There are plenty of brewers who are more than content to brew kits. Some kits come with hopped extract and a sachet of dry yeast attached under the lid. There are also kits that come with a recipe and pre-measured and packaged ingredients. A colleague of mine brewed up Cooper’s Mexican Cerveza, said if he put a lime in it it was just like a Corona, and was perfectly happy with how it came out. Homebrewing can be as involving as you want it to be. If you are a kit brewer you can make great beer at home and have fun doing it. I’ll brew a kit if I stumble across something that looks interesting. However, if you are a kit brewer who is ready to dabble and make something your own, here’s a good place to start.
For a novice it can be daunting to walk into a homebrew shop and see the myriad of different malts, hops, and yeasts. Our earliest recipes were the two of us wandering around the homebrew shop by dead reckoning trying to figure out what to buy. Sometimes I still do that. On a recent visit I left with ingredients thrown together for a Belgian Pale Ale and Belgian Style Dubbel. Eventually I started doing more homework when planning what I was going to brew.
Beyond throwing ingredients together and hoping for the best, a good starting point is to simply ask yourself what do you want your beer to taste like? If you’re going to brew an American Pale Ale do you want it to be a balanced, almost English Pale Ale like a Shoals Pale Ale or Wachusett Country Pale Ale, or do you want to make a hoppy West Coast Pale Ale like a Sierra Nevada or Dale’s Pale Ale? What I started doing was to research clone recipes for commercial beers to benchmark and to give me a starting-off point. If you Google “‘Beer X’ clone recipe” you should have no trouble finding results unless “Beer X” is new or obscure.
Now one of the first places I look when starting a new recipe from scratch are the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines. The BJCP description provides broad parameters of what the beer should taste, smell, and feel like, what ingredients to use and commercial examples. Unless you plan on entering a competition, don’t feel shackled to the guidelines.
Once you have a broad idea of what ingredients you want to use and what you want the beer to taste like, there are several apps and websites you can use to calculate the alcohol by volume (ABV), estimated starting gravity and final gravity, bitterness, and even color. You can then adjust your malts and hops in your recipe to get it exactly the way you want it. If the app you’re using does not have journaling or note-taking capability make sure to keep a manual journal. If it does, it’s not a bad idea to print out the recipe with the notes and keeping them in a binder. Keep track of anything that may or may not be relevant on brew day, when racking, on bottling day, and of corse tasting notes. If your beer doesn’t quite come out exactly how you had envisioned you have a better idea of what adjustments to make. If the beer is perfect you want to have as much information as possible to duplicate the results.
Whether you are making your own recipes or brewing kits, you want to brew with different malts, hops, and yeasts all the time. That is the best way to know first-hand how different ingredients will effect the finished beer. Once you have an understanding of different types of ingredients it is easier to make recipes with confidence.
As Charlie Papazian said, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew!” As long as your cleaning and sanitation are where they need to be what you make will be beer and taste like beer. If your first batch or first attempt at a particular style isn’t what you had hoped, it’s still a learning experience and a starting off point. Chances are if you have ever had Rolling Rock or Milwaukee’s Best, whatever you make can’t be worse!