Friday, 21 March 2014

The Homebrew Sessions Vol. 1: Creation

This is the first in a series of posts where I grill homebrewers about their brewing. The idea came about after I tasted Andy Parker's marvellous beetroot saison last year - I was fascinated to know how someone goes about putting a really interesting beer like that together from scratch. When there are so many different variables and different methods you can choose to apply, how do you get it right first time? So I asked him. But I was too drunk to remember the answer. So I asked again and this time I thought, if I find this stuff interesting then maybe some other homebrewers and beer lovers might do too. So I asked three brewers the same nosy questions...

Vol. 1: Creation

Andrew Drinkwater  


"My name is Andrew and I'm 30. I have been drinking since 1998, homebrewing since 2011, and occasionally blogging about them both since 2012. I got into homebrewing through my parents, who make wine at home, and a desire to recreate styles of beers that were expensive or difficult to obtain in their best condition. The rest of the time, I work in television but often think that I'd be happier working in beer on a more full time basis. My favourite everyday beer would probably be a good fresh hoppy pale ale like a Kernel pale, favourite luxury beer would be a Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel or Vanilla Shake, and my all-time desert island beer would probably be a bottle of Anna or Vera Mae from Hill Farmstead."

"Can you explain how you go about designing your beers? Where does the initial inspiration come from? How do you go about translating that idea into a functional recipe? Have different beers been designed in different ways or is the process generally the same for you each time?

Could you provide an example of how you created a particular beer, starting with what inspired it?"

Almost everything that I've brewed at home has been inspired by something else that I've drunk - either commercial or homebrewed - and loved. To start with, this manifested itself in trying to 'clone' beers at home by following online recipes to the letter, but after a couple of disastrous attempts (two attempts at Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA were particularly pathetic), I felt that this was pretty unsatisfying. The end results never taste like the beer you're aiming at, and I wasn't really learning anything about why those breweries had used those ingredients in the way that they had - or about any of the other factors involved.

What I tend to do now is ask about what went into a particular beer - hop variety, types of speciality malt - and how they were used - proportion, length of time boiled for - to understand how the flavour has been produced. One of the first recipes I put together from scratch was a Black IPA, which I wanted to be quite light and aromatic rather than big and heavy. The ideas for constructing the recipe came from a lot of different places:

  •  Other homebrewers at London Amateur Brewers described how to colour the wort by adding Carafa Special III at the sparge
  •  I used a small percentage of Thomas Fawcett Amber for a touch of coffee flavour, as per those Dogfish clones - I did learn one thing from them!
  •  A big starter of Dry English Ale yeast, made up from liquid yeast, based on Dominic Driscoll of Thornbridge's mantra of 'always pitch enough healthy yeast'
  •  To capture as much aroma as possible, I used almost all the hops, in this case Simcoe, right at the very end of the boil.
That beer was particularly successful - massive blueberry and berry flavour from the Simcoe, a touch of coffee-like malt and a bit of roast - but there are always things that I'd improve for a second or third brew. 

Brewing and homebrewing in particular seems like one big information gathering exercise, then trying to establish how each element or variable that you learn about impacts on the other things that you'd previously learned. I cringe a bit now thinking back to early brews when I'd throw in Carapils or Melanoidin malt because of a half-read post by some guy on a homebrew forum without really understanding why I was using it or what it was really adding. If I was starting from scratch today, I'd probably start out with a SMaSH brew, then start playing with specialty malts from there onwards, reading and taking in as much as possible before I started messing around.

The most ambitious recipe I've been involved with is probably Sabotage BAY. When Chris, Emma, and I started to put together a super collaboration based around Brettanomyces - a 100% Brett-fermented IPA - we all went away and looked up articles, books and blog posts about which strain to use and how to use it; Emma and Chris spoke to Dominic from Thornbridge and other brewers at IMBC for advice; we read up on Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead's theories about International Citrus Units, as we wanted a big lemony brew; and we got hold of some commercial examples like Evil Twin's Femme Fatale beers. The best way of putting any recipe together is understanding as many elements as possible and why you're doing it... and then realising that you've probably misinterpreted it. After all that, we ended up improvising on the day and putting Yakult into the mash, but that's another story entirely.

Andy Parker  

Andy is an award winning home brewer who recently won the inaugural Craft Beer Co National Home Brewer Of The Year competition. His favourite style to drink is American IPA and his first all-grain brew (in May 2012) was a clone of his favourite incarnation of that style - Green Flash's West Coast IPA. The resulting beer picked up bronze in category at the 2012 London & South East Craft Brewing competition, kick-starting an obsession that shows no signs of letting up. He blogs at and tweets as @tabamatu.

"Can you explain how you go about designing your beers? Where does the initial inspiration come from? How do you go about translating that idea into a functional recipe? Have different beers been designed in different ways or is the process generally the same for you each time?"

In terms of initial inspiration, it can come from anywhere. It might be a commercial beer I’ve tasted and thought I’d like to re-create or perhaps one that just sparked an idea from a particular flavour or other characteristic it had. Once I have an idea of what I’d like to brew, the process of turning that into a functional recipe varies and has changed over time as I’ve gained more experience. My first all grain brew was an attempt to create a clone of Green Flash’s West Coast IPA. I had no idea where to start so literally googled ‘green flash west coast ipa all grain recipe’ and started reading and merging together what I found in BeerTools until I had something that looked about right. The resulting beer was a reasonable West Coast IPA but not really like Green Flash’s. However, it gave me a base from which to operate when it came to brewing that style. Having blogged about the recipe and my brewing process and also having forced bottles into the hands of people who know what they are talking about when it comes to IPAs (the likes of Gregg Irwin, Evin O’Riordan and Angelo Scarnera), I learned from the experience and adjusted accordingly, both in terms of process and recipe. These days I have a bit more experience behind me to call upon, so I find it easier to come up with a base grain bill and hopping schedule depending on the style I want to brew. I still always throw my recipes up on twitter (before brewing) and my blog (after) though because the feedback is invaluable and often influences the finished article.

"Could you provide an example of how you created a particular beer, starting with what inspired it?"

I’ve blogged about what inspired a few of my more adventurous brews recently including a Beetroot Sorachi Saison, Lebkuchen Stout and Blood Orange Red WineSour and the variety in terms of sources of inspiration is well illustrated with those three beers. Taking an idea through to a final recipe is partly covered by my other answers but also has roots in cooking and how much I enjoy that and experimenting with flavours generally. As a home brewer I’m taking on very little risk when trying new things. Worst case is it’s awful and I have to pour it away, perhaps losing £10-20 in ingredients. That's a great advantage we have over commercial brewers so make the most of it!

Alan Wall 
"A bartender and engineering student in Manchester, it was a natural progression to take up homebrewing. I have been homebrewing for about 18 months, and have managed 36 brews, and 4 different brew kits in that time, that's 2 brews and 0.22 kits per month on average. I'm part of the Manchester homebrewing group, and a nerd. I've placed decently in the few brewing competitions I've entered. My aim is to keep learning, and continually get better at brewing, to achieve this I spend my time trying to understand the science behind what I'm brewing. I basically treat brewing as a long term science/engineering experiment, so there are lots of spreadsheets and data collection." 

"Can you explain how you go about designing your beers? Where does the initial inspiration come from? How do you go about translating that idea into a functional recipe? Have different beers been designed in different ways or is the process generally the same for you each time?"

The inspiration for my beers can come from a few different places, conversations with people (either IRL, or on twitter), availability of ingredients, and also just an interest in either brewing a particular style, or ingredient. Sometimes I merge ideas too, to kill two birds with one stone. An example of this is happening at the moment, there was some twitter hubbub over a comment made about black IPA’s being an insult to history. This amused me greatly, and made me realise I’ve not brewed a BIPA for a while. 

On top of that, I had been instrumental in quite a few members of the Manchester Homebrew Group having access to new season hops. A conversation with a fellow member resulted in the ABC brewing challenge, whereby we all brewed a beer using those hops, at a certain ABV and theoretical IBU, with 1 base malt and 2 speciality malts. This was done as loose as possible to give each person enough scope to still brew what they wanted, and for me that means that I will combine the two ideas and brew a BIPA. As a side note, I managed to get the order of the hops (which I helped set) wrong, so it’s not the ABC challenge any more. 

There is quite an element of fluidity in my recipe designing, I will usually start out with an idea, and try and build around that. That could be an overarching idea (such as a BIPA, or an Impy stout), or it could be something simple such as what yeast I want/have to use. I built up a spreadsheet which I can refer back to for ideas, or notes on previous brews. This means I can pluck an ABV out of the air, and start to create the malt bill accordingly. How I build the malt bill comes from past research and also communication with commercial brewers (Jay Krause and Colin Stronge are two people I talk to quite a lot about things like this).

If I decide I want to brew something that I know nothing about, then I will usually ask questions on twitter, and consult brewing books and forums until I feel I have enough information to be able to at least have a stab at brewing something, and learning  from actually doing it.

"Could you provide an example of how you created a particular beer, starting with what inspired it?"

How I created the recipe for the 'Insult to History BIPA': there was a set ABV of 6.5%, based on previous brews on the kit I use at the moment, I get an overall system efficiency of between 75 and 78% and a mash efficiency about the same. This sets the gravity points per gram of the malts, which will give me the theoretical gravity based upon the batch size. So I start by putting in the base malt and working backwards from the expected gravity required as to what quantities of other malts go into the mash.