About two years ago, I stopped following recipes and started designing my own. It could be a tricky process. I started out by taking existing recipes that were proven, and modifying them in ways that I liked. Over time, I learned a lot about beer ingredients. You can read about them, but only extensive use and experimentation can really teach you about what they really do. I started feeling comfortable creating beers from the ground up. Fast forward to now, and I have over twenty recipes in the Crooked Run portfolio. It’s easy to design beers once you understand the different malts, but it takes some trial and error and a willingness to experiment to learn.
So, if you’re just starting out trying to create your own beer or are curious about how beers are designed, how do go about doing it? First, let’s start with the basics. The list of ingredients in a beer is referred to as the grain bill. The grain bill usually consists of 50-100% base malt. There are many different kinds of base malt, but they all fulfill the same purpose: to provide the foundation of the beer. Some beers can be 100% base malt, such as hefeweizen–just malted barley and malted wheat. Darker beers, however, tend to have more specialty grains. Specialty grains are used to add additional flavors such as caramel or roasted coffee, and to change the color. Here’s a really short and basic breakdown of American ales by ingredients:
American pale ale: 10 lbs base malt + 0.5 lb caramel malt
American amber ale: 10 lbs base malt + 1.5 lb caramel malt
Porter: 10 lbs base malt + 1 lb caramel + 0.5 lb roasted barley
Stout: 10 lbs base malt + 1 lb roasted barley
That list is by no means inclusive, but it can help you see how the same basic beer changes from light to dark. In designing the beer, you have style descriptions to help as well. Those give you gravity, color, and IBU ranges for each style, and profile descriptions. So let’s walk through the design process with a fairly simple beer: Thunder American pale ale.
Thunder is a Showcase Series beer, a nice pale ale with pleasant hoppy flavor and malt character. Taking a look at the basic pale ale recipe, we have 10 lbs base malt and a half lb of caramel malt. Even though it is really basic, that recipe will make a classic pale ale. My only change I want to make is to swap out two pounds of base malt for two pounds of Vienna malt. This adds a little bit of toasty, malty flavor from the Vienna. I keep the IBUs at 30 for a less assertively-hoppy beer. For flavoring, I use all cascade hops, the classic pale ale hop.
After brewing the recipe and tasting, I would want to ask myself whether I had achieved the flavor profile I was going for. Is there enough malt character, or do the hops cover it up? I could scale back the IBUs a bit to emphasize the malt. Is it not hoppy enough? Increase the IBUs, increase the dry hops, or decrease the mash temperature.
The other thing is that everyone’s tastes are a bit different. You and I might prefer different ingredients or dimensions for our beers, and as you experiment and learn about the different malts, you can tailor your beers for your specific tastes. The only way to learn is to brew more beer, and drink more beer!