How to Build a Beer Recipe

Building a recipe is a large part of the craft of brewing, which means there will be even more opinions than on the scientific portion of brewing.  And opinions are like, well… lets just say everyone has one.  Here’s mine (my opinion, that is):

  1. Choose a style/ form an ideapint
  2. Choose a base malt
  3. Add specialty malts
  4. Choose hops
  5. Choose a yeast
  6. Water calculations
  7. Water treatment
  8. 100 Grains “Rule”

1) Choose a style/ form an idea:

The first step is pretty obvious, but it should not be so easily glazed over.  Take time to focus on what you want to brew, whether it is a certain style, a variation, or something completely off the wall.  You can always let your ideas evolve and change, but you shouldn’t go in blind.  It might be a good idea to look at similar recipes and style guidelines to get some inspiration; Ray Daniels’ Designing Great Beers is a great starting point, but there are a number of other great sources, such as The Jamil Show podcast.  Many homebrewing competitions will also post the recipes of winning entries online (which is where much of the information in Daniels’ book comes from).

Some styles have certain key attributes which will dictate every choice you make in recipe design.  Scotch ales, for example, are thick and malty, but not fruity or particularly high alcohol for their original gravity.  So, you would want a nice malty base with some sweet colorful specialty malts, hops only for bittering and balance, a low attenuating clean yeast at a low fermentation temperature, a thick high temperature mash, and water balanced with more chloride and higher residual alkalinity.  Decide first what you want to achieve, then design your beer to achieve it.

2) Choose a base malt:

As I begin building my recipes, I like to use Brewtarget, free software for recipe building.  It has many built-in functions, including OG, FG, and IBU calculations, which is mainly what I use it for (though it will do much, much more).

The first ingredient I generally choose is the base malt; this will set the tone for the rest of the recipe.  2-row or 6-row barley are the most common choices, with 6-row having higher diastatic power (DP), meaning it has more enzymes to chew the starch into fermentable sugars; base malts are malts capable of fully converting themselves and hopefully whatever specialty malts you have in the mash.  2-row is purported to have a smoother, less grainy flavor.  But don’t stop your search there- you can use pilsner malt for a more delicate flavor (even for an ale), or munich or vienna malts for smooth, rich toasty flavors.  I recently used the more flavorful of the two, munich, to great success as a base for a stout (“Stormy Night” Session Stout).  Maris otter and golden promise are also excellent, giving a sweet and smooth wort.  I have also used a wheat and rye mixture as the only malts in a beer, though you need to take precautions against a stuck sparge.

You should pick your base malt to complement what you are trying to brew, and to ensure your average DP is high enough to fully convert your mash.  Not counting crystal malts (which mostly do not need to be converted), you’ll want an average DP of at least 40 to 50 degrees Lintner for your mash (the DP of each malt is specified by the maltster).  So, if you have 10 lb of 100 Lintner malt and 2 lb of 30 Lintner malt, the average is 10/(10+2)*100+2/(10+2)*30=88.3 Lintner.  The higher the DP, the shorter your mash time can be.  There is some evidence that for very high DP (>100), mash times can be as short as 15 minutes for full conversion, though I always leave mine 60 minutes to be safe.

3) Add specialty malts:

specialty grain

Special B and chocolate rye.

The trick with specialty malt is the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid.  First, you should decide if you even need specialty malts.  Do not underestimate the simple goodness of a single malt and single hop “SMASH” beer- the entire craft brew industry was arguably built off of New Albion’s SMASH ale (2-row and Cascade hops, basically because that’s all they would sell the brewer at the time).  As you read descriptions of specialty malts, it is tempting to add more and more kinds of malts to your malt bill (chocolate? sure! dark fruits? yes! caramel? sign me up! coffee? oh yea!) .  Keeping it simple keeps your beer from getting muddled.

The two most common families of specialty malt are crystal and kilned.  Lighter crystal malts like 10L (Lovibond) will impart a subtle sweetness and a golden color to your beer, while darker crystal malts add a rich red color, notes of caramel, and even burnt sugar and raisins for the darkest.  Kilned malts primarily add roastyness, but different malts can add chocolate, coffee, biscuit, or even bitter flavors.

Wheat malt can add head retention and additional body when used at about 5-10% of the grist, in addition to possibly adding some protein haze.  There are various smoked malts, though these too can be used as up to 100% of the grain bill, depending on the type and strength of the smoke.  It is very difficult to find consistency in smoked malts, and the flavor will drop dramatically with aging.  That said, use smoked malts with caution (especially peat-smoked malts, which are extremely potent), as they can easily clash with or over-power your beer.  Sour malts are traditionally used to lower the pH of a mash, but in greater quantity they can actually lend a sour flavor to the beer.  It is said that this tends to be a rather “one-dimensional” sour, so it may not be appropriate as the primary method of producing a sour beer- the lactic acid on the malt cannot replicate the complexity of the microorganisms typically used to produce sour beers.

Finally, most specialty malts tend to add body and decrease fermentability, especially Carapils.  It is for this reason you should not directly scale up a recipe when making a high gravity beer such as a barley wine- you would be left with a big unfermentable mess.  Typically, only the base malt is increased to get additional gravity, with perhaps only a little increase in specialty malts.  The mash temperatures are also sometimes changed to ensure the wort is highly fermentable.

Belgian sugars can be added for a bit more flavor and to dry out the beer.  See my post on making your own Belgian syrups.  Also, alternate priming sugars can be used as a nice finishing touch.

4) Choose hops:

hop pellets

Assorted hop pellets

The first thing to consider with hops is what you want to do with them.  Some styles benefit only from the balance hops brings from a near flavorless background bittering, like a lot of Belgian or Scotch styles.  Others are defined by an aggressive hop-forward taste and aroma, like an IPA.  Once you know what you want them to do, you can then choose when to add them to the boil- the longer they are boiled, the more bitterness but less flavor and aroma they contribute.  Aroma molecules are the most volatile compounds, so they boil off first.  A general rule is 60 minute and over hops add bittering, 30-15 min adds flavor, and 15-KO adds aroma (though of course there is overlap).  Other techniques such as dry hopping, first wort hopping, hop rockets, and others can be considered.  Some hops are known for their clean bittering qualities (ie Magnum, Nugget), while others have wonderful flavor and aroma qualities (“finishing” hops).

If you only need bittering in your beer, you’ll just need to calculate the quantity of hops you need to get to the level of bittering you would like with a 60 or 90 min boil, something Brewtarget and innumerable other software and online calculators will do for you.  There are multiple sources where typical IBU ranges are published for various styles, such as the BJCP style guidelines (also a good source for OG/FG considerations).  Many sources will quote an OG to IBU ratio as a rough measure of keeping balance in a recipe: two beers made in the same style but with different OGs will likely need different amounts of hops to balance them.  There are two different well known approximations for IBU calculations, one by Tinseth and one by Rager, and they can vary considerably under certain conditions.  I use Tinseth, but its not really important which you use, just that you stick with one.  Then you can adjust the target IBU level to taste in future recipes and achieve some level of consistency in your brewing.

If you are making a beer which would benefit from the aromatic and flavor contribution of hops, things get slightly more complicated.  There are many varieties of hops, and not all are appropriate for all styles or for use in the same brew.  Vastly oversimplifying, hops can be broken down into different types by their characteristic contributions.  Many of the classic American varieties pop with citrus and grapefruit, noble hops are frequently described as clean and spicy, British hops earthy or medicinal, others piney and resinous, and still others dank.  There are even varieties who’s descriptions frequently include tropical fruits like mango and pineapple (see my “Kick in the Mangos” IPA or “Lawn Dart” Saison recipe) or even onion and garlic.  Until you are more comfortable with building your own recipes, it is probably best to pick a “class” of hops for a particular recipe and not mix them.  Earthy might clash with tropical fruit, for example, while the various citrus and grapefruit hops tend to go very well together.  Strong hopping can also clash with roast malts or bold yeasts, though there are styles built on these contradictions like black or Belgian IPAs.  As before, you’ll want to decide when you are going to add each hop and figure out their bittering contribution to stay within the limits of what you are trying to achieve.

5) Choose a yeast:

Yeast often gets overlooked when putting together a recipe, and it absolutely should not be.  Safale US-05 is a great clean yeast, and I use it fairly regularly.  But its strength is also its weakness- you cannot make something approximating a hefeweizen or Belgian anything with a clean yeast.  Different yeast strains can also affect the beer in more subtle ways, like altering the perception of maltyness and actually changing the bitterness- different strains are different shapes and sizes, and will pull different amounts of alpha acids out of solution on their surface when they flocculate.  But for now, just choose a style of yeast appropriate for the style you are brewing.  With the number of liquid yeasts available, there are frequently multiple yeasts available for a given style.  There are great descriptions of each, and it is up to the brewer to experiment and choose the one that bests fits their personal tastes.  Much of the rich assortment of flavors in beer come directly from the yeast, even flavors sometimes associated with different adjuncts like candi sugar.

Another major consideration is attenuation.  Different yeasts come specified with various ranges of typical attenuation, but keep in mind there are many variables, primarily your mash and fermentation temperatures.  For most people the fermentation temperature is very much influenced by the season; in the summer when your fermentation temperatures are higher, you might consider using a cleaner yeast (Chico strain), or even a yeast that likes to ferment warmer (Belgian/ farmhouse strains).  Fermenting almost any yeast warmer results in more fermentation byproducts, also known as flavor (some of which can get quite nasty, like solvent or oily/ buttery at temperatures well above optimum range).

Alcohol tolerance of the strain should be considered, but truth be told, most yeasts can withstand an ABV of 10% or more so long as the pitching rate is high enough, the wort is properly aerated, and there are enough nutrients in the wort.  To calculate the proper pitching rate, you should head over to the Mr. Malty pitching rate calculator.  This will let you know how much yeast to use for a given gravity ale or lager, whether you want to buy enough packets or vials, or use a starter.  He also maintains a list of which commercial breweries yeast has been sourced from if you are interested in a certain flavor profile or want to try your hand at cloning a beer.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can even look into using brettanomyces (aka “brett,” another genus of yeast separate from the standard saccharomyces genus used in brewing- I really liked it in my Brett IPA), or bacteria like lactobacillus or pediococcus (which are normally considered “spoiler” organisms, but are important to a Flanders Red).

6) Water calculations:

water calculations

Too literal?

Once you have all of your grains, you can figure out how much water you need.  The grains and mash tun will retain some, and more still will boil off; both of these are parameters you will need to determine for your personal system and brew style, but there are some approximations you can follow at first.  Grain absorption tends to be between 0.5 and 0.8 qt/lb (1 and 1.7 L/kg) (measured by Palmer and Daniels, respectively), and boil-off is generally around 1 to 1.5 gallons (3.8 to 5.7 L) per hour.  My personal system is about 0.55 qt/lb and 0.9 gallon/hour boil-off.  A great calculator for water amounts is at  Keep good notes measure your water at various stages and you should be able to dial it in after a few batches.

The generally accepted range for mash temperatures is about 145 to 160F/ 62.7 to 71.1C (though I have gone as low as 140F/ 60C), with lower temperatures producing a more fermentable, thinner beer.  Barley starch does not fully dissolve (gelatinize) until about 150F/ 65.6C or higher; if your mash temperature is below this, your efficiency will suffer.  You can simply raise the mash temperature to about 155F/ 68.3C for the last 15 minutes of the mash- this will dissolve and convert the remaining starch without significantly altering the wort sugar profile.  If the temperature remains above 160F/ 71C, the enzymes will be denatured (permanently damaged) and the wort may not convert at all.  The wort will actually convert even at room temperature eventually- the enzyme activity is simply very slow (though your efficiency would suffer).

About 152F/ 66.7C is a safe mash temperature for the average beer.  If you want something thinner, or if you are making a huge beer, you’ll want to go a bit cooler.  If you want a thicker beer, or want to boost the mouthfeel on a lower gravity beer, you can go a bit hotter.  Once you decide on a temperature, you can calculate a strike temperature.  Basically, the strike water needs to heat the MLT and the grain, so it needs to be hotter than the mash temperature.  I like to make the calculations ignoring how much the mash tun will cool the strike, and add 10F/ 5C.  Then I put the strike water in the MLT and let it cool to the desired strike temperature before adding the grain.  This ensures you will hit your desired strike temperature.  I use this calculator at brewblogger for this as well.

60 minute boils are considered standard.  This allows plenty of time for protein coagulation, hop alpha acid isomerization, etc.  If you are using pilsner malts, you might want to boil for 90 minutes to fully volatilize DMS precursors and get them out of the beer to avoid a “cooked corn” sort of flavor; lighter malts have higher concentrations of these chemicals.  Likewise, many people like to use longer boil times on higher gravity beers so they can run additional sparge water through their grain to improve efficiency.  The wort will darken from Maillard reactions during this time, however, so it is not recommended to extend the boil too long unless this is a desired effect.

7) Water treatment:

The only “treatment” you’ll want to worry about at first is removing the chlorine from your water.  Often, this can be done by carbon filtering or simply letting the water sit overnight, uncovered.  If you still taste or smell chlorine, chances are your municipality uses a more stubborn form called chloramine- check out this post to see how to get rid of it.  Otherwise, worry about getting repeatable results and a strong fermentation first.  But, once you get that down, head over to my posts on water treatment to learn how to take your brew to the next level.

If you don’t actually want to adjust the water (you should: even the biggest of imperial stouts are still mostly water, after all) you can at least get your water report and take a look.  Chances are, there will be some styles of beer that your water is excellent for, and some you just won’t be able to nail without adjustment.  Highly alkaline water lends itself to dark roasty beers, for example, but is absolute crap for a pale ale.

8) 100 Grains Rule

[UPDATE 2014.07.15: This “rule” is from Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Company (so far as I know).  When you are putting together a recipe, a good way of testing it without waiting weeks and drinking gallons of beer is to put together a little shot glass full of grain according to your draft recipe.  So, if your recipe is (by weight) 80% 2-row, 10% Crystal 40, 5% Crystal 60, and 5% Aromatic, count out 80 grains of 2-row, 10 grains of Crystal 40, etc.  Chewing the mix will give you a very good idea of the malt flavor in the finished beer.  Of course fermentation/ yeast character and the hops cannot be accounted for with this strategy, and the husk material can be off-putting, but it can help with one large part of recipe formulation.

Chewing of few kernels of one grain is also a great way of trying new grains before they go into beer, comparing grains from different maltsters (just because it is called the same thing,  doesn’t make it the same) and ensuring freshness (stale grains make stale beer), but I wouldn’t recommend eating anything particularly dark by itself, as the bitterness begins to get quite unpleasant.]


If you have any software you like better, or have a better process flow, let me know in the comments. [2014.01.08 UPDATE: For a bit more information on how much of each ingredient to use, see my response to a reader question about this post.]  [2014.02.14 UPDATE: For additional advice specific to Belgian-inspired beers, see Brewing Belgian-Inspired Beers at Home].

– Dennis
Life, Fermented


About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

5 Responses to How to Build a Beer Recipe

  1. Pinty says:

    Nice one! Informative and easy to read. Chur!

    • Dennis says:

      Thanks! I definitely had to look up the word “chur” just now- I guess it hasn’t made it up to us Yanks yet. I assume you mean cheers or thanks (according to urban dictionary) and you weren’t just throwing out the name of a Swiss city? Let me know if you have any questions on building a recipe that I didn’t cover in the post- I’m still pretty new to this whole blogging thing.

  2. I absolutely loved reading this, thank you!!!

  3. Always looking for education on how to push the knowledge and ability of our home brewing group. Thank you.

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