By John Federal
There are many beers out there but there are only a few that when drank, envoke a feeling of euphoria. It it those beers that we as brewers sometimes wish to recreate. But how, when their recipes can be such closely guarded secrets? Here are some suggestions that may help give you direction, but there are some easily pieces of information that you must first gather to become more accurate in your recipe formulation.
1. Check the brewery's website for the beer you wish to make. Look for important formulation numbers like the SG or OG, SRM, ABV, any sensory descriptions giving details to malts, hops, and flavors found in the beer. If this information doesn't exist then your best bet is to think of what style the beer falls in and think of the beer in terms of those style guidelines. That will at least give you a loose guideline to go by for color and alcohol content.
2. Look for similar "cloners" who have attempted the beer before (use this only has a guideline for making your own).
3. Get a 6-pack and start drinking! This is the most important step as it will give you a better idea of the beer first hand. Drink the beer at several different levels of temperature to allow the nuances of the beer to come forward.
4. If you can, attend a brewery tour of the brewery you wish to clone from. You may be able glean some knowledge from the brewery/brewer to help you on your quest. In fact, many brewers would feel honored that their beer has made such an impression on you that they may give you some help. Don't count on learning what kind of yeast they use though...that is usually the best kept secret!
After you have finished with this analysis it is now time to plug your information into a reliable recipe calculator. Try and match up any technical numbers and then tweak different specialty malt amounts to reflect what you tasted when drinking the beer. Pay close attention to any spices or fruit character and differentiate between actual spices/fruit and yeast, malt, or hop-derived spiciness/fruitiness.
Once you feel comfortable with the recipe the only thing left to do is give that bad boy a whirl. Try to ferment around 64-68 F for an ale and 50-55 F for a lager when starting to give you a clean, neutral temperature to base your sensory analysis off of. You'll get a better idea of how the malt, hops, and alcohol play along with each other.
When trying the first pint of your clone have a bottle of the commerical beer with you to give yourself a reference point (this part is always lots of fun!). Pay close attention to aromas, flavors, color, and clarity similarities and differences taking good notes along the way for the next time you brew the clone. Again, let the beers warm a little to let nuances blossom and be honest with your analysis. Your next clone will be better for it.
Regardless of if the clone was dead-on or not chances are good that you have made a very tasty beverage because you put so much time and detail into crafting the clone beer. Don't get discouraged if you aren't close and use that example as a way of learning a bit about recipe formulation. You will be a better brewer for it. And by all means, ask us at American Brewmaster for help if you need it.
But most of all, as the great Papazian said, "Relax and have a homebrew!"
John Federal works for American Brewmaster in Raleigh, NC and is a homebrewer, musician and beer class instructor.