Okay, you’ve brewed a batch or two, and been mostly successful. You ended up with (very) drinkable beer and now you’re thinking that this not all that hard and you should probably try to start making it “your own.”
You’ve trolled the beer brewing websites and online forums, but the formula for crafting your own unique (and – it goes without saying – awesome) brew continues to elude you. How do you do it? Where do you go from here?
Here’s where you begin:
Assume five gallon [18.93 liter] batches (everything I’m about to divulge here is based on 5-gallon, extract-based batches).
For extract-based brewing (the only kind I discuss on this blog) you need to think in terms of controlling four elements -
- Malt extract
Yeast: The yeast you use to ferment is by far the most influential ingredient when it come to the taste of the finished product. Some books and websites will tell you otherwise. But trust me. Seriously. With the right yeast you can make convincing Belgian ale out of apple juice from Target. You can further influence the flavor and aroma by your pitching rate, fermentation temperature, hopping, and so on. But start with the yeast based on the style you’re going for, and everything else is gravy. I use primarily Wyeast products (check out their handy strain guide). Here’s my quick round-up of the yeast styles I commonly use:
- Wyeast #1214 “Belgian Abbey” heads you in the general direction of Chimay, Lefe, etc.
- Wyeast #3068 “Weihenstephan” heads you in the general direction of European style hefeweizens.
- Wyeast #3944 “Belgian Wit” heads you in the general direction of Blue Moon, Shock Top, and Hoegaarden (but with a more intense coriander flavor).
- Wyeast #1084 “Irish Ale” heads you in the general direction of Guinness.
- Wyeast #1056 “American Ale” heads you in the general direction of all of the American ales and IPAs, including Ranger IPA, Dead Guy Ale, etc.
Once more: When creating your own recipe, begin with the yeast, based on the style you’re going for.
Malt extract: This is the body of your beer. The malt extract determines the underlying taste, mouth feel, color and alcohol content. When brewing with malt extracts, you have basically two decisions to make:
- Liquid or dry? Liquid Malt Extract and Dry Malt Extract (LME and DME, respectively) are identical in terms of the final product. However, you have have to keep in mind that since liquid is generally heavier than powder, it will take more LME to achieve the same sugar content (“gravity”) as DME. There are plenty of complicated formulae for determining the conversion, but basically, for a 5-gallon batch start with 6 lbs of DME and 8 lbs of LME.
- Color? Whether liquid or dry, come in the following options, in order from lightest to darkest: Pilsner, Gold, Amber, Brown, Dark. Wheat malt extract falls somewhere between Gold and Amber. Some stores carry a Chocolate malt extract, which would be in the very dark category.
Grain for steeping and whole-grain brewing are generally ranked by a number which represents how roasted they are. For example .40L or .15L. In general, the higher the number, the darker the roast. .01L would be very light, .50L would make a nice amber ale, and 1.0L or higher would be getting quite dark.
Plan on 1 lb. of grain for a 5-gallon batch of extract-based beer.
Color? Color is determined by the combination of grain you use during the steeping step, and the color of the malt extract you use as the body. For a light (yell0w) beer, go with Pilsner malt extract and light/low-numbered grains. For a dark beer, go with darker malt extracts and darker/higher-numbered grains. It can take some practice to get the color right. But after the third round the color doesn’t typically matter so much.
Hops. There is a lot to know about hops. There are pages and pages online about hop profiles, there are iPhone and Droid apps for calculating hopping rates. Doctoral dissertations have been written about hop profiles. There are books written about IBUs and what it means when a particular variety of hop is “high alpha.” But for those mere mortals out there with real jobs and limited attention spans, trying to make a beer recipe on the side, here’s what you need to know:
For a five-gallon batch, plan on 1.5 oz. of hops: 1 oz. for aroma, .5 oz. for bittering. Put the aroma hop (1 oz.) in at the beginning of the boil and leave it there for the entire time. Put the bittering hop (.5 oz) in for the final five minutes.
Of course you can choose any hop you like, but in general:
- For American styles, go for American hops like Chinook, Northern Brewer, Willamette, Mt. Hood…
- For British styles (London Ale, Irish stout, bitters), go for East Kent Goldings, Stryian…
- For European styles (Trappist, Hefeweizen…), go for “Noble” hops: Hallertauer, Tettnanger, Saaz, Spatz.
And there it is. You’ve covered the four elements. Assuming you’ve been paying attention, a sample basic ale recipe would look like this:
- 1 lb. grain (crystal), cracked.
- 6 lbs. DME (8 lbs. LME).
- 2 oz. hops (1 for aroma, .5 for bittering (but they typically come in 1 oz. bags, so you just have to buy 2).
- 1 package yeast
- 6 gallons of water (allows for 1 gallon of boil-off).
Applying this basic foruma, a light or “blonde” American ale recipe might be:
- 1 lb. .10 L crystal
- 6 lb. Pilsner DME
- 1 oz. Northern (aroma), .5 oz Chinook (bittering)
- 1 package Wyeast #1056 “American Ale”
- 6 US gallons of tap water
Or, using the same basic formula, an Irish Stout recipe might be:
- 1 lb. “Extra Dark Roast” crystal
- 6 lb. Dark DME
- 2 oz. East Kent Golding (1 oz. aroma, 1 oz. bittering) (stout wants to come out sweet, so maybe bitter a bit extra)
- 1 package Wyeast #1084 “Irish Ale”
- 6 US gallons of tap water.
Finally, be patient. Do one batch, let it age, taste it. Brew it again, but change one variable (one of the four elements). Take notes, take pictures, be meticulous about making the process the same every time. I typically brew three to four batches of approximately the same recipe back to back so that I can compare.
Too dark the firs time? Try a lower numbered grain or go with lighter malt extract. Not hoppy enough? Add hops (.5 oz at a time), try a more intense hop, or bitter more. Color and hopping is about right, but character is still off? Switch up the yeast.
Keep trying until you get the result you want. It’s ‘way worth it. Cheers!