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I guess most people brew from kits, or from the many available recipes on the net. But for those few recipe formulators, how do you go about building a recipe?

And, given the inexactness of brewing, what do you do when the end result isn't quite what you in mind?

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We might want to convert this to a community wiki. It's a great question, but one that will have a lot of 'correct' answers. –  Hopwise Feb 9 '12 at 1:41
    
I agree, although I don't see that option - can one of the mods make this a community wiki? –  mdma Feb 9 '12 at 12:18
    
What is the inexactness of brewing? I brew a handful of recipes I have designed over the years time and time again and they are pretty damn close if not identical each time. –  brewchez Feb 12 '12 at 1:04
    
@brewchez - you're talking about repeatability - that's more about your brewing process rather than the recipe. With recipies, many of the key the metrics, such as bitterness of hops, and color in grains are only approximations. AA percent from the hop harvest is only representative, not exact, add to that deterioration in storage plus that extracted bitterness varies from rig to rig depending upon the boil vigour. Water profiles are different, which is not usually given with published recipes. If you can brew from the same hop and grain batch each time, then consistency is possible. –  mdma Feb 12 '12 at 1:17
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5 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I started creating my own recipes by picking a beer that I liked and then trying to brew something close to the commercial example. This is not a bad way to start, since you have a concrete goal that you are trying to achieve. And it can be very educational, since it will teach you a lot about the ingredients that commercial brewers use and in what proportions.

Second, you have to spend some time researching. There are good books that are focused on single styles. For example, if you really want to brew a Porter then read the Porter book. That will help you narrow down your options for the recipe you're trying to create.

If there's no book focused on the style you're interested in, then there's always Designing Great Beers. It covers several styles very well, and gets into the process of recipe creation.

Research can also include test batches or small-scale experiments. For one beer I made 1-gallon batches using 5 different base malts, just to see what each one tasted like. In this interview, former BJCP Education Director Kristen England suggests using 2-liter french press coffee makers to test out specialty grains so that you can find out exactly what they taste like.

After you've researched, dive in and brew a batch. Don't expect it to be perfect. Take thorough notes throughout the process. Taste it, compare the taste you get to the taste you envisioned and then decide what you're going to change next time. Review your brewing notes. Are there processes that you could do differently in order to get the flavors you want?

If I'm working on a recipe then I will share the beer with a group of friends and then get feedback from them. This helps if your friends are willing to give you honest tasting notes. If not, then the feedback will be useless.

Incorporate your changes into a new recipe and brew again. Repeat as necessary.

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Well the main way you learn how to make your own recipes is by picking ingredients out kind of at random at first, kind of like a kid in a kitchen. The problem with this is that your first couple of custom recipes are unlikely to be very good. Here's my advice....

Start off with proven recipes. This means stuff out of 'Brewing Classic Styles' or recipes from beers that you have personally tasted and enjoy. Don't trust every random recipe you find online. That one guy online swearing that 3lbs of Black Patent makes his stout delicious is probably full of crap, or a chain-smoker who can't taste anything anyway.

Take the recipe and modify one ingredient. Just one. Seriously. Put down the Northern Brewer catalog! The only way you will figure out what flavors an ingredient is imparting is to account for them one-by-one. This takes a lot of time when you are starting out but its worth it. Some of my earliest batches were crappy because I thought I knew how to make a recipe, and it was pretty discouraging.

If you like plain ales (Golden Ales, Blondes, etc) one of the best things you can do is to make a series of SMASH (Single malt, single hop) beers. This makes it MUUUCH easier to figure out what the "bready" qualities of a malt like Munich actually taste like in a beer.

(Side rant: I find that ingredient flavor descriptions RARELY match what they supposedly taste like. Meaning, I know what Munich tastes like, and that its described as "bready", but it doesn't taste like actual bread to me at all. Same with "earthy" Fuggles and "chocolate" malt. Don't get too hung up on these descriptions, and don't think that just because you like the taste of cloves that you instantly love a beer with a "clove" description on the yeast. Its just not the same, and we're just using that word because its the closest we can get to describing the flavor in the beer. Furthermore, if you think a beer is supposed to be a certain flavor because of an ingredient, you will trick yourself into tasting it.)

Even if you start off with a complex recipe (again, given to you by a trusted source), you can still swap out ingredients one by one. It will just be a little harder to pick them out the more complex the overall recipe is. And some big-flavor beers (Stouts, Belgians) are bad ones to experiment with because the flavor of whatever minor ingredient you are using might just get completely hidden by the strong flavors from the rest of the recipe.

Finally though, don't be discouraged! Experiment away! Just do it in a smart manner (adjust for one ingredient at a time). Or, throw in 5 new ingredients, but don't expect to be able to truly figure out what each one is doing right away. Its all up to your personal style. One of my favorite beers to make and drink is a custom recipe that I created that doesn't have a direct commercial or stylistic equivalent. Its a Vienna-based lager with about 20% Munich, along with some dark crystal and some Carafa. Makes kind of a "Vienna Schwarzbier Bock" hybrid. I found it by taking an existing recipe (for a Negra Modelo clone) and adjusting the ingredients one by one.

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Gordon Strong calls extract brewing "the equivalent of calling heating up a tv dinner 'cooking'". Strong words, and I've made some really good extract brews, but also some not-so-good ones. Kits are great, and I still remember the way my first kit tasted.

However, moving to all-grain allows you to do what the above-poster is referencing. Really learning (and putting into practice) the building blocks of good beer, how to manipulate the ingredients through processes and temperatures will result in what Strong calls 'effortless excellence' (think Sinatra or a professional golfer).

I have about 45 batches under my belt (literally), and still consider myself a 'beginner' when it comes to recipe design. One practice that is really fun to me as a homebrewing is split batches, as the above-poster stated. The exact same grains mashed at the exact same temperature with different hops. Or different yeast. Or, even more stunning, EVERYTHING the same with different fermentation temps. I started on this process by making 5 single-hop IPA's ala Mikkeller/BrewDog. Exact same grain bill (and a simple one), clean yeast, one hop, same fermentation temps.

I would also recommend "Radical Brewing" by Mosher. He gives recipe formulation beginners (and homebrew beginners) some very simple building blocks to make your own recipe.

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I think its the same thing as cooking. After you have eaten enough of the food you really love you begin to wonder how to make it at home. This leads you to need to start exploring ingredients and how flavors come together.

Regardless to how you do come up with a recipe making the commitment to making recipes requires the homebrewer to do something most homebrewers don't do, repeat the same beer repeatedly. Most homebrewers bounce wildly between styles. If you really want to make a recipe for a beer of your own design one needs to commit to brewing the same thing a few times in a row.

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Recipe formulation software can be very helpful when you want to start playing around with recipes. I'm fond of beer calculus which is online and free. You can tell it the ingredients you are planning to use, and it will estimate gravity and color and bitterness for you. If you tell it what style you are aiming for, it will tell you when you go beyond the guidelines for that style.

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