A tough job, but someone has to do it…

Frequently, I get customers asking me “How could I make something like…” and they point to a beer in the cooler, or name something they recently tasted. Right up my alley, no? And usually I can give them a fair approximation of style, strength, bitterness guidelines, on the spot, without much thought. Occasionally, though, there are stumpers. Beers I’ve never tried, or even never heard of, or that are just too difficult for all but the most experienced home brewers to do justice to.

A gentleman named Peter came into the store the other day and bought a case of the Amber Ale brewed by Peak Brewing, an organic brewery in Portland, Maine. I had tried the beer when it first came out a couple years ago, but didn’t remember it very well. This guy asked me “How could I brew this beer?” Turns out he had been a homebrewer back in the day (perhaps 30 or more years ago!) and hadn’t brewed in a long time – but was thinking about starting again.  A challenge, to be sure – how could I give the guy a recipe for a beer I didn’t know well? That was quickly solved – he handed me a bottle and said “here’s your homework”…

So here goes. Along the way to the recipe, this is how I generally approach the task of creating a clone brew, as I did during the aforementioned arduous research for my book.

The Research
Before opening and tasting any beer I hope to replicate, I do my homework – read the label, read the six-pack or case box, go to the website. Rarely does a brewer fail to give some hints about his or her beer – some list grains and hops used, some talk about their yeast, most give at least the % abv and the IBU’s. I was able to find out that Peak Amber is brewed to 4.9% abv, has 37 IBU’s and gets its color and complex malt flavor from crystal malt and “generous” amounts of Munich malt. That’s not a complete recipe, by any means, but to the discerning home brewer it’s a pretty good start.

Next I open the beer. I evaluate it as if I were judging it, looking at color, clarity, head, then aroma, then body and flavor, maltiness and bitterness, aftertaste and overall impressions. I try to figure out, as best I can, which hops or which general style of hops were or could be used, which malts are necessary to get the color and body I am tasting, and especially I try to detect any traces of a distinct yeast profile. There are certain commercial yeast strains that jump out at you, if you’ve tasted them.

Finally I begin to plan the brew – I know the final alcohol content I want, I know roughly the final gravity the beer must have (based on the fullness of the body, the residual sweetness of the malt, etc.), so I can figure out how much fermentation needs to happen and from what approximate starting point. I proceed to calculate how much of the main ingredients, especially extracts, I will need to reach that OG, tweak it a little for color and body, determine how to arrive at the IBU level I want with the hops I have decided to use, and then compare yeast profiles with what I have (or haven’t) detected in the beer. Usually I make up both an all-grain and an extract-based version of the recipe – the first for me, the second for customers who, like Peter, are not ready to step up to all-grain brewing just yet.

I’m going to leave this sounding arcane and mysterious for the time being, but I promise I will return to this and talk about recipe formulation, gravity and IBU calculation, etc. in a later post.

The Recipe (extract-based)
Steep 1/2 lb. medium crystal malt (60°L) and 1 lb. toasted Munich malt (toast on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes at 375°F) in 2-1/2 gallons of cold water. Raise temperature gradually to 160°F, hold for 20 – 30 minutes. Remove grains, rinse into kettle with 1/2 gallon hot tap water. Heat kettle contents to boiling, add either 5 lbs. light dry malt extract (DME) or 7 lbs. light malt extract syrup. Stir in well to avoid sticking and burning on the bottom. When the wort returns to boiling, add 5 AAU’s of a bittering hop (such as Galena, Nugget, or Northern Brewer). Boil 30 minutes, add 5 AAU’s of a different bittering/flavoring hop (Columbus or Challenger, perhaps). After another 30 minutes, 60 total, remove from heat and chill. Add to a sanitized fermenter along with enough chilled, pre-boiled water to make up 5-1/4 gallons. Take a hydrometer reading. Make sure the wort is between 65 – 80°F, pitch an American Ale yeast (White Labs WLP001) or 15 g. of a clean dry ale yeast, such as Cooper’s. Primary fermentation should take about 10 days, then rack to secondary and age & clarify for about two weeks. Prime with 2/3 cup corn sugar, bottle and condition for two weeks.

OG 1050
TG 1012
abv 4.8 – 5.0%
37 IBU’s

Note: Peak brews their beers with 100% organic ingredients. If you can find organic malt extracts, grains and hops, you should use them to stay true to Peak’s mission. You can, however, brew a similar beer with conventional ingredients.

All-Grain version
Mash 6 lbs. lager malt, 1-1/2 lbs. Munich malt, 1/2 lb. medium crystal malt (60°L), 1 lb. toasted Munich malt (toast 15 minutes at 375°F) in 14 quarts water at 152°F for 60 minutes. Runoff and sparge with 14 quarts of water at 170°F. Collect 26 quarts sweet wort. Bring to a boil, add hops as above. After a total boil of 60 minutes, chill to 75-80°F, pour into fermenter, pitch yeast and ferment as above.

2 Replies to “A tough job, but someone has to do it…”

  1. Awesome. This is a favorite with my friends around Brattleboro.

    It’s really great to read just how you go about decoding a beer for cloning. Thanks!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, Dan – I will be doing a more in-depth post on recipe design and calculation before the end of the year, stay tuned!

    An additional note: the aforementioned Peter now works frequently as a volunteer in the market, and I have now had the pleasure of tasting a couple of his brews – he brought a pale ale to the staff holiday party the other night which was quite nice!

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