Thinking Outside the Box

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We've all seen them at our local homebrew store; shelves filled with kits, tempting us, "Use me, I'm ready to brew, no thinking required." I heard a fellow homebrewer describe them as Betty Crocker brewing; just mix, boil, and enjoy. While there certainly are a lot of good things to say about kit brewing, it's also fairly easy to get away from it if you want to.
The Pros
Somebody does most of the thinking for you: Most kits have been developed with the idea that most beer drinkers will enjoy the taste. Very few kits will add ingredients that don't have a place in the taste buds of consumers, making them fairly safe to brew. On the other hand, creating your own recipe from scratch can have disastrous results. I still recall my first attempt at creating a recipe for an IPA. What I wanted was a slightly bitter beer with a hint of honey. What I brewed was an extremely bitter, honey flavored beer-like substance.
Kits come with step-by-step instructions: Adding hops, spices, etc... at different times during the boil can lead to vastly different results. Having easy to understand instructions with timings listed can be invaluable to new brewers.
Simplicity: Brewing your own beer can be intimidating, especially early in your brewing journey. Brewing from a kit is about as simple as it gets and should yield a very drinkable beer. Remember the Betty Crocker description? This isn't necessarily a bad thing. How many times have you, or someone you know, purchased a box of Betty Crocker brownies, followed the instructions, and ended up with something terrible? Never... that's how many times! On the other hand, how many times have you botched something that you tried to make from scratch? Likely more than never.
Sometimes safe is good.
The Cons
Somebody does most of your thinking for you: Since kits are designed for mass appeal, they may not appeal to you. A lot of kits play it fairly safe, which can come off as pretty bland as your palate develops. The first step to creating your own recipes can actually be adjusting kits to your taste. Not hoppy enough? Add a couple ounces of a variety not included in the kit. Not malty enough for your taste? Add a small amount of specialty malt. Trying new yeast can have dramatic and wonderful results on your finished product. Many of you are likely already doing this, and for those who aren't, taking these small steps can help give you the courage to start formulating recipes from scratch.
Kits come with step-by-step instructions: Are you noticing a theme here? Many things that one may consider good about kits are the same things they will later see in more negative light. Following a strict brewing schedule is the most important aspect of brewing great beer, but the instructions included with a kit will often lead you astray. There are even some kits that will tell brewers to ferment for 5-7 days, and then transfer to secondary. The lack of a reasonable need to use a secondary aside, why would any brewer rack a beer after only one week? Very few beers you ever brew will be "done" in two weeks, let alone one week.

Another pro that's also a con. Most homebrewers don't want to brew simple beer, as there are grocery store shelves lined with the stuff. We want to create something unique, something with a complexity that we, and other drinkers, take notice of. When brewing beer, simple and boring are often interchangeable.
Kits have a shelf life: Lastly, kits can be very old at the time of purchase. This basically nets you old malt, old grain, old hops, and old yeast for your brewing pleasure. This is not a good combination!
Where to start?
Research: So where does one start his or her quest for recipe development? If you've brewed a kit, or ever enjoyed a beer for that matter, you've already started your journey. Ask yourself some critical questions about the kit you brewed or the Baltic Porter from a local brewery you really enjoy. What in particular do you like about it? What do you dislike? Now take things a couple steps further.
Commercial examples can give you a great idea of what you like and dislike about any particular style. Start by purchasing several versions of the style you want to tackle first and take detailed notes at each tasting. Several commercial breweries list ingredients directly on their website, giving you a nice place to start. If you really liked beer #3 and the website says it has Amarillo Hops in it then it may be a good idea to add some to your recipe. While this form of research is the most fun, there are several other types of research to utilize. After all, you want this beer to be amazing!
Websites like this one often have detailed clones of any beer you enjoy as well as a wealth of original recipes. What malts do others suggest? What hop varieties and schedules are others using? I spend hours looking up recipes on homebrewtalk.com before I start building one. It's important to read the entire post for any recipe you are interested in, as it often goes through changes over time. You don't want to take all of your information from the first page only to find out that it underwent significant changes on pages 4, 6, 9, and 12.
Books are an invaluable resource for those wanting to develop their own recipes. Sit down and read a couple of them in the weeks it takes to form a really solid base recipe. Look at any recipe examples listed within and start building. Are there any malts, hops, etc... listed in multiple recipes? More so, do several different authors seem to use a certain malt or hop combination in multiple recipes? This can really help you decide what malts, hops, adjuncts, etc... to use and how much of each to add to your first recipe. Your goal here is to develop a solid base recipe that can be tweaked later.
Homebrew shops will usually let you sample a kernel of each grain you may be interested in purchasing. If you what to know what a little bit of roasted barley will add to your recipe there's no better way to find out than to give it a taste. The enzymes in your mouth with actually give you quite an honest representation of what each malt will contribute to your beer. I decided to add a small amount of Victory Malt to every IPA I brew, based solely on this method, and have never gone back.
Brewing software is, in my opinion, vital to solid recipe formation. Most software available has detailed malt, hop, and yeast lists. A little reading will give you a good idea of what each ingredient will do in your beer. It's also easy to use this type of software to make sure that you're your beer stays near most of the guidelines for the style. There's nothing worse than finding out after the fact that 55 IBUs just ruined your Saison.
Gathering feedback: After doing some serious research, and this can take a lot of time, you should have something you feel is a decent starter recipe. Time to come back to homebrewtalk.com and gather some feedback on the forums. Maybe you thought that 1 lb. of caramel malt would be a great idea for your first session IPA, but a quick check of the responses in your post told you otherwise. Again, you are brewing this beer for yourself, so sometimes you have to go with your gut... but if the first thirty responses to your thread tell you that your recipe contains way too much of a particular malt, it probably does.
Tweaking: So, forum members have torn your beautiful brew baby to shreds. Time for a little more tweaking! Homebrewers are a particularly helpful bunch and will rarely steer you in the wrong direction on purpose. Take the feedback you've gathered and make some changes. One pound of caramel malt is too much? Cut it in half or more. Everyone says that you are adding too many hops too early in the boil? Move them around a little bit. The next step should be to repost your changes and gather some more feedback.

Brew it: You've done your research, listened to feedback and made your changes, now brew your beer! The excitement that comes with brewing your first self-designed recipe is hard to describe. It's honestly a mix of joy and pure terror. The good news is that if you follow proper sanitation you'll still end up with beer, so even if your recipe is a bit of a letdown you still win! I've brewed several beers that didn't come out as planned, but never a beer that was undrinkable. Always take detailed notes from each brewing session as well as each tasting. These will come in handy while making adjustments later.
More tweaking: You're sitting with a glass of your first original brew in your hand, you take a sip. It really doesn't matter if it's good, bad, or ugly at this point... it's yours and it's only a few tweaks away from perfection! What did you like about it? What did you hate? What was just right? By this point in your journey you should have a pretty good idea about what each part of your recipe brings to the table, making it easier to isolate where you may have gone wrong. Time to do a little more research, gather a little more feedback, and do a little more tweaking for version 2. In all honestly, I've never brewed the same beer twice. I'm what you would call a "constant tweaker." It's not that I haven't brewed several beers worth keeping around, more that I'm always eager to find out what different hop, malt, and yeast combinations will bring to the finished product.

The best part: Creating your own unique recipe is a fantastic feeling, especially when you really nail one. The feelings associated with drinking your first homebrewed beer are amazing in their own right, now imagine the feeling you get while drinking a truly unique, one of a kind beer that you designed completely for yourself! Brew on!
Great post Darren. I especially like this advice:
"Time to do a little more research, gather a little more feedback, and do a little more tweaking for version 2."
The 'feedback loop' is super important in brewing.
I agree wholeheartedly with this. I understand starting out with kits as a beginner, but I feel like crafting your own recipes is the most rewarding feeling of homebrewing. There's nothing better than seeing a beer geek smile when they taste a brew you conceived and made yourself.
I feel like only using premade kits from websites is like calling yourself a chef when you are just buying meat and a box of Hamburger Helper meals
Glad you guys enjoyed it! I think that recipe development is my favorite part of brewing. Nothing is more gratifying to me than building a beer around my tastes.
Brew Kits are exactly how I got started. I picked up a Pumpkin Spiced Porter kit and ran with out. I then realized that, while I got a good product, it wasn't that exciting.
So what did I do next? I bought another kit, except I didn't stop there. I took a Christmas kit, tossed the yeast and spices, added fresh spices to my taste, and pounds of dried fruits. Pitched some belgian yeast instead of the ale yeast and ran with it. It's one of my favorite brewing experiences.
I did this one more time with a Belgian IPA kit. I racked it onto about 5 lbs of homemade cranberry sauce (because why not). I got into brewing to experiment, starting the new year, I'm going to run with traditional recipes and ignore the kits (who needs that extra markup anyway).
Kits were a great stepping stone, but it's time to make some special beer that I can't buy in the store!
Earlier in my brewing life, I learned a lot from doing AG kits. I could still sample the various grains, saved $, and developed my personal preferences.
Another facet of learning to be a better brewer.
Great stuff. When I started brewing I couldn't help myself and moved away from kit brewing before the second batch. A friend who recently brewed his first (kit) batch seems interested in moving beyond that relatively quickly and I couldn't have put it any better than you did here; definitely sending it to him.
This pretty accurately describes my current progression as a home brewer.
I did a couple of extract brews a couple of years ago, took a break for work and family, and recently got back into the hobby. In the last three months have completed two of the Brewer's Best partial extract kits.
While I do describe them as Betty Crocker brewing, I know that if tasty (although unoriginal) beer results, I have done everything correctly.
It's been a good confidence builder and supplied me with tasty brews while I contemplate more experimental recipes. Most likely, my first attempts will be with modifications and substitutions to a box kit.
I have done a kit from local brew store and they grind the grains and pour out the extract for you so it is all fresh which is a plus. I have had very good results using Brewers Friend recipe builder and looking over recipes from the forum, taking a little from one and some from another and reading a lot posts on what works and what does not. By putting in the recipe builder I will have a pretty good idea of what to expect in color, IBU's and ABV.
I'm glad I used kits at first because it removed a few variables from my process. It let me focus on sensitization, and proper procedures without worrying too much about the ingredients. I knew that the kit wasn't going to fight me, and I could focus on getting good at brewing/ fermenting/ bottling/ kegging. Now that brewing is "easy" I feel comfortable changing the different elements in the recipe with confidence that the gear will perform.
Nice article. Only problem with the feedback loop that I have, is using a precious brew session to redo something already done. Due to work/family schedule, I have a limited number of times I can brew. Every time I brew now, I'm faced with the question, do I want to try that batch again, or do I want to try and make something that I've not tried before? I know that my English Brown that came out OK then, will be killer now, but this IPL looks challenging as well? I'm pretty new to this so there are SO many new things for me to try. Ah, the tough questions in life. Another option though is using a pre-proven recipe. The head work is done. I just found out I can E-mail it to my LHBS and they will have the ingredients ready for pickup in a few hours.