My first brew I ever did was all-grain, back in 2009. All I had to work with was SAB pale malt, SAB black patent malt and SAB Southern Promise hops. My yeast was the high foam super brew brand from NCP. As you can tell, back then, we did not have much access to the massive range of specialty malts, hops and yeast that we now get. And when we did, it had to be posted, which took weeks to arrive, and more often than not, the box had lost most of the grain after being battered around en route, and the hop bags were usually opened as they looked like suspicious contraband. We’ve come a long way since then, thankfully. We now have access to a massive range of ingredients, and it is only getting better and fresher. It’s a great time to be brewing!
Knowing how to use these great ingredients most effectively is an art, and it does take practice. My first few brews were amber lagers, brown porters, and oatmeal stouts. All of them tasty beers, but none even vaguely like their aimed style. Those brews were not unlike those days when I experimented with baking as a kid. I only had flour, milk and sugar to play with, so I learnt what ratio gave you the tastiest end product. Even though I couldn’t call it a cake, it was still edible.
But the more I brewed, the better I got at achieving those aims, in a fewer numbers of attempts. This is a skill that comes with practice, much like the way a chef perfects the art of balancing spices and herbs in a dish. However, the best place to start is by scouring the internet for recipes uploaded by fellow brewers. Unfortunately, some of those recipes have grain, hops, and even yeast listed that are not available in South Africa, which does often put brewers off those particular recipes. Thankfully, most maltsters are producing varieties that are similar in colour and flavour as some of their counterparts. For example, Weyermanns does a lovely malt called Munich Malt Type 2 (20-25 EBC), and Castle Maltings does their equivalent called Château Munich (25 EBC). The internet is full of grain and hop substitution charts to help guide you along the way.
First off, invest in brewing software, such as BeerSmith. This makes the design process much easier as it gives you the ability to input your equipment profiles, whether it be BIAB or 3-tier. BeerSmith also has a bunch of pre-loaded tried-and-tested recipes for you to play with. Most of these brewing programs do require a once off fee, but it is worth the investment for a successful brewing experience, as well as good record keeping, which is also extremely important.
Secondly, join your local home-brewing group, and chat to as many brewers as possible. There are also loads of online brewing forums, such as on Facebook, filled with brewers eager to help. Don’t be daunted by the act of getting involved. Even the most experienced brewers started their careers by fumbling around, not knowing what ingredients to use, and when to use them.
When you first start designing your own recipes, make sure you allocate yourself plenty of time. You will need to research each ingredient thoroughly and when to add it. Every time I compile a recipe, I tend to follow these steps:
- Decide what your target style is. For example, do you want something rich and malty (such as a brown porter) or something crisp, bitter and hoppy (such as an American ale)?
- The next step is to look up that particular style in the BJCP 2015 guidelines. This guide provides detailed specifications on all the styles, and also suggests ingredients commonly used in those styles. It also gives you the ranges of parameters that make it fit into that particular style category, such as bitterness (IBU’s), original/starting gravity (OG) and colour (EBC/SRM) which assists you in achieving the correct balance to your beer. Often, your brewing software, such as BeerSmith, already has these parameters set up for you, which makes the design a little easier. Of course, you are not limited to producing only BJCP beer styles, but it is an extremely useful guide to point you in the right direction.
- The next step is choosing your ingredients. The BJCP guide is also helpful in suggesting what grains to use, but unfortunately, it doesn’t give you much info on how much of each to use. This is where the internet is a great resource. In particular, BeerSmith’s recipe blog page, and Brew Your Own (byo.com) style pages. Another great resource is the book by Ray Daniel’s, Designing Great Beers. This book provides detailed information on grains and hops used in popular commercial beers as well as award winning versions of particular styles. You will also need to decide what yeast you want to use. There are many yeast strains (liquid and dehydrated) available from brew stores, suitable for a wide variety of different styles (remember, most yeast strains have specific temperature ranges that they prefer to ferment at). Also, don’t be afraid to post your recipe on brewing forums to get feedback from others. Experienced brewers are always keen to help. Podcasts are also a great source of information, in particular, The Brewing Network (Can You Brew It) where you can get the recipes for popular commercial beers, such as Fuller’s London Pride.
- Input your equipment profile onto your brewing program. This is very important, as it will help ensure you hit your target gravity and colour.
- Next, you need to enter the ingredients into your brewing program. The important things to note are:
- ⦁ Bitterness (IBU’s): this is the amount of bitterness in your final product from the addition of hops- you would balance this based on the beer style. The longer you boil the hops the more bitterness develops, and the more the hop aroma will boil away. If you are looking for more hop flavour and aroma, consider doing end-of-boil, whirlpool, or dry (fermenter) hop additions.
- ⦁ Bitterness ratio (IBU:GU): this is useful to establish your bitterness to malt ratio- this ratio differs depending on the beer style. It provides a good indication of how balanced your beer will be.
- ⦁ Colour (SRM/EBC): this changes based on what grains you use.
- ⦁ Original gravity: basically, this is how much sugar, obtained from the malt, is available for the yeast to convert in to alcohol.
- ⦁ Final gravity (FG): Gives you a prediction of how attenuative the yeast you are using is- will you get a dry beer or a slightly sweeter finish to the beer.
- Once you have entered your ingredients, you need to decide what mash temperature to use (are you looking for a beer with a dry or richer/sweeter finish?).
- Take good brewing notes throughout the process. Keep track of every aspect of what you did. Once the beer is ready to drink, take tasting notes as well. That way you can keep track of what you did right and what you need to change in future brews
It might seem daunting at first, but experimenting with different ingredients and parameters is what makes brewing fun. Using recipes available online as a guide is a great place to start, and from there, you can tweak the recipes as you wish to suit your personal preferences. Don’t be afraid to get other people’s feedback either, particularly from knowledgeable brewers. Take a few bottles around to your next home-brewers meeting, and chat about it. Find ways of improving it and brew it again. It is the best way to grow your hobby and get your beers tasting better and better. Also be confident to enter your beers into home brewing competitions. That way, you can get constructive feedback from accredited judges. More often than not, the judges will offer practical ways in which to improve your beers, whether it be an ingredient modification, or a brewing technique modification. Don’t be afraid to experiment and to ask for help!