Mad Scientist Alchemy – Formulating a Beer Recipe

I’m often asked how I come up with beer recipes. This is always a fun question to answer as it engages brewers and non-brewers in conversation about beer and my future business.

The short answer is that, like most brewers, it is primarily a matter of trial and error. There’s also research that goes into it by looking into the style of beer desired and what does and doesn’t work with that style. Luckily, today, we have the internet to use for research with lots of info on beer style guidelines and thousands of beer recipes from other homebrewers along with their shared experience.

I personally started with kit brews (all ingredients prepackaged with instructions), but started experimenting and adjusting the kits by my second brew – a porter kit where I added half a pound of honey. Batch #5 (brewed in December, 2004) was my first full recipe formulation (recipe #001 – Cafe Mocha Cream Stout). I set out to create a chocolate coffee milk stout with real chocolate and real coffee and some lactose (non-fermentable milk sugar) to sweeten it up a bit. It turned out as black as used motor oil and, in my opinion, it was too sweet. I guess I didn’t actually like milk stouts that were this sweet. However, a good friend of mine did. Thanks to his enthusiasm, this become the first ever beer that I brewed a second time, giving him the majority of the second batch to drink up, which he gladly did.

By January, 2005, I devised my second recipe – an American pale ale made with oats to add body and mouth feel. This was a suggestion of my wife, Tracy. I aimed at accentuating good hop flavor with four varieties of hops, with the body supplied by the oats balancing out the bitterness. It worked out well and became one of her favorites, so I adjusted the recipe slightly and made a new iteration. Then a third iteration, then fourth…and now I brew iteration number seven (recipe #068, formulated in June 2015) and serve it to friends and strangers at tasting parties. This beer will be on the menu at Rockhound under the name Outcrop.

The sister beer (as I like to call it) to the oatmeal pale ale is a rye ale/IPA. A red colored ale with a moderate IPA level hop presence, it exhibits earthy hop tones and uses a yeast that accentuates spicy and herbal notes, as opposed to floral and citrus notes typically associated with an IPA. This approach compliments the rye (30% of the grain bill) which adds additional depth and complexity. When people ask, “What’s your favorite of all the beers you brew?” this is my answer. I’ve made five different iterations of this recipe (starting in February, 2012) in my quest for perfection. Turns out, recipe number four was markedly better than recipe number five. The only difference? The yeast. Changing the yeast profile made such a huge impact on the overall flavor that I didn’t like it and actually stopped brewing this one altogether for a while, until I realized what the issue was. This beer – called Balance Rock Rye- will also be on the brewpub menu.

Two pints - one Balanced Rock - a rye IPA; the other Outcrop - an American pale ale with oats.
Two pints – one Balanced Rock – a rye IPA; the other Outcrop – an American pale ale with oats.

I’m sure there are plenty of other interesting examples I could talk about, including ones that I’ve simply dumped down the drain due a need to forget it and move on. (Nate! You dumped beer down the drain?!?! For the record, prior to working on beers for professional serving, I would never have done that, but these days I need the space for experimentation.) The main point is that each brewer will develop his/her own set of brewing recipes based on individual tastes and experience. I have around 15 (and growing) beer types/recipes that I’m proud to serve but I still find it important to continue to learn through continued experimentation in new styles as well as reworking old recipes and concepts.

Now, I wonder if I could figure out how to make that first stout concept something that I’d be proud to serve at the pub?


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