My favorite thing about homebrewing besides drinking the delicious, fresh beer I brew is the ability the hobby provides for continual creative evolution. While brewing beer at its core is fairly simple, at a homebrew level there are a nearly unlimited number of variables that come into play in the brewing process. Successful navigation and integration of these variables and techniques, defines the craft of brewing beer for me. Over the past several years I have expanded my brewing knowledge base as it relates to technique, equipment, and recipe formulation, all in the quest of brewing the best beer possible.
One area that really defines a brewer is their approach to recipe formulation. While I don’t profess to be a brewmaster by any means my approach to recipe formulation has worked for me, and led me to brew many really enjoyable beers over the years. Below I will outline my general approach to all grain recipe formulation as well as some general things to consider during the process. It is worth noting that I use BeerSmith to assist with the calculations and the fine tuning of my recipes to my specific system. If you haven’t already I would highly encourage you to find the right beer software for you and fine tune it to your current brew equipment. This makes the world of difference and saves a whole bunch of time doing the basic calculations required of all grain brewing.
1. Style selection
The first thing I consider when developing my recipes is the style of beer I want to brew. I generally brew beers to season, for example wits and wheat in the summer, porters and stouts in the winter, but not exclusively. Next I consider the amount of time a particulart beer style requires to come into balance. For example I might brew an imperial stout sometime in the spring in preparation for consumption in the winter, so that it has the proper amount of time to age and come into balance. One thing I hate is drinking strong beers that haven’t been given the proper time to age and are riddled with over the top alcohol heat.
2. Background research
Once I’ve selected the style of beer I want to brew the next thing I do is a combination of Internet research and browse through the books in my beer library. I’ll usually start with the recipe database on homebrewtalk.com, depending on the style I might also check out books such as Stan Hieronymus’ “Brew Like a Monk” or Ray Daniel’s “Desiging Great Beers.” I use these resources to get a general idea of common ingredients used for both the grist and hop varieties.
3. Recipe formulation
Once I have a basic idea of the types of grain required for a particular style the next thing I do is take a look at my ingredient inventory. I try to keep a mix of the essential grains on hand at all times the big three basemalts (American 2-Row, Pilsen,and Wheat) and a mix of some of specialty malts. When possible I try to avoid making trips to my LHBS for a specific grain, but in some instances styles are defined by a particular ingredient or combination of ingredients and there really is no way around it. I will substitute as much as I can with what I have on hand, as for the most part I think the differences are negligible.
Generally speaking I tend to brew beers within the style guidelines, but on occasion I do hybrids such as Unconventional Wit, a wit recipe brewed to an “imperial” style. For most beers I tend to use between 80-95% base malt with the rest being specialty or other adjuncts. I like to keep my grists fairly simple usually using an additional 3-4 grains in addition to the basemalt. For my hop additions I usually use a 60 minute addition with a higher alpha hop (I really like Magnum) followed by several late addition hops (20 min or less). Obviously these are highly generalized rules of thumb and depending on the style they might change dramatically.
Proper yeast selection as well as pitch rates are one of, if not the most important part of a successful recipe formulation. I like to use liquid yeast. I prefer Wyeast, but have used White Labs extensively as well. A stir plate is a small investment that makes a huge difference. Mr. Malty is a great resource to ensure the proper yeast pitching rates for your recipe. Pitching the proper amount of yeast can greatly reduce the chances of off flavors as a result of stressed yeast due to under pitching.
4. Things to consider
- Sometimes less is more. Recipes with to many grains, hops, or spices can become convoluted and flavors become muddled. The more ingredients you introduce the more precise you will need to be.
- Use restraint with specialty malts. These malts are powerful! A little goes a long way. While its might not seem like a few ounces will be noticed in the final beer they will. One the most common problems I see when looking at other people’s recipes online is the extremely high percentages of specialty malts, especially crystal and roast malts.
- In vogue hops like Citra and Simcoe are awesome and they taste great, however there are tons of great hops out there that are often overlooked by homebrewers. I think its crazy to spend 2 to 3 times as much on the sexy citrus hops when proper use of some of the older less popular varieties (CTZ, Summit, Cascade) can contribute similar flavors to your beer.
- IBU:FG Ratios: Good beers are balanced. The proper balance of bitterness to sweetness is essential. Charts such as this and this can serve as a starting point. Obviously they aren’t gospel and therefore shouldn’t be treated as such.
- Flavor combinations that don’t work: Citrus and dark malts, Sour and Bitterness, Bitterness and Alcohol, Spices and Coffee. These flavor profiles tend to clash and can throw your beer out of balance, avoid these combinations if possible.
- It’s rare that you will nail a recipe on the first try, not to say it will be bad but it might not be perfect. Don’t get discouraged! I have two recipes that I’ve been working on for several years that if I ever were to open a brewery would be my flagship recipes. Subtle changes to the recipe can make a big difference to the final beer but they are hard to pin down without multiple revisions to the original recipe.
Obviously this is an oversimplification of recipe formulation. Other factors that should be considered include water chemistry, mash temperature and duration, and cold side wort handling. In the future I plan on discussing some of these more advanced topics in further detail, but for the sake of this post I wanted to highlight a few topics that I feel can dramatically improve the quality of an all grain beer recipe.