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The Basics of Home Brew Recipe Formulation: Part 2, Process and Repeatability

The Basics of Home Brew Recipe Formulation: Part 2, Process and Repeatability
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If you read the first post in this series, and as you research the subject of recipe formulation, you will find that it is more information than one should (or could) attempt to cover in a small format (such as a beer blog). Like the first post, this one too hopes to further coerce the budding home-brewer down the rabbit hole of brewing, and direct them to one or more of the many books on the subject. At first, those books, and brewing itself, can seem like such a massive topic that one may never dive in to it without some help.

Any beer is a collection of various attributes, many of which can be measured, and all of which make the beer what it is. Body, mouthfeel, head retention, color, clarity, bitterness, sweetness, hop aroma, malt flavors, carbonation-- all of these attributes can be finely tuned by making small changes to recipe or process. All of these are “Dials,” per say, that can be “turned” to yield the desired characteristics. Some are harder to predict than others, like the impact of a bacteria on the flavor profile, or how much vanilla to add to your robust porter. These must be discovered through trial and error. Many of the attributes that can be predicted and measured are the result of precise processes. This leads me to my first point...

Repeatability.

In any scientific experiment, it is important that we are able to repeat the process. In brewing, and especially recipe formulation, you must be able to repeat the same beer consistently. Like baking, brewing is one big, delicious, chemistry experiment, and a lot can go wrong. Coors Light that is brewed on the west coast and east coast taste exactly the same - an amazing feat of water chemistry, accurate equipment, and quality control. New Belgium’s Fat Tire brewed in Asheville wasn’t allowed to be sold until it could be snuck in to daily blind tasting panels in Fort Collins and pass. Eventually after tuning the recipe, it was able to pass through, undetected as anything less than identical to the Fort Collins brew, by sensory panelists who taste and brew it every day. We as home brewers might not have fancy equipment or expensive laboratories, but can refine our processes to make them more consistent.

Measure twice, brew once.

The first step is to have the right tools. It is important to have an accurate way to measure mass of ingredients, PH, temperature, Specific gravity, and volume of liquid in your kettle. Expensive isn’t always better. It’s worth it to buy accurate equipment, but many accurate measuring devices aren’t exorbitantly expensive. American Weigh scales that read out to the hundredth of a gram can be had for around $20 on Amazon. A solid PH meter and good thermometer cost about the same, and are indispensable tools. A refractometer isn’t absolutely necessary, but I wish I had purchased one earlier when I look back at all the Hydrometers I’ve broken over the years. Go ahead and pick one up, you wont miss your hydrometer at all. Keep an eye on “homebrewfinds.com” for deals on these items, and be weary of home-brewing supply stores selling these items. It’s important to support your local home brew store, but shop around for deals. Also, make a dipstick to measure kettle volumes. Use something that gives accurate measurements of volume, like a graduated flask, and fill your kettle with increasing levels of water, measuring each time. Make notches on your mash paddle, or even use a stainless steel ruler and record the measurement for each gallon, half gallon, quarter, etc. (or better yet, use the metric system) Having ways to get accurate readings of all these things is important.

Take notes!

A beer stained notebook can be just as effective as fancy brewing software, but neither are helpful if you don’t use them! Take notes on your beer! Beersmith is my brewing software of choice, but there are many out there, including free web based programs. No mater what you use, it’s helpful to keep some brew day notes. Record the alpha acid  levels in the hops you bought at the LHBS that morning, grain quantities and brand names. Record every time you take a measurement. Mash PH, what salt additions you added to the water at which quantities, starting gravity, volume of water extracted from the mash, finishing volume and gravity, boil time, weights and times of hop additions (with Alpha acid levels), finished ph of wort, finished gravity. Record what you did with the yeast. How old it was, gravity of the starter, amount of time in the starter at what temperature. You basically want to have enough info stored where you keep your recipes, so that if you die on brew day, your home brewing buddies can brew and drink the same exact beer at your funeral in your honor. Ok, maybe a little morbid of a joke, but the point is that you shouldn’t expect to remember what happened on brew day, and you should write it as if you were teaching someone else. It will make you a better brewer.

Refine the Process

Refine your process as well, to keep from wasting time and effort on brew day. The old joke is that 90% of brewing is cleaning (which probably leaves about 8% for drinking and 2% for actually brewing), and there’s some truth to that. While the strike water is heating, the ingredients can be weighed. While the mash is going, take notes on ph and water additions, and get the boil kettle ready. During the boil, you can make sure fermentors are cleaned and sanitized, and clean out the mash tun. Even if you’ve done it a hundred times, have a step-by-step list of everything that needs to happen. Take notes on it and write down times of when you did what, and identify wasted time. I found I brewed more often when I figured out I could do an all grain batch in about 4 hours instead of 7.

Hopefully these tips can help you step up your game as a brewer, even if you haven’t begun formulating recipes yet. The first step to writing good recipes is being able to accurately brew someone else’s recipe in a repeatable way. As we explore further in this series, we’ll delve in to the ways that these good foundations can lead to finely tuned recipes in the future.

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Ben Fredette
Ben Fredette

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.

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