Strategies for Beer Recipe Design – Part 2

by Brad Smith on August 3, 2017 · 1 comment

This week I take a look at the “building block” approach for designing beer recipes. This method, introduced by Gordon Strong, is a great design strategy for more experienced brewers.

Last week in Part 1, I covered the decidedly technical (vs artistic) bent in beer brewing as well as the traditional approach many brewers use for beer recipe design. This week I’m going to cover the building block approach, which I’ve found to be a useful model as my brewing has evolved.

The Building Block Approach to Recipe Design

Gordon Strong (BJCP President and author) introduced me to the concept of using “building blocks” as a basis for beer recipe design. He made the observation that you rarely start a new recipe with a blank sheet of paper, but instead base a new recipe on groups of ingredients that you already know work together.

As Steve Jobs once said:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

I like to explain the approach using a simple example I came up with at breakfast one morning. I was making some pancakes using “Bisquick” and observed that I could easily make a lot of cool things using just a few ingredients and the recipes on the box. Dumplings, shortcakes, pancakes, waffles, and even bread are all made from a combination of flour, sugar, butter, milk and a few other ingredients.

The building block approach is similar – you may know that a certain combination of dark grains makes a great Porter with some great flavor depth to it. With just a few modifications you can make a killer stout or brown ale by making minor adjustments to the same set of ingredients.

For example, I recently made a robust porter with a combination of equal parts Crystal-60L, Special B and Chocolate Malt (1/2 lb of each in a 5 gal batch) with a touch (4.5 oz) of Black Patent and the rest Pale Malt. I really liked the combination as using some of the “harsh zone malts” gave the Porter some depth of flavor missing in many Porters. With just a bit more of this combo I could make a very nice robust stout, or conversely ease off on this building block to make a deep brown.

Ingredient Knowledge

The key to using the building block approach is, of course, having a good solid base of ingredient knowledge as well as a solid base of experience and library of recipes that worked for you in the past. That is why this building block approach is more popular with experienced brewers.

You can build your base of recipes by brewing of course, but just as important is growing your expert knowledge in brewing ingredients. Cooks are able to create new food combinations because they already have an innate knowledge of what various base ingredients like butter, milk and flour taste like as well as expert knowledge in spices and how flavors combine to create certain effects in food. An expert brewer needs similar expertise.

So how do you gain the ingredient knowledge to become a better brewer? There are several options including:

  • SMASH Brewing – By brewing single malt, single hop beers you gain a real understanding of what base malts and single varieties of hops bring to a beer.
  • Sampling Hops – Most professional brewers use a dry rub to evaluate hops, but getting several different varieties together to sample can be a very powerful experience.
  • Sensory Evaluation of Malts – The new ASBC method takes some effort, but can be a great project for your brewing club or with a few other brewers to get a feel for what various malts bring to the table.
  • Brew, Judge and Iterate – The best brewers don’t brew a recipe just once – they meticulously judge, take notes and make improvements to a recipe and then brew it again until the recipe is perfect.

The building block approach is a great method for experienced brewers to create new, unique recipes based on their existing knowledge base. I hope you enjoyed this short series on recipe design strategies. If you have your own suggestions please leave a comment below.

Thanks for joining me on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter or my podcast (also on itunes…and youtube…and streaming radio station) for more great tips on homebrewing. Also check out the How to Brew Video series I shot with John Palmer if you want to learn more about all grain brewing.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bryan @ August 14, 2017 at 10:54 am

I am a big fan of SMaSH brewing, especially when it comes to assessing a new hop variety. Definitely one of the easiest ways to figure out the overall bittering/aroma properties you can expect. After that, it’s all about adding in another hop or two to see how things play together as you continue to fine tune your recipe.

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