I don’t believe myself to be a wizard of brewing. In truth, I’ve been homebrewing for just a little over a year. However, I have a voracious mind that loves to learn and retains substantial amounts of what I learn. I have spent a lot of time soaking in a lot of brewing knowledge. One area of knowledge that I think all brewers eventually migrate to is figuring out how to make an awesome beer. Some people want a “house brew” that they always keep on hand, some do it because they want to have their own take on a particular style and others – myself included – build recipes because it feels more rewarding to make things that are truly his or her own. That’s not to say from time to time I don’t appreciate the economy of cloning beers you drink a lot. I do have three five gallon batches of clone waiting to be made.
Whatever your reason, there’s a lot of great reading on building recipes, ingredients, processes, etc., both online and offline. I think most people turn to Daniel’s Designing Great Beers and Mosher’s Radical Brewing as two staple books on designing recipes. There is also a very long list of books relevant to specific types of beers available. You can find many of these books online through Amazon or other online retailers. Personally I find Designing Great Beers incredibly helpful. It’s not the most interesting read but it is tremendously helpful as a starting point for a recipe of many basic beer styles. (Again, there are many great books out there, I just happen to own Designing Great Beers and find it most helpful. I’m not on the take.)
There is also lots of great software and websites that can help you build recipes. I use beersmith and find it incredibly helpful. I’m not especially mathematically oriented, so if not for this assistance there is no way on earth I would go through the mental anguish of figuring out IBUs or gravity calculations by hand. I’d just rely on other people’s recipes and make those. I strongly encourage anybody interested in building recipes to give some of these software options a whirl. Most I’ve run across are either free or have a trial period. Even when you have to purchase them, they are not incredibly expensive.
Ok…so those are some initial considerations. As I’ve said before, when you do anything you’ve got to come at it with a plan of attack. Here, sort of a recipe for a recipe. Think about what you are trying to accomplish. I find there are a few options one must weigh to figure out what components will build the recipe that he or she desires. Before I get into them, there are two obvious and overriding concerns that should be briefly addressed. Your ability to build a recipe will inevitably be limited by the ingredients and equipment you can both afford and obtain. With online ordering, you can no doubt find pretty much any equipment or ingredients you need (except for those seasonal items when you’re out of season), so often it comes down to a financial issue. Of course, if you’re trying to come up with a quick recipe to use an aging sack of Maris Otter and you don’t have a local shop with a wide selection, you may want to avoid building a recipe with items you’re unwilling to take the time to locate. (Additionally, there are other questions, like extract vs. all grain, what style to make, batch size, etc. but I assume you already have that in mind BEFORE starting to flesh out the recipe.) That said, let’s mosey on into the big picture…
1. Clone vs. Originality
(Again, no ill words will be spoken against clone beers. They have their place and merits.) I think this represents the first fork in the road to figuring out what kind of recipe you want to build. If you are after a clone, you are either searching for an existing clone recipe (or kit) or you are trying to deduce the original to make your clone. In that first case, you just need to find the appropriate existing recipe and your job is complete. If you are trying to deduce a clone recipe, obviously the original is going to guide you towards your recipe. On the other hand, if you are looking to make an original recipe then existing recipes, both commercial and those of your fellow homebrewers, can act as much or as little as a guide to making your own recipe.
I think this one speaks for itself, but you should decide whether you are trying to make an exact copy of a beer you like, something in the neighborhood of a beer (or several beers) you like, or something completely different. So, if you like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (SNPA) and you want to make something like it, you might look at clone recipes or recipes purporting to be similar to SNPA. You would have to decide whether you want to go exactly like SNPA, something like SNPA but clearly different, or something stylistically similar but very different. If you decide you want to make something like SNPA but use a very different grain bill, your motive and your work product are inconsistent and you’re likely going to be disappointed that you didn’t get something SNPA-like. Moving on…
2. Rigid adherence to style guidelines v. Style guidelines as a loose framework
This is another basic question worth asking. The style guidelines offer strict specifications for beer styles, including common grains, hops, alcohol content, color, mouthfeel, etc. These can be helpful starting points to figure out what kinds of ingredients and goals (such as IBUs, ABV, SRM) you want to use. However, you may want to follow the style guidelines very strictly. You may feel that your stout just won’t be a stout if you don’t adhere to the guidelines. I do find the guidelines useful starting points but I don’t feel like they must be rigidly adhered to when making beers for your own consumption. After all, many commercial varieties (even those that beer drinkers consider within style) do not fall within any official set of guidelines. I fail to see how following the guidelines makes your enjoyment of your beer any more or less rewarding.
The other side of that discussion is that there is a specific situation where the guidelines may need to be closely adhered to: when you are making the recipe with competition in mind. In that case you probably do want to consider what judges are mostly likely to score well within the style guidelines. Otherwise, who cares if your brown ale has too much chocolate malt in it if that’s what you enjoy?
3. Simplicity vs. Creativity
This is another basic question that you should answer before you start to pick out base grains. Are you trying for simplicity – something basic that you can easily make and enjoy – or something wild and creative? Neither is better than the other, it is just a function of your brewing needs and preferences. If you are trying to spit out a simple pale ale to have something to enjoy you may not need to contemplate complex mash schedules or a lengthy grain bill. On the other side, if you are trying to make a complex barleywine then you may want to consider a triple decoction mash and using a hopback or dry hopping or using exotic specialty malts. You can make great beer either way.
4. Process vs. Ingredients
This question may be precluded by your skill level and equipment, but otherwise it’s a question of how much time you want to invest in physically producing results in your beer versus letting modern ingredients produce results. If you are an all-extract brewer then extract will have to be a substitute for the mash – that’s a situation where equipment and preferred brewing technique preclude questions of whether or not you want to mash grains. However, that aside, this is an important question of how much time you want to put into the process. A good example of what I mean is using acid malt to take the place of an acid rest during the mash process. Other examples include using cara grains as a replacement for mashing procedures to improve head retention and mouthfeel, adding lactic acid to beer instead of performing a sour mash or adding flavor extract instead of doing a secondary.
I don’t consider one option a cop out over the other. You may not have the desire to spend the time to allow the process to produce a result, but you should carefully consider the quality of the ingredient-driven option. Sometimes each option produces similar quality, other times one is a lesser substitute. Cara grains, in my experience, do a significantly better job than adjusting the mash to produce body in the beer. However, I find fruit flavor extracts tend to have a harsh chemical/fake taste to them for several months that eventually fades into a more realistic flavor. You may prefer the ease of the flavor extract and choose to wait for the flavor to balance instead of messing around with adding fruit to the secondary, which can be a pain in the ass.
5. Selecting Ingredients: Simplicity vs. Complexity
You will also have to decide whether you want to go for simplicity within the recipe or complexity. Do you want a small number of grains to carry the day, or toss in everything and hope for a nice blend of flavors? If you look at a lot of homebrew recipes, you’ll find that most recipes either use a small number of grains or they look like somebody picked out a little of everything the homebrew shop had available. You can be incredibly simplistic in your recipe (as simple as the single malt-single hop/SMaSH technique) or be very complex.
However, I do believe there is a line often crossed that takes recipes in the wrong direction of complexity. When I see session beers with 7 grains and 4 types of hops, I generally pass it by. Same with big beers with 12 grains and 7 types of hops. The reason is that there is a point where you are just adding stuff to add it and the flavor added by 4 grains that are 2% of the grain bill isn’t going to allow you to enjoy the flavor of those grains and they are going to muddle together into a bland or worse – weird – flavor. Seven kinds of hops? That’s hop soup. You’ll never enjoy those hops, you just get something really high in IBUs.
Certainly, there is a time and a place for complex recipes, but it’s easy to overdo it. I mean, you just don’t need a brown ale with 3 base grains, 5 specialty grains and 3 kinds of hops. Less really is more. Especially when you consider that your beer’s flavor is a component of your mash process, grain bill, hops, hop schedule, yeast, age, fermentation temperature and anything else you add to the boil or after the boil. That’s a lot of things that can add flavor without having to jam everything you can find into a recipe. You can make a flavorful brown ale with 3-4 grains and a couple types of hops. Ultimately it will be up to you to decide what flavors you want to bring to the recipe, but don’t feel like you have to load up on grains or hops to make a beer complex or for that matter, delicious. Do feel like all those other things I mentioned have a part to play and take advantage of what they bring to the flavor.