Beer Recipe Design

by Brad Smith on January 27, 2010 · 5 comments

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the basic principles of beer recipes design are often misunderstood and rarely well articulated. This week we’re going to look at how you can design a great beer recipes at home using a tried and true process. What follows is an what I consider an overview of the essence of beer recipe design.

Starting a New Recipe

When I build a new beer recipe, I almost always start by picking a target beer style. This is not to say that the style defines the whole beer as there is plenty of room for interpretation and creativity, but by starting with a beer style, you establish the baseline for the beer you are going to brew.

A good starting reference is the BJCP style guidelines. Organized by the Beer Judge Certification Program, the style guideline provides detailed specifications and suggested ingredients for nearly 100 different styles of beer. So if you want to brew an Irish Stout, or Bavarian Weisse, this is a good place to start. These guidelines also provide ranges for average bitterness, color and original gravity for the beer which can help you achieve the appropriate balance for the beer.

Choosing the Ingredients

The next step in designing the beer is to pick appropriate ingredients. Beer is made from malt, hops, water and yeast (occasionally with a few spices). Before you jump to doing detailed design, do a bit of research to determine what ingredients in each category are typically used your target beer style, and in roughly what proportions. For proportions, I prefer to work initially in percentages such as 80% pale malt, 15% carmel malt and 5% chocolate malt – this makes it easier to scale things later on.

The BJCP style guide provides some information on typical ingredients used, but often does not have detailed breakouts of proportions. The BeerSmith Blog Style Articles do provide more detailed information on the history of different beer styles and percentage of ingredients used. Our recipes page also provides some great examples, as do a number of other online recipe web sites, though one must be careful when using someone else’s recipe as often they are far from the actual beer style.

Another great resource is brewing books – one of my favorites is Ray Daniel’s book Designing Great Beers, which has detailed analysis of percentages of ingredients used in award winning and commercial beer examples. Finally, you can often find articles or messages for a particular beer style using a simple google search or search on a discussion forum.

The goal of all of your research is to determine ingredients appropriate to the style. Using the wrong ingredients, or selecting the wrong proportions will result in a beer with the wrong flavor and balance. You will rarely go wrong using ingredients that are authentic to the style.

Brewing by the Numbers

Once you have your ingredients selected, and have them apportioned in roughly the correct way its time to actually enter the beer into a spreadsheet or program such as BeerSmith, and run the numbers. This is an important step, which many beginning brewers skip, but if you don’t have the recipe properly adjusted and balanced for your equipment and your settings you will likely end up way off your target style.

The critical parameters to look at as you enter and adjust your ingredients are:

  • Original Gravity (OG)– A measure of how much fermentable and unfermentable malt you have added to the beer. The original gravity typically determines how much potential alcohol you will have in the beer, as well as how malty the beer will be. The style guideline provides a range for this parameter.
  • Bitterness (IBUs) – Bitterness from hops balances the flavor of your beer. For beer design, you want to estimate your bitterness in International Bitterness Units (IBUs). Again you want to use the style guideline to determine the appropriate IBU range.
  • Color (SRM) – You can estimate the color of your beer from the ingredients used. Estimating the color is important, as you don’t want your pale ale to be black or your stout to be blonde in color. Obviously darker malts add color.
  • Bitterness Ratio (IBU/GU) – The bitterness ratio gives you a rough measurement of the bitterness to malt balance for the beer. A hoppy beer will have a high bitterness ratio, while a malty beer will have a low one. We have a separate article on calculating bitterness ratio as well as the ranges for different styles.
  • Final Gravity (FG) – While it is very difficult to accurately predict final gravity ahead of time, I often look at the final gravity for the style to get an idea of the attenuation needed from the yeast. Attenuation refers to the percentage of sugars consumed by the yeast, and some styles require high attenuation yeast to achieve a smooth clean flavor, while others need low attenuation yeasts for complex flavor.
  • Carbonation (Vols) – The carbonation of the beer should match the style. Carbonation is measured in volumes, where one volume would essentially be a liter of carbon dioxide gas dissolved into a liter of beer. Fermented beer at room temperature with no additional carbonation contains about 1.0 volumes of CO2. Authentic English ales are often served with little or no carbonation (1.5-2.0 vols) while many German beers are highly carbonated (up to 3.0 vols). If you research the style, you can often determine the correct carbonation level for the beer.

Brewing Techniques

After you have the proper ingredients and have balanced the recipe by the numbers, the final step is to look at the techniques needed to brew this style of beer. Different styles definitely require application of a variety of brewing techniques. Some of the techniques to consider include:

  • Hop Techniques ­– A variety of hop techniques are available, most of which are covered in our article on hop techniques. Examples include first wort hopping, dry hopping, late hop additions, bittering hops, and use of a hopback. Different beer styles require different methods to achieve the appropriate balance.
  • Mash Techniques – For all grain and partial mash brewers, adjusting your mash temperature is critical to achieving the appropriate body for your beer. Lower mash temperature during the main conversion step will result in a lower body beer and higher mash temperatures result in more body. In addition, advanced brewers may want to consider advanced techniques like decoction mashing if appropriate to the style.
  • Fermenting, Lagering and Aging – The temperature for fermenting your beer should be appropriate for the yeast and beer you are using. Yeast manufacturers as well as most brewing software publish appropriate temperature ranges for fermentation of each yeast. Aging and lagering should also match your target style.

Beer design is clearly one part art, and one part science which is what makes it an interesting and enjoyable hobby. However, if you do your homework, select quality ingredients, run the numbers and follow good brewing techniques you can make fantastic beer at home using your own recipes.

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