Last week it seemed logical to offer a sale on our bulk grains since like all brewers, there comes a time when your "creative brain" takes over and you begin to imagine great beer scenarios that don't necessarily fit within the confines of the Beer Recipe created for you by your local brew shop. That said, understanding how to build a recipe can be a bit overwhelming...
For many, the use of a software like Beer Smith is a great starting point. Besides that, there are multitudes of books out there like the classic, "Designing Great Beers" by Ray Daniels, that will walk you through building recipes...but do YOU understand what you are building? Do you understand why you would choose Munich or Vienna malts in a recipe? Do you understand how to adjust your recipe to ensure a beautiful, foamy head? Do you know what to expect when you use a different yeast strain in your recipe?
These are questions that come from educating yourself on how to build a recipe from scratch. If you can't answer these questions, it's best to start with a base recipe built by a credible brewer and in the meantime, begin the education process.
Be careful when brewing recipes found online. We home brewers have been known to "over do" it and add every malt and hop we can get our hands on and unfortunately, the result can be a waste of supplies and an unbalanced beer that isn't easy to choke back. Make sure that everything you add is going to present something new to the overall flavour.
A few things to consider as you start your journey:
1. Malts can be stored for a reasonable period of time if they have not been crushed. Suppliers will tell you that malts can be stored for at least a year or so (particularly when in an air tight container) but you will want to avoid excessive heat or moisture. If you plan to buy your grains crushed however, the clock starts ticking much faster (as the malts are prone to oxidation) and it is recommended that you use up your malt within a few months. This does not mean that your malt will be "bad" but some believe it will begin to go stale and effect the final flavour of your beer. So, your options are to a) buy a grain mill and you can purchase your malts in larger amounts (storing for a year or more) or b) buy your grain pre-milled and reduce the amount that you buy since you will need to use it up within 3-ish months.
You will need more "base" malt than any other malt in your recipe. These malts are going to be key source of your fermentable sugars. Examples of base malts include 2-Row, 6-Row, Pilsen Malt and Marris Otter (yes there are more), and each are used for different beer styles. When purchasing base malts, they will typically constitute 75%+ of the malts in your recipe and could be a combination of multiple base malts.
Crystal/Caramel malts, do not contain the fermentable sugars found in base malts and are used to add colour, body and sweetness to beer. Because of this, your total grain bill will only include between 5-10% Crystal/Caramel malts. In some cases 15% may be used but be careful because overuse may result in an overly sweet or even an astringent beer (depending on the SRM used).
2. Hops are highly susceptible to heat, light, oxygen and moisture degradation, reducing the potency of the alpha bittering acids and alpha aromas as they age. Its best to store them in the freezer when not in use, to preserve as much flavour and aroma as possible. When purchasing hops, consider that a typical 1-Gallon recipe will use as only 0.75-1.25 ounces of hops. This will vary depending on the style you are brewing but it's better to buy your hops in 1-2 ounce packages so that you aren't storing significant amounts over time and losing the taste you are intending.
3. Finally...yeast. Different yeast strains will create significantly different flavours in a single recipe so it's important you buy the right yeast for flavour you are intending. Not to mention, each yeast strain attenuates differently so if you plan to brew a higher gravity beer, you will want to make sure you use a yeast strain that can handle the workload. You can find many varieties of yeast including direct pitch, smack packs and liquid yeast. A 1-Gallon batch of beer will often require only a 1/2 package of yeast (11.5 g packages have upwards of 207 billion yeast cells but don't assume full viability since storage and age of the yeast play a factor in how viable the cells are) to ensure good attenuation (conversion of sugars into alcohol and CO2). Don't be afraid to keep what yeast you don't use for next time.
When storing yeast, it's good to store it in a cool, dry place (like the refrigerator). For dry yeast, this should ensure approximately one year of storage time with only minimal loss of yeast viability. If storing at room temperature, you can expect a loss of 1-2% viability per month. When using liquid yeast, it MUST be stored in the refrigerator and even then, may lose as much as 20% of its viability per month so don't plan to store it for too long before use.
Hopefully some of these tips will help when you venture out into building your own recipes. Remember that we are always here, available to answer your questions and look forward to hearing from you!