So you took the dive and started homebrewing. After many trips back and forth to the LHBS (Local Home Brew Store), a pile of buckets, carboys, wort chillers, boil kettles, propane tanks, and measuring tools now occupies a good sized corner of the garage. You’ve got a few batches under your belt, drinking your mistakes until you’ve made a few brews you were proud enough to share with your beer drinking buddies. You’re hooked, and moving on from those pre-packaged kits, into the deep unknown-- recipe formulation. Where do you start?
With so many variables at play, it can be overwhelming to come up with your first recipe. Once you start learning the basics, you can be on your way, but it takes years of brewing experience to master all the finer points. Luckily, beer is a very forgiving medium, and learning to be a better brewer is a delicious process. I hope to cover an overview of some of the basic starting guidelines for recipe formulation, so the uninitiated brewer can get started making his or her own recipes. Later on I will get more in depth with the four ingredients, and how different variables about each one can effect the final process. Whole books have been written on this subject, and it’s a quite daunting challenge to attempt to cover it in a short format, so I hope this will get the gears turning and lead into further reading and study.
What to Brew?
The number one question in homebrewing is probably “Is this infected?” but in a close second place is the age old question; “What should I brew next?”. There are many ways to decide what to brew, and before writing a good recipe, one should start to get an idea of what the final beer should be like. Should it be light or dark? Bitter and hop forward? Malt forward? Perhaps showcase the unique character of a certain yeast strain? A good guideline is to learn to taste beer through the A.A.T.M.F. method, and imagine your potential beer in the same way. What will it look like and smell like? How will it taste? What will the body and carbonation feel like in the mouth? How does it finish? Each of these variables can be controlled through the recipe process, and you can guide the recipe by working backwards. Like a sculptor “freeing” a human figure from a block of marble, you have to have a good idea of the finished beer before you start. Maybe try writing an A.A.T.M.F. for the beer that you haven’t made yet, as you imagine drinking it. This all sounds esoteric and abstract, but it really helps to begin thinking in this way whenever you drink a beer, because you can begin to imagine the way its made.
Know Your Roots- BJCP Style Guide
Many brewers like to look to the BJCP style guidelines and history books to ask “What historical styles could I try and replicate?”, “Which styles are typically brewed this time of year?” A good knowledge of styles is a good foundation to build off of, because you are accessing the knowledge of hundreds of years of brewing history. The BJCP guidelines all show target ABV, SRM, and IBU as well as flavor expectations for each style. They also give commercial examples of each beer, so you can go out and buy the beer you hope to make, and taste what a proper example tastes like. This all is very helpful in building your recipe.
Cloning: The Finest Form of Flattery?
I often find myself at the local craft beer bar, and I taste a new beer for the first time, or an old favorite, and I begin to deconstruct the recipe in my head, imagining all the flavors and what ingredients may have caused them. This can be great inspiration for a beer, and many home-brewers like to attempt to “clone” commercial beers. If you are brewing on an all grain system, you’re essentially doing the same exact processes as a large commercial brewery, just on a tiny scale. It is possible, with much practice, to replicate a beer with surprising accuracy. There are even podcasts (Can you Brew it?) and books dedicated to this idea. When going this route, any and all information you can put together from the brewery’s website, the bottle, the bartender, etc. can be helpful. ABV, IBU, SRM, any hops and malt explicitly used, OG and FG readings. all of these tidbits of info can be replicated through mash temps, amount of grain and hops, and get you closer to the finished product.
Think Outside of the Bottle
Anything can provide inspiration to write new recipes, it also helps to look in unconventional places. Sometimes in a trip to the local grocery store, you may find yourself smelling herbs or lemongrass, tasting fruits. You can build a beer around a flavor combination. What about a beer that tastes like a chocolate cake, cappuccino, or fruit salad? A beer could be built for an occasion or an atmosphere. Imagine a German style Vienna lager, fermented in an Irish whiskey barrel to represent the Irish and German families at a wedding ceremony. A light pilsner for a group of buddies on a camping trip, brewed with water from the spring at the mountain they always frequent. A wheat beer finished with toasted coconut that reminds you of a recent vacation. Beer is very versatile, and the possibilities are endless. Once you know “what” you want to brew, the next question is “How?”. Stay Tuned for more!
Ben enjoys good beer, strong coffee and loud music. This Certified Cicerone continues expanding his knowledge of beer, hands-on. He’s the guy on the brewery tour asking too many questions. Famously open-minded, you can find him drinking a 3-year-old imported sour beer one night, and an American light lager the next. When he’s not writing for gotbeer.com, Ben can be found cooking, home-brewing, rock climbing, or playing the drums.