In talking with many professional brewers and home brewers over the last two decades, I have learned that beer-recipe-formulation approaches vary greatly. Most brewers, however, start with a flavor profile in mind. It could be a simple goal, such as creating a balanced pale ale with tropical notes, or it might be more defined, such as developing a robust brown ale with malt notes of toasted bread and nuts, with additions of chocolate and coconut.
Most agree that beer recipe creation is part art, part science. But regardless of how that ratio breaks down, the actual brewing process is most important. You could give me an award-winning cake recipe, for example, but with my limited baking skills I wouldn’t be able to turn it into an award-winning cake.
That said, recipes are still important, and the one thing they all have in common is that they start with an idea or an inspiration. And those ideas come from a variety of sources, including other beers, magazine articles, books, online forums, beer festivals, conferences, homebrew club meetings, the culinary industry, you name it.
Even though there are only four main ingredients in beer (malted barley, hops, water and yeast), if you factor in the hundreds of different types of grains and various roasts, dozens of hop varieties, countless yeast strains, various water sources and water treatments, plus the added variables of time, quantities, temperatures, etc., you end up with an infinite number of flavor possibilities. Add to that all sorts of adjuncts (sugars and other fermentables), fruits, spices, chocolate, coffee, vanilla and anything else you can dream up, and you get a sense of the limitless potential of beer recipes.
When Chad Kuehl, brewer/co-owner of Wander Brewing, develops a new recipe, he finds inspiration from the environment and the people around him, which often occurs while traveling, camping or visiting with friends. More specifically, he finds inspiration while sharing beers during those times.
“My mind needs to be in a certain place to initiate the process of creating a new beer recipe,” he says. “Our Uncommon Common is a great example. San Francisco, the home of Anchor Brewing, was the first place Colleen and I lived as young adults and it heavily influenced us. We served Anchor Steam at our wedding, and that led to us developing our own California Common style at home, which was eventually scaled up for Wander Brewing.”
Frank Trosset, head brewer at Aslan Brewing, gets his beer-recipe inspirations from lots of sources. “Generally speaking, I build my beers off of each other,” he says. “There are lots of variations that can result in subtle or not-so-subtle changes.
“For styles that I have never made before, I spend a lot of time researching the historical context of the beer first. That provides me with the necessary background and understanding of a particular style’s nuances.” Trosset says he’s also inspired by food, beers from other breweries, and coming across a new ingredient.
Tony Luciano, brewer/co-owner of Stones Throw Brewery, is inspired by what he likes to drink, which tends to be sessionable beers, such as pale ales, ambers and brown ales.
Like Trosset, Luciano builds new recipes off of established recipes. “On my system, I know that 500 pounds of grain will create a beer with roughly 5% alcohol by volume, so I use that as a starting point.”
Luciano gets some of his ideas from clone recipes, plus he gets inspiration from other commercial beers. “Our Nookie IPA was inspired by Lagunitas Brewing’s Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, as an example,” he says.
When it comes to formulating recipes, pro brewers are much more constrained than home brewers. Certain ingredients may not be available in large quantities or on a regular basis, creativity might be stifled by owners or corporate directives, and experimentation might be limited due to inherent risks. Pushing the envelope on a recipe, whether it’s with a new process or a unique ingredient, always has the potential to result in a less-than-stellar beer. At best it might not sell very well, or at worst the costly batch of beer may have to be dumped down the drain.
Of course, new beers don’t always have to be extreme. Brewers can develop “safer” and “simpler” recipes that are still delicious. Instead of trying to come up with some unprecedented profile, they could focus on making an exceptional version of a traditional style by paying close attention to ingredient choices and brewing techniques. Many great beers have been crafted well within traditional style parameters, yet still stand out in a crowd. Chuckanut Brewing’s beers are a good example of this.
As for home brewers, unless they’re entering beers into competitions, the only restrictions they face are time and money. If a 5-gallon batch of experimental beer doesn’t turn out, they’re only out a bit of money plus some hours of time. The risks are relatively low and the rewards can be excitingly high.
Personally, I get recipe ideas from all sorts of places, and recipe development is one of my favorite aspects of home brewing. I’m inspired by all the new hops, different grains and yeast strains. I get excited about new brewing methods, whether it’s an old-school practice seeing a surge in popularity (e.g., spontaneous fermentation), a rising trend (e.g., fruit IPAs), or a new-school version of a style (e.g., New England / Northeast IPAs). Every time I travel to a different state or country, I also find inspiration in the foods and beers I come across. For every batch of beer I brew, I think of 10 more that I want to brew.
To some, it may seem like everything has been done before, especially with the exponentially growing number of breweries opening up across the country. “What could these new breweries possibly make that hasn’t already been made before?” I often hear people say. “Lots,” I submit, as I believe we are still just scratching the surface of flavor possibilities. Brewers just need to continue to find inspiration and think of new ways to stand out in this increasingly crowded marketplace. And I for one can’t wait to taste what they have to offer.