Cloning a Commercial Beer

January 7, 2018

2018, General posting

I’ve always held the belief that a good measure of your ability to brew is to brew another brewer’s recipe, and get it as close as possible. I think the best way to do that is by cloning a popular commercial example that you have access too. There are a lot of intangibles outside of the grains and hops, such as water chemistry or if they use a house blend for their yeast, so you may not be able to recreate a recipe exactly, but it sure is fun to try.

One method is by simply going online or checking a magazine like Brew Your Own. It’s possible someone has already done the grunt work, or that the recipe was already made public by the brewery (see BrewDog – DIY DOG). This could save you a lot of research and quite a few brew sessions perfecting your clone recipe.

Another method is to create the recipe from scratch. This path does require you to have some working knowledge of building a recipe and also the style you are trying to make, but can be very fulfilling when you get it right. It’s a great testament to your ability as a brewer.

Step 1 – Reaching out to the Brewery

 

If you want to create the recipe on your own, the first step I’d suggest taking is to simply contact the brewery. The craft beer community is predominately made up of people who were once themselves, homebrewers. They may not open the safe and leave the room, but a quick email can often open many doors — something like, “Hey, I love [insert beer name here]. It’s always been one of my favorites and as a homebrewer, I’d love to try to make something similar. Could you give me some advice on that kind of beer?” I’ve seen  brewers respond with the entire recipe, grain bills and/or the hops used, or even be willing to look over your recipe to see where you could make changes — all of which is a great starting point.

Step 2- Researching

Once you’ve tried reaching out to the brewery, another good option is to check the breweries website. A few years ago, I flipped when I had Old Bust Head’s Covert H’ops Black IPA. My immediate thought was, “I want to make a beer like this,” but I didn’t quite know where to start. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Old Bust Head includes a list of all ingredients and stats on their website.

Ingredients: 2-Row Brewers Malt, Caramel Malt 80L, Chocolate Malt, Extra Special Malt, Victory Malt, Roasted Barley, Black Malt, CTZ Hops, Northern Brewer Hops, Mosaic Hops and Cascade Hops.

With little to no effort, I now have a working list of everything my beer should include, but I still don’t know how much.

Luckily, the brewery was kind enough to share some valuable information to help me with that as well (I have found the gravity and the ABV doesn’t match up exactly, so we have a little more wiggle room here – listed O.G. -> listed F.G. = 6.56%).

O.G.: 16.2° (1.066)
F.G.: 4.1° (1.016)
SRM: 29
IBU: 90
ABV: 6.7%

From looking at the final gravity, I already get the impression that this is going to look very similar to a heavily hopped robust porter and I could probably start building my recipe here. Luckily, we have a little more help. Like most breweries, Old Bust Head also includes a nice write up for this beer. Let’s see if it can give us some more clues:

Kettle additions of CTZ, Northern Brewer, and Cascade hops give Covert a strong bitterness, pine notes, and grapefruit tones, that contrast and compliment flavors of dark chocolate and roasted espresso coming from the malts. A generous dry-hopping of Mosaic and Cascade hops, at a rate of one half lb. per bbl, lends Covert h’Ops a strong, and unexpected, tropical and floral hop aroma.”

It’s getting easier and easier. Now we know that Mosaic is only used for dry hopping. We also know that it has a good presence of chocolate and coffee notes, but is balanced by pine and grapefruit with a lot of bitterness.

Step 3 – Creating a Launch Point

Let’s look at the malts first. We know 2-Row is the base here, and wanting to make sure our final gravity doesn’t get stuck around 1.030 with all of those specialty malts, we’re going to want to make this about 80% of our grist. What I like to do here is to add all of my ingredients to my recipe builder (Beersmith, BrewToad, etc) without adding quantities. Once the list is accurate, I’ll make all of my non-base ingredients half a lb (0.5 lb.) to start with, and then alter my base malt until it’s the percentage I’m aiming for.

I tend to fall more in line with even numbers for the base malt, than exact percentages, this gives me a starting point of 12 lb. of 2-row (80%), and .5 lb. of everything else (3.3% each). At this point, using my systems efficiency of around 68%, this puts me at 1.067 estimate gravity. It’s only .001 point higher and is something we can easily work off.  You won’t always get so lucky that putting half a pound of all ingredients and getting your base to 80% is going to be near perfect for you. I got pretty lucky on this one. You may have to start with 0.3 lbs of the specialty malts, or maybe even have a split grain bill of 40%/40% and then random amounts of other malts. You’re going to have to play with this one a bit. It is really going to depend on style and what the malts used are. This is a fairly long list of ingredients, so I definitely play it a bit safe here.

2-Row: 12 lb.
Caramel 80L: 8 oz. / .5 lb.
Victory: 8 oz. / .5 lb.
Special B: 8 oz. / .5 lb.
Chocolate: 8 oz. / .5 lb.
Roasted Barley: 8 oz. / .5 lb.
Black Malt: 8 oz. / .5 lb.

[current stats – O.G.: 1.067, FG: 1.067, IBU: 0, Color: 43.1, EST ABV: 0%]

Step 4 – Find our End Point

Next, we should determine a final gravity. To do this, I next move on to the mash temp and yeast. Since we don’t know the yeast, but want the flavor profile to come from the hops and malts, I’ll go with a neutral yeast like US-05. Normally, with an IPA, I’d be mashing in around 149°F; however, if you recall this had a fairly high final gravity of 1.016, so we’re going to move the needle up a bit and go for 153°F. According to Beersmith, this puts me at 1.015, for an estimated ABV of 6.8%. With only about a .2% difference from the source, that’s close enough for me to start playing around.

[current stats – O.G.: 1.067, FG: 1.015, IBU: 0, Color: 43.1, EST ABV: 6.8%]

Step 5 – Dialing in the Numbers

Right away, I notice the color is way too dark at 43 SRM, compared to the original of 29. So, my immediate plan is to lower the grains that are over 300° lovibond to accommodate this. This will also help me put the balance of the beer a bit more in line with the hops we’ll need to add. Remember, this is an IPA, so we don’t want so many roasted malts that it hides those hop additions. By dropping the Chocolate, Roasted Barley and Black Malt from .5 lb. to .25 lb., we have successfully dropped our color from 43, to 30. Only 1 level higher than our target beer.

Special B is a nice malt to use, if you have never used it before, I strongly suggest heading to Jay’s Brewing and asking how you can incorporate it in your future beers. It’s the darkest of the crystal malts and provides some nice dark sugar and raisin flavors, while giving a bit of the roasted flavors, without the astringency of a dark malt. It’s also pushing close to 200 Lovibond. I like the addition this brings to the table, so personally, I’d like to keep this higher than the roasted malts, but lower than the Crystal 80. Let’s go with 6 oz. Yes! Our color is now, 29, an exact match for our inspiration beer.

Since we’ve made these drops, we did see a slight drop in our final gravity numbers. From here we can just play a little. I’m going to increase the Victory malt a little bit to make it stand out a little more, because I really like the biscuit aspect of victory. 2 oz. should be enough to get us back to where we were.

2-Row: 12 lb.
Victory: 10 oz. / .625 lb.
Caramel 80L: 8 oz. / .5 lb.
Special B: 6 oz. / .375 lb.
Chocolate: 4 oz. / .25 lb.
Roasted Barley: 4 oz. / .25 lb.
Black Malt: 4 oz. / .25 lb.

[current stats – O.G.: 1.064, F.G.: 1.015, IBU: 0, Color: 29, EST ABV: 6.5%]

Step 6 – Hops! Hops! Hops!

It’s time for the hops. Let’s consider the kettle hops they mentioned:

CTZ / Columbus: Bittering Hop. Citrusy and spicy with high alpha acids.
Norther Brewer: Dual Purpose hop. Piney and Herbal. Medium to medium high alpha acids
Cascade: Flavor/Aroma hop. Intense floral, citrus and grapefruit. Medium alpha acids.

I don’t believe the order they listed theirs hops was a mistake, as it certainly wasn’t alphabetical, but rather how it was read off the ingredient sheet. They mention CTZ before Northern Brewer and Cascade, and it has the highest alpha acids, so I’m going to take a shot in the dark use CTZ as my bittering charge. We’ll start with 1 oz. at 60 minutes (15.5% AA) for 51.5 IBU.

Next, since I don’t know what schedule they operated on, I’m going to go with a very traditional 60/30/5 schedule here. Let’s add 1 oz. of Northern Brewer (8.5% AA) at 30 minutes and at 5 minutes, and do the same for Cascade (5.5% AA). This should give us a good idea of where we are.

With a goal of 90 IBU’s, this actually got us very close to our goal. We’re currently sitting at 96.5 IBU’s. Keeping in mind the original description told us, “strong bitterness”, but also said, “pine notes, and grapefruit tones”, I am hesitant to really change the amounts of hops we’re using. Instead, I think I’d rather play with the schedule since we’re so close.  I want to maintain a lot of flavor and aroma, and only really drop the bitterness, so I’m going to shorten the Northern Brewer and Cascade additions schedule.

60 min – CTZ (51.5 IBU)
25 min – Northern Brewer (16.6 IBU)
25 min – Cascade (12.7 IBU)
3 min – Northern Brewer (3.5 IBU)
3 min – Cascade (2.3 IBU)

At 89.6 IBU of a goal of 90, I’m pretty happy with that.

We also know they dry hop with both Cascade and Mosaic at a rate of half pound per barrel. What we don’t know is if they mean for each hop or total. Given this beer has a strong malt backbone with so many roasted and caramel malts, I’m going to err on the side of caution and treat this statement as half pound per barrel each, which gives us 1.3 oz. of Mosaic and 1.3 oz. of Cascade to dry hop with – but if we’re being honest, I don’t want to store .7 oz. of either hop, so I’m going to go big and do 2 full oz. of each.

[current stats – O.G.: 1.064, F.G.: 1.015, IBU: 89.6, Color: 29, EST ABV: 6.5%]

Step 7 – Brew and Alter

It’s important to remember, this is a first attempt. The goal here is to approximate what you think might be going on in the original recipe. You may try this and decide there is too much biscuit flavor from the Victory. Maybe you want to drop the black malt a bit and increase the chocolate malt. Without peeking into the brewmaster’s journal, you’ll almost never get it exact, but part of the fun is experimenting. Who knows, you may end up liking your version more than you like theirs!

Old Bust Head Covert H’ops Our Version
OG: 16.2° (1.066)
FG: 4.1° (1.016)
SRM: 29
IBU: 90
ABV: 6.56% (adjusted for stated gravity)
OG: 15.7° (1.064)
FG: 3.8° (1.015)
SRM: 29
IBU: 89.6
ABV: 6.5%

Outside of our O.G. and F.G. being just slightly lower, I’m pretty happy with how this is looking. Let’s look at the full recipe.

Black IPA Clone Attempt

OG: 1.064
FG: 1.015
ABV: 6.5%
IBU: 90
SRM: 29
Batch Size: 5.5 Gallons
Mash: Single Temp. Infusion – 153°F for 60 min.

Grain Bill
12 lb. – Pale 2-Row (84.2%)
10 oz. – Victory Malt (4.4%)
8 oz. – Caramel 80L (3.5%)
6 oz. – Special B (2.6%)
4 oz. – Roasted Barley (1.8%)
4 oz. – Chocolate Malt (1.8%)
4 oz. – Black Malt (1.8%)

Hops
1 oz. CTZ – 60 min (51.5 IBU)
1 oz. Northern Brewer – 25 min (16.6 IBU)
1 oz. Cascade – 25 min (12.7 IBU)
1 oz Northern Brewery – 3 min (3.5 IBU)
1 oz Cascade – 3 min (2.3 IBU)
2 oz Cascade – Dry Hop 5 Days
2 oz Mosaic – Dry Hop 5 Days

Yeast
Safale S-05 (Fermented @ 68°F)

I’ve actually shared my Black IPA recipe before on this blog. It was based on the 3rd iteration of my attempt to clone the recipe. It was also designed before Old Bust Head began dry hopping with both Mosaic and Cascade. Originally, I had the Northern Brewer and CTZ swapped. I also had more C80 than Victory and increased amounts of all the roasted malts. While I thought the beer was good, my final gravity of 1.011 was noticeably dryer than that of the beer I was trying to clone, mostly in part to my low mash temp of 149°. In some ways, I enjoyed it more, in many ways it need improvement. The changes I was making with each iteration I found myself pushing further and further from my original goal. This recipe is a big reset button for me.

As a reminder, just because you can clone a beer doesn’t mean you should stop supporting the brewery who made it. In fact, you should support them more. I still find myself visiting Old Bust Head, and I often would purchase this same beer. In fact, I’ll be heading there tomorrow to support this great brewery — unfortunately, Covert H’ops has been archived and they are no longer producing it — good thing for me, now I can make my own.

 Until next time, happy brewing!

-Published with the Permission of Old Bust Head Brewing Company.

stephenStephen Boyajian has been an avid homebrewer for 4 years. A fan of many styles, with a particular love for IPA’s and Stouts. He lives in Gainesville, VA with his wife, 3 kids and dog. When not brewing, he enjoys playing golf or guitar.

10 Comments on “Cloning a Commercial Beer”

  1. Dave Greene Says:

    What a great article, I learned a lot! Thanks for sharing it!!

    Reply

  2. Jeff Rieke Says:

    Great Post. Very timely since my wife asked me this morning if I would consider trying to make a clone of a commercial brew. Thanks for the detail and education.

    Reply

  3. Nick Says:

    Did you actually make this and how close was it if so?

    Reply

    • sboyajian Says:

      This exact version of the recipe, no. I’m hoping to very soon. I did previously clone this, and overall it was somewhat close. As mentioned, I began to change the recipe in versions 2 and 3, and it started to really get away from the original recipe.

      This version (version 4) gets me back closer to where I started. It swaps the uses of CTZ and Northern Brewer, and also decreases the roasted malts a bit to let the hops shine through. Based on how the previous three came out, I think this will be the closest one yet.

      Reply

      • Nick Says:

        Yep. I had maybe 8 tries at Hoegaarden wit. I could get some dimensions but not others. But it still was good beer.

  4. Leland Says:

    Fantastic article. I am working my way through a Bell’s Two Hearted Clone. This is my second iteration on this beer. I have to admit the formulation is more straightforward than yours but its a lot of fun getting the flavor profile as close as possible. Thanks for your efforts.

    Reply

    • sboyajian Says:

      Thanks for checking out the article Leland! Bell’s Two Hearted is an amazing beer, I can certainly understand why you’d clone it!

      Reply

  5. Nick Says:

    Currently trying to clone Smithwicks Irish Red. I have 2 recipes I am trying. Note all my brews start with a Mr. Beer hopped extract which poses some limitations but has advantages for me.

    Reply

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