We Can Rebuild It: How to reverse-engineer a beer

Bad Weather head brewer Andy Ruhland. A reverse-engineered version of Bad Weather’s Solar Wave Golden IPA is this month’s Homebrew Recipe // Photo by Lucy Hawthorne

Pablo Picasso once said “To copy others is necessary,” and who are we to argue with a cubist? Since contemporary craft and world classic beers are a source of inspiration and aspiration to homebrewers, let’s talk a bit about reverse-engineering.

Recreating a favorite beer from a brewery, region, or fondly remembered trip is an evergreen quest for beer nerds. This makes sense: classic examples of beer styles are a great yardstick for one’s brewing ability (knowledge of and control over the multitudinous biochemical variables that go into even the simplest pint), as well as a great learning tool. And obviously, they’re delicious beers—who wouldn’t want bottles or kegs of these ready on hand?

Some very nice brewers, like Andy from Bad Weather, might be open-source about their recipes, which makes drawing up a homebrew-scale bill of ingredients quite easy. For others, we’re going to need to do some research. Let’s walk through it:

First: Realistic Expectations

If you’re not working off an open-source recipe, it’s highly unlikely you’ll hit a bullseye on the first try. Perseverance, willingness to brew the same thing repeatedly, and a refusal to be easily discouraged are important. But even with a complete list of ingredients and specs for a target beer, the influences of process, scale, and equipment can be a big hurdle.

Take Pilsner Urquell. It makes no mystery of its ingredients, and they aren’t difficult to source: Czech Pils malt, Saaz hops, extremely soft water, and a widely available yeast strain. Google readily coughs up the beer’s vitals: OG of 1.048, 40 IBU, 4.4% ABV, 4.2°L color. But due to the intensive mash regimen and quirks of their house fermentation schedule, even a beer with such a simple formula can be a hard target for home setups.

Second: Compile Resources

It’s dangerous to go alone—take some books. Here’s what to look for in building your reference library:

Books on raw materials are especially valuable. The Brewers Association Brewing Elements series (Malt, Hops, Yeast, and Water) is great, as are pamphlets, catalogs, and other info from maltsters, yeast labs, and hop suppliers (bonus points if they include sensory info.)

You might only have a beer’s analytical specs to work with (OG, IBU, or ABV), so books, articles, and papers on brewing techniques and traditions, or profiles of the brewery itself can help fill in some blanks. Michael Jackson and Charles Bamforth are two of many great authors to seek out; there’s a plethora of bloggers out there doing good work and original research as well. It’s good to familiarize ourselves with the industry best practices, like pH management, pitch rate, oxygenation, etc., with which our target beer is likely produced (and that will pay off in our other brewing endeavors as well).

Finally, download a copy of the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines, an in-depth breakdown of beer styles by the numbers and organoleptic qualities. The BJCP guidelines won’t give you a blueprint for each and every beer in the world, but they can help with ballparking typical ingredients for a style and the rough proportions at which they’re used.

Third: Get Some Software

When I started homebrewing, we had—not exaggerating—slide rules to help calculate bitterness and gravity when formulating recipes. These days there’s a multitude of homebrewing recipe formulation programs. Find one you like and use it. This is a very powerful tool for dialing in all parameters of your batch.

Then: Go Do Research

It might be tough to take this phase seriously, but you need to. Get some of your target beer and drink it analytically. Take notes—color, clarity, aroma, flavor, texture. Be specific. Don’t worry about being “right.” It’s most important to accurately record your own impressions of flavors and aromas than it is to correctly ID the yeast strain or base malt, or to pick out a specific hop variety. These notes are going to help us evaluate the finished homebrew and make adjustments in the next batch.

If you’re doing your qualitative analysis at the source, keep an eye out for clues—like pallets of malt or boxes of hops. We can learn a lot from what we might see around the taproom.

While you’re assembling tasting notes, gather all the deets you can: many craft brewers will list the malts and hops used in the recipe (if not the proportions), and most provide specs like OG, IBUs, color, and ABV percentage. These numbers will be our guides when we sit down at the computer to start working up a recipe.

Now, as part of your research, you might just reach out to the brewer—whether by email or in person. If they’re open to sharing, this could eliminate a lot of guesswork and save countless hours and multiple iterations of your tribute recipe. Many brewers started out as homebrewers and are happy to share their knowledge—but please bear in mind that this is their job, and the hours are often long, and competition is becoming a bigger thing; be respectful, polite, and willing to take no for an answer.

Afterwards: To the computer, nerds

Maybe open another bottle of the target beer (this one can be enjoyed less analytically) and sit down with your brewing software. Using everything you know about the pro recipe and specs, start building a recipe. If you don’t know which malts and hops the brewer uses, pore through your research materials and take your best guess. Use the software to adjust the malt bill to match what you know about the gravity, ABV, and color of the target beer; ditto to the hop schedule to match up bitterness, as well as hop aroma—an IPA is going to probably take some whirlpool and/or dry hops, a traditional Oktoberfest won’t.

Finally: To the home brewery

Print off your recipe sheet, if you’re an analog Luddite like me, or just roll into the brewhouse with your mobile device if you’re not. Now do your thing—follow the steps your program of choice outlines for mash, boil, and fermentation; then package the beer when ready.

After that: More qualitative analysis

Pour yourself a sample and taste it critically. Take the same kind of notes you did during the research phase. Again, be specific. Do a side-by-side with your target beer, and jot down what’s right and what’s different.

Take your notes and impressions back to the computer and revise your recipe to get a bit closer to the target. Do you need to up the hops? Do you need to switch yeast strains? Is there a malt that the brewery doesn’t use, but which you could incorporate to add a certain flavor that’s missing? Does the mash temp need to be lowered for a drier finish?

Next: Practice, practice, practice

I used to teach taekwondo in my younger days. All the talking, explaining, and demonstrating I could ever do couldn’t make a proper dollyo chagi spring forth fully formed. The only thing that can make a good roundhouse kick is thousands of imperfect roundhouse kicks.

Any craft is the same. There is no shortcut for empirical experience. The process is the teacher, and you’re going to become a much better brewer because of it.

The student becomes the master

A final meditation: if you like somebody else’s beer so much, why don’t you just buy that beer? Sometimes the journey becomes the destination, and you might find along the way to Cloneville that you’ve hit upon something else entirely, a beer that is both unique and satisfying, and that is, in my opinion, the point at which the homebrewer gets off the wheel and achieves enlightenment.

Until next time: Drink it like you brewed it.

To try a reverse-engineered beer, check out this month’s Homebrew Recipe: Solar Wave Golden IPA.


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