Designing Beers Like the Pros


Key Concepts in Recipe Formulation

by Jim Busch (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 5, No.2)

Recipe formulation is a creative exercise that puts all of your skills to the test while opening new avenues of freedom. Whether you brew with extract or all-grain, there’s nothing like the satisfaction you get when you design your own IPA or imperial stout.

Part of the thrill of craft brewing is the ability to wander around the fermentation cellar and quaff the latest brews directly from a tank’s sample zwickle (spigot). Returning to that zwickle each day (or every few days), you can monitor the beer as it progresses from your first visions through maturation and conditioning and finally to dispense in its final form. The transformation seems almost magical, but considerable forethought is required to ensure that the final taste will be exactly as anticipated weeks or months earlier.

That transformation and the thought processes that stand behind it are the focus of this article. Though you may be itching to get boiling, spending some time with a pen and a calculator beforehand can lead you to a finished beer that meets all of your vision’s requirements. Home brewers can use the same concepts and processes that professional craft brewers use to emulate classic styles and to create new variants of their own. Although this article can’t address every issue, it does provide an overview of some of the concepts, strategies, and methods available.

Recipe design is a big subject. For more in-depth coverage of the topic, I recommend consulting the sources listed at the end of the article (see the box, “Information Resources for Recipe Design,” on page 26), or just stay tuned for further articles in future issues of BrewingTechniques.

Brewing with Style

One of the tricks to recipe design is keeping focused on the big picture while also paying attention to the minute details. Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in the understanding of beer styles, the starting point and heart of recipe formulation.

Successful recipe design begins with a knowledge of beer styles and an understanding of the histories behind them. There is nothing magical about beer styles. In their most reduced form, styles are merely a recognition that a particular beer of a certain location and time found widespread popularity and became a local standard, brewed according to the same general parameters each time. Together, the repertoire of beer styles in existence today represents a wide range of possibilities for beer flavor and qualities. To brew a beer that truly lives up to the characteristics of a style calls for an understanding of its origins, its native ingredients, and its peculiar brewing requirements.

Pilsener is one of the classic examples. The style was born in 19th century Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, where a certain hoppy pale lager came into favor with the drinking public. Many other brewers then set out to imitate or build upon the original style, and today we have several distinct substyles of Pilseners (German Pils; Bohemian, Belgian, and Danish Pilseners; and pre-Prohibition pilsner).

10 Steps to Successful Recipe Design

(1)   Choose a beer style.

(2)   Review style guidelines.

(3)   Set target values for original and final gravities, IBUs, and color.

(4)   Identify malt types and determine the quantities to use.

(5)   Identify hop varieties, addition schedule, and quantities to use.

(6)   Plan the mashing procedures (if applicable); this may include the use of brewing salts to adjust pH and an assessment of water chemistry.

(7)   Decide on the length of the boil.

(8)   Select a yeast strain.

(9)   Determine the appropriate fermentation techniques: yeast demands, oxygen requirements, pitching temperature, and main fermentation temperature.

(10)Brew your beer!

Classic styles did not become classic without reason; they are well worth trying to achieve. Historical data and methods are therefore invaluable in understanding the parameters of a given beer.

Study the specifications: The first thing to consider when brewing a given beer style is to research the generally agreed upon guidelines for that style. This information can be found in Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (1), books in the Classic Styles Series from Brewers Publications (Boulder, Colorado), and also in the style guidelines published by the Beer Judge Certification Program or the American Homebrewers Association (see the box, “Information Resources for Recipe Design,” on page 26). These guides will provide the main parameters for the style you choose, including original and final gravities (and hence alcohol content), bitterness units, color, and possibly some comments on fermentation characteristics such as whether to use top- or bottom-fermented yeasts, whether esters are desirable, or whether diacetyl is to be avoided. This information serves as the initial fence that lends each recipe its design boundaries.

Be creative: Although style guidelines provide a good starting place, don’t feel too beholden to following historical methods and ingredients exclusively. Once you have an understanding of the general parameters to shoot for, you can focus on the grain, hop, yeast strain, fermentation options, and conditioning and maturation techniques that will make the recipe your own.

Targeting the Ingredients

Once you have decided on the specifications of the style, producing beer based on that style becomes a balance of mathematics and art.

Base malt selection: Start by selecting a base malt that makes sense for the recipe. It is generally safe, for example, to choose pils malt for a hoppy lager or Belgian ale, pale ale malt for most ales (particularly English-style ales), and maybe Munich or Vienna malts for a Festbier or Bock.

Deciding on quantities of malts: Now you need to determine the quantity (weight) of the base malt needed to provide the desired original gravity. It’s not as difficult as it might seem.

Extract brewers. Brewers starting with an extract base already have a head start on this part. The extract should come labeled with a gravity and color that will hold true for a given quantity of wort. If you’re not adding any other grains, you can move right on to thinking about hops. Otherwise, don’t put your pencil away — the next section applies to you, too.

All-grain brewers. The first thing to consider is the malt’s extract potential. A given malt’s yield can vary by lot and should be available from your supplier (often given as DBCG, for dry basis, coarse grind). Table I provides representative ranges of extract yields obtainable from various malts on the market. The publishers of BrewingTechniques report that their 1997 Brewers’ Market Guide will include detailed analytical data covering all of the major parameters of specific malt products from around the world. This kind of data can be very helpful in selecting the malts that work best for particular applications.

Table I: Nominal Extraction Yields for Various Malt Types*

Malt Type

Yield† (%)(points/lb/gal)

Extract, Max (points/lb/gal)

Extract, at 85% (points/lb/gal)

Extract, Steeped

Standard Pale Malts





Two-row base malt




Six-row base malt




Two-row British pale malt




Wheat malt




Rye malt




High-Kilned Malts





Vienna malt




Munich malt




Biscuit/Victory malt




Caramel Malts





Caramel, light (10–15 °L)





Caramel, pale (25–40 °L)





Caramel, medium (60–75 °L)





Caramel, dark (120 °L)





Dextrin malt





Special B





Roasted Malts





Brown malt





Chocolate malt





Roasted barley





Black patent malt










Malto-dextrin powder





Sugar (corn, cane)





*Table reprinted from a previous BrewingTechniques article, “A Beginner’s Guide to Using Grain in Extract Recipes,” by John Palmer, September/October 1996, pp. 22–27.

†Yield %: Data obtained and averaged from several sources. Steeping data is experimental and was obtained by steeping 1 lb in 1 gal at 160 °F (71 °C) for 30 minutes. All malts were crushed in a two-roller mill at the same setting.

‡The low extraction from steeping is attributed to unconverted, insoluble starches, as revealed by an iodine test.

The actual yield in your brewhouse will vary according to your brewhouse efficiency, which can only be determined from experience. Every brewery has different losses associated with the brewing process, and these losses can make a considerable difference in the original gravity obtained.

Most home brewers can assume their efficiency will be something like 65–68%, and this figure can decrease the more grain that is used for a given batch size. Until you’ve determined your own efficiency, it is best to take recipe figures with a grain of salt; it makes no sense to follow the recipe of someone who achieved miraculous extraction rates of 75–80% when you have never topped 65% using your own setup.

The basic formula for determining malt quantities shows that original gravity will equal the total weight of the grain multiplied by the malt’s extract potential and the actual (or estimated) brewhouse efficiency, times a constant of 46.31 and divided by the batch size:

S.G. = total weight [lb]

        X extract yield [%]

        X brewhouse efficiency [%]

        X 46.31

        ÷ batch size (gal)

where S.G. is the specific gravity, given in points (60 points = specific gravity of 1.060). The metric equivalent, using °P, kilograms, and liters, uses a constant of 0.96.

When you know the desired starting gravity, you can then work backwards to find the amount of grain needed. Software programs and charts are available to assist brewers in this calculation (see the box, “Information Resources for Recipe Design,” on page 26). You can use the same formula to calculate your actual brewhouse efficiency by simply plugging in the actual gravity (points) attained.

Remember that not all of rhe sugars in wort come from the base malt; specialty malts such as Munich and caramel malts will increase the wort’s gravity, and their contributions must be factored into the equation. A spreadsheet does this most easily. Simply decide on the relative percentage of any malt or adjunct desired for a recipe and plug in its extract potential (use the table provided as a guide if actual figures aren’t available), and calculate the relative weights needed.

Specialty malts: The next step is to determine the types and quantities of specialty malts to use. Although most do not contribute enzymes for the saccharification process, they can provide important flavor and color contributions. Detailed notes of procedures and tastings from past experiences are very valuable in helping to choose specialty malts, as is a basic knowledge of each variety’s malting history and traits (see the box, “Specialty Malt Profiles,” next page, for some descriptive overviews). In general, 5–25% of the total grist is usually made up of specialty malts. Make sure you understand how to use specialty grains in the mash. Munich, Vienna, and dextrin malts should be mashed to release their enzymes. Caramel and dark malts do not contribute enzymes, but primarily contribute flavor and color and don’t necessarily need to be mashed.

Specialty Malt Profiles

Diastatic Specialty Malts

Munich: Adds maltiness and color. Brewers often use Munich malt to increase a beer’s fullness. It is usually available in 7–10 or 20 °L.

Vienna: The lager world’s answer to pale ale malt. At about 3 °L, Vienna malt adds color and some maltiness.

Aromatic: A dark (25–30 °L) variety of Munich malt that is made in much the same fashion as Munich malt, but imparting a darker, sweeter, and more nutty/aromatic nose; produced by De Wolf-Cosyns, among others.

Caramel Malts

These malts are referred to as crystal malts in the UK.

Caramel: Available in grades of 10, 20, 40, 60, 80, 120, and 200 °L.

CaraVienne: A type of caramel malt with 20–30 °L.

CaraMunich: A type of caramel malt with 50–75 °L.

Carapils: Another caramel malt. European Carapils is 8–10 °L. The U.S. version, also known as dextrin malt, is quite different; it adds unfermentable dextrins to the beer, providing it with more body.

Belgian Special B: This version of caramel malt averages around 200 °L. Lighter versions increase head retention and add some body and sweetness. Darker versions provide a lot of color and significant sweetness.

Roasted Malts/Barley

Biscuit: Adds subtle toasty notes. Color is 23–26 °L. This malt is produced by De Wolf-Cosyns, among others.

Black malt: Also known as black patent malt, this malt is burnt to add burnt/coffee notes and a great deal of color (500–600 °L). Use sparingly.

Chocolate malt: Chocolate malt is less burnt than black malt and adds a pleasing dark malt/chocolate flavor and aroma. This malt is a must for porters. Color is 375–475 °L.

Roasted barley: Made from unmalted, burnt barley, roasted barley lends a rich coffee flavor and roasted, dry character. A must for stouts. Color is 450–600 °L.

The case for adjuncts: Adjuncts get a lot of negative press in craft brewing circles, where brewers generally shun the practices made infamous by the large industrial lager brewers, who derive 30–50% of their carbohydrates from rice or corn. Despite this industry disdain, adjuncts play a large role in many types of brewing and even in some classic styles. Adjuncts’ primary benefit to craft brewers is their ability to create wort that is more fermentable than equivalent all-malt worts. If you rely on adjuncts for 10–30% of your carbohydrates, you can obtain a lighter finish and balance than you could with a similar recipe using 100% malt.

You might try using corn, rice, raw wheat, oats, or flaked rye or barley in the mash. Raw grains must be cooked separately first; flaked grains can be mixed right in with crushed malt. In the kettle, try honey, molasses, or sugar (cane, corn, or candi).

Adjuncts are commonly used in Belgian tripels (2), some English bitters, and pre-Prohibition lagers (3–5), to name a few. While many brewers prefer to focus on all-malt beers, it is important to consider the role of adjuncts in brewing and the flexibility they can give you in recipe design.

Color: Color can be roughly predicted by simply multiplying each malt’s color potential (°L) by the amount used (lb), then totalling the results for each malt and dividing this figure by the batch size. This works well for light golden and light amber beers, but becomes less accurate as the color darkens. You may have to tinker with the grain bill to achieve the precise color you want.

Bittering for balance: Once the grist is determined, it’s time to turn to the hopping schedule. The first thing to consider is hop variety. Hops are a topic of perennial interest to brewers and have been discussed in several issues of this magazine, including my column in the last issue, “How to Master Hop Character” (6).

Determining the amount of bittering hops needed to approximate a target level of IBUs (International Bittering Units) requires some more math. IBUs are expressed in milligrams of iso-alpha acids per liter of beer. To approximate the amount of hops needed for each hop addition, you can work backwards from the target IBU number using an assumed utilization factor and the hop’s alpha-acid rating, which is provided by the supplier.

Suppose you want to brew a beer of 30 IBUs using a single addition of hops containing 5% alpha-acids in 5 gallons of wort. You could use the following calculation:



The metric formula using grams and liters would use a constant of 1,000.

Keep in mind that this formula, and other variations of it proposed by other authors, are estimates — IBUs can be measured accurately only in a lab. The key variable is the percentage of hop utilization, which, like brewhouse efficiency, is an educated guess. If you’re just starting out, 20% is a good guess for a “standard” hour-long boil. Actual utilization varies a great deal depending on the form of the hops (pellets give greater utilization numbers than whole hops), the vigor and length of the boil, pH, and gravity. The length of the boil makes the most difference, and because it’s not a linear relationship, it is probably easiest to use a graph like the one provided by Martin Manning in an article previously published in BrewingTechniques (7).

Water chemistry: Water chemistry is an important consideration in recipe formulation. The hardness or softness of your water (hard water has more minerals) can greatly affect your beer’s flavor profile as well as its pH. pH has been covered substantially in recent issues of BT (8,9). As for flavor, soft water tends to result in mellower, smoother hop character. On the other hand, water high in sulfates can accentuate perceptions of hop bitterness. Carbonates contribute to a coarser, dryer finish in many beer styles (Dortmunder Export, for example, which is traditionally brewed with high-carbonate water).

Techniques for Controlling Results

To Increase Sweetness

·         Add caramel malts.

·         Mash at a higher saccharification temperature (158 °F [70 °C]).

·         Raise the original gravity.

·         Omit the lauter stage and collect the first runnings only.

·         Boil longer (120–180 minutes in the kettle).

·         Use a less attenuative yeast strain.

·         Reduce the bitterness.

·         Decrease the mineral content using reverse-osmosis or distilled water.

·         Use a low attenuating malt extract.

To Increase Dryness

·         Lower the original gravity.

·         Lower the final gravity (use a yeast with greater attenuation or mash at a lower temperature, for example, 144 °F [62 °C]).

·         Increase bitterness.

·         Decrease the amount of caramel or other specialty malts in the grist.

·         Increase the the amount of adjuncts used.

·         Increase the mineral content by using salts.

·         Increase the use of adjuncts.

To Increase Maltiness

·         Raise the original gravity.

·         Use decoction mashing.

·         Increase the amount of Munich or aromatic malts in the grist.

·         Omit the lauter stage and collect the first runnings only.

·         Reduce the bitterness.

To Increase Hop Aroma

·         Increase late hop additions.

·         Use a hop back lined with hops.

·         Dry hop.

·         Add hop oils.

·         Try first-wort hopping (adding hops to sweet wort as the kettle is filled).

·         Use a more aromatic hop variety.

A style purist can try to mimic the water chemistry of the region where the style began. Making water harder is relatively easy. Burtonizing, for example, involves adding controlled amounts of epsom salts, gypsum, or possibly salt to increase the mineral content in an effort to more closely replicate English Burton ales. Softening water is more difficult. Adding distilled or reverse-osmosis (RO) water can help to achieve the desired result.

Orchestrating the Mash

For all-grain brewers, the type of mashing process affects the final outcome of the beer in many ways. Depending on the style you wish to brew, you may need to alter your usual mashing schedule. Besides the creation of sugars from starches, the mash is where the wort’s fermentability, known as the real degree of fermentation (RDF), is fixed.

It is well known that mashing at high saccharification temperatures (158 °F [70 °C], for example) will create wort with less fermentability than a similar mash carried out at lower temperatures (144 °F [62 °C]); the high temperatures maximize the action of alpha-amylase and increase the levels of dextrins, which are nonfermentable. You can boost the RDF of your wort by making adjustments to your mashing process.

Many beer styles need to demonstrate a high RDF to obtain the proper finish and mouthfeel. Pils and Festbiers are good examples of highly attenuated beers that benefit from a low-temperature mash rest. Draught Guinness Stout, with an apparent degree of attenuation of 80%, is another example.

Scheduling rests for optimum results: To create beers with this high of an RDF, you must incorporate a 15–30 minute rest in the low saccharification range (between 144 and 148 °F [62–65 °C]), followed by another rest in the 150 °F (66 °C) range to convert additional sugars. A typical mashing scenario would begin with a protein rest in the 130s °F (54–59 °C), followed by a beta rest in the 140s °F (60–64 °C), and a full saccharification rest in the high 150s °F (68–71 °C). This schedule maximizes the time that the mash is held in each enzymatic range, thereby activating protease enzymes, beta-amylase, and alpha-amylase enzymes in an upward stepmash program.

Other mashing options include a single, double, or even triple decoction. Decoction is the term used to describe removing a portion of the mash, boiling it separately, and adding it back to the main mash. Each decoction darkens the wort and enhances the formation of melanoidins, and when added back to the main mash raises the mash temperature. Decoctions nearly always improve the extract yield, particularly with continental lager malts.

Information Resources for Recipe Design

The following list is by no means exhaustive.

The Brewers’ Market Guide (by the publishers of BrewingTechniques) includes a complete list of every brewing- and beer-related book in print, organized into a handful of subject categories. Among the titles listed are a variety of works on styles, ingredients, and brewing practices. Online brewing information resources continue to grow in number, size, and quality and are worth checking out through your favorite online search engine.

Style Guidelines

Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (Running Press, Philadelphia, 1993).

Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines can be obtained from the Web at https://www.execpc.com/~ddavison/bjcp.html. You can also leave voicemail regarding either exams or competitions at 414/299-9145.

The American Homebrewers Association (AHA) guidelines can obtained from the AHA, P.O. Box 1679, Boulder, CO 80306-1679, tel. 303/447-0816, or they can be downloaded from the AHA website at https://www.aob.org/aob/styles.html.


Ray Daniels, Designing Great Beers (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1996).

Gregory J. Noonan, New Brewing Lager Beer (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1996); chapter 14, “Planning the Brew” (pp. 202–225) is a particularly detailed treatment of the subject.


Karl King, “Spreadsheet for Recipe Design,” BrewingTechniques 1 (1), pp. 36–39 (May/June 1993). Available online at https://brewingtechniques.com/issue1.1/king.html.

Martin P. Manning, “Understanding Specific Gravity and Extract,” BrewingTechniques 1 (3), pp. 30–35 (1993). This article will be available online at the BrewingTechniques website in the near future.

Martin P. Manning, “Recipe Formulation Calculations for Brewers,” BrewingTechniques 2 (1), pp. 44–55 (January/February 1994). This article also will be available online at the BrewingTechniques website in the near future.

Recipe Formulation Software

The Brewery features a wide range of software tools for brewers at https://alpha.rollanet.org/Software.html (case sensitive!).

The Brewers’ Market Guide, both the 1996 and the soon-to-be-released 1997 editions, contains a complete list of commercially available brewing software.


For malt information, try “The World of Malts,” in the 1997 Brewers’ Market Guide, due out this spring from the publishers of BrewingTechniques.

R.A. Neve, Hops (Chapman & Hall, London, U.K., 1991; co-published in the U.S. only by Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York), is a classic book on the subject.

Mark Garetz, Using Hops: The Complete Guide to Hops for the Craft Brewer (Hoptech, Danville, California, 1994), is the only book available on the subject specifically geared toward craft brewers.

For online information on hops, including an online calculator for IBUs, visit https://realbeer.com/hops/FAQ.html.

“The Yeast Directory,” in The 1996 Brewers’ Market Guide, also from the publishers of BrewingTechniques, includes descriptions and style-based selection charts for over 250 commercially available yeasts.

An online yeast FAQ is located at https://alpha.rollanet.org/library/yeast-faq.html.

Planning the boil

Wort boiling is usually given little consideration in recipe design, but adjusting boil times can be advantageous for different styles. All-grain worts are typically boiled for 90 minutes — 30 minutes before the kettle hops are added and 60 additional minutes after the main hop charge. Some styles, however, can benefit from a longer boil. Scotch ales, for instance, are sometimes boiled for 3 hours or even longer (up until the early 1990s, the Belgian brewery Liefmans held the wort near boiling overnight [10]). Small beers made from the second runnings of a barleywine also need long, perhaps even 3–4 hour boils to concentrate the initial starting gravity (typically around 1.028) up to a final kettle gravity of about 1.040.

A Pitch for Yeast

The importance of fermentation in shaping the finished beer cannot be overstated. Yeast strains impart distinct, though sometimes subtle, traits to the beer, and the “right” yeast strain is essential to the achievement of traditional styles. The variety of yeasts available to home brewers has never been greater; coverage of this subject is a complete book in itself. For a handy review of the more than 250 yeast strains available on the market, I recommend “The Yeast Directory” in The 1996 Brewers’ Market Guide (11), published by BrewingTechniques.

The important factors to keep in mind when selecting your yeast are the esters, diketones, and higher alcohols that each strain will generate to varying degrees. Brewing yeast strains are selected for their ability to produce beneficial compounds and/or for their lack of undesirable fermentation by-products. As with the ingredients and the fermentation schedule, it is important to select each strain carefully to fit the intended beer style.

The Power Is Yours

Recipe formulation is a vast subject that links many facets of brewing together and allows you to have fun as well as to exercise control over your beer. Once you are aware of the style guidelines and historical references and are well-versed in the brewer’s tool kit of hops, malts, and brewing techniques, you can create authentic versions of classic beer styles — some of which are not yet even being produced in the North American craft market. As with most aspects of brewing, a willingness to experiment and refine previous experiments is a considerable asset, but the key to preparing for a successful brew day is a rational and well-considered approach.

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