A lot of you have been asking (i.e. someone might have asked once, maybe) how I go about creating recipes for the beers I brew. I don’t think it is a particularly involved process, which is great because I’m lazy and that makes it pretty straightforward to write. Let’s dive in, shall we?
My first step is determining what type/style of beer I want to brew. This is largely influenced by the weather; I love stouts, porters, scotch ales and barleywines, but when it’s over 90*F and the humidity is at 120% I don’t want to be drinking them. Since beer usually takes about a month from grain to glass (at its shortest) I have to think about a month out. Foresight and fore-planning aren’t my strong suit which is why I had pumpkin beers at Thanksgiving and Christmas beers for Valentine’s Day.
Either I have a particular style already in mind, or I think about the types of beers I like to drink. That’s the more interesting/fun approach. For example, I had Avery’s Ellie’s Brown Ale at jm Curley’s in downtown Boston a few months ago. I then bought a sixer of it from the Craft Beer Cellar in Braintree because it reminded me of how much I like brown ales. Ultimately, I ended up making a brown ale earlier this week (despite the fact that it’s probably not in my Top 10 Styles I’ll Want to Drink in June).
2. The Basics
This is where I
cheat do some serious research. Being a child of the Internet, my favorites folder is filled with stupid memes, pictures of naked people, and (relevant for this post) a whole bunch of websites/articles containing different homebrew recipes. I also have the very useful Brewing Classic Styles book by Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer. That book is usually my first stop to get an idea of what the style markers are. These are notes like ‘it should have a subtle caramel flavor,’ ‘little to no hop aroma,’ or ‘light mouthfeel.’ This gives me an idea of what the style is supposed to taste/feel/smell/look like… as a baseline.
3. Common Parts
Since I have all these various recipes at my disposal, I next look at the common parts. A perfect example is the hoppy wheat ale - R’lyeh - that I brewed recently. In looking for hoppy wheat ales, I came across two well-regarded beers that I haven’t tried before: Three Floyd’s Gumballhead and Modern Times’ Fortunate Islands. I looked up a clone recipe for Gumballhead and went to the Mad Fermentologist for Fortunate Islands. I noticed they have very similar malt bills: About 50-60% wheat malt, 30-35% US 2-Row and 5-10% of some caramel/crystal malt. Given that these are well regarded beers, I figured that this made sense as a baseline malt bill for my beer.
One aspect I almost never
steal borrow from a recipe is the hop bill. Hops are the big sexy thing in beer ingredients these days (my money is you’ll start hearing show-off nerds asking bartenders about “water profiles” next), largely because they can have such an impact on the flavor and aroma of the beer, and obviously on the bitterness/sweetness as well. I vary my hop bill for two reasons: personal taste and hop availability. I’m often limited to what is available at my local homebrew store, and if they just sold out of Citra and my recipe called for Citra… well now my recipe has to call for something else (in the case on the Bandito IPA that something else was a metric fuckton of Mosaic).
But outside of the hops, I will also take some liberties with the malt bill components (usually I’ll sub in Maris Otter, my favorite malt) or the yeast strain (Cheeky Bastard was made with Heady Topper’s Conan yeast… because I had some). For the brown ale I made on Tuesday - named Arctos after the Latin species name for a brown bear Ursus Arctos, because it’s a brown beer, you see, and I’m a Bruins fan and no I don’t want to talk about it – I took the common parts from a few American Brown Ale recipes, subbed in Maris Otter for the base malt (10 pounds of it) and replaced the yeast with Denny’s Favorite (WY1450), which is supposed to give the beer a creamier mouthfeel.
I love sharing my beer with, well, anyone brave enough to drink it. But if we’re being honest, the person who ends up drinking the majority of any batch is me. This is why the Customization step is very much tailored to my personal preferences. For example, most brown ales are supposed to be smooth but relatively light, but I like my beers with fuller bodies and a lot more of a creamy texture (don’t). That’s why I subbed in the Denny’s yeast, and I also love the nutty, biscuity flavor of Maris Otter so I made sure to have a good amount of that in the malt bill.
5. If It Fits Your Macros
I stole this term from the diet industry, and I like it even though it is not applicable at all. What I do here is I take my ingredients and plug them into some brewing software. I use BrewToad because it’s quick, easy, clean and free (I’m cheap). BrewToad will tell me if my combination of ingredients fits within a selected style. It will also help me estimate my possible alcohol content, and will help with some mash water calculations and recipe scaling. I also log my brews using their Brew Log feature so I have the data to go back to.
6. Tweaking – Part One
If I don’t like the way the beer’s stats are lining up, I will make small tweaks to the recipe. If it looks like I might have too much booze, I may raise the mash temperature or remove some of the base malt to compensate. Or if my IBUs are too low, I may add more hops at 60 minutes. And so on. After that’s dialed in, I go and buy my ingredients (and tweak again based on availability of the hops and malts) and perform the alchemy that ultimately results in beer.
7. Tweaking – Part Two
Beer’s done, and I’m usually the first person to taste the finished product. So how close did I get? Is it too bitter? Too astringent? Not creamy enough? The Homebrewer’s Curse is that no beer is ever perfect. But if I’m pretty close on a recipe I can take some notes, figure out what I like/don’t like and adjust the ingredients (or brewing style) accordingly. Usually I’ll edit the recipe directly or create a variant (Bandito is a Cheeky Bastard variant) for a rebrewing, and then basically repeat this process ad nauseum.
So that’s pretty much how I do it, with varying degrees of success. If you have any questions about the process, or want more details, let me know in the comments.