Converting Beer Recipes to Fit Your System

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Some of our favorite recipes to brew as homebrewers are clone brews.  There’s nothing quite like the challenge of trying to make your favorite craft beer at home, and even if it doesn’t come out exact, it always comes out tasty and we always learn from it!  Luckily the beer industry is full of ridiculously cool people, many of whom started as home brewers, so it’s easy to find or ask for clone recipes. The hard part is three fold, though. First, most commercial brewers deal in such large amounts of grain that it’s easier for them to formulate recipes in percentages of malts to accommodate their systems and brewing process, so more often than not as home brewers, we need to do some recipe conversion from percentages to actual amounts.  Second, we have to know our systems well enough to know what kind of extractions and efficiencies to expect and adjust base and specialty malts accordingly. Finally, commercial brewery yeast strains are almost always specialized, so we have to use either the closest strains that we can find, or try to get some from the actual brewery, which usually isn’t a thing!

This week on BrewCranium, we’ll talk all about how to convert your favorite recipes down to your scale, and go through our process for making conversions to get the beer in our glass as close to the beer in our head as possible, while making the recipes reasonable and repeatable!

 Home Brewing Math Made Easy

Doing the Math

The first time a brewery emailed me back with a recipe, I was kind of floored.  Given, I wasn’t too far into brewing yet, I just knew that I loved that beer and wanted to try to make it.  So, I went on the breweries website, shot a question off on the contact form, and was totally flabbergasted when I got an email back, and from the brewmaster no less!  He was super cool, gave me the recipe in percentages, said it was up to me to adapt it to my system, then told me to send him a few bottles once it was done.

My FAVORITE part of the brewing industry is the people and community.  We all help each other, and very few craft breweries are all secret squirrel about their recipes or process.  It’s more of a ‘you should brew this too!’ attitude, especially with homebrewers. The people that are down to share knowledge are always happy to do so.

When I got the recipe, I was kind of at a loss because I wasn’t sure how to calculate everything out to make it make sense for my system because I had never done it.  Since then, we’ve come up with a pretty reasonable process to adapt these kinds of recipes to our 5 and 15 gallon systems.

When you receive a recipe from a pro brewer, it will come across the board something similar to this:  

6.5% abv, and 150° Mash Temp

87% Pilsner

7% Malted Wheat

4% Unmalted Wheat

2% Carafoam

The question is, how do you translate this?  First and foremost, you need a reasonable idea of your system efficiency, because this will make all of the difference.  When we build a 5 gallon recipe, we try to put our efficiency right down the middle so that when it becomes a kit, it’s more accessible across different systems, and we use 70% efficiency as the average.  If your system has lower efficiency and you brew one of our kits, then you should close or just a little low, and if you get higher efficiency, then you will be pleasantly surprised with a little extra sugar!  It’s pretty win-win!

If the brewer gives you an original gravity, like 16 plato or 1.064 specific gravity, it’s pretty easy to take it from there, but if they only give you a starting abv, like 6.5% abv, you’ll have to figure out what yeast you plan on fermenting with and take the attenuation, or what percentage of the sugar that the yeast actually eats, into account as well.

 Base Malt Pilsner Idaho Weyermann Castle Chateau

So we always start with base malt and actual fermentables, grains that are really going to contribute measurable sugar to your mash, and not just color and character like crystal and roasted malts.  In this case, we are going to get sugar from the pilsner, the raw wheat, and the malted wheat, so let’s start there.

Let’s say that you’re working with a 6.5% abv beer, using Imperial Barbarian.  This means attenuation will be in the 73-74% range.  If you pull up any of the handy online calculators, it’s easy to put in a starting and finishing gravity and get a hard number.  We honestly type ‘abv calc’ into google and pick the first one that comes up. We also know from previous brew days and calculations that a beer that doesn’t finish super dry is going to be somewhere in the 1.060’s, so we just plug a few different numbers into the calculator until we get the abv and apparent attenuation right.  I know this sounds like cheating, and there is real math to determine this, but this is such a fast and easy way to find the numbers you want that it’s almost too easy to deny!

In this case, we’re looking at a starting gravity of 1.067, and a potential finishing gravity of 1.017.  Next we need to figure out how much base grain it’s going to take at a 150° F mash temperature to get to 1.067.  Most grains that have diastatic power will contribute 32 to 35 points of specific gravity per pound per gallon in a perfect world, so in example case, and we’ve found that for our system, 32 points per pound per gallon gets us pretty close.  The numbers look a lot like this:

In one gallon of wort by percentages:

  • 0.87 lbs Pilsner (84% of the grist) = 27.84 points (or 1.027)
  • 0.07 lbs Malted Wheat (7% of the grist) = 2.24 points (or 1.002)
  • 0.04 lbs UnMalted Wheat (4% of the grist)  = 1.28 points (or 1.001)

So, per pound, per our percentages, per gallon at 100% efficiency, we can expect to get 31.36 gravity points.  However, that is in a perfect world, and we’re designing this for a 70% efficiency, so the number that we’ll actually use is 70% of 31.36, which is 21.95.   Now for the part that always makes me lose track when I do it in my head!

If we can expect 21.95 points ppg, we have to divide that by how many finished gallons of beer that we’re making, in this case 5.5 gallons into the fermentor.  So we take 21.95 and divide by 5.5 gallons, which is about 1.004. From here, we can finish this grain bill and brew it!

If we’re getting about 4 points per pound per 5.5 gallons, and if you divide 67 by 4, you’ll end up with 12.18.  So we know we need 12.18 pounds of grain, and this is where I always take liberties. It’s all about ease and repeatability, and having a recipe with 3.2 ounces or 3.95 ounces of a specific grain doesn’t seem easy or reasonable to me.  That being said, I’ll always round to the nearest quarter pound, be it up or down (but let’s be honest, it’s pretty much always up!). 12.18 pounds will always be 12.25 pounds in my head!

So, of our 12.25 pounds of fermentables that we need, 87% of that will be pilsner.  Carry the one, and you’re looking at 10.65 pounds of pils. Again, the ease of use thing, so 10.75 pounds pilsner.  7% will be malted wheat, which ends up at .85 and gets rounded to 1 pound, and 4% un malted wheat, which ends up at .49 pounds, and gets graduated to .5 pounds.

Now that you have actual numbers for your fermentables in place, it’s pretty easy to add in any other malts that don’t give you your sugar, and adjust accordingly.  For example, we’ll need 2% of this recipe to be Weyermann Carafoam.  Right now we are at 12.25 pounds of malt, and if we add in 2% carafoam, we will add another quarter pound, which puts us up to 12.5 pounds, and you can either adjust all of your other malts up, or remember that we rounded up anyway and call it good.

For Stouts, Barleywines, and other beer recipes where the specialty malts are higher than 5% of the total grist, it’s almost easier to add them in at the beginning of the equation with a 0 gravity point value, but I always tend to add them in at the end, then adjust them up a little based on the percentages, so do it the way that makes the most sense to you!

This method, while a little long winded, can be adapted to any recipe, and is pretty easy once you do it a few times.  All of that being said, you can also just pull up your favorite brewing software that has your system and losses and everything dialed and use the trial and error method until you get everything where you want it!  At least this way you have a good idea of what the software is doing when you make adjustments, and you can make more informed adjustments based on your system! You are now your own personal recipe converter!

Hops Adding Hops IPA Pale Ale 

Hops by the Pound

Most commercial breweries are adding their hop flavor and aroma additions using a pound per barrel calculation, even for beer styles that are not traditionally dry hopped or hoppy.  While this can seem a little daunting, it’s really an easy calculation to get it down to 5 gallons. A barrel of beer is standardized at 31 gallons, so 1 pound in 31 gallons is a pretty easy equation.  We always do it in ounces because that seems easier, so figure 31 gallons divided by 16 ounces is 1.9 ounces, which, of course, is upgraded to 2 oz per 5 gallons.

When looking at bittering hops and bittering additions, you can get pretty technical with specific IBU calculations and changes, and on a commercial system, that is a really big deal, and can mean a difference of literal pounds of hops.  For a 5 gallon batch, this variance can have less impact unless you are using a hop variety that had 14% alpha acids when the recipe was created and the current crop year is 9% alpha acids. If you REALLY want to nerd out, check out Ray Daniels Designing Great Beers for a few awesome chapters on pinpointing Alpha Acid Units and calculating specific amount to the gram in your beer.

For us, we look at a reasonable range of IBUs by the hop addition times that the brewery gives, and either use the same hops assuming that the AA’s are within a couple of percent alpha acids, or use CO2 Hop Extract using the simple calculation on our website to nail IBU’s and focus on the whirlpool and dry hop additions!

This can get more complicated with clone recipes like Pliny the Elder because a lot of the flavor complexity comes from hop additions throughout the boil, last 15 minutes of the boil, whirlpool and dry hop, so clones like that we really try follow Vinny’s hop schedule and hop varieties as closely as possible. 

Once you know that it’s about 2 oz per five gallons when a craft brewery says a pound per barrel, the only hard part about cloning the hop additions is finding some of the crazy hops that breweries get that us homebrewers have a harder time coming across!

 Odell Brewing, Fort Collins, Post apocalyptic, post boil, install homebrew, american craft beer, cry new

The Catch

Ok, there’s not really a catch, but the most important part to remember about cloning a commercial brew is that it doesn’t always come out dead nuts the first time.  I’ve found that more often than not it takes two or three brews to make adjustments to get that taste right on. Brewing is so different system to system that it’s not unheard of to substitute completely different grains to nail a color or flavor profile.  This is why, if you look at our Pliney the wElder Beer Kit, we use American Caramel/Crystal 10° instead of American Caramel/Crystal 40° like Russian River recommends.  After much trial and error, we’ve found that on most homebrew systems, ours included, the flavor and color comes out closer with 10° lovibond crystal!

Just remember that if you don’t nail your clone the first time, be patient!  Brew it a few times and make reasonable adjustments every time, and you will eventually nail it!  Taste it with friends with the commercial example side by side if you can, and get lots of opinions using different palettes to gain insight.

As we always do, we learned a lot converting our recipe kit, Odell New Dawn Hazy IPA when we received the recipe from Odell Brewing.  We made some tweaks, and it’s pretty amazing, considering this was converted from 135 barrels down to 5 gallons, so give it a shot if you want an awesome New England Style IPA! 

Thank you all for reading, and we look forward to hearing about your experience converting and cloning commercial recipes!  Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!  Check out our video on BrewChatter TV when we go to Odell Brewing in Fort Collins and talk with all of the amazing people behind the beer and see what makes their beer so great!!
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