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Brewing Recipe Development: Just One Thing

Once you start developing your own recipes or start branching out based on existing recipes, the best advice most experienced brewers could ever give you—other than continue experimenting—is to restrain your changes to just one thing at a time. Mainly because there is no easier way to determine exactly what you like or dislike about a recipe, than to take your time making changes.


When most of us start really getting into recipe development of our own, we start by working from some existing recipe that really worked for us. Maybe it was a recipe you found, something you came up with, or most likely, something you purchased as an existing kit. But no matter where that recipe originated, if you weren’t completely happy with it, you wanted to get it there. Or if not that, perhaps you wanted to tweak it into something new. Well, that is where we begin and we do it with one change at a time. 


The Basic Questions

First, ask yourself what you want from the recipe. What is it that you feel is missing or “wrong” that you want to correct? Sometimes you can pinpoint those things with experience and sometimes you just need to experiment to find what you want. Is that pale ale not giving you enough hop forward character? Did it have a fruitiness that you were disappointed by? Did it seem muddy in flavor character, but was still an easy drinker? Maybe a stout that didn’t have the roast or bitterness you really wanted? A hefeweizen that had too much clove and not enough banana flavor and aroma? What is it that you wanted. Ask yourself and make notes on what you felt when you tried the beer the first, second, and 20th time. 


Changing Ingredients and Procedures

When you pinpoint your problems with a recipe, then it’s time to start tweaking. But you want to start with precision if you can. For example, is it something with the malt, the hops, the yeast, or perhaps the fermentation temperature that caused the problem you found. 



Many times, an easy starting point for fixing problems is your fermentation temperature. Was it controlled? Did you brew a hefeweizen and ferment it closer to 70F and get more banana character than you like? Maybe you used an American Ale yeast and found it more fruity than you would expect for the recipe? How about a lager that had esters? A pilsner shouldn’t be fruity, right? Then your first and best choice to make a change would be to control that fermentation temp and dial it in using the exact same recipe and yeast until you know whether you need to change the yeast. Here your first single change would be dialing in that temperature with a controller OR changing the temp to better fit the yeast you used. At TBI, we often find that going cooler will improve your results and restrain those esters. Ferment with a clean yeast at 65F versus 70F and you WILL see a pronounced difference in flavor and aroma. Change your temp and then decide if it is another thing that needs change. Just be sure that when you pitched that yeast, it was at a proper cell count for the gravity and a strain that doesn’t need some heat. Otherwise, you might be wasting your time. 


If your temperature control is dialed in, but you are still getting something you don’t like, then often it’s your yeast. There can be a difference between brands and there is definitely a difference between strains. First of all, be sure you are using a yeast appropriate to the style (see the BJCP Guidelines for a reference). Maybe you want a little more character out of an American ale yeast, prefer the pear and apple of a French Saison over the earthy spiciness of a Belgian, or like the absolute cleanliness of a Mexican lager over the slighter flavors of most German lager yeasts. The best thing you can do is research the brands and find the best thing suited to your recipe. Then, if you can’t make a starter, start with dry yeast or buy more than one pack of liquid to make sure you have enough viable cells to get the best out of your recipe. Just be sure to choose the flavor characteristics that best match what you want in your end product. But of course, be sure that your fermentation temperature also matches what gets the best from your selected yeast. 



Now we get into more difficult territory because changes to your hop schedule can depend on when you add them and on the character and acid content of each addition. First of all, you really need to get a feel for what your hop additions are adding, based on when you add them. For example, adding even the most flavorful hop at 60 minutes will remove most of those flavor characteristics to leave only the bitterness. But add the same hop at flameout and you get the majority of its flavor and aroma, but with less bitterness addition. Here, you really need to research the hop to know what it lends to the recipe. Maybe you worked through the fermentation temps and yeast selection, but find that there’s a flavor and aroma character there that bothers you. Then that could be the hop additions. Is the beer more bitter than you’d like, then add less at the beginning of the boil or add that bittering addition later in the process. Is the flavor and aroma not as pronounced as you prefer? Then increase your 5 minute and whirlpool additions and really let that whirlpool steep last for longer above 180F. An ounce or two at a different time or for a longer time can really make a huge difference. But of course, know what you are adding before you change the timing. A Saaz is vastly different than a Citra and there is a huge range in between.



Perhaps the most complicated subject related to making small and large brewing changes, making water adjustments can easily make or break a beer. If you overdo your additions one way or the other and/or change your pH levels too much, you suddenly shift the flavor profile of the finished product quite a bit. While also affecting the chemistry of the mash and possibly your efficiency. This is an area where you want to do your research and start with profiles that you may already be familiar with, while using reverse osmosis water and building it from scratch. Just know in the end, you can create a stellar beer out of a decent beer with a few changes to your water.



Surprisingly, your malt choice can often be the last thing to consider when you making those single changes. Here you might be thinking of a gravity increase or decrease, a flavor change, or a color change. Usually you can have some idea of where to start if you based the recipe on something that already exists. You always want to use specialty and caramel/crystal malts in lower percentages and you always want to know that British and Continental base malts can add more flavor than a standard American 2-row. Start with your base and go from there. There can definitely be too much of a good thing and you will quickly find out as much if you add multiple pounds of specialty malts to a generic base. 


Final Thought
As you can see, there are many ways to approach the changes that you need to make to get the best out of your beer. But we really want to relay that the best changes start by doing one thing at a time. Because when you dial in a recipe on all fronts, you really do get the best version of it again and again. If you still don’t like what you’re getting, then you need to re-evaluate what you wanted from that recipe in the first place. From there, you only continue to experiment to get what you want by tweaking each element until it matches what you wanted.


Hope that helps! 

—Greg Etzel

Semi-Media Director/Special Event Coordinator TBI, Producer, Writer, Host, and Host Wrangler Come and Brew It Radio, Homebrew Consultant, Lover of Experiments


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