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.

To Clone: A Sin…?

The idea of cloning a beer dates back to the earliest days of home brewing. I mean, ever since it’s been possible to brew your own beer at home, we have done so at least in part to try to replicate something we tried and liked that someone else brewed. The late Dave Line, a British beer writer of the 1970’s, is the guy I credit with the most influential pioneering work on the subject, simply called “Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy” (1978 Argus Books). Line researched and developed recipes for over 100 different beers from around the world (primarily British, to be honest, but..) and fostered the idea that a home brewer could not only save money by making his or her own at home, but could also make it as well as, if not better than, the big breweries… Dangerous concept!

I began writing for Brew Your Own a few months after the magazine’s inception in 1995. The original editor, Craig Bystrinski, was a college classmate of mine, and I signed on to do the occasional feature article and a monthly column, eventually titled “The Replicator”. Each month I offered a recipe for reproducing a personal or a reader’s favorite beer. The column grew out of an early feature which we called “Clone Your Own”, replete with pictures of Dolly the Sheep… In 1998, Storey Books brought out Mark & Tess Szamatulski’s Clonebrews, and I was asked to do the follow-up, North American Clonebrews, which came out in 2000. I will devote a post some other time to the method I use for cloning a beer, but I wanted to get the history out of the way before launching into the recipe for the beer I brewed yesterday.

My good friend Rick (aka the Webmaster) and his wife Sarah went up to Montreal a few months back and while there hit a brewpub called “Dieu Du Ciel”, “God In Heaven” – a vaguely Belgian inspired place, with a nice variety of beers, cool atmosphere, etc… and they also bottle. Rick tasted and apparently fell in love with one of their beers, and brought a bottle back to me to see if I could help him brew it. The beer was called “Péché Mortel”, “Mortal Sin”, and it was/is delicious. A big Imperial Stout, about 9.5% abv, brewed with coffee. Rich, dark, dangerously smooth, a wow of a beer. So naturally I set out to devise a recipe. I brew all-grain, so my recipe is not extract-based. Rick is gently being nudged in that direction, but still brews mostly with extracts and some steeping grains. I had to work out an equivalent recipe for him. So what follows are two different versions of the same beer. Rick brewed his last week, I brewed mine yesterday, they’ll both be ready about the same time (in June or July?) and we look forward to tracking down a bottle of “the real thing” and opening ours and comparing.

Mortal Sin
5 gallons, all-grain


  • 12 lbs. Maris Otter 2-row pale malt
  • 1 lb. torrefied wheat
  • 1/2 lb. chocolate malt
  • 1/2 lb. roasted barley
  • 1 lb. dark crystal malt (120°L)
  • 1/2 lb. coarsely ground French roast coffee beans
  • 21.2 IBU’s Northern Brewer hop pellets (2 oz. @10.6% aa)
  • 12.5 IBU’s Galena hop pellets (1 oz. @12.5% aa)
  • 5.1 IBU’s Tettnang hop pellets (1 oz. @5.1% aa)
  • 3 cups Dieu Du Ciel yeast slurry (recultured)
  • 2/3 cup dry malt extract for priming
  • 3 tbsp. dark roast instant coffee

The night before brewing, crush grains. On brew day, heat 18 quarts water to 165°F, mash in grains and coffee, hold 90 minutes @153°F. Heat another 14 quarts to 170°F. Begin runoff, sparge, collecting approximately 26 – 28 quarts of sweet wort.

Bring to a boil and add the Northern Brewer hops. Boil 30 minutes, add the Galena hops. Boil another 25 minutes, add the Tettnang hops. After 5 more minutes (60 total), turn off heat.

Chill the wort to 80 – 85°F, take a hydrometer reading, pour with some splashing into your sanitized primary fermenter. Pitch the yeast slurry, seal up and ferment at 65 – 68°F for 2 weeks or until bubbling in the airlock slows down to once or twice a minute. Rack to secondary and prepare to be patient. Age at 50° – 55°F for 6 weeks or so (check to make sure your airlock doesn’t dry out at any point!). Bottle, priming with the DME and adding the instant coffee at the same time. Bottle condition for at least a month; longer is better.

OG: 1086 – 90
target TG: 1018 – 22
expected abv: 8.5 – 9%
IBU’s: 125 (not really – see note)

Note on hops: the hop utilization factors I use (see earlier post) are calibrated for worts with an OG around 1050. In higher gravity worts like this one, hop utilization diminshes by as much as 20%. This beer probably ends up with more like 100 IBU’s, but it’s a very complicated calculation and not really all that important!

Note on yeast: Hopefully, one of the keys to getting this one “right” is  the yeast. I saved the dregs from the bottle Rick gave me (it is a bottle-conditioned beer), and gradually over a couple weeks fed the yeast and built up a culture big enough to brew with. I brewed a 2-gallon amber ale just to further grow the yeast colony, then put it aside. I will post about yeast-saving and reculturing at a later date… Anyway, I built up enough of a slurry that I could divide it and give Rick some to use, and I also used it yesterday. If you want to brew this beer and can’t get the DDC yeast, you can probably get close enough results with any fruity Belgian ale yeast, or even an Irish yeast, in a pinch.

Extract-based version:
Instead of mashing the 12 lbs. of pale malt, start by steeping 1/2 lb. each malted wheat, cara-pils, chocolate malt and roasted barley, all crushed, and the crushed coffee beans, in 3 gallons of water. Use a mesh bag to hold the grains for easier removal later. Raise the heat gradually to 165 – 170°F, cover, turn off the heat and hold for 30 minutes. Remove the grains and coffee, turn the heat back on. Bring to a boil, and add either 10 lbs. amber dry malt extract or 12.5 lbs. amber malt extract syrup. This is a lot of extract for 3 gallons of water, so be careful to stir it in and not let it stick/burn on the bottom of the kettle. When it comes back to a boil, add the hops as in the all-grain recipe. After the hop and boiling schedule, chill and add to your sanitized primary fermenter along with enough chilled pre-boiled water to make a little over 5 gallons. Mix gently and take a hydrometer reading. At 80 – 85°F, pitch the yeast, seal, ferment and condition as above.