Back to Basics: Building a Recipe 101

Trade Secret Tip: Don't publish your Trade Secrets! So last week, we talked about the importance of yeast and how integral it is toward making great beer - even more so when you make a yeast starter. This week, we dive right into the steps, at least from our perspective, in building a better beer recipe. Ready? GRASSLANDS' CLASS IS IN SESSION...AGAIN - You back there! Wake up!

Okay, enough with the shenanigans. As we discussed last week, there are four basic ingredients in beer: Water, Malted Barley, Hops and Yeast (plus any adjuncts as you see fit). If you're at least careful about your procedures in brewing and sanitation/temperature control during fermentation, chances are you're going to produce a beer that tastes 10x better than the macro light 'Murican Lagers (Bud, Miller, Coors). The problem with those beers is that they don't follow the essential ingredient guidelines. They're very good at what they do, that goes without saying - perhaps extremely awesome at replicating the same bad beer over and over and over and over again. But with the macro beer producers, the bottom line is more important than quality of ingredients. I'm talking adjuncts like corn and rice being in your beer. How's that do ya? (Small plug - you will always know what basic ingredients are in GrassLands' beers) It's okay to use adjuncts, but you won't have a "craft" beer if your primary grain is an adjunct - as it is in the big three.

So - how does one go about building a recipe? My first suggestion - peruse the multitude of online resources available at your fingertips. For newbie homebrewers to experts, you've got a plethora of information on brewing out there. Where do you think I learned what I learned (which, in my personal opinion, I've not even fully scratched the surface). Good example: HomeBrewTalk. Another one: Charlie Papazian's bible book: The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. These are just a minute few of the resources you've got in front of you. That's awesome when you think about it. Homebrewing is as opensource a hobby as you can find. And it'll take on a mind of its own if you let it. Last suggestion - learn what you like and what you don't like (as far as beer goes). Many of the recipes we've created have been influenced by the beers we've truly enjoyed drinking - or thought we could take a different approach to the style. Point is, you can never stop learning in this biz. Oh yeah, join a local homebrew club. You'll find that your brewing knowledge, or what you think you know, is nothing. I definitely learned that. Talk to the reps at your local homebrew store, if you're so lucky to have on in your town. They'll drop some knowledge on ya too.

I've always said that I'm not that creative. I never "played" an instrument - at least not well - and I couldn't even draw myself a door if I needed to. But something clicked when I started brewing beer. Stop me if I told this story before: My "gateway" beer was Rogue Dead Guy. I loved it when I first had it - and with my first ever brew, I tried to "clone" it - ended coming up with something completely different that I liked loved even more. Fun Fact: that very recipe has evolved over the years to what is now our future Flagship beer! Amazing how these things work out, eh?

As I said before - knowing what you like will influence what you want to create and how you want to create it. Taste other homebrewers' beers and learn about what malts they used, what yeast, what hops. You get a sense of how each component influences one another. What does the combination of Amarillo and Simcoe hops do when you infuse a fruity, American yeast and a mixture of American and Belgian malts? There's only one way to find out!

So how do we go about building a recipe? First know what style - or experimental style - you want to brew. Let's go with a popular one: IPA. For an IPA (or any recipe) - you really need to start with a base malt.  These malts don't have a ton of flavor, but contribute the bulk of any ingredient in the recipe (usually 60%+ of the grain bill). For an IPA, I'd go with a traditional 2-row malted barley base. You tend to find this style of base malt in most American IPAs - no need to rock the boat, unless you're like me sometimes and get a wild hair up your backside and want to get all experimental with your brewing.

Next, you want to impart some malt flavor into the beer. If you see above, my one-off recipe has 32 lbs of grains used for a half barrel batch. 60ish% of it is Maris Otter (a British 2-row barley). The others below are specialty grains - highly caramelized ones, which impart their own respective flavors. As in cooking, you might expect that the amount of grain you use will impact the overall flavor and color of the beer. Your preference here, absolutely. As you gain experience, you learn what you like and tweak your recipes accordingly. Also, if you notice, I've used rye - which is an adjunct. Not a problem, it's something I wanted to put in to add a little spice to my beer and a rye aroma.

Moving on to hops - a key ingredient. In an IPA, you want to ensure you at least find a balance between the malt and hops, if not leaning more toward the hop side, which most American IPAs do. This means you've got to figure out what variety of hops you want to use for bittering, flavoring, and aroma. As such, the time you put the hops into the boil impacts how bitter the beer will be, the amount of flavor the hop will impart, as well as the strength of hop aroma. Again, perfecting your recipe comes with time and experience. In the picture above, I want a ton of cascade hop flavor and aroma in that beer, which is to say highly floral and citrusy - so I've got a bunch of late-hop additions. As it was a pale ale that was heavy on special malts, I didn't want to over-bitter it with early additions. The type of hop you use will also impact the amount of bitterness, flavor and/or aroma imparted. Again, all things you learn with experience and absorbing knowledge via the resources provided above.

Last, but certainly not least, choose your yeast strain. In an IPA, I'd lean toward a strain that'll attenuate (or consume sugars) very well - drying out the beer a little. There are a ton of yeast strains available and usually they're designed to fit within specific styles of beers. The two most popular yeast providers are White Labs and Wyeast. Definitely incorporate the steps we listed in last week's article as far as yeast preparation (and sanitation) goes - but also, experiment around a bit. See what a particular strain does to a malt/hop bill. See what it does when you change the fermentation temperature around a little (if you can). See what it does when you mash (which we'll talk about next week) at different temperatures. All these things will impact the final product.

As a commercial brewery, the challenge is to produce great beer on a consistent basis. Yeah, it's nice to have one-offs here & there or snow-flakes of particular styles, but really - if we want to make the impact we wish to make, we want to be consistent about the beers we're producing, distributing and serving onsite. That's one of the main reasons it's taken GrassLands this long to come to the Tallahassee market - research & development. I can't tell you how many times I've tweaked and re-brewed our future flagship beer. Too many to count. But that's all part of the fun, isn't it? That's what building a recipe is all about! Experiment, taste, tweak, taste, rebrew, taste and repeat. That's how you build a great recipe!

Whew! FYI, everything above is really just a 10,000 foot level approach. You'll find that you might need to make water modifications here & there depending on the quality of water your town has. We're fortunate in Tallahassee to have very good water for brewing, but not to the extent that I'm going to avoid making tweaks here & there to have a better end product.

So, get to brewing, right? Or at least, get to tasting :) - It's all in fun and we're a good example of how practice makes (somewhat) perfect - and we're allllllways practicing! With that, have an excellent weekend, my dear readers, because you definitely deserve it!