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Getting Started with Recipe Formulation

Getting Started with Recipe Formulation

You know that feeling when you just got your first few all grain beer recipes under your belt and it’s time to explore?  It seems like the first thing that we all think is, “Now it’s time to make my own recipe!”.  We’ve all been there, or are about to be there.  That feeling of wanting to take this hobby and your favorite beer styles and make them your own.

Making a good recipe isn’t hard, but that doesn’t mean that it’s simple.  There’s a few concepts to keep in mind as you get started, and that’s what we’ll be talking about this week!  We’ll lay down some basic guidelines to help you get started in your journey of building your own recipes, then you can share your award winning recipe with us!

Recipe Conceptualization

Step 1:  Conceptualization 

The first part of designing beer is knowing what you want to make.  Do you want something stylistically perfect?  Are you brewing outside the lines of style?  Do you just want a solid, classic West Coast IPA or ESB?  This is where it all starts.

If you are brewing to style, there is plenty of precedence for all of the styles.  This is helpful to get you started, and what many brewers, both novice and experienced, do is look through many published recipes and pull bits and pieces of what they like from each and put them all together. 

While this method can work pretty well, it’s not necessarily ideal.  When I’m attempting to brew to style, I’ll typically pick up Brewing Classic Styles and use one of Jamil Zainasheff’s recipes as a baseline for the style I’m trying to make.  This is a solid baseline because these recipes have literally won awards in said styles, so I know that my starting point is a solid example of the style.

Not brewing to style?  That’s not a bad thing!  The beauty of homebrewing is being able to get weird with your beer and try to make something outside of the box.  In this case, you still need a solid concept of what you’re trying to do.  Are you trying to make an IPA with fruit?  A pilsner, but 9% instead of 4.5% ABV?  There are lots of fun beers yet to be made that are well outside the lines, but you still need to have an idea of what you want to accomplish.

Once you know what you want to brew, it’s easy to move forward there.  Personally, I always like to work backwards when I start a new recipe.

Starting With Yeast

Working Backwards:  It Starts with the Yeast

I always say that yeast is 80% of your homebrew recipe, and any beer in general.  This is because yeast determines not only how it ferments, but how all of the other ingredients are expressed.  This is why after I have an idea of what I’m brewing, I go straight to the single celled aspect of the recipe.

The biggest thing with choosing your yeast is making sure that the type of yeast fits the job.  If you’re making an IPA, then a Kolsch yeast probably isn’t the most ideal place to start.  Although it’s true that any yeast will ferment any wort, there are strains that are a better fit for any type of beer.  For example, some yeasts will enhance malt flavors while some enhance hop flavors.

Once the concept is there, I’ll look through the catalogs of all of the yeast purveyors we have access to as homebrewers.  White Labs, Wyeast and Imperial Yeast all have awesome descriptors that explain flavor profiles and expectations of every strain that they offer.  This is a double whammy because as you brew more beers, you learn what to expect from the strains that you use, making recipe formulation easier in the future.

Another thing to pay attention to when choosing yeast is where you’re fermenting your beer.  If you want to make a true lager, but can’t keep your fermenter at 55 degrees for 2 weeks, then you’ll have to change your plans.  Choose a yeast that will thrive in the fermentation environment that you have available, but still give you the flavor profiles that you want to make your beer work.

The Soul of Beer Malt

Malt:  The Soul of Your Recipe

Malt, or malted barley, is considered the soul of your beer.  This is where you get to make all of your sugars that the yeast will eat, as well as tons of color, flavor, body and mouthfeel.  Choosing the right malt based on what you’re trying to make is key to a successful batch. 

For an all grain recipe, to choose malt you’ll need to have an idea of what kind of ABV you want, what kind of color you want, and what malt flavors you want to bring to the table.  For example, if you’re trying to craft a Belgian Tripel, keep the malt simple so you can make a nice canvas for the flavorful Belgian style yeast to paint on.  If you’re going for a British style beer or a stout, you’ll want more malt complexity to come out, which means a higher percentage of specialty and/or roasted malts and a yeast that will enhance those flavors.

Typically, it’s easier to conceptualize a malt bill in percentages.  When building up an IPA, think in terms of 90% to 95% base malts.  When building a stout, think 80% to 85% base malt and 15% to 20% specialty malts, roasted malts, and cereal grains to achieve a bigger body and more malt complex type of beer.  These are easy examples of the differences between beer styles.

One of the easiest ways to figure out what malt to use is to read about each(Malt, by John Mallett is a great place to start), and to actually use them.  For base malts, consider a SMASH (Single Malt and Single Hop)  series where you make the same beer with different base malts to see what each contributes and what you like the best.  You can even split your SMASH wort and ferment it with two different yeasts to see the impact the yeast has on that combination of malt and hops.

For specialty and roasted malts, there are tons of different types.  These are fantastic to smell and taste in their raw form to get an idea of their flavor contributions to the final beer.  As you use them, you’ll gain knowledge of what you do and don’t like in certain beer styles and be able to move forward from there.

Hops

Hops and Hop Additions

Hops are an amazing and necessary part of your beer, whether you’re making a recipe kit or building your own beer at home.  With hops, it’s important to know not only the flavor profile, but where and when to add them to achieve the flavor and bitterness that you want.

First and foremost, choose hops that are appropriate for what you’re trying to do.  If you’re making a classic style helles, a big Galaxy dry hop might not be the most appropriate application of your hops (although it may still be delicious!). 

Once you’ve chosen the right hops for the beer you’re making, the question becomes when to add them.  Rule of thumb is that the longer you boil a hop addition, the less flavor and more bitterness you will get from that addition.  You’ll see many IPA recipes that have multiple additions throughout the boil to layer bitterness and flavor, and many others, especially Hazy style IPAs, where all of the hops go into the whirlpool.  You’ll also see in many other styles that they carry only what I call a bitter-balance addition, just one or two initial additions during the boil to create balance, but not much flavor.

The less time that you boil, the less bitterness and more flavor, which is why you see many pale ale and IPA recipes have whirlpool and dry hop additions.  Whirlpool is typically between 180 and 160 degrees, and works as a heat extraction of hop flavors, while dry hopping is more of a cold process which extracts and preserves a different set of hop compounds.  Each has its own flavors and aromas, which is why you usually see both used in highly hopped beers, like IPA.

Using this rule of thumb, it makes it easier to decide when to add your hops.  When you know the flavor profiles and alpha acids and combine that with your beer concept, you can make a solid choice to decide when to add your hops.

Water and Building Water for Brewing

Choosing Water and Water Profiles

Water can help accentuate many aspects of your beer.  It plays an important role in mash efficiency, pH of the beer, how bitterness is expressed, yeast health and performance, and the overall flavor of the finished product. 


You’ll want to choose a water profile that will help you express the beer that you’re trying to brew.  We offer pre-built BrewWater Water Profile kits for those that want to use distilled or RO water and build up their water from scratch while you learn the ins and outs of building brewing water. 

If you want to dive into water, check out Water:  A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers by John Palmer and Colin Kaminski.  This is a comprehensive book about understanding brewing water.   

Hopefully these guidelines will help you get your start in recipe formulation.  It’s all about making beer that you enjoy and trying new combinations of ingredients.  The more you do it, the more you learn, and the more great beer that you get to drink! 

Don’t forget to check us out on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to stay up to date on everything happening in the homebrew world!  For tips and tricks, and just general fun, subscribe to us on YouTube at BrewChatterTV!  Brew On!

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