Reader Question: Beer Recipe Formulation

Off-week bonus post!  A while back I got a reader question in response to my article on How to Build a Beer Recipe.  In a nutshell, Mark was a little fuzzy on how much of each ingredient to actually use, something I glossed over in my more conceptual treatment of recipe building.  I thought I would share my response here:

Reader Mail

Hi Mark,

I kind of glossed over that part on purpose, as that post was meant to be more conceptual than nuts-and-bolts of brewing, so don’t feel like you’ve missed something.  When you start putting together your own recipes, brewing software or online calculators can really help streamline the process, but its good that you asked first to find out what they are doing instead of just trusting them.  Beyond that, I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Palmer’s How to Brew, 3rd ed. if you don’t have one (full first edition is online on his webpage also).  In most cases you can more or less follow through the process and get good beers, but you’ll eventually want to pick up some of the science of the mash process so you can diagnose problems and push the envelope.

Hopefully this can at least get you started:

First off, you should decide what gravity you are shooting for. Then you’ll need to make some assumptions about how much sugar you can get out of your grain.  This will require knowing how much sugar is in the grain (yield), and how much sugar you can actually pull out of the grain (brew house efficiency).

Table sugar contributes about 46 gravity points per pound per gallon (ppg)/ 386.5 points per kilo per liter (pkgL), so if you put 1 lb of sugar in a pot and enough water to get to one gallon, your hydrometer will read 1.046. Grains have a specified yield based on this (which can be found on the maltster’s spec sheet for the grain).  Most base malts have a yield of about 80%, so one pound of grain can give you at most 46*0.8=36.8 ppg/ 309 pkgL.  Other malts can be much lower (rye is about 60-65%, crystal 70-75%, black patent 55%, etc).

However, its basically impossible to achieve full extraction (and it would make awful beer if you did).  Thus, you also have to take into account your personal brew house efficiency.  There are a ton of factors which can alter this, so its something you will need to dial in on your own.  But, if you are batch sparging like me, you can probably safely assume between 60 and 70% (I would start with 65% and then dial it in from there- keep good notes!).  Thus, a single pound of base malt will actually contribute 46*0.8*0.65=23.9 ppg/ 201 pkgL at 65% brew house efficiency.

So lets look at an example batch.  Lets assume you want a moderate gravity ale, say 1.060, and you think you can get about 65% efficiency, and you are brewing 5 gallons/ 18.9 L (of course you need more than five gallons of water to account for boil off, etc, so the 1.060 target is post boil).  So, you want a total addition of 60*5=300 gravity points (OG = 60, 5 gal batch).  If you were to use all base malt with 80% yield (so 23.9 ppg), you need 300/23.9 = 12.55 lb/ 5.96 kg of grain.  You can of course replace some of this with specialty malts, you just need to account for the different yield of different grains, and keep the total specialty malt amount below about 15% by weight as a general rule (there are of course exceptions!).

Hops are a bit trickier to calculate by hand (it can be done, and many sources like How to Brew will show you how, but you should just use an online IBU calculator or one built into another program).  Basically, hops with higher alpha acids will give you more IBUs, as will hops that are boiled longer, up to 60-90 min, at which point it pretty much levels out.  A more concentrated wort will lower your IBU yield for a given amount of hops.  In a 1.060 beer, 1 oz/ 28 g of 13% alpha acid simcoe will contribute about 43 IBUs when boiled for 60 min, but only about 16 IBUs when boiled for 10 min, for example (using the Tinseth approximation).

The general rule of thumb for an ale is that you’ll want 1 million viable yeast cells per milliliter of wort per degree plato (double that for a lager).  And I trust this is just as useless to you as it is to me. Look up the Mr. Malty yeast pitch calculator and you can punch in your gravity and volume, and it will tell you how many packets or vials of yeast to use, or how large of a starter to use.

This will vary depending on your mashing technique and other factors unique to your set-up.  But generally you want to account for boil off (usually about 1 gallon/ 3.8 L per hour) and the amount absorbed by the grain (usually about 0.5-0.8 quarts of water per pound of grain used or 1-1.6 L/kg), and any other losses in equipment (unable to drain from your MLT, for example).  I have measured my system at 0.9 gallons per hour boil off, 0.55 qrt/lb grain loss, and 0.1 gal equipment loss.  Using these values I can calculate how much water I need to use to get 5 gallons after boiling.  Again, its a must to keep good notes to dial this in.  It usually takes at least 3 batches with great notes and lots of measuring to really nail down the amounts.  I use the water calculator on for these calculations.

Hopefully that covers at least most of what you were wondering about.  Feel free to write back with any other questions, or anything specific I missed or didn’t explain well.

Do you have a question?  Email me at dennis.lifefermented [at], or use the contact form on the About/ Contact page.  I’ll email you back ASAP, then maybe use it as a bonus post.

– Dennis,
Life, Fermented


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

4 Responses to Reader Question: Beer Recipe Formulation

  1. Federico says:

    Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for putting all this information and links, i really like the brewtarget software i think it help me understand the hole brewing process.

    However I can avoid to relate to Marks question, I am a Chef and I begin brewing first to create my own flavor, however when reading about recipes creation whats important is how much sugar can i take from the grains instead of how much flavor this changed my perception since at the end I am looking for a flavor sugars will only give me alcohol content.

    So basically the hole in the process, I think, is related to flavor vs sugar vs ingredients, for example i can use a lot and i mean a lot of a dark malt to create a lot of sugars problem is that the result will be a really nasty beer.

    After giving it a thought I came with a question well several, unless i am not understanding the process correctly, if i am doing a 5 gallon batch why only using 20 lb or 4,35kg of base malt why not using more? I mean if the purpose is to extract sugar why not adding more base malt, the other malts, the specialty ones at the end are used for taste.

    I understand there are guidelines for certain beers but I think at the end we are all tying to bend the rules and experiment a little bit, at least that’s what i like to do in my kitchens and i was hopping to do the same with my brewing.

    Again thanks for taking the time to gather all this information it is very valuable for us beginners.


    • Dennis says:

      Hi Federico,
      I too use and like brewtarget, I’m surprised I did not link to it in my article.

      I think your question is this: grain makes sugar, and sugar makes alcohol, so why not just add more grain? The answer is, you can! A pale ale with a ton more grain and a bit more hops is called a barleywine, which can get up to 10-14% or higher ABV. Likewise an IPA with more grain and more hops is double IPA, bock to dopple bock, etc, etc. It’s all a matter of what you are looking for. I think you have the right idea though, when you say increase the base malt without modifying the specialty grains much. Some beers, like a tripel, can even benefit from direct sugar additions (ie table sugar, etc). Beer can turn into a sloppy mess in a hurry with too much specialty malt.

      However, there are some reasons to be more careful with more grain:
      (1) Your equipment needs to be able to handle it. Eventually, you are going to overflow your mash tun and/or kettle. And you still need to make sure your water to grain ratio is good. Besides leading to mash problems, more grain in the same amount of water can actually decrease the amount of sugar you get out! The enzymes have more trouble breaking down the starch, and there simply isn’t enough water to wash the sugar out.
      (2) A quality fermentation is VERY difficult to accomplish with a high gravity wort. The mash needs to result in a very easy to ferment wort. Your yeast need to be up to the task. Not only do you need more, they need to be very healthy. You’ll need to carefully add more oxygen and more nutrients, sometimes staggered through the initial phase of fermentation. Temperature control is important in all beers, and becomes more difficult with higher gravity beers. You have more yeast making more heat in a sort of run-away reaction. More heat leads to more activity which leads to more heat. This in turn leads to unhealthy yeast, giving an incomplete ferment, a harsh hot alcohol flavor (fusel alcohols), unpleasant fruit or bubblegum esters, or even meaty or other off flavors if the yeast starts dying. Your ability to ferment a higher gravity wort, especially keeping your yeast happy and healthy, will be the main factor in producing high quality, high gravity beers.
      (3) Hop utilization goes down in higher gravity worts, so you will need more hops to get the same IBUs. Also, depending on the style, you may need more IBUs to balance against the additional grain sweetness.
      (4) You’ll need to manage mouth feel and (I hate to use this word) drinkability. High alcohol beers done wrong are syrupy, cloying, and unpleasant to drink.
      (5) Don’t worry about this until you are an advanced brewer: it will alter your water chemistry requirements. Darker grains, especially, will require water with a higher alkalinity, for example.

      I think I have mentioned my first beer on here before, a Russian Imperial Stout (pictured in my avatar). It came out at 11% ABV, yet still syrupy, full of harsh fusel alcohols, and an intense bubblegum ester. And I started with quality malt extract, giving me the benefit of skipping the mash my first time out.

      You can certainly be creative in brewing (why else would you be in the hobby?), but you will need to think a bit more carefully about your process when you are pushing your limits as a brewer. But, that’s how you learn, so expect some batches to be less than stellar at first. Keep at it and keep improving your process and skill, and you’ll be able to hit your mark and turn out a great beer. It took Sam Adams years to get Utopias up to the strength it is now, and they have an experienced and incredibly talented brewing staff, so be willing to put in some work.

      – Dennis

      • Federico says:


        thanks Dennis you did provided me with really valuable information, really hard to get in the web, I know there are books, but I am more a self learner and I thinks making beer is more of experimentation than following recipes, if you want to experiment it helps a lot to understand what is going on with the process and the preparation we are making.

        I will continue following your blog and comment any valuable information I encounter along the way of my batches.


        Federico B.

      • Dennis says:

        If you are having trouble finding information on the web and don’t want to go sifting through reference books, I suggest listening to some podcasts on the brewing network. Try starting with Brew Strong (hosted by John Palmer and Jamil Zainasheff, authors of many of those reference books). Their earlier shows (archived) will probably be better for you to start with, as lately they have put a lot of emphasis on how to start your own brewery. I listened through those, The Home Brewed Chef (how to cook with beer), some select brewing with style, and about half of the Session so far. I also recommend the basic brewing podcast, which is in a bit different (less crude humor) style. I’ve gained much of my brewing knowledge from these resources (in addition to reading a shelf full of reference books), and as a bonus they are quite entertaining.

        – Dennis

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