Most home brewers like to experiment with recipes, trying to get a brew just right. Often the standard to which we strive is that of commercially brewed beers. When we taste a really great beer we think, “I wonder if I could brew this?” But how do you go about copying, or cloning, a commercial beer?

The first step is determining the ingredients. Often brewers will tell you the grains, hops, spices, etc. right on the bottle. If the ingredients aren’t on the bottle, check the brewer’s website, which will often have a great deal of technical information about their beers including IBU’s (International Bitterness Units), color, yeast and more. If you can’t find the ingredients, try contacting the brewer directly. Chances are, they will be happy to tell you what goes into their beer.

Why would a brewer share their secret recipe with a home brewer? Imitation is the greatest form of flattery but there are other reasons. The brewing community is very open. When you are a brewer, whether it is at home or in a brewery, you are part of a sort of informal brotherhood (not to exclude the many fine female brewers out there), and brewers love to share not only their brews but their techniques. Also, there are no copyrights, that I know of, on beer recipes probably because beer has four primary ingredients: malted barley, yeast, hops, and water. The wonderfully infinite variety in beer comes from the subtle interactions of these simple ingredients. Even if you use the same ingredients, in the same ratio as a commercial beer, you are very unlikely to produce exactly the same result.

There are two reasons for this: water and scale. Water is the largest ingredient by volume in any beer and the content of the water varies greatly by source. The chemical and mineral make-up of water can vary not only from town to town but tap to tap and plays a huge part in how a beer tastes. When it comes to scale, commercial brewers typically make large batches that produce hundreds of gallons of beer. As you scale a recipe down to a typical 5 gallon home brew batch, the ingredient amounts become so small that a slight variation can make a huge difference.

Another reason it can be hard to clone a commercial beer is yeast. Brewers often develop their own strains of yeast. It is sometimes possible to harvest a brewers yeast strain from a bottle but it is difficult and time consuming, two things that home brewers typically don’t like. Also, the there are so many great yeast strains available to the home brewer that you can often find a similar one with a little experimentation.

If you are not able to get the ingredients from the brewer, you may be able to figure them out yourself. It’s not as hard as it sounds but it does take some practice and requires a lot of beer tasting. It’s tough job but I’m sure you can handle it. 🙂 Every variety of malt, hops, and yeast has a distinctive flavor. With some practice you can learn to discern these flavors. Train yourself to pay attention to the subtleties of not only commercial beer but your own home brews. You will begin to notice that Crystal 60 malt, for instance, lends a certain flavor to your brews. Cascade hops gives an unmistakable aroma. British brown ale yeast tastes different than American brown ale yeast. Learning to pick out these characteristics can take years to develop but it will make you a better brewer.

If you are in a hurry, there are quicker ways to create clone brews. There are books availble, such as Clone Brews: Homebrew Recipes for 150 Commercial Beers and North American Clone Brews: Homebrew Recipes for Your Favorite American and Canadian Beers, in which the authors have done the work for you by collecting recipes for well-known beers. Most home brew forums also have clone recipes. In fact, just Googling something like “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale recipe” will often yield results.

Another option is to buy a clone kit. Many home brew suppliers, online and off, make clone kits which come with all of the ingredients assembled for you. I recently brewed a Sam Adams Cream Stout clone from Austin Homebrew Supply, which has a very large selection of clone kits. I got the mini-mash version and here’s what it included:

  • 10oz Crystal 60L malt
  • .5lb Chocolate malt
  • 2.5lb 2-row malt
  • 6oz black barley malt
  • 1lb wheat LME (liquid malt extract)
  • 4lb amber LME
  • 1lb maltodextrin
  • .75oz Golding hops, .5oz Glacier hops (60 min)
  • .25oz Golding hops (15 min)
  • Wyeast London ESB 1968 yeast

I have recently come to the realization that my brewing set up, which is just a pot on an electric stove, sucks when it comes to efficiency. I can never get enough conversion from the grains to hit my target gravity. When I brewed the cream stout I suspected I would come up short on the original gravity so I added a cup of corn sugar to try to boost it. It was a good thing I did because my OG was 1.054 and the target was 1.055. For some reason, however, my final gravity was only 1.026 instead of 1.012, meaning the yeast did not comvert as much of the sugars to alcohol as it was supposed to. Not only did this only give me an ABV of only 4.2% instead of 6.1%, but the stout turned out very sweet.

I did a side-by-side taste test with my clone and the real deal. As expected, the clone was much, much sweeter. The color was not as dark, probably because of my inefficient mashing. The mouthfeel was very similar with that rich, creamy feel that you expect with a cream stout. I’m certain the difference between my stout and Sam Adams comes from my process and not from the ingredients. If I try this clone again, I’ll use an all-extract kit which should help overcome the shortcomings in my system.

Even though my clone fell short of the original, I learned something about brewing cream stouts and about problems with my system. The Sam Adams stout gave me a benchmark by which to measure my brew. That’s the great thing about clone brews; by imitating the masters, you can improve your own beer-making artistry.