When I started brewing I guess I was a stickler for detail. I would read recipes and stick too them rigidly making sure I used all the same malt and hops as the recipe stated. I did this for a year or so and never came up with my own beer, I brewed a lot of clones and always to an exact recipe. Somewhere along the line though something changed.
Going It Alone
One day I decided to come up with my own recipe. I think the idea was planted after I read the book Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels, up to this point every book I had read on home brewing was just a basic how to brew beer and then a list of recipes. I would of course just brew the beer recipes in them.
So I designed a beer from the ground up an English Pale Ale and even did all the calculations by hand. I had brewed a lot of pale ales anyway from things like clone recipes. It turns out though it’s not that hard to come up with your own beer. In fact it’s pretty easy.
Take A Beer Recipe And Tweak It
Most recipes rely on the same principles, you have a base malt plus a variety of other malts to add depth in the grain bill, then you have bittering hops and usually aroma hops and lastly a strain of yeast. All these things go toward making a beer that falls somewhere in the range of a set style of beer.
You can take any recipe for whatever style of beer you like and alter any one of these basics and you got a new beer that’ll be completely different. Take the grain bill, let’s say the malt bill is made up of 85% pale malt plus two other specialty grains, why not substitute these specialty malts for something that you like the sound of. Maybe instead of using pale malt for 85% of the grain bill you take it down to 80% and put 5% of something else. This will turn your recipe into a completely different beer.
If you brew a lot of English Pale ales you’ll know pale malt makes up around 90% of the malt bill with the rest usually being 5 – 10% crystal and maybe another grain like torrified wheat. So creating your own malt bill for an English pale isn’t too hard if you loosely follow those guidelines.
Then there is the hops which are basically the easiest things to change regardless of whether you brew all grain, malt extract or even beer kits. Swapping the hops for something else say English noble hops for citrus American ones will give you a new beer. Change the amount of aroma hops or even consider dry hopping. These are all ways to start creating your own recipes.
Don’t Be Afraid To Imitate
I once thought I wanted to be a maverick to brew with only my own purpose in mind. In many ways I did this, I wrote my own recipes with no other input, I created them from scratch and brewed them. Some beers were great others missed the target. Recently however my stance has changed. I will research other people’s ideas, their beers and their recipes and build upon that base, add in more of my own ideas and make them mine.
Home Brewing shares a lot of similarities with academia. My wife is a scientific researcher, a lot of her work involves reading the work of other scientists in her field, absorbing all the information academics before her have found out and then using that information herself.
The home brewing community is great for this, just like she has libraries of papers to scour and glean theories from home brewing communities have forums, articles, recipe databases. It’s easy to find a recipe that works, one that has been brewed hundreds if not thousands of times before. It’s verified, it works and this can be the basis of your work, your foundations that is already great can become something you can use to your own taste.
It’s human nature, you see something that works, that is successful and you copy it. In every industry or business if someone else has something that makes their product better you should take that and use it too.
Practice Makes Perfect
Brewing recipes time and again will give you some insight into what ingredients do to a brew, brew that same recipe again with a couple of tweaks to it and that’s when you really start seeing what’s going on. Maybe you like Amarillo hops, you’ll definitely notice the difference when using these as an aroma hop over another variety. Some things will work and maybe something won’t but eventually you’ll learn what combinations do go together.
A recipe isn’t just a list of ingredients, it is the process and techniques used as well.
It seems to be in the nature of all home brewers to seek out ways to improve their brewing prowess and most of these will involve buying new equipment, bigger or better equipment. Some will want to go from extract to all-grain and others will look at buying temperature controllers and building fermentation cupboards. Whilst in most cases this will make better beer it won’t always make you a better brewer.
You could for example buy equipment that will set you back thousands and thousands of pounds and will make the beer with little input from you whatsoever, will this make you a better brewer? No of course not. A lot of the big commercial or “macro” breweries control the brewery via computer and make the same beer consistently time and time again all without having to get their hands dirty. Does this make the macro breweries better than micro breweries? Of course not.
Write Down The Details
The one thing that will undoubtedly make you a better brewer in the long run and costs just a couple of quid is a notebook!
Becoming a beer brewer doesn’t rely on what equipment you have or haven’t got, it requires you to know everything about your process and technique possible and the one way to do this is to write as much detail about your home brew from start to finish. The more detail the better.
You may scoff at this and disregard it completely and say “I’ll just brew it and forget it, it doesn’t matter to me” but you’ll have no point of reference so when you open a bottle of beer a few months down the line. It and may be one of the best beers you’ve ever brewed you won’t know those details that enable you to recreate it:
- What was the fermentation temperature?
- How much yeast did I pitch?
- What was the attenuation?
- What period was it in primary for?
- Exactly how much priming sugar did I use?
- Was there anything different I did on the brew day?
These are just a couple of things you might not write down after you planned out your recipe and there is also a lot more that you can make a note of that will only take a few seconds of your time.
At the end of the day, you can spend time looking at vague notes in brewing books and online or you can get involved and experiment, try out new things and new recipes. See for yourself what each ingredient brings to the table then use that knowledge to make better beer. The best way to improve your brewing skills and techniques is to keep on brewing.