A Crash Course in Beer Recipe Design

By Dr. Brad Smith, BeerSmith.com

Do you want to create your own homebrew recipes but don’t know where to get started? Here’s a short course in how to research, design, and brew your very first beer recipe.

Start with What You Already Know

The first step in creating a new beer recipe is to decide what kind of beer you want to brew. If you want to save time on this, start with a beer style you already know–one that you have brewed before. You can use the style and recipe from a kit as a starting point.

Look up your target beer style in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines. The style guide has published ranges for bitterness, color, original gravity, and alcohol by volume, as well as a description of the style, how it tastes, and key ingredients used.

I also recommend looking at other recipes for your target beer style. There are huge repositories of beer recipes online you can search, as well as beer recipe books. For reference, I’ll usually pull the 10 best-rated or award-winning recipes for my target style off a recipe site like the HomebrewersAssociation.org beer recipe database or BeerSmithRecipes.com. This gives me a great starting point for my beer.

Beer Recipe Formulation

Evaluating Existing Beer Recipes

Once I have a few sample recipes, I’ll sit down and compare them against each other to evaluate the ingredients used. Start with the grain or extract bill and take a look at which grains or extracts the various brewers used, and how much of each ingredient. Converting the grain weights into percentages makes it easier to compare different recipes. You can use a simple spreadsheet to list the fermentables used and percent of each. This will give you a good list of extracts and grains you can use and rough percentages to get the right balance, flavor, and color.

[BROWSE National Homebrew Competition gold-medal homebrew recipes]

I next do the same with hops. What hop varieties did various brewers choose? How bitter did they make the beer? Did they use hops in the whirlpool or dry hop? Again, by looking at several recipes, I can get a good list of hop candidates to use as well as how those hops are appropriately used in the target style.

You can do the same with yeasts to get some potential varieties to use. Many yeast manufacturers such as White Labs and Wyeast publish yeast charts that list which strains are appropriate for a given beer style. This can really help you narrow down which one to use.

Finally, you want to try to identify the “key” ingredients that define your beer style. For example you need a good Bavarian wheat yeast to make a Bavarian weissbier, as the flavor of that style comes primarily from yeast. Unmalted wheat is a defining ingredient in a Belgian wit. The BJCP style guidelines list typical ingredients for many beer styles. Know which ingredients are critical so you can include these first.

Build Your Homebrew Recipe

At this point you should have a good list of ingredients and a pretty good idea of the proportions to use. The next step is to build your recipe using recipe software or an online calculator. While you can estimate recipe parameters by hand, it is far easier to do fine adjustments using software that updates estimated parameters as you work.

[LEARN how to convert all-grain recipes to extract]

When building the recipe, compare it to the BJCP style guide and take a close look at

  • Original gravity: The original gravity range gives a good indication of how much total malt is needed to brew the recipe.
  • Bitterness: Bitterness is expressed in International Bitterness Units (IBUs). You typically will adjust the quantity of hops used and hop boil times to reach the target bitterness level.
  • Color: Color is typically given in Standard Reference Method (SRM) units. Adding more dark malt to the malt bill will drive the color estimate for the beer.

Adjust the grain bill and hop schedule until the parameters above fit within the limits provided by the BJCP style guide for your beer style.

Beer Recipe Formulation

Additional Considerations

When building your first recipe from scratch, here are some other key concepts  and common mistakes to consider:

  • Aim for simplicity: Many inexperienced brewers take a “kitchen sink” approach and try to use too many varieties of grains and hops. This only muddies the recipe.  Keep your recipe as simple as possible, and make sure each ingredient you add serves a specific purpose.
  • Don’t overuse caramel & specialty malts: A typical grain bill should consist of 85 to 100 percent base malt or base extract. Specialty malts can easily overwhelm a recipe’s flavor and hurt fermentability. Also, don’t overuse caramel malts, particularly those darker than 60 L, as doing so can impart harsh flavors to the beer.
  • Use hops efficiently: Consider a single boil addition to achieve the target bitterness (IBU) level, and use steeped/whirlpool hops or dry hopping to add aroma for hoppy beer styles. This is usually the most efficient use of hops, as most aroma oils are volatile and boil off quickly.
  • Don’t overdo techniques: While there are a number of advanced techniques you can apply, I recommend keeping your first few recipes simple. Use brewing techniques with which you are familiar to make a beer style you already understand.  This will maximize your chance of success.

Summary

Researching and building your first recipe from scratch can seem like a daunting task, but the results can be rewarding. If you start with familiar styles and techniques and research the target style well, your scratch-built beer will probably be as good as, if not better than, any beer kit. As your knowledge of styles and ingredients grows, recipe development will become much easier, and you’ll enjoy sharing unique beers you created yourself.

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Dr. Brad Smith is the creator of BeerSmith brewing software and hosts the popular BeerSmith podcast. Learn more on BeerSmith.com.

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