We find ourselves in a golden era of beer. There are more breweries open in the United States than ever before, with more and more opening every day. Countless styles and amazing quality are at our fingertips, and tips of our tongues, in nearly every city in the country. As homebrewers, this massive quantity of great beer can be inspiring, urging us to follow their lead, try new styles, and better our craft. If I drink a great beer, my first reaction is: How can I brew this?
But this immense quality can also be very intimidating. After a failed batch or two (or three), we can easily lose our will to continue. As one friend of mine put it: “With so much great beer, why on earth would I bother trying to make my own?”
While it takes perseverance and years of practice to brew those A+ beers consistently, the good news is, that it isn’t that difficult to be brewing really good beer at home on a regular basis. In fact, with two very simple rules, the quality of your beer will get noticeably better immediately. Those rules: Keep it simple, and Brew Seasonably.
Keep It Simple
When I first started brewing, I didn’t really understand how different ingredients worked together (or competed with each other) in the finished product. Wanting to brew a pine-forward IPA, I reached for a bunch of different hops, threw in juniper berries, and had a malt-soup with a menagerie of different caramel malts. The result was a sickly sweet mess that tasted more like peanut butter than it did an IPA. It went immediately down the drain.
The second batch was better, except this time I was aiming for a spicy Belgian Pale Ale. I threw in a half pound of cardamom pods, and WHOA: the finished product tasted like a cardamom-laden cleaning product. (If only I had realized that I could have replicated those flavors from the yeast alone!)
We live in an age of experimental brewing. There are delicious commercial examples of beers that use different fruits, spices, nuts, flowers, and even meats, and it’s tempting to try producing some crazy recipe yourself: how about a Salad Porter brewed with dandelion greens, arugula, and iceberg lettuce! But what I was slow to realize in my early homebrewing attempts, is that great beer can be brewed with the most simple of ingredients. In fact, many traditional brewing practices use only four basic ingredients: hops, barley, yeast, and water. And while there is nothing wrong with trying to brew a Salad Porter, before one can successfully experiment, it’s important to know exactly what each of those basic ingredients contribute to the final product.
Below, I’ve compiled six simple recipes that use relatively few ingredients, and yet are consistently household favorites of mine to brew. These are beers that anyone can brew, and I regularly feature them on draft at my house.
But the recipe isn’t the only contributing factor to brewing great beer. While there are dozens of tiny variables that can make or break a beer, perhaps the most significant of them is insuring that you are fermenting your beer at the right temperature.
The single biggest factor that can separate good beer from mediocre or bad beer is fermentation temperature. Understanding what conditions your yeast thrives in will immediately take your homebrew to the next level.
Many homebrewers either purchase or build temperature controlled chambers for their beer. Some – like myself – retrofit a refrigerator or old chest freezer with heating elements and a thermostat, and others wrap heating pads around their carboy. There are also commercial examples – like the BrewJacket – that can regulate your fermentation temperature electronically. But as important as it is to control fermentation temperature, I rarely advocate for a beginner to invest in this equipment: it takes both space and capital, and there are enough initial startup costs (brew kettle, carboys, racking canes, bottle caps, bottle capper, etc.) that these extra toys can wait.
Instead, I encourage you to be a seasonal brewer, and take advantage of the natural environment in which you live. Does it regularly get to 90°F in the summer? Try brewing a Saison that thrives in really hot temperatures. Do you live in a place with a lot of snow and ice in the winter? Try a good winter lager like a Schwarzbier and lager it in a snowbank. After all, this is how most styles developed in the first place! Most importantly, see if you can find one location in your house that is consistently around 68-72°F: this is where you’ll want to brew your American ales.
What follows is a list of five of my favorite seasonal recipes that can take advantage of the natural climate, with brief introductions to those styles and simple how-to instructions.
A Note on the Beer Recipes
For each recipe, I’ve included percentages of grains and calculated hop IBU’s in parentheses with exact quantities by weight to the left. I’ve found that different homebrewers prefer different sized batches: many beginners start out with one gallon batches, I prefer three gallon batches, and I have several friends who opt for five, five-and-a-half, or ten. Therefore, I’ve chosen to include the percentage of each ingredient required.If you’re brewing 5 gallons, feel free to use the exact amounts.
There are lots of free on-line brewing software sites – like brewtoad.com, which is my favorite – that can help find the exact quantities for each batch.
A Saison is a farmhouse ale that was typically brewed by farmers in the warm months of the early summer and drunk throughout the year. Lighter Saisons were brewed for quick consumption in the summer, while heavier Saisons tended to be conditioned in their cellars and saved for the winter months. Saisons can be very different from each other: Belgian Saisons tend to be dry with spicy clove-like phenols and a biscuity finish. French Saisons tend to have a little sweeter profile and a fruitier aroma. Many American Saisons are often spiced with various spices or botanicals. (To learn more about the history and variety of Saisons, check out Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski.)
Saisons should be fermented very warm: usually around 80°F or even 85°F. Though the beer will show fermentation activity almost immediately, the yeast is a very slow worker, and it can take as long as a month for the beer to fully attenuate. However, if brewed in the warm months of July, the beer will be ready to drink in the hottest moments of the summer in August.
This particular Saison is a low ABV example of the style with a lot of spicy pepper and clove flavors, and – if allowed to fully ferment – it finishes really dry. The beer itself is crazy simple … if you’re patient!
5 lbs – Belgian Pilsen Malt (67%)
1.75 lbs – Rye Malt (22%)
0.75 lbs – White Wheat Malt (11%)
1oz Tettnang @ 60 minutes (19 IBU)
Wyeast Belgian Saison 3724
Single Infusion Mash, 148°F – 60 minutes
Raise Temperature to 170°F – 15 minutes
Boil 90 minutes. Chill, pitch yeast at 68°F. Ferment one month or until FG is reached.
Dry Irish Stout
Guinness! The quintessential Irish beverage: can one even think of Dublin and not think of Guinness?
Dry Irish Stouts are pitch black beers (that, despite Guinness’ claim that they are, in actuality, “a very dark shad of ruby”) with a distinct roasted flavor akin to coffee. Roasted barley is the key ingredient here; this is what lends the beer that unique coffee and bittersweet chocolate character. Irish Stouts tend be to served on nitrogen, something that homebrewers cannot accommodate without special equipment, but even when on CO2 or bottle conditioned, a long lasting, tan, frothy head is expected.
These beers are great in winter, and as long as your ambient house temperature is somewhere between 68°-72°F, they are easy to consistently brew. If you want a softer roast character, try cold-steeping the dark grains: immerse them in water in a covered glass jar, let steep for 24 hours, strain, and then add it to the last few minutes of the boil.
5.25 lbs – Maris Otter Pale Malt (67%)
1.75 lbs – Flaked Barley (22%)
1 lb – Roasted Barley (11%)
2.25pz East Kent Goldings @ 60 minutes (40 IBU)
Wyeast Irish Ale 1084
Single Infusion Mash: 156°F – 60 minutes
Raise to 170°F – 15 minutes
Boil 60 minutes. Chill, pitch yeast at 68°F. Ferment at 70°F for ten days, or until FG is reached.
Hefeweizen, literally translated as “Yeast Wheat,” is, together with Pilsner, the unofficial national drink of Germany. Nearly every brewery in the country brews one of these refreshing brews: cloudy and hazy with a thick, foamy head, Hefeweizens have a strong banana aroma accompanied by spicy cloves. Though American versions were quite common in the early days of craft beer, they’ve grown a little less popular amongst the wider public, and domestic examples can be surprisingly difficult to find. Thankfully, they are among the easiest beers to brew ourselves! (If you are looking for further reading on the history of the style and brewing suggestions, I highly recommend Brewing With Wheat by Stan Hieronymus.)
5.5 lbs – Wheat Malt (52%)
3 lbs – German Pilsen 2-Row (34%)
0.5 lb – Munich Malt (8%)
0.25lb – Rice Hulls (4%)
1.25 oz Tettnanger @ 60 minutes (14 IBU)
1 oz Tettnanger @ 30 minutes (11 IBU)
Single infusion mash 150°F for 60 minutes.
Raise to 170°F for 15 minutes.
Boil 90 minutes. Chill, pitch yeast at 64°F. Ferment 7 days or until final gravity is reached.
American Pale Ale
Without question, APAs (American Pale Ales), IPAs (India Pale Ales), and DIPAs (Double India Pale Ales) are the most popular beer styles right now in the United States, and their popularity has spread to places as far and near as Canada, England, and New Zealand. Hops are used in beer for two purposes: as a preservative (to prevent the beer from going rancid) and a bittering agent (to counteract the natural sweetness of wort). Hops are used in every beer style (by definition, to be called beer it must have hops), but they take center stage in these hop forward styles.
Besides “Pale Ale” (basically lower gravity IPAs) and “Double IPA” (double the hops, double the alcohol, double the fun!), there are multiple different versions of the IPA. A few of the more popular variants:
• Session IPA: a low alcohol IPA that one can drink multiple of in one sitting without getting highly inebriated. Usually under 5% abv.
• White IPA: a hybrid of a Belgian Witbeer and an IPA, it’s brewed with coriander and orange zest.
• Black IPA: also called a Cascadian Dark Ale, it’s brewed with dark malts and more pine forward hops.
• Belgian IPA: a Pale Ale fermented with Belgian yeast and heavy doses of (typically American) hops.
• New England IPA: a hazy, cloudy, beer with minimal bitterness and bursting with juicy hop aromas and flavors.
A trip into any homebrew shop will reveal a dizzying array of different hop varieties, and though some hop combinations are magic in a glass, if one isn’t careful, these hops can really clash with each other. Thus, for a first foray into the wild world of hops, I recommend a pretty straight forward single-hop American Pale Ale. Highlighting the Citra hop, this particular recipe features flavors of grapefruit juice and orange zest, and is best brewed in Fall to take advantage of the hop harvest. (I strongly recommend Hops by Mitch Steele for anyone looking to learn more about this style.)
7.25 lbs – American 2-Row (75%)
1.25 lbs – Light Munich Malt (12.5%)
1.25 lbs Victory Malt (12.5%)
1.75oz Citra @ 15 minutes (39 IBU)
1.5oz Citra @ 5 minutes (16 IBU)
3.3oz Citra @ Flameout – Hold 20 minutes (this is called a hop stand)
5oz Citra – Dry Hop into primary, roughly five days into fermentation (1 oz per gallon) – 7 days
Omega Yeast DIPA Ale (OYL-052)
Single infusion mash at 148°F for one hour.
Raise to 170°F for 15 minutes.
Boil for 60 minutes. Add flameout hops and let sit for 20 minutes. Chill to 68°F and pitch yeast. Ferment 4-5 days, then add dry hops. (Optional: split the dry hops into two separate batches, one pitched 4 days into fermentation, the other 7 days). This beer will leave a lot of hop particulate in suspension, and it is recommended to cold crash and fine with gelatin when fermentation is complete before packaging.
Hoppy Amber Ale
One of my favorite beers I’ve ever made was an American Amber Ale. Not quite as sexy a style as IPA, Ambers – which are descendants from the Red Ale – have a dark (amber!) caramel color, moderate hop bitterness, and a full mouthfeel. This recipe actually came about early in my homebrewing days when I just dumped all my leftover ingredients into a kettle and hoped for the best. What I got was actually the best!
This particular recipe thrives off the interplay of the Citra and Columbus hops with the brown malt. The brown malt lends a pleasant nuttiness with just enough bitterness to counteract the full malt presence. My favorite winter beer, it is a regular on draft at my house.
7.3 lbs – Marris Otter Malt (74%)
1.75 lbs – 17% Caramel/Crystal 20L (17%)
0.8lbs – 8% Brown Malt (8%)
0.4oz Columbus @ 45 min. (29 IBU)
0.4oz Chinook @ 20 min. (14 IBU)
0.4oz Columbus @ 15 min. (16 IBU)
0.8oz Chinook @ Flameout (15 minute hop stand)
0.8oz Columbus @ Flameout (15 minute hop stand)
0.8oz Citra @ Flameout (15 minute hop stand)
2oz Citra – Dry hop 4 days (0.4oz per gallon)
1 tsp Irish Moss @ 15 minutes
Wyeast 1272 American Ale II
Single infusion mash at 152°F for 60 minutes.
Raise to 170°F for 15 minutes.
Boil for 60 minutes, add hops at flameout and let sit for 15 minutes. Chill to 68°F and pitch yeast. Ferment two weeks at 68°F. Add dry hops after 10 days of fermentation.
Berliner Weisse is a low ABV sour ale that was very popular in Berlin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dubbed by Napoleon “The Champagne of Beers,” it is highly carbonated and lightly tart. Traditionally, the beer was served in goblets (or bowls) and a sweet woodruff syrup was added. Though the beer has lost favor amongst most native Berliners, it has been gaining massive popularity throughout the United States, and is frequently blended with fruit, dry hopped, or barrel aged.
Berliner Weisse gets its sourness from a bacteria called lactobacillus (the same bacteria that sours yogurt). Though not the only souring agent found in beer, it is easy to work with, and at its best produces aromas of lemon curd; at its worst, it gives off aromas of vomit and urinal cake.
Some may argue that Berliner Weisse is a more advanced style to brew, and the last sentence in the previous paragraph may initially scare off some rookie brewers. But no fear! This recipe is easy, inexpensive, refreshing, and perfectly suited for brewing in the hottest months of summer: not only does lactobacillus thrive in temperatures between 100-115°F, but it only takes 15 minutes to boil! Just be sure to drink it fresh: with so few hops in this beer, it’s shelf life is only a few weeks. (There’s a great chapter on Berliner Weisse in Brewing With Wheat, as well a more thorough chapter in Wild Brews by Jeff Sparrow.)
5.25 lbs – American 2-Row (83%)
1.25 lbs – White Wheat (17%)
0.5oz Tettnang @ 15 minutes (4 IBU)
Rehydrated Safale US-05
Single infusion mash at 148°F for one hour. Raise temperature to 170° for 15 minutes. Mash out and collect ¼ gallon more than your batch size (if doing a 5 gallon batch, collect 5.25 gallons of wort) into a sanitized brew kettle or cooler. Pitch a handful of unmilled American 2-Row into the wort, and cover the top of the wort with sanitized plastic wrap: the goal is to keep oxygen out of the wort. Cover and keep as close to 100°F as possible for one-two days. (The longer it sits, the more sour it will become.) Remove the plastic wrap and boil 15 minutes. Chill and pitch yeast at 68°. Ferment one week.