Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I Must Have Your Recipe!

Note: I originally wrote this 15 years or so ago for my homebrew club's newsletter. I thought I'd freshen it up a bit and post it here, as it's still pretty relevant for both brewing and cooking. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, the authors of the recommended books are friends of mine. Yes, I have friends that can write....

Remember this plot from cartoons and movies?

  1. Kindly, pure-hearted explorer/scientist, working doggedly in isolation for many years, discovers amazing secret formula for world peace / cold fusion / lead-to-gold conversion, etc. Said formula is typically recorded on tattered piece of paper and kept in a briefcase.
  2. Evil, avaricious, criminal mastermind or hostile foreign country attempts to steal the secret formula. This usually involves kidnapping an attractive female relative or associate of the kindly savant.
  3. A hero, possibly wearing a garish costume, prevents the valuable tatter from falling into / remaining in the hands of the dastardly criminals.

I’ve always wondered: how would someone like Simon bar Sinister, assisted by his henchman, Cad, fare if let alone with the magical piece of paper? Wouldn’t his laboratory be somewhat different than that of the inventor? Would all his available ingredients be exactly the same? Same shape flasks? Same size Bunsen burners? Same diameter hoses? And how would bar Sinister know which of these mattered to the outcome, lacking the years of specialized experiences of the originator of the formula?

Of course, there’s a point to this. I’m talking about recipes, beer recipes. I once had a writer pumping me for my Recipe For Stout, which I happily supplied. But here’s the problem: for every detail about the way I make my beer that makes it into the official transcribed Recipe For Stout, three or so don’t. Malt types, in. Kettle type, heat source, method of chilling, out. Mash times/temps in, wort aeration, fermenter type out. Etc. etc. etc, you get the picture. Here’s a f’rinstance: I get better hop utilization than the homebrew books say I can; this because of some unusual kettle geometry. You, or Simon bar Sinister, may not get the same utilization, and would need to adjust your hop rate to compensate. You may not be able to do a step mash; maybe a grain bill adjustment is required, or conversion to equivalent extracts. I’m not saying that others’ recipes are not useful, it’s just that there are no magic formulas. You have your laboratory, and Simon has his, and you must develop an understanding of how your equipment and processes affect the outcome. It is a good idea to analyze a few recipes for beers similar to what you would like to make, with an eye towards procedures and ingredients common to most. There are a few books out there that offer guidance in formulating recipes, with one of the best and most comprehensive probably being Designing Great Beers, by Ray Daniels (Brewers Publications). For each style discussed, the author analyzes a set of successful homebrewers’ recipes, and a set of commercial brewers’ recipes, and from them derives useful guidelines for recreating that style. A lot of legwork contained in one volume. Another great resource, also from Brewers Publications, is Radical Brewing, by Randy Mosher. Lots of fascinating historical context, novel and arcane ingredients, and a large measure of enthusiasm, abound within its covers.

Oh, yeah. What if the amazing secret formula turns out to be figurative Fool’s Gold? A fellow who I observed in a homebrew supply store once collected one can of malt extract, one ounce of hops, and then asked:

    “Where is the lemon peel?”


    “Should the peel be added to the primary, secondary, or kettle?”

-At this point the question had to be asked:

    “What are you making?”

    “I got this recipe for Sierra Nevada off of the internet.”

    “What other ingredients are called for in this recipe?”


Well, I’m pretty sure Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has more than OG 1.030, and 19 BU, and also no fruit. Advice and ingredients designed to help him get nearer his goal were administered, and he was on his way, disaster averted. And don’t get me started on the “recipe” I was once told about for Fuller’s ESB, featuring saccharine tablets. Fullers goes through a ton of the stuff, uh huh, yup.

Another technique for recipe formulation, used often here in my brewery, is known as ‘winging it.’ Some of this, and a bit of that, and see what happens; it’s certain that your result will be beer, and you’ll have learned something about what those particular ingredients will do for you. Those of a scientific temperament may change only one factor from one batch to the next; others shoot from the hip, a clean slate each time (or at least four variables.) You’ve brewed a few batches, right? Read a book or two? Know the basic role each ingredient plays? Take the plunge and create your own “secret formula.” Innovate, or emulate, but understand, and make it your own. You’ll be glad you did, and doubly proud to hear, “I must have your recipe!”

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