From Concept to Competition

I’m Going to Brew the Same Beer for a Year

There it is. That’s my plan. I’m going to take one recipe and tweak it over the course of a year.

“But why? Won’t you get tired of drinking the same beer for a whole year?” you’re probably asking, as I already asked myself. The answer is a solid and firm, “Probably.” I’ve thought about it, and decided that with the changes I’ll make, it may not be that bad. Mostly, though, I want to get this recipe where I want it more than I want to not drink the same thing for a year. And so that you don’t have to drink the same beer for a whole year (and to give myself some accountability for when I want to give up and brew something different), I’m bringing you along on this journey.

 

How I’ll Do It

The plan is to walk through my process of the conception of this beer, the thought process behind its various iterations (which will include reviews of various commercial examples of the style), and even the end result of taking it to a BJCP/AHA competition. I’ll post recipes, how I create and decide to change my recipes, and my tasting notes. And, since I’m no BJCP judge and you’re having to take my word for how good my own beer is, I’ll post my scores and comments from the competition at the end of all this—even if it proves that I wasted a year and made a crappy beer.

I’ve been brewing for a little over five years at this point, and I’ve made some good beers and some pretty terrible beers. I don’t pretend to be an expert on recipe creation or knowing how to tweak recipes. What I do know, though, is that experience is often the best teacher. The next best thing is witnessing and learning from somebody else’s experience—seeing their process, their mistakes, and the results of each. What I’m offering is not my wisdom on the topic; rather, you can see my reasoning, my process, and my mistakes as I’m trying this out for the first time, and hopefully you can use it to improve your own process as well.

 

Side Note

I entered a beer into a competition for the first time this last year. I scored a 31.5. It’s not a terrible score, but it told me what I already knew: my beer is just kind of okay. Part of doing all this is to change that. Also, I’m letting everyone know this here and now so that there are no misconceptions. I’m an average brewer with average beer, and this is my attempt to improve my end result.

 

For Starters

Every now and then, a beer comes along and haunts me. The thought of that beer—the flavor and the complexity (or simplicity) of the interplay of the hops and malt—follows me around. There are times where I can vividly remember the malt profile for days. This type of response doesn’t happen often, which is part of what makes it so exceptional when it does.

I think it matters less which beer lingers in the mind like this and more that it happens at all. That said, one of these beers, for me, was Sierra Nevada’s Flipside Red IPA. From what I understand, this beer was released in 2013 as a fall seasonal, produced for one or two years, and that was it. No more Flipside. We’ll just say that I was a bit disappointed when I went looking for it that next fall.

In terms of my notes on the beer, I have a measly few words written down from that first tasting, which surprised me when I looked back through my notes for this beer. I thought this beer was fantastic, but all I wrote was, “Dark caramel, hint of plum. Citrus and fruity hops. 9/10.” Although sparse, this description still captures what I loved about this beer: the dark fruit flavor of the malt mingled with the big hop flavor. It was enough to inspire me. I didn’t want to clone it. I wanted to make a better version of it. I wanted to capture certain aspects of the malt character and pair it with some of my favorite hops. So, in short, I did.

 

The First Attempt

The first element I tried to tackle was the grain bill. I knew I wanted that dark fruit/plum character. I also knew from my research (and no experience using this malt before this) that crystal 80 was probably my best bet to get this flavor. I really wanted that to shine through and not build an overly complex grain bill, because I didn’t want my hops to be hidden amongst the complexity. It was an IPA (of sorts) after all. So I left it at that. 2-row and crystal 80. I had never used such a simple grain bill before. I was two years into brewing, and I was doing the typical throw-it-all-in types of recipes before this. This is one of the many reasons this brew was a game changer for me.

With the grain bill down, hops were next on my list. I don’t really remember my thought process on this (since it was three years ago), but I know I used some hops that I as familiar with and had really enjoyed before. I do, at least, remember that I wanted a fairly big citrus flavor. I also probably wanted some pine in there, because that was a flavor I loved in pale ales and IPAs at the time (still is). Somehow, I landed on Cascade, Centennial, and Simcoe for my hops.

I had my basis, and I plugged all of that into some recipe software to get the desired color, bitterness, and gravity. I was shooting for a red color, IPA-level bitterness, and around 6.5% ABV. I used these general guidelines and moved things around until I got some nice, round numbers that fit these parameters. As for my other decisions (mash temperature, yeast, boil length, hop additions), well, I just did the same as I always did. That was where I was at in my brewing: dough in at 155⁰ F (which I mistook for the actual mash temperature at the time), US-05, and bittering, flavor, and aroma additions for the hops.

When I put all of that together, it looked like this:

  • Mashed [doughed] in at 155⁰ F for 1.25 hrs.
    • 10.25 lbs. 2-Row
    • 1 lb. Crystal 80
  • Sparged at 170⁰ F
  • Boiled for 1 hr.
    • 0.5 oz. Simcoe (60 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
    • 0.5 oz. Simcoe (30 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
    • 0.5 oz. Cascade (15 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
    • 0.5 oz. Centennial (5 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
  • Pitched US-O5
  • OG: 1.063
  • FG: 1.011
  • ABV: 6.8%
  • After 10 days, dry hopped 0.5 oz. Cascade and 0.5 oz. Centennial for 14 days.
  • Bottled and primed with 4 oz. of priming sugar.

 

I remember being pleasantly surprised at how well this turned out. For some reason, though, I didn’t write down tasting notes until three months after opening the first bottle. Here was my impression: “A little stale by this point with more alcohol coming through. Still a nice hoppy presence. Citrus mix of hops with dark fruit in malts. Nice balance. Hoppy. Hint of spiciness.”

 

Frustration

Fast forward two years, and there I was trying to decide what to brew next and remembering this beer with fondness. I decided to brew the same recipe. It was great the first time; why wouldn’t it be great the second time?

Because my process is/was apparently inconsistent. That’s why.

My notes from the second batch look like this:

  • Mashed [doughed] in at 160⁰ F for 1.25 hrs.
    • 10.25 lbs. 2-Row
    • 1 lb. Crystal 80
  • Sparged at 170⁰ F
  • Boiled for 1 hr.
    • 0.5 oz. Simcoe (60 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
    • 0.5 oz. Simcoe (30 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
    • 0.5 oz. Cascade (15 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
    • 1 tsp. Irish moss (15 min)
    • 0.5 oz. Centennial (5 min) at [failed to write down AA%]
  • Pitched US-O5
  • OG: 1.045
  • FG: 1.01
  • ABV: 4%
  • After 5 days, transferred to secondary and dry hopped 0.5 oz. Cascade and 0.5 oz. Centennial for 13 days.
  • Bottled and primed with 4 oz. of priming sugar.

I did not take tasting notes on this beer, but I do remember that because of unexpectedly low OG, the amount of hops that I put in there ended up yielding a harsh bitterness. In retrospect, an item of note is that I bought from a different LHBS for this brew, and I do not own a grain mill. A few brews I made with grain bought from this store ended up with a lower than expected OG, and I have a suspicion this was partly due to the crush of my grain. I also believe that I lautered too quickly, thereby robbing myself of some gravity points.

All in all, I was disappointed. The first time I brewed this beer, it was the best beer I had brewed to date. The second time, it was the worst beer I had brewed to date (at least since moving away from extract brewing). So if you want an answer to the question, “why this particular beer?”—the answer is frustration. Part of the answer is that I think there’s great potential for this beer, but mostly it’s frustration.

 

What Next?

I guess the last remaining question is, where do you start? Since this is about the process as much as it is about the product, I plan to start by brewing the same recipe above and see if I can replicate the original flavor. This will hopefully give me a true starting point for not only the process (seeing where I went wrong last time), but also the recipe. I don’t have a strict plan yet for changing the recipe. In fact, my plan is to be as reactive as possible. I won’t know my next step until I get to taste the latest iteration. This will put me at brewing about once a month this coming year.

Even though I don’t have a strict plan, I do know that I’ll probably start toying with the grain bill first, then the hops. The dry hopping will likely be my last element. I do plan on trying to tweak only one thing at a time, but we’ll see how well I can tell what needs adjustment.

In the interim, I’ll be drinking some commercial examples of red IPAs and noting what I like and may want to bring into my own beer.

 

A Final Note

I did manage to find the following specs on the beer that started all of this, and will likely bring this into consideration as I figure out how to adjust the grain bill.

Overview Ingredients
Alcohol Content 6.2% by volume Yeast Ale Yeast
Beginning Gravity 14.8⁰ plato Bittering Hops Bravo
Ending Gravity 3.2⁰ plato Finishing Hops Citra, Simcoe, Centennial
Bitterness Units 55 Malts Two-row Pale, Wheat, Caramel, Chocolate

(The above table is reproduced from Sierra Nevada’s website.)

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5 thoughts on “From Concept to Competition

    • It’s certainly something I’m working on. Unfortunately, I was thwarted by faulty pH measuring equipment yesterday when I did my first brew for this project. But I’ve got someone doing a water analysis for me at their lab, so it’s in the works.

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  1. I like the plan! Great way to get to learn your hops and grain. Im doing something similar this year by brewing the same simple grain bill and experimenting with a variety of hops. Im going to use one hop variety for bittering/aroma/flavor and document the process.
    Being able to repeat a recipe can be challenging, what equipment are you using to brew? What calculator do you use? How often do you plan on brewing this?

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    • I hope your hop journey treats you well! As for my equipment, I’ll include some of that info in the post about the first brew day of this project, which I’ll post here as soon as that’s done fermenting. I use a variety of online calculators, but the one I used to create the original recipe is actually no longer around. I’ll be brewing roughly once a month this year, but I’ll be posting beer reviews and my comparisons of the different iterations between brew days.

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