Designing simple beer recipes

Usually, people that are new to homebrewing start off buying a recipe kit, with ready to use ingredients, whether it’s malt extract or crushed malt, and will continue to do for a few more brewers. Then people get more interested, and start looking into taking existing recipes, tweaking them, and creating something new. And that’s what gets them hooked.

At least that’s what it was for me. The first three brews or so were fine, using existing recipes respectively kits. But then I got bold, and wanted to try out new stuff, and created an actually quite alright American IPA.

And after that first experience, people want to try out new ingredients, different malts, different hops, different yeast strains. And end up with beers with 10 different malts and 5 different hops. And all the flavours are muddy and the beer is full of disappointment.

There are different ways to counter that. The most extreme approach is SMaSH. SMaSH stands for “Single Malt and Single Hops”, and refers to the use of just one malt variety and one hop variety, with any mash and hop schedule that you can come up with. It’s absolutely minimalistic, because of so few ingredients that all have to shine, and it’s a good way to evaluate new ingredients.

There’s actually lots of beer styles that you can (but not necessarily have to) brew as a SMaSH:

  • Pilsner: 100 % Pilsner malt, 100 % Saaz hops with an aggressive hop schedule.
  • Vienna lager: 100 % Vienna malt, 100 % of a noble hop variety or related with a rather restrained hop schedule for bitterness only.
  • Munich Dunkles lager: 100 % dark Munich malt, 100 % noble hops, with very little hopping just for bitterness.
  • Munich Helles lager: 100 % Pilsner malt, restrained hopping for bitterness from 100 % noble hops.
  • Historically, English porter used to be brewed out of 100 % brown malt up to the 18th century (brown malt back then was very different from modern brown malt and had enough diastatic power to convert itself).

And some professional brewers are going for that as well. Vagabund Brauerei here in Berlin have done several SMaSH ales which were clearly interesting, some were pretty good, some not so great.

But at some point, you just reach an end. There are just some things that you can’t brew as a SMaSH. And so Drew Beechum came up with an interesting extension of SMaSH that he aptly named “brewing on the ones”.

(slides here)

Instead of just limiting to one malt and one hop, you’re limited to

  • one base malt
  • one specialty malt or adjunct
  • one brewing sugar
  • one hop variety
  • one spice

Of course you can leave out stuff (not every beer needs to be spiced, thankfully!), but this suddenly gives a lot more freedom: you can brew Hefeweizen (>= 50 % wheat malt, the rest Pilsner malt), Tripels (100 % Pilsner malt, Candi syrup), any strength of English bitter or Pale Ale (Pale malt with some crystal malt; e.g. Fullers even use one mash, collect different runnings, and blend them to produce three different beers, that is Golden Pride, ESB and Chiswick Bitter), etc. etc.

And when you have brewed like this, it gives you a good perspective that good beers don’t necessarily require a complex grain bill or a complex hopping schedule. Some beers are just about simple ingredients and the brewing process done right.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should brew all your beers like that. But it definitely helps to not just put together as many malts or hops, but to think about every single malt what function it’s supposed to fulfill. Like do you really need these barley flakes? Why do you put them in anyway? What about these two types of caramel malt of very similar colour? Chocolate malt and black malt? Do 5 % wheat malt really make a difference? You get the gist.

In my own beers, I usually try to keep things simple, two to three different malts, for more malt-focused beers just a single hop variety for bittering and very little aroma, for hoppy beers one bittering hop and then one to three hop varieties. Three is even a bit on the edge, but fine as long as flavours don’t go muddy. With that rule of thumb I managed to produce some quite alright beers in the past. And of course, rules are sometimes meant to be broken. 😉

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