How to Design a Homebrew Recipe

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How to Design a Homebrew Recipe
So, you've brewed a kit or two, and it came out pretty well. Or perhaps you've followed a few recipes from books or websites, and have been pretty happy with the results. Now, though, you are ready to create a beer that is your very own. But where do you start?
There are thousands of recipes already published; surely, there are myriad ways to skin this proverbial cat. That being said, the point of this article is to share how I personally create my own recipes.
My process is part science, part art, part intuition.
I begin with an idea. For example, I was once gifted a vial of WLP920 (Old Bavarian Lager) yeast. I considered the styles that were supposed to be a good fit for this yeast; one of those was Traditional Bock. I had never brewed a bock before, but the idea of a big, dark, malty lager really resonated with me, firing up my brewing muse... so off I went.
The very first thing that I do is research the target style. Even if I'm not planning to stick strictly to a strict competition category, I find that it's a good idea to have a defined base beer to build from. For that purpose, I look to the BJCP guidelines to help provide a bit of a framework in terms of typical gravity, bitterness levels, and color.
I will admit that I tend to push the envelope a bit when it comes to gravity; the fact is that a bigger grain bill does lead to more intense flavors (which I personally enjoy). This means that almost all of my beers hover near the top end of the range for a given style in terms of gravity (if they don't exceed it by a few points). As a result, most of my beers end up with a slightly higher ABV than you might expect for a given style; I consider this to be a happy coincidence. The upshot is that most of the beer I brew falls into ~6.5% - ~8% ABV territory. The aforementioned bock was no exception; when my recipe was done, I ended up with a target OG of 1.070 (the style range is 1.064 - 1.072).
While some may consider it to be out of date - and I will admit that far too many styles are not included - I am a huge fan of Ray Daniels' superb treatise, Designing Great Beers. If the target style is included in this book, I make sure to study the entire chapter for it from end to end, as this book contains a wealth of knowledge about the development of the given style, the chief aspects of it, and all sorts of interesting tidbits.

A Good Reference Guide Provides Recipe Ideas

I then spend a good amount of time with the recipe analysis section at the end of the chapter. Every chapter of this book includes a breakdown of beers that made it to at least the second round of the NHC, which leads to some really invaluable insight. What malts and hops were most commonly used in these beers? What sort of mash and fermentation profiles seemed to yield the best results? Were there any interesting outliers in terms of ingredients or process?
The next step in my process takes me onto the internet, where I will search out recipes that are similar to my desired product. While there is a lot of value in this process, it really does pay to treat any such reference beer with a grain of salt; unfortunately, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can post their recipe online... whether or not the beer is actually any good. Therefore, it's a good idea to stick to sources that have a built in review mechanism; I am partial to the HomebrewDad.com (soon to be BrewUnited.com) recipe database; obviously, the HomebrewTalk.com recipe section contains plenty of well documented entries, as well.
By this point, I have enough information to put together a rough outline of my recipe, which I do using BeerSmith. As an aside, I am well aware that there are other tools out there (and that BeerSmith has a bit of a learning curve), but the functionality is just superb in this software; the $27 it costs is easily some of the best money you will spend in your brewing. The ability to do "what ifs" - to swap out grains, to play with proportions, to adjust your hopping schedule - and immediately see the impact to gravity, bitterness, and color is just invaluable.

Learn To Use A Good Brewing Software Package

Up until this point, my process has been largely about doing my homework - the "science" portion of recipe design, if you will. Now is when the art and intuition aspects come into play.
Unless I'm brewing something that uses Pilsner or Munich for a base, it's almost unheard for me to not use Maris Otter for my base grain - see my comment above about enjoying more intense flavors. However, small amounts of Munich or Vienna are welcome in a wide array of beers; I find that these can really increase the malt depth and flavor without adding the caramel notes you get from crystal malts. Another excellent malt for providing some sweetness without the caramel is honey malt - seriously, do yourself a favor try a half pound of this in a beer sometime soon!
That said, I do very much enjoy crystal malts, and I'm not ashamed of that fact. One of my favorite techniques to use is to layer the types of crystal used; instead of, say, a pound of C60, I might use half a pound each of C40 and C80. The end color will be the same, but the flavor will be more nuanced, more rounded.
Nearly every recipe I brew includes four ounces or so of flaked barley (assuming a five gallon batch of beer) - this small addition does magic for head retention and formation without any real impact on clarity or flavor. If I need to darken a beer, Carafa III (dehusked) is my ace in the hole; an ounce or two can do a ton for color without adding anything else to a beer.
With all the above said, try to resist the urge to toss in ten different malts in an effort to add "complexity" to your beer (been there, done that). Too many varieties of specialty malt can absolutely end up giving you a beer with a generic "brown" flavor, as it becomes difficult for the individual elements to stand out. Obviously, some styles of beer are more forgiving of this than are others.
As for hopping, I'm a convert of first wort hopping (FWH) for hop-forward styles. Maybe it's in my head, but to me, the bitterness seems smoother, and the hop flavors seem more prominent. If I'm brewing a beer where hop flavor and/or aroma are key, I do a small FWH bittering charge (using a higher alpha, smoother bittering hop), then hold off on anything else until the last ten minutes of the boil, culminating with a big knockout addition. Be sure to keep an eye on the bitterness to gravity ratio; while it's far from an end all, this can be a useful tool for making sure that the balance of your beer stays where you want it.
Regarding yeast, there is a popular school of thought that suggests that you should find a versatile strain or two, promote them to house status, and use these yeasts in all of your beers.

Be Confident In Your Yeast Selections

While I respect brewers who do that, I don't personally subscribe to that line of thinking. Instead, I'm a big believer in matching the yeast strain to the style in question. To me, yeast character is every bit as important to the finished beer as is the malt or hop profiles; it just makes sense to me to use a yeast that perfectly fits the intended beer (as opposed to finding a yeast that will work "well enough"). I use liquid yeasts only (hello, variety!), and employ the Brulosophy method of overbuilding my starters a bit, then saving part of that for future brews; yeast washing is for the birds.
Once my recipe draft is in place, I will then seek the input of the homebrewing community. HomebrewTalk's recipe feedback forum that has been very helpful to me in the past. The reddit homebrewing sub has a weekly recipe feedback thread (posted every Tuesday) that typically generates excellent dialogue. And while smaller, HomebrewDad.com has a core of knowledgeable, helpful brewers who are happy to give detailed feedback.
After I collect feedback, I weigh it and either make revisions or respectfully decline the advice. At that point, I then run the recipe by my homebrew "club" for one final pass. Note that I don't belong to a traditional club; instead, I am privileged to belong to an email list that contains some excellent brewers; we have multiple medal winners, respected bloggers, and all around good people as members. If I may, please allow me to give a quick shout out to Marshall (Brulosophy), Matt (To Brew a Beer), Derek (Five Blades Brewing), Brian (Brouwerij-Chugach), Eric (Eric Brews), and "Gary" (Immaculate Brewery), along with the rest of the HomebrewDad.com charter member crew.

Apply Your Recipe Research To Suit Your Brewing Methods
Final adjustments are made based off of this advice. I often round my ingredients up slightly (that whole "intense flavors" thing again). And finally, I drop an email to my LHBS with my order.
And now, the muse finally lets go of me. That is, until the next idea hits, causing me to spend days on end giving far too much thought to ingredients for the next beer.
Olan Suddeth is a father of six from Birmingham, Alabama; it's no secret why he chose the moniker "Homebrew Dad". Check out Olan at HomebrewDad.com, where he blogs, creates brewing utilities, and fosters a homebrewing community.
 

Comments

Great write up, I design beer in a similar way, other things to consider would be mash temp, fermentation temp, hop oils for each variety, adjuncts and additives. All can affect character of the final beer.
 
Great points, Clarke. I kind of hand waved that part under the whole "playing with the recipe in Beersmith", but you are dead on.
Thanks, nzo.
 
Thank you for this nice write up! I own Designing Beer, but have barely cracked it open as I'm pretty intimidated by my ignorance about what yeasts go with what malts and how those translate into a specific style. But I do want to branch out and this may be the impetus I needed.
 
Efusco, there is some heavy reading in that book, no doubt. If nothing else, though, flip to the end of a chapter on a given style. You can which ingredients were most often used in award winning recipes, what proportions were most common, the typical mash schedules, etc. It's great information to "get you into the ballpark", so to speak.
 
@Efusco
A great place to start putting yeast to style is here:
https://www.wyeastlab.com/hb_styleguidelines.cfm
then you can cross reference yeast bank with yeast bank for similar yeast stains and find your preference
 
Great, Olen! One thing I'd add is "brew it over and over to refine it and make sure it's repeatable".
 
Very nice write-up Olan and hello from LA. I have had Ray Daniels book for over a decade and while it is drier than burnt toast for me to read it is a resource I come back to again and again.
 
Do I see that you ferment in a cooler? I had that thought and searched forums once on it, but didn't come up with anything. Thoughts, if so?
 
That is my mash tun, yes. I use a mini fridge with an STC-1000 temperature controller for my fermentation chamber.
That said, I have a buddy who used to ferment in a cooler. It was big enough for a carboy; he'd put ice bottles in to manage temps, and won medals doing so.
 
I really enjoyed this article. Thank you for all the tips. You talked more about the grain bill than hops. Do you use a similar process for the hops, or do you simplify the hop bill? Do recipes with a lot of different hops create complexity or make a "green" flavor? Or (gasp) are you less interested in hoppy beers?
 
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