nerds, that takes a lot of the work out of the process. The best of these come with not only the numbers necessary for calculating malt color and yield, hop bitterness, or whatever (and the programs should provide you with a way to substitute your own numbers for theirs), but with profiles of different beer styles so you can target your beer.
- Brew the beer. Theories are great, but even the boys on the Manhattan Project had to blow one up to see if it worked. The great thing about experimenting with beer is that you get to drink the research, and it won't make your hair fall out.
- Take good notes. Keep track of what you did and how you did it. Write it down! If you made last-minute changes to your model ("Ooops! We're out of gypsum") make a note of it. You will find differences between what you planned (or what someone else did, or said they did) and the way it worked out in practice. Perhaps your original gravity was lower than anticipated. Perhaps the bitterness was greater. Make a note of it. Maybe the formula was wrong. Maybe your procedures are different, maybe your ingredients are. If you get different results, change the numbers, so that next time your model will be more reliable.
- Do It Again. Brew the same beer, and make whatever adjustments you need. But keep a bit of advice in mind: Don't change all the variables at the same time, or you'll never be able to figure out what worked and what didn't. If the beer comes out perfectly, do it again! Once you can brew the same beer two or three times in a row, consistently, you can say you've begun to master your craft.
- Get an objective opinion. Have someone knowledgeable taste your beer, someone who hasn't invested all the time and love in it that you have. Oftentimes, you can get good feedback at a competition - especially if you get a good, knowledgeable judge on a good day. From time to time I've read some truly fat-headed remarks from judges, though, and you never know in advance who's going to taste your beer. Try to find a few people whose judgment you can really trust and run your efforts past them.
If you were attempting to reproduce a commercial beer, get someone to help you with a blind tasting, comparing your effort to the original. Be brutally honest with yourself, and take good notes. Don't worry about why the beer is different - figure out where it differs. Is it drier? Sweeter? Is the color way off? Is the balance similar or wildly different?
Later, you can figure out what went wrong or right - and remember, even when you're wildly off the mark you can make a beer you love. If you have kept good notes, you should be able to pin down those places your test brew diverged from the model, and you can determine how to correct them.
And then, do it again!