Like most people, when I first started playing music I took pleasure in simply learning and copying popular music. I played covers of my favorite bands at the time: Metallica, Faith No More, Nirvana, etc. But what I quickly realized is that there’s a ceiling to the pleasure that can be derived from copying someone else’s creation. Developing something truly your own is where the real art is. The same is true with brewing.

Like playing music, many homebrewers start out with recipe kits; this is a great way to become familiar with the process before diving headlong into recipe design. But still there are many brewers that never move beyond kits and after years are still “covering other people’s music”. If you’re still brewing with recipe kits or clones, you’re really missing out on the real fun.

At first designing a recipe can be a bit daunting. Where do you start? The malt bill? Hops? Yeast? Adjuncts? Beer is more than the sum of the individual ingredients that comprise it. Try to imagine your beer as a holistic experience. Flavors that work well in the kitchen can serve as great inspiration for beers too. For example, my mother-in-law makes a delicious iced tea with lemons, oranges and a hint of cloves. It’s a refreshing summer drink that translated nicely into a delicious witbier. Find your inspiration and let that be your “north star”.

Once you have a vision for the beer, start researching ingredients that lend themselves to that overall sensory experience. Your first attempt will surely not be your best. Don’t be discouraged. Time and repetition are the name of the game. With each brew session you’ll get a more familiar with the ingredients and amounts and a bit more comfortable with your process. Before you know it, you’ll be churning out award-winning custom recipes and chuckling about the days when all you played were cover songs.

Categories: Designing Beer


James · February 7, 2018 at 3:27 pm

So I have been thinking about this post for a while, and I think it is the opening shot of a wider discussion. I love the music metaphor, and because I am also a musician, I can appreciate Chris’ points. I also offer some other perspectives for consideration.
Chris is quite right that many of us (most of us?) begin our musical educations by copying: we learn scales, and chords, and then we start learning riffs and licks. The idea is that each of these things is a color in our palette, and that when we are ready we start to do our OWN painting. In the meantime, figuring out the riff for “Crazy Train” is FUN. It’s cool to show off for your friends, and it was a fairly quick way to feel like you were improving as a musician. The way I read Chris’s argument, however, we all have to grow up and stop playing other people’s music and create our own. I think he’s half-right…stay with me here.
If you played or listened to music in the 90’s, one of the big things was the Unplugged movement. Artists took a look at their body of work, and they reworked or rearranged some of their work acoustically. This worked out better for some artists than for others, but on the whole it was kind of an interesting experiment; I love the idea of a musician (painter, brewer, writer, etc) looking back and reinterpreting their work.
I used to attend an open mic night at a local club, and one of my favorite parts of that experience was this kid who came every single week—he would unpack his Les Paul and crank up his Marshall stack, and he’d do the most impressive Slash impersonation…he knew Slash’s entire body of work, but he did not just learn the songs note for note. When he got comfortable, he could improvise and just sound like Slash. I would look around and see folks rolling their eyes, but I loved the kid. What he did was impressive, but to some people’s ears he was just copying.
While I started out as a guitar player, I kinda quickly found myself attracted to a folk music tradition. I turned myself into a bluegrass musician, and I found that what I liked was this tension between the TRADITION (always in caps) and the innovation. To continue the earlier metaphor, being a bluegrass musician meant learning all those Bill Monroe chops on mandolin, and then you had to learn how to play like Earl Scruggs on the banjo, and so on. Now, the purists would stop there. There are plenty of very talented acoustic musicians for whom the goal is to sound exactly like bluegrass circa 1950. That’s cool, it’s impressive, and it’s totally legit.
And then another generation came along and learned that vocabulary, but for them learning that vocabulary wasn’t the point in and of itself; they learned it and then used it to say and do something completely different. Also very cool, also very impressive, and also totally legit.
Finally, it’s a lot harder than it looks to take something written by someone else and make it your own. Some of my favorite songs are ones that have been reinvented. The world is a far better place because Jeff Buckley had the imagination and the guts to “cover” someone else’s song. And if Buckley was not a legitimate musician because his biggest hit was a cover, then the term is meaningless.
I am a big tent kind of guy…I think things are almost always better when we look for ways to include rather than exclude people. In a similar way, I think there is a lot of room for balance in our brewing. I don’t reinvent the wheel every time I brew; sometimes I just want a Guinness, and part of the challenge for me is learning to (sound just like Slash) recreate what someone else has done. Likewise, I want extract brewers, or guys who brew from kits, or guys who brew once a year, to know that they are legitimate brewers. If you homebrew beer, you are a homebrewer.

    Chris Palmisano · February 10, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Great points, James. My intent in this post wasn’t to debase brewers that don’t design their own recipes, but rather to encourage / inspire them to apply their own creativity to the process. That doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel every time or going out into left field with some crazy ass adjunct. It just means stepping away from the paint-by-numbers approach to brewing. But yes, I agree – whether you are brewing 1 gal extract pots on your stove or 50 gal all grain, you are a real brewer and I love you all. 🙂

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