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Everyone Homebrews for one reason or another. Some of us do it to compete and brew the best style possible. Others do it to save a few bucks over some of the top shelf beers. Others will brew beer to make something new and unheard of. Each has their merits and each starts with a recipe.
There are no shortages of homebrew recipes either. A quick search of 'homebrew recipe' on google snatches over 700,000 results. Brewtoad boasts almost 250,000 and HomeBrewTalk hosts an authoritative database that ranges from the strongest darkest stout to gluten free and fruit beers!
With so many recipes available why would any homebrewer ever want to write their own? Considering our last category of brewers mentioned above, the eccentric group, might argue that there are still new beers to design. DogFishHead has built a very successful business on this single thought. Others may argue that they can beat the reigning champion with a better beer from a better recipe. You may want your pumpkin porter to have more pumpkin and less spice flavor. The point is, we want a brew that will fit us and improve our craft.
Conjuring up a recipe can take a little effort. Brewing any amount of beer takes resources, time, money, grains, hops, etc. Wasting any of these would be a disservice not only to our credibility but to our morale. Taking the time to build a solid recipe will insure we have all the tools needed for a solid brew. Utilizing this 4 step process can help take an idea to a quality product; 1. Inspiration, 2. Research, 3. Planning, 4. Brewing.
This is your starting point, that little idea that enters your right hemisphere and begins to fester. We often find it in the oddest places and weirdest forms. Learn to listen to brain when it latches onto something. Brew Your Own magazine had a very striking cover a few issues back, one malt grain and a single hop. This is the heart of SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) beers. Even big complex brewers could find inspiration in that. It could come from a fancy steak house; rosemary and black pepper crusted ribeye. Inspiration can come from other beers as well; Samuel Adams Cold Snap. A white ale with at least ten spices and plums. At the time of writing there is still no publicity.


Inspiration may be the first buds from your homegrown hallertauer hop vine, but boiling 16oz of them into 2 gallons of mash just might lead to a hop bomb so powerful it will melt your brew kettle. Research is your guide to a great beer. With all the recipes already available it is worthwhile to read as many as possible that relate to the idea you are now crafting. If you are making a specific style, learn all you can about that style. Google is an immensely powerful tool that connects us to almost the entirety of human knowledge. Find the history of your style or your ingredient. What makes it special and different from all other things? Why do you like it so much, how as it inspired you?
Answering these questions will help you build a flavor profile in your mind. As this profile builds take extensive notes on the information you find and the ingredients, flavors, etc. that you want in your beer. Often some form of the beer you are working on has been brewed before. Note all the similar ingredients and ratio levels from the recipes.
Part of researching is experimenting. If you have never brewed with star anise it is easy to think that one little star won't impart the flavor you want (but it will!). Understanding the flavors you have chosen is key as you transition into planning. When working with new spices try making them into a tea. It may taste awful alone, but taste it like you would wine (swirl, sniff, sip, roll, breathe, spit/swallow). Learn the flavor profile. Is it toasty? Bitter? Sweet? Mild? Spicy? Etc, etc, etc... The same goes for your local homebrew store, try the malt. Grab a grain or two and eat them. You could even go so far as to buy a half an ounce of several different malts to make teas with, see how they taste steeped. Hops may be a bit harder to taste in small batches as most are sold in premeasured quantities. This is not to say you can't try the tea technique it may just cost more than the malts. Never fear, hops' flavor profiles are well documented. But, if reading isn't quite your thing try grabbing a pack and smelling it you won't get all of the qualities, but you will get some.

A Star Anise Rootbeer
Organize your research. Start with style guides and document histories of your beer. Note anything similar between them all and especially what is different. Do the same for the recipes you review. It can be easy to print it all out or dump it into one word document. As you review the material highlight anything that appears multiple times in yellow, things that appear once highlight in orange. The yellow highlights should now be your basis, your guide. Orange highlights are variations, opportunities to express your inspiration. Use the tea method above to understand not only the basis but, more so the variations. Transcribe what you liked from the yellow and what you really liked from the orange to a new document. You have just created the basis of the world's newest homebrew recipe! The work isn't done yet, now is the time to plan out your recipe and fine tune these details.
Armed with the knowledge and fired by inspiration it is time to plan. Engaging the left side of your brain we take all of the ideas, inspiration, and the concept of our beer and turn it into an executable plan. If our research is solid it will be very easy to plan out a beer.
  1. Amount and type of grains
  2. Hops, what type, how long
  3. Adjuncts, what type, when to add
  4. Type of yeast, brew time, secondary fermentation, lagering, etc. are all articulated in some form on your consolidated document.
It is only really a matter of organizing it into something executable.
This phase can be a bit tricky, epically when breaking new ground. If
you have never used brew software before it can help take the edge off
and give you an idea of what to expect as you build and adjust your
recipe. Just build the recipe from your consolidated notes by the
software's specifications and you are on your way to brewing!

Image courtesy of BrewersFriend
But, if you don't want to fool with software do it the old fashioned way. Pick a format that you like for your recipes to look for brew day and fill it in with your notes. Once completed you have a completed recipe, just gather your equipment and ingredients and brew!
Even though you have taken a copious amount of notes to get to this point, don't stop now. Notes while brewing the world's newest, never seen before, beer is crucial. Meticulous notes will ensure two things, one that you can make it again and secondly (and most importantly) you can share it here so we can all make it! Taking notes at every step will help identify later what helped or hindered the outcome of your beer. Try to be specific, use weights and quantities appropriately. Perhaps one stick of cinnamon was too little in the Winter Warmer, but we only recorded it as a stick and the grocery store only has powder in stock.

Making a new beer recipe requires some creativity. Moving from the known into the unknown requires a leap of faith. When making new recipes it is important to note that not everyone will be a gold medal winner that you sell to Budweiser for thousands of dollars. There will be failures and there will be huge successes. With this plan we can minimize our failures, learn from them, and come back stronger on the next brew. Regardless of the type of brewer you are we are all the same; we brew because we enjoy doing it and consuming the finished product. Advance our craft, find inspiration, research, plan, and further our craft! Be the first to brew that new recipe, it doesn't have to be off the wall, just your own.
Carter, I really enjoyed this write up, critics be damned! The aspect of defining my own 'style' is what appeals to me about the hobby and your advice seems sound, not to mention motivational!
I like the article and after 3 extract brews, I was all grain and all my own recipes. My approach is a little different, I reverse engineer my beers.
1. What do I want the beer to be? Style will probably dictate yeast choice - though I use S05 in almost everything, to eliminate that variable.
2. What do I want the beer to 'look' like - FG, ABV, IBU, SRM
3. From those two - I back into what ingredients I will need - for a 4.5% beer, I know I need around 10# base. At that ABV, for a pale ale, I want around 45 IBU - so I need X bittering addition at 12% and Y Aroma at 7%. FG is driven by yeast, mash temp, unfermentables, etc. SRM determines some specialty grains.
This was great, I really enjoyed it. Creating my own recipes was why I got into homebrewing in the first place-- even though I'm pretty new, I'm not sure I can go by just another kit. The idea about making a tea out of your proposed ingredients is a really good idea. I'm in the research stages of a Christmas ale, and I might do just that. Thanks!
@Washroom_Attendant Yeast amount and strain isn't as easy as just do 'X'. There are several variables, temperature, type of brew, desired flavors, length of ferment, secondary, original gravity, targeted final gravity, and size of your batch. There is also the consideration of weather or not you are suing a starter of already active and reproducing yeast or just a dry packet.
All that aside I generally use one vial of White Labs yeast per a 5 gal batch in a room +/- 70 deg. I tend to brew darker big beers and have had some pretty high OGs. And the high OG can delay the yeast from taking hold. I combated this with some yeast nutrient.
@paperairplane I think you and I are on the same page for developing recipes, we just name and approach our steps a little differently.
My inspiration phase (#1) and Research phase (#2) are all covered in your first one 'What do I want the beer to be?' and lead right into developing the attributes of the beer.
While my planning builds the recipe it looks like you are really getting into the numbers behind the brew to build it. I'll admit (as an arts major) I am jealous of your scientific approach to brewing!
@TinyHands I'm glad you liked the tea idea, it has served me well. I know the feeling behind purchasing a kit. You are at a homebrew store and looking around at different kits all one sees is someone else's work and idea - ultimately someone else's beer.
I have discovered a way around this feeling, I scour yard sales for those Mr.Beer kegs (much to the lament of my wife). That old brew friend is the key to trying something new. With a small army of these kegs I'll split a batch several ways and try different things in each. Dry hopping in one, a jar of 'Dr.pepper Ice Cream' topping in another, and still another brewed exactly as recommended. The end result lets me pinpoint what worked or didn't with each additive. And if that isn't enough I can draw off an ounce worth from the spout in the front every other day just to taste the progress of the fermentation from sweet to dry with zero chance of inoculating the batch with some unwanted bacteria.