Design a Beer Recipe in 10 Steps
Too many homebrewers are overwhelmed by recipe design and as a result stick to kits. While kits can produce solid beers, writing your own recipe means you can tailor the beer to your tastes exactly. Many brewers just don't know where to start, how to select ingredients, and the way everything fits together. This post isn't about ingredients or process (although I'll mention both), each of my recipe posts gives some insight into why I selected particular malts, hops, yeast, and techniques. This is a meta-post about the process I go through each time I write a recipe.
So here are the 10 steps I go through for every batch I brew.
The Mad Fermentationist
CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
NoteStreams are readable online but they’re even better in the free App!
The NoteStream™ app is for learning about things that interest you: from music to history, to classic literature or cocktails. NoteStreams are truly easy to read on your smartphone—so you can learn more about the world around you and start a fresh conversation.
For a list of all authors on NoteStream, click here.
Read the NoteStream below, or download the app and read it on the go!
1. Select a Target
Your goal for a batch could be to recreate Russian River Pliny the Younger, brew an award-winning Berliner weisse, learn the flavor profile of various sugars, pack an IPA into a 2.5% ABV package, or concoct a saison inspired by New Zealand.
Be careful not to mix goals, pick one priority and stick to it! Drinking similar commercial beers can be especially helpful in formulating your target profile.
Start by identifying those things that you will actually perceive. Be as specific as you can be in terms of appearance, flavor, aroma, balance, and mouthfeel. How much bitterness, sweetness, banana, clove, bready, roasty, citrus, alcohol warmth, carbonation etc. do you want? Then translate those things into analytic targets that you can build a recipe around: ABV, OG, FG, SRMs, IBUs, and final pH (thankfully many craft breweries provide their targets, as do the BJCP Guidelines). While it is helpful to understand how to calculate each of these numbers by hand, I use ProMash for accuracy and convenience.
Parameters can only get you so close though, a German Pilsner and a saison can look nearly identical on paper, as can a schwarzbier and English porter! Researching flavor contributions is essential at this stage. There are informative books, magazine articles, blog posts, forum threads, podcasts etc. covering almost every style, brewery, and flavor.
The best brewers are usually those that are brewing-knowledge sponges, taking the best ideas and refining and combining them into something that works for their palate and system. I'm always amazed to read things like: "I don't need a book to brew sour beer well." I often read and listen to something even tangentially brewing related in the hopes of gleaning some new tidbit or technique. Sure I can brew most styles well, but I'm always looking for ways to improve!
There is no shame in starting with a recipe someone else has perfected and adjusting to your tastes/system! Every once in a while it is even healthy to brew a reputable recipe that doesn’t look like one you’d design; it is easy to get stuck doing things a certain way out of habit, taking cues from someone else breaks you out of that rut!
2. Identify Constraints
As homebrewers, we usually have more freedom than commercial brewers in terms of ingredient selection. We can use any malt, yeast, and hop available without compromise. However, many homebrewers are constrained in other ways: fermentation temperature, water profile, equipment, or timing.
Sometimes the correct answer is that the target isn’t achievable given the constraints (e.g., an imperial stout in three weeks, a saison with primary fermentation at 55°F). If you don't have time to make a yeast starter, consider dried yeast (with its higher cell count) a preference. Extract with steeping grains is a constraint as well because it limits both fermentability and grain choices.
Even if you receive the exact recipe from a brewery, hitting the target may require considerably more than simply scaling down their batch size to match yours.
Adjust the system efficiency, tweak the hops to account for their greater bitterness extraction (especially from whirlpool), adjust the fermentation temperature to account for the differences in pressure and geometry, and decide how to replace a bourbon barrel, Schaerbeek cherries, or house ale yeast. Converting a recipe from a fellow homebrewer is a bit easier, but requires some similar considerations.
3. Determine Batch Size
Batch size isn’t a single number. Start with how much beer you want going into kegs or bottles and work backwards from there. You’ll need to know your system to accurately predict how much water to start with in order to produce the desired volume of beer. Work in a bit of buffer if you can so you don't need to collect/transfer every drop of liquid.
Use different volumes for different (tasks):
Volume in the bottling bucket or keg (priming sugar)
+ Losses to blow-off, trub, and fermentor dead space =
Volume in fermentor (pitching rate)
+ Losses to hop absorption, break, and kettle dead space =
Volume in kettle at end of boil (IBUs)
+ Losses to boil-off (evaporation) =
Volume in kettle at start of boil (mash efficiency, amount of grain)
+ Losses to grain absorption and mash tun dead space =
Combined mash/sparge water
While you can project targets for all of these volumes, brewing consistent beer requires adjusting as you measure what they actually turn out to be. If you planned the batch to yield five gallons but end up with 4.75 gallons in the bottling bucket, only add enough priming sugar for 4.75 gallons!
4. Deal with Specialty Ingredients
While the base beer is hugely important no matter what weird ingredients you add, I always consider specialty ingredients first (although in an ideal world, you would dial in the base beer before adding less traditional flavorings or fermentables). If there aren’t going to be fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, wood, spirits etc. skip to step #5.
As a general rule, the more I want to taste the “true” flavor of the ingredient the later in the process I add it. If the flavoring doesn't contain significant fermentables (e.g., coffee, citrus zest) I steep it in the ready-to-package beer for a day or two right before kegging or bottling. Infusing directly into the finished beer allows alcohol and water to work together to extract most important aromatics.
Exposure to heat and fermentation dull distinct aromatics, giving a more “integrated” character that works well for Belgian-style subtlety. I’d spice a wit at the end of the boil, while I'd dose a pumpkin ale with a spice tea in the bottling bucket.
This is another important chance for research, although this time cookbooks and cocktail recipes are especially helpful. Bloom cocoa powder in hot water, toast chili peppers in a dry pan, and use citrus zest without the pith. The traditional methods used by brewers may not be ideal, so don't limit yourself to them!
With experimental ingredients, a more controlled method is preferred. Spice teas, tinctures (alcohol extracts), blending, slow additions to taste etc. all reduce the risk of an imbalanced beer compared to guessing with an early addition. If you will be aging the beer, the longer you can wait before flavoring, the fresher those flavors will be when the beer is ready to drink.
5. Select Fermentables
The target OG (from step #1), your desired pre-boil volume (from step #3), and projected mash efficiency for your system for similar gravity beers (assume that the lower the total water-to-grain ratio is the lower the mash efficiency will be) are the three essential factors for determining the amount of fermentables required.
If you are adding sugar, determine the amount as a percentage of the gravity it provides (rather than the percentage of the total weight of fermentables). To get a 15% contribution of sucrose by gravity a brewer who achieves 80% mash efficiency would add 10.4% table sugar by weight while to a brewer who hits 60% efficiency would do the same with 8% table sugar. Both would use the same weight of sugar, the percentage changes because the brewer with higher efficiency uses less malt.
You should also consider the timing of aromatic sugars. Honey is best saved for after aroma-scrubbing primary fermentation. All sugars added to beers stronger than 10% ABV are also best withheld until after fermentation peaks to reduce the initial osmotic pressure on the yeast. For pure sugars in moderate gravity beers, add to the kettle as the wort runs in.
Next calculate the total amount of grain needed to reach the target original gravity. Then determine the type and amount of specialty malts. Do this based on weight, rather than a percentage of the grain bill. Lower gravity beers tend to have a higher percentage of specialty malts and adjuncts than stronger beers because they require less base malt.
The amount of pale malt in a barleywine provides plenty of maltiness, body, color etc. often without much assistance, while a low alcohol beer can taste thin and bland without some toasted, roasted, or caramelized malts. 15-20% caramel malt in a 1.040 pale ale might be perfect, but the same weight might only account for 5% of the grain in a barleywine. Although I do maintain the grain percentages when scaling for changes in efficiency or volume.
Selecting sugars and malts is one of many areas where your knowledge and research will be key. Brewing and tasting beers brewed with just one-or-two malts, chewing on malts, and reading up on traditional combinations all help. Be specific in your choices and record keeping, not all roasted barley or crystal 60 is created equal; different maltsters' products make unique contributions to the wort.
The newer you are to a style, the simpler the grain bill should be. Too many different malts combined without skill will result in a blander beer all else being equal. While a specific dark malt may lean more coffee, chocolate, or charred, three randomly selected and mixed together in equal parts will taste “brown,” that is to say indistinctly roasty. There are complex grain bills that produce delicious beers, but this type of formulation takes considerable skill and repeated brewing.
With the sugar and specialty malts determined, the only thing left is base malt. Select one that supports the malt flavors, and that contains enough enzymatic power to convert the adjuncts and specialty malts (as well as its own starches) given the percentage of the grain bill.
While I love Maris Otter and Munich in dark beers, alone they may not have enough enzymatic power to convert half their own weight in unmalted grain and specialty malts (so you might add in a few pounds of a paler malt higher on the Lintner scale). In some cases the last consideration is a small addition of dehusked roasted malt for color adjustment.
When you are starting out, a simple rule is to source your malts from the country that inspired the recipe. As you gain experience though, you’ll likely think of malts in terms of the flavors they contribute. Some of my favorite less traditional combinations are: Simpsons Extra Dark Crystal in bocks, American pale malt in quads, and German CaraVienna in hoppy American pale ales.
6. Choose the Hop Bill
Start with flame-out (hop-stand) addition and work outwards. Flame-out hops impart some bitterness and aromatics, but their main contribution is a wonderful saturated hop flavor. Dry hopping primarily provides aromatics and comes across one-dimensional without a late hot-side addition (the one exception would be a dry-hopped sour beer), so I almost always pair it with flame-out hops.
If I want a softer hop character, I’ll make a 5-15 minute addition the final hops. For hoppy beers with a large hop-stand and dry hop, I don’t find late-boil hops to be beneficial (or at least efficient). By default I usually use the same ratio of hops for all flavor/aroma additions (although I've had good results venturing away from that as well).
I rarely use more than three hop varieties in total between the late-boil and dry hop additions. As with specialty malts, without great skill, adding too many hop varieties produce a generic “green” hoppiness rather than layers of complexity.
The final hop addition to calculate is the bittering addition, enough to hit the target IBUs.
This can be a relatively generic moderate-to-high alpha acid variety, no worries about matching the late-boil additions. In most cases I bitter with a 60 minute addition, but a one slightly before or after 60 minutes, or a first wort addition can work as well. In many beers, especially those with other strong flavors, this is my only hop addition.
7. Plan the Fermentation
Now that we’ve mostly figured out what the wort will be, we need to plan the transformation into beer. This means selecting a yeast strain, pitching rate, and fermentation temperature.
Luckily we are now overwhelmed by yeast-strain choice. Fifteen years ago there were really only a couple labs producing liquid yeast for homebrewers, not only have they doubled the strains they produce, but 10 new labs have opened, and dry yeast quality/variety has also greatly improved!
You’ll need to ensure that the alcohol tolerance of the strain you select is above your target ABV from step #1. The strain's fermentation temperature range needs to fall within the range you have available as well. Finally (and most importantly) the flavors produced must match your goals for yeast character. Consider the attenuation, but know that you can tweak that with the mash profile.
Reading the descriptions and reviews for commercial yeast can be helpful, but better to taste beers fermented with the strain to evaluate the results for yourself! Homebrew is especially helpful for this as it allows you to ask the brewer specific questions about pitching rate, temperature, aeration, and timing.
It is helpful to select a strain used in a beer you enjoy and ferment several batches with it to form a relationship. Does it stall out if you don’t raise the temperature over 70°F to finish? Does it go all bubblegum if you don’t pitch enough cells? Does attenuation pause and then resume when it hits 1.020? Does it benefit from post-fermentation fining?
This is also a good time to think about how much carbonation you want. Don't figure out the priming sugar at this stage, but select a target volumes of carbon dioxide based on style and preference. Also decide if extended aging, high alcohol, high flocculation, fining, or lagering will mean reyeasting is required.
8. Calculate the Water Profile
Repeat after me, "Don’t pay attention to water profiles from cities other than your own!" Brewers everywhere treat their water, so mimicking their source water without their adjustments has a good chance of lowering the quality of your beer. Two of my worst batches were brewed with by-the-book water profiles from Burton-on-Trent and Westvleteren.
It is far more effective to treat your water with the specific recipe and a goal in mind. It is good to have at least 50 PPM of calcium for all styles to ensure good starch conversion, break formation, and yeast health.
For pale beers, I prefer the carbonate and sodium to be as low as possible. This is the reason I do not normally post my target water profile along with each recipe, I don’t consider it to be ideal. For pale/hoppy beers, my carbonate ends up around 50 PPM, but I don’t want anyone adding more carbonate to their IPAs if their water has less than that. I’m not willing to buy a reverse osmosis system or 20 gallons of distilled water each time I brew, but I’ll often cut my carbon-filtered tap water 50% with distilled to bring the carbonate down from 100 PPM average.
Extract includes the minerals from the water used to produce it. As a result low-mineral water is ideal for these beers.
The flavor ions (sulfate, chloride, and sodium) don’t influence brewing or fermentation, so they can be dosed in at any point, including to taste at packaging. Sulfate adds dryness and increased bitterness perception, chloride increases the fullness of the body and roundness of the flavor, sodium enhances malty-sweetness (but can clash with high sulfate).
Don’t worry about being hyper-precise with your targets because the malt contributes the same minerals, and the human palate isn’t precise enough to taste differences of a few parts per million anyway.
You may have a different water profiles for the mash and sparge (in general sparge water should be softer and more acidic than mash water).
You can estimate acid additions (using Bru’n Water or similar), but it is always best to take a pH reading and add only as much as is needed to hit your target. Similarly, if you think you'll need to add carbonate to raise the pH, calculate the amount of baking soda or slaked lime required, but wait to add it until a reading indicates it is needed.
I aim for a slightly lower pH for pale beers than I do for dark beers (including mash, boil, and finished beer). Measured at room temperature the medians for me are 5.4 for the mash, 5.2 for the end of the boil, and 4.4 for the beer at packaging.
I'll include yeast nutrient and kettle finings in this step as well. Yeast nutrient generally isn't required, but one with trace minerals is inexpensive insurance (especially if you use a large amount of distilled or RO water). Similarly kettle finings like Irish moss and Whirlfloc are not essential, but combined with whirlpooling/settling they help to leave more break behind in the kettle. The result is more room in the fermentor for beer, and less protein mixed into the yeast for harvesting. I add 1/2 tsp of Wyeast nutrient and 1/2 Whirloc tablet per five gallons with five minutes remaining in the boil for almost all batches.
9. Determine the Mash Profile
The mash rest temperatures are the last brew day lever to pull. Adjustments here allow you to increase or decrease the attenuation of the selected yeast strain. One of the major drawbacks of extract brewing is that you cede this decision to the extract manufacturer.
My rule of thumb is that mashing base malt at 152°F will give about the yeast’s average stated attenuation, raising by 1°F decreases apparent attenuation by about 1%, and lowering by 1°F increases the attenuation by about 1%. This isn’t foolproof, and only applies from 144°F to 160°F, but is a good enough ballpark. Only do this calculation based on the extract obtained from the mash (assume that pure sugars like sucrose/dextrose will not raise the FG, and unfermentable sugars like lactose will add their entire contribution to the FG – most other sugars will be somewhere between).
Adding crystal malt will slightly lower attenuation, but not by as much as many brewers assume. Mashed gelatinized starchy adjuncts (e.g., flaked, torrefied, or pre-boiled raw grains) don’t have a huge impact on fermentablity as their starches are exposed to the same enzymes at work on the starches from the malt itself.
Most malts commonly available do not benefit from a step mash, but as you dial in a recipe in some cases you may want to experiment with a protein, ferulic, beta-glucan, or multiple saccharification rests. Decoction mashes may give some benefit at the margins, but several experiments over the years have suggested that their contributions are not apparent to the average palate.
10. Brew, Taste, and Rebrew
Always do a final review of all of your decisions to make sure the recipe makes sense as a whole before sourcing your ingredients.
Despite your best efforts, in most cases not everything will go to plan. Don’t hesitate to adjust, augment, or reevaluate as the process unfolds. For example, if your mash efficiency is higher than expected, you should identify that pre-hopping with a gravity reading so you can dilute and increase your hop additions to produce more wort, or dilute and draw off wort for another purpose. If your first addition of dry hops doesn’t produce the intense aroma profile you wanted, add a second dose. If the yeast doesn’t attenuate as expected, pitch a more attenuative strain.
The biggest improvements come from critically evaluating the finished beer and starting the whole process over again! Either adjust your recipe to get closer to your target, or adjust your target if you hit it and realize it wasn’t exactly what you wanted.