Getting Creative: 8 Steps to Designing a Unique Brew

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In my evolution as a brewer, the most difficult thing for me to learn has been how to design a solid recipe. It is an ongoing process and probably will be for the rest of my life. The struggle came from a desire to create brews that I could truly call my own, while not really having enough experience to even know where to begin. Designing recipes is a slow process and, in my opinion, should only be attempted once the entire brewing, fermentation, and packaging processes are understood.

Designing Solid Recipes Can Be Interesting And Challenging
Since I am the type of person that always tries to run before I walk, my first few attempts at recipes were disasters. It was only my second brew day when I thought I could invent something delicious. I learned the hard way that brewing is not like cooking. You can't get away with adding a dash of this and a dash of that and taste test along the way until you get it right. There needs to be a plan. There needs to be understanding of the hundreds of possible flavors that can be accomplished using only water, malt, hops, and yeast. I didn't have any kind of plan, and that resulted in guesstimated ingredient proportions, including adding an eyeballed amount of liquid smoke to the boil. The finished porter tasted like a mixture of burnt rubber and olive juice. That failure jolted me into slowing down.
I would recommend that any new brewer follow a tried-and-true recipe to the letter until the entire process is perfectly clear and he or she develops some understanding of normal ingredient proportions for different styles. At minimum I would recommend brewing ten times by rote before branching into the world of recipe design.
So you've brewed your ten batches and you really want to make your first house beer. Where do you start? The answers are probably as varied as snowflakes, but I'll run through my process.
Step 1: Pick a style
You can't design anything, whether it's a bridge, a circuit, or a beer recipe, without a well-defined objective in mind. I usually choose the style to brew based on my current hankering, or sometimes I leaf through the BJCP style guidelines and pick an unknown style at random. Picking what to brew is an extremely personal choice, but in the end it's a pretty small choice. This likely won't be your last brew, so don't be overwhelmed by the number of options; just pick one and focus on it.

The options available today are staggering. It's best just to pick one you like.
Step 2: Try some commercial examples
You can read all the style guidelines you want, but you will never be able to truly understand the way a certain style is supposed to taste unless you try a few different examples of it. I like to look for something as close to my goal as I can find. For example, when recently designing an oak bourbon barleywine recipe I went to the local beer superstore and bought 22 oz. bombers of every oak bourbon barleywine I could find. This really helped me to develop a rough draft for a recipe that I could further refine.
Step 3: Find the common denominator
Once you purchase your example beers, taste them carefully. Taste them side by side and compare their flavors. Pay special attention to common flavors or characteristics. This combination of traits is the "essence" of the style that you are aiming for. The other flavors in the beer are just the "flair" added to give that particular beer some distinction and style. I also find it helpful to refer back to the style guidelines while tasting the beers and try to pick out the flavors described there. The goal of this exercise is to have a solid idea of the flavors that you want in your beer before you even start browsing ingredients. Try to decide which commercial example is closest to what you have in mind for your end product, or choose the one you like the most.

It's important to taste your examples methodically and thoughtfully.
Step 4: Find a clone
I usually start my search here in the glorious HomeBrewTalk recipe database. I have thus far never failed to find a clone or approximation of a recipe that I want to try. If possible, I like to find four or five different versions or variations on the same recipe and compare commonalities one more time. I'll then try to find ingredients that add whatever personal touch I want to the recipe. I'll usually vary the base malt to change the ABV, or add or subtract some roasted malts to change the color, and I'll usually modify the hop schedule to suit my personal tastes. After making any modifications that seem like a good idea, I'll check the new recipe against the BJCP style guidelines and make sure that I'm still within the style. That is totally optional. There is no rule that says you have to make a beer within a specific style. If you want to dry-hop the bajeesus out of a hefeweizen. It's your beer, your rules!
Step 5: Send your recipe out to the critics

What HomeBrewTalk recipe critics may look like.
I'll usually send my recipes to a few trusted friends. Another option, if it's a style they aren't familiar with, is to post it here on HomeBrewTalk and let the crowd critiques roll in. Just remember, everyone has an opinion and unique taste preferences. Not everyone will like what you like, so feel free to ignore suggestions unless they are factually based. "I prefer a little more biscuity flavor so I'd increase the victory malt to 1.5lb" is not as critical to heed as "the amount of cane sugar in your recipe is going to cause your beer to over attenuate and dry out, so you'll miss your FG."
Step 6: Make the beer and take notes
Tom Sawyer said it best, "a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was getting knowledge that was always going be useful to him and warn't ever going to grow dim or doubtful." Don't be afraid to just go for it and see what happens! This step is obviously the most critical to finding out if your recipe works or not. Make sure to take more notes than you'll ever need during brew day. Write down everything, especially variations from your recipe. These notes will help you in the next step.
Step 7: Trial and error
Taste your beer at several stages. I personally taste and take notes on each gravity sample, right before kegging, 3 days post kegging, 1 week in keg, 2 weeks in keg, 3 weeks in keg, 4 weeks in keg. In most beers, the peak flavor will occur during this window. Some bigger (higher ABV) beers need much more time to age. I usually leave bigger beers alone for up to a year or more. No matter what the time scale is, the process remains the same. Taste and take notes, repeat.
Step 8: Tinker

I try to follow the scientific method to some extent in my beer development process.
Examine your tasting notes, and examine your beer. Is there something specific that you want to improve? Before making any changes, you have to know what you want to change. Be as specific as possible. If you want more hop nose, increase the late hop additions. If you want more head, add more dextrin malt. If you want a fuller, rounder taste, try experimenting with biscuit malts or crystal malts. However, it's important to adjust as little as possible between brews. This will make small gradual changes in the beer that can be attributed to specific ingredient or process changes with more certainty.//www.pinterest.com/pin/create/extension/ t=_self


Thanks for sharing your article! I value your thought-out approach t0 recipe building. And the "HBT critics" picture is quality:D
where can one find the expanded contents of the last step? I mean, smth like the guide to "what to do to adjust the result"?
@st1l3tto i would suggest looking up every malt. the characteristics can be found from home-brew supply stores, maltsters websites (http://www.briess.com/), and various other home-brew books and articles. There isn't a malt out there that someone didn't already brew with. Creating a binder of malt fact sheets, hop fact sheets, and other additional ingredients, will surely assist you in attempting to "tinker" a normal/base recipe to something else.
@st1I3tto That would be a very very long guide considering the nearly infinite ways that people can change a recipe. I tend to agree with @ColeVet67 that an "ingredient fact sheet" is a helpful tool. I also find it helpful to describe flavors in my own words because I might not describe a flavor the same way as someone else.
A "process fact sheet" might also be useful. Adjustments to mash temp/time, boil time, water additions, pH, etc can all profoundly affect the flavor, so it's good to know which part of your process to tweak and in which direction.
I know it's not really an answer, but you kind of asked the mother of all recipe design questions :) if I knew the answer I would brew the best beer in the world every time haha
Good article, I am currently in the designing stage of a weissbier dunkel that I had in Germany this past summer. The beer is Benediktiner Weissbier Dunkel and I can not find it anywhere in North America. Also having no luck finding a clone for it.
I have been "googling" the crap out of this beer trying to find out as much info as i can. Just found the actual company email address so i am going to try sending an email asking for anything they can tell me.
@CTS Thank you for the kind words!
I think that's a great step. If you can't find anything you might have to take the long road.
Find a weissbier with similar characteristics, brew it, and adjust toward your goal, repeat. That's definitely a slow process, so I wish you luck in contacting the brewery!
If you are close proximity of a homebrew shop. What I do is taste the grains together. So say you are thinking of doing a pale w/ 10# Marris Otter w/ 1# Victory and 1# Munich. Take 10 grains of MO and 1 of each V&M and you can get an ideas. This also works with hops too with tea
@Beerzilla if I'm testing a new recipe and I'm not really sure it's going to taste good (strange ingredients, experimental methods etc.) then I make 3 gallon batches. Usually though, I'm fairly confident the beer will taste good even if it's not exactly what I was targeting so I'll go ahead and make 5 gallons.
Waldorf: That was a funny article.
Statler: Yes, it was. I wonder if they meant it that way.
Statler: Know what I like about these HBT articles?
Waldorf: That they're insightful and full of useful information that you can't find elsewhere?
Statler: No, I like that there haven't been as many lately.
@CTS I too am quite fond og Benediktiner Hefe. I would suggest you go for the Fransizkaner Dunkel that in my opinion is quite close.
Recipe suggestions here:
Please let me know if you get any info from the brewery :)
Mostly good advice, but one thing I disagree with is picking a random style and trying to produce a recipe from some combination of BJCP guidelines and tasting commercial examples. My own feeling is that BJCP is the biggest buzzkill to great beer. Pick a beer you like and push the flavors to where you want to go rather than letting the experts tell you what you should like. This kind of thinking is what is making beer in the US so much more innovative than many parts of the world right now (but we are following the lead of the Belgians).
I have been brewing for the past three years. Made some great beers and some no so great. I usually use the Tasty Brew calculator. I have Beer Smith on my tablet, but cant stand the interface. I plan on doing a few SmaSh experiments to better understand the nuances of different malt and hops.