I got into homebrewing a little over three years ago. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but when I get into something, I GET INTO something. I research, take classes, read books, listen to podcasts like Come and Brew It Radio. I really get into knowing every aspect and how it works and why it works that way. Michael and I are very similar as far as that goes, which is probably a good thing because he doesn’t think I’m crazy. We started out with Extract brewing using the recipe kits at Texas Brewing Inc, and with books like How to Brew by John Palmer and Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer. This allowed us a good base to start experimenting with our brewing. It allowed us to brew good shareable beer we could be proud of while we were still learning the process and nuances of ingredients. I believe you learn a lot through experimenting and so extract is the way I always tell people to start.
In fact, I told my little brother the same when he got into brewing about a year or so ago. Siblings are often opposites and that’s the case with my brother and me. I think he did one extract batch before calling me wanting me to teach him--over the phone--how to brew all grain during the 20-minute drive to his local homebrew store. Since then, there have been many many phone calls asking how do I do this or use that in the middle of his brew day using some recipe he found on the internet somewhere. He never really took my advice about starting with extract and building his knowledge. So, I often got off the phone thankful that he’s in Houston and far enough away that I wouldn’t have to try the end result. Fortunately, he did join a homebrew club so now they help him out and I imagine his brewing has improved. But I think he's a good example of what happens to many brewers--they jump forward quickly in the process without really knowing enough about the ingredients to really know if a recipe is any good.
When you google homebrew recipes there are over 6 million results. With all that information what makes a good recipe from a bad recipe can be a grey area. The key to knowing if a recipe is good or not is to have a good understanding of how to brew and the ingredients used. For example, if you understand what base malt is and that It is used to add fermentable sugar to a beer which becomes the food for the yeast to make into alcohol and that specialty grain adds complexity with color, flavor, and aroma then if you came across a recipe that calls for more specialty malt then base, it would raise a lot of concerns. There are three books that I think should be on every brewer’s bookshelf. How to Brew by John Palmer, Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer, and Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels. I also find the BJCP Style Guidelines, in particular the ingredients section, extremely valuable as well. These books help you gain the basic understanding of brewing and ingredients and some are also full of good recipes as well.
Once you have a good feel for ingredients and the process there are many terrific sources for recipes and they are much easier to discern good from bad. Generally, you can’t go wrong with a published source. People pay for these resources, so it stands if the recipes weren’t good the money would dry up. Magazines like Craft Beer & Brewing, Brew Your Own, and Zymurgy often have award winning and clone recipes that come right from the brewers themselves. I honestly don’t brew clone recipes, but have often looked to them as a source for how to use an ingredient or a comparison for a grain bill for a style I haven’t brewed. I’m about to add some pepper to a stout for the first time, so I have flipped through my collection of back issues to see what recipes used peppers, what kind of peppers, how much, what stage and for how long. This is generally my first step when adding an adjunct or ingredient I haven’t used. I want to know how its been used in successful batches and you know that these published recipes can be trusted as they have been used successfully.
Now for my least favorite source of recipes and the one that makes homebrew store employees cringe everywhere, Message Forums, Social Media Groups, and Blogs. As homebrewers we love to share our creations and seek advice and there is plenty of it, both good and bad. I know you can find good recipes from these sources because I’ve shared good recipes on these sources. I’ve also helped a lot of people fix recipes they’ve found or written and I've helped troubleshoot when a beer went wrong. So, knowing how it can be out there, I say proceed with caution and only look for recipes that have feedback. Did multiple people brew it and give feedback? Did the original poster come back and say how it turned out? Does the recipe even make sense? I saw one the other day that had 10 lbs. of caramel 60 and 5lbs of 2 row. It also had 8 different hops, lactose, and fruit puree. The only thing scarier then that was that I was the 25th comment in the thread and the first to say, "Whoa, hold on a second! Let's think about what you have here." So, if you do find one that you want to try, ask the employees at your homebrew shop if it looks like a good recipe or if you need to change anything. Also, and this is important, be willing to change it. They want you to make your best beer because brewers that make great beer, return to make more great beer.
Everyone at Stubby’s was awesome when I first branched out into recipe writing. Often, they would look over my recipe and ask are you sure you want that much caramel and guide me to a much more balanced and enjoyable beer. Believe me I put them to the test, my first recipe was a Rose Water and Orange Blossom Saison. If I had ignored the advice it might have taken me multiple batches of trying and failing before I got it right or worse yet, I might have given up altogether. The same goes for a local homebrew club. You are there to learn and grow as a brewer and they want to drink good beer, so they will always help when you have questions along the way. Use your resources, trust those that are already trusted, tried, and true, and be cautious of those that aren't.
Cicerone Certified Beer Server, Homebrewer, and Tireless Recipe Researcher