Caleb DeFrees, Gladfield Malt’s production manager, talks about how to build a recipe.
Developing beer recipes is tricky. We try to negotiate 30-plus malts, endless hop varieties and multitudes of yeast strains to create any one of hundreds of beer styles.
Recipes can be complex – such as using 10 malts to achieve a delicate flavour balance – or simple, with only one or two malts providing all the flavour depth. They can be made to stand aside and provide the backdrop for some juicy hop aromas and flavours, or play second fiddle to the yeast.
Building the recipe is only the first step in the process; there are lots of ways malts and hops can interact with each other. My favourite starting point is a malt tea. Put together a couple ideas for your grist and make a quick tea with the milled malt – about 25 grams. Steep this in hot-boiling water and give it a stir, this will give a good indication of the flavours the malt will impart. Is the chocolate malt too overpowering, or sweet caramel a bit too light? Use this technique to guide the initial grain bill before the brewing begins.
Next step is process. You have to brew the beer with good technique and consistency. Know your process and trust your skill as a brewer to make the beer without hiccups along the way. Without the consistency in process, recipe development can never be at the forefront. If you are unable to brew the same beer day in and day out, how can you know if beer quality is recipe-driven or process-driven?
Tasting is the next key step, and often one of the hardest. It takes practice, and practice unfortunately is not counted by the stack of pint glasses in front of you. Tasting analytically is the act of tasting, thinking and recording. Spend extra time looking at colour, clarity and head retention. Then move on to the aroma of the beer. Write down your instant impression as you put your nose to the beer and then the second and third time. Finally, taste the beer – think about the mouthfeel, sweetness, flavour and bitterness. What aftertaste does the beer leave? Does it clear your palate quickly, or linger for days? Take notes on all these attributes so that when you brew the beer again you can make small changes to the grist, mash temperatures, gravities, hop additions and fermentation temperatures.
Make your recipe changes; tweak one or two malts at a time with the aim of incremental improvement over drastic changes. Utilise your tasting notes to increase the good qualities of the beer. Don’t forget about the impact alcohol content can have on flavour. Sometimes the answer is only that the beer needs more booze to get the balance right. Overall with flavour, balance is the king; every component should work in harmony with each other. Nothing should detract from the experience, only add to it.
Now go back and brew the beer again! Each time, go through the process of improvement until you have exactly the beer you tasted in your head long before a recipe was down on paper. When I started home brewing, the best resource I had was lots of mates to drink my beers, allowing me to brew often and improve my recipes, process and tasting. Take any feedback you can get on your beers and keep making better beers.