By Greig McGill
So ya wanna brew a beer? Where do you start? Are you trying to clone (or approximate) something you love? Come up with a new beer you’ve tasted in your dreams? Or simply brew a great example of a classic style? No matter what you’re attempting, you’ll need a recipe.
Many brewers are quite happy using recipes they find online. There’s nothing wrong with that! This article is aimed at the brewer who wants to know the how and why of recipe building from the ground up. Perhaps, if you’re a habitual online recipe user, you might even want to give this a crack!
Start with a goal in mind. Be it a beer you’ve had that you’d love to replicate, or a beer you imagine to be your ultimate drinking experience, think about that beer. Tear it apart in your mind. Make it the gold standard, and learn to understand why it is such.
This beer: Write down everything you know about it. How is the balance? Towards the bitter, the sweet, perfectly balanced between the two? What is the nature of the malt character? Sweet? Caramel? Toffee? Biscuit? Cracker? Notate every descriptor you can think of that brings that taste experience to mind. Now do the same for the hop influence. Bitterness level. Oil character on mouthfeel, mingling of the hops with the malt, aromas and lingering flavour notes. What do the hops really do in this beer you want to make? Fermentation character? Think about what the yeast brings to the party. Does it leave everything alone or add its own flavours to the mix? How attenuative is it? Does it favour malt or hops? How tolerant of alcohol is it?
All these questions and more should be things you ask yourself when formulating a recipe. You also need a guiding philosophy. Mine, for example, is “keep it simple”. I firmly believe that any ingredient should have to justify its existence. If you don’t think an ingredient or process will bring obvious benefits to the final beer, and you’re just “waving the chicken leg”, leave it out. This goes for tiny hop or grain additions too. If your addition of anything is 1% or less (unless you’re adjusting for colour) then it almost certainly won’t be perceptible in the finished beer, so you’re probably best to leave it out.
Design your beer around a pyramid model, with the base of the pyramid being the most dominant characteristics of the beer, and the top of the pyramid being the finishing touches and very subtle components. As with building a real pyramid (because, you know, I am actually a three thousand year old Egyptian slave) the further up you go, the harder it gets!
Let’s work through an example. Imagine you’ve just been for a fantastic night out at Bob’s Brewpub, and tasted the most amazing beer – Bob’s Spicy Pale Ale – an English style pale ale with subtle spicing and some heat. At the time you noted down the following:
- Appearance: Beautiful bright golden with a dense clinging head.
- Malt character: Rich, biscuit, a nice base for the hops and spicing. English?
- Hops: Difficult to pick as they blend in with the spicing. Probably UK origin, and used sparingly – probably not dry hopped.
- Body: Medium – 5% beer, probably finished around 1.012?
- Mouthfeel: Mid level carbonation – maybe 1.8-2 volumes of CO2? Some heat from chilli
- Flavour components: Reminded me a little of Gran’s Tikka Masala – probably an Indian spice blend? Chilli flavour was quite clean and not smoky. Perhaps generic birds-eye peppers? Fermentation character was a little fruity – I think I got some peach esters.
Those notes are a pretty good place to start with your clone recipe. But first, why not get any and all information you can to help you? If Bob’s Brewpub has a website, they may list their beers, perhaps with additional tasting notes, and if you’re lucky, even ingredients. A quick Google search might also turn up others who have tried to clone this beer and you can learn from their success or failure.
Now, armed with all that data, let’s have a crack at the recipe:
Malt character seemed pretty clean, so we’re going to start with a grist that’s 90% base malt. In this case, we noted rich biscuit malt character, and thought it most likely to be an English malt for stylistic and flavour reasons. Golden Promise would provide those characteristics, so let’s go with that. We also noted a golden colour, and Golden Promise alone would be a little pale. Let’s add some colour depth and maybe get a little complexity out of that richness and biscuit character by adding 5% Vienna malt. Also, how amazing was that head? Let’s boost that with some malted wheat – our last 5%. Use your brewing software of choice to work out the malt bill you will need for a starting gravity of 1.050 at those percentages.
The hopping seems easier, given how subtle it was. We want a spicy UK variety – perhaps Fuggle. We noted the beer seemed well balanced, and the hops seemed integrated. Let’s say the website told us that the beer was 28 IBU, so we will get that from a 20IBU addition of Target at 60 minutes and an 8 IBU addition at 10 minutes, which should provide just enough character to be recognisable.
When using spices, it’s advisable to start sparingly. Better to have them under represented than over. In this case, we’ll use a pre-made Garam Masala blend from our local Indian spice store, and we’ll probably add 3-4 grams in a 20L batch. It pays to think about when spices should be added too. If the spice character was bright and fresh, it’s probably added during or even post fermentation. If it’s subtle and well integrated, it is likely added in the boil. Be careful when you add anything to the boil that you think about the characteristics of that addition. Long boil times can completely destroy some flavour compounds and enhance others in unpleasant ways. If adding to the boil, a good rule of thumb is 5 minutes before flameout. We’ll add a single birds-eye chilli, deseeded to avoid too much heat, to the fermenter. That should provide the right amount of kick with a clean flavour.
We will need an English yeast which is known for stonefruit esters and is a medium level attenuator. White Labs WLP007 ticks these boxes, though is a little aggressive at up to 76% attenuation. We will note that and mash at around 68C to make the wort a little less fermentable. We’ll ferment at a slightly warmer 20C with a diacetyl rest as always at the end of fermentation - 22C for 48 hours.
So there we go. There’s our first crack at cloning that beer and all we did was take lots of notes and snoop around a few websites!
Of course, I did say FIRST crack. It’s highly unlikely you will nail it on the first brew, so it’s important to take plenty of notes on your process and on the resulting beer in order to tweak things for the next iteration, and so on until you’ve either cloned the beer, or achieved your vision of the beer you wanted to brew.
A final point to note is that I’ve glossed over something very important that can’t really be taught – experience. If you’re relatively new to brewing, or you’ve been brewing a long time but have remained fairly conservative with your ingredient selections, you simply might not have the knowledge of ingredients and process required to accurately bring your visions to life. That’s perfectly OK. The most important things to master are your command of your senses and your ability to capture what they tell you in the form of excellent notes. Taste every ingredient you can get your hands on. Learn from the beers of others what the effects of different yeasts under different conditions can do. Understand that recipe alone is not what makes the beer you envision – process matters. Once you have mastered tasting and note taking, you can always approach other brewers and ask their opinions on how to generate the beer you have described. Collaboration is fun, but it can be thirsty work, so it’s lucky you happen to be brewers!
By the way, if anyone wants to actually brew this example beer, feel free to send me a bottle – it sounds weird as hell! That Bob, eh?