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Homebrewers today have thousands of recipes to choose from. Coming up with an idea for a new batch of beer is as quick as a web search. When Jimmy Carter signed a bill in 1979 lifting federal restrictions on homebrewing, there wasn't a lot of instruction out there for the average homebrewer. A few years later Charlie Papazian published The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, providing complete information on homebrewing techniques and a collection of recipes. More manuals followed, and then the advent of the internet ignited a real explosion of homebrewing information. Now, instead of worrying about how to find a recipe, we have to focus on sorting out the good from the bad.
In my experience, there are a lot more bad recipes online than there are good ones. Many seem to be untested or use ingredients that don't make sense. Others are so extreme that the final product would be basically undrinkable. Some recipes claim they're the best Newcastle clone out there, when in reality they taste more like an IPA. The good news is, it's not hard to sort out the bad recipes if you know what to look for.
Consider the Style
The first thing to check when looking at a recipe is if it resembles the style you want to brew. If you find instructions for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Clone and the ingredients include roasted barley, you're probably going to end up with a stout instead. For homebrewers, one of the best style references is the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines (aka: BJCP). These guidelines give general info on the characteristics of the style including flavor, aroma, alcohol content, color and bitterness. It also outlines essential ingredients that you would expect to see in a recipe and gives commercial examples of the style for comparison.
The other standard style reference is the Brewer's Association. These guidelines are directed more to the professional brewer. Since essential ingredients and commercial examples aren't always listed, this guide is less useful for a homebrewer.
Special Considerations for Extract Brewing
If you're going to brew with extract, there are a few things to watch out for when looking at recipes online.
As I mentioned in my post on grain, the mash process is needed to break down grain into usable sugar and protein. With an extract recipe, we skip this step and instead we steep certain types of grain to add sugar, complexity and color. Because we skip the mash, there are many grains that are not useful in extract-style brewing.
Any grain with the prefix "crystal" or "cara" is acceptable for steeping in extract recipes. Examples of these grains are crystal 120L, Cara-Pils or CaraVienne. Also, very dark grains such as chocolate malt, roasted barley, and black patent work great. If your extract recipe calls for one steeping those specialty grains, you can be assured that the steeping will work properly. On the other hand, other grains such as wheat, Munich, flaked barley, or flaked oats do not work as steeping grains. Don't use an extract recipe that calls for flaked grain.
One more tip: try to avoid recipes that call for amber and dark malt extract. Since steeping crystal and dark malts adds more body and complexity to your beer, it's better to use light extract and steep the crystal or roasted grains. On the other hand, specialty extracts such as pilsner, wheat, or Munich extract work well as a substitute for grains you're not allowed to steep.
Pick a Winner, Then Get Creative
With all these rules to look out for you might be thinking, "Where's the creativity?"
Once you have a recipe that you know will work, then you can begin taking creative liberties with your homebrew. Tweaking a good recipe just slightly may result in fantastic, unusual beer. I recently kegged a coffee-anise stout that turned out wonderful. The anise was an experimental addition, but I started with my standard coffee stout recipe that I knew would result in a tasty beer. A lot of recipes out there call for extreme experimentation, but in my experience it's subtlety and balance that makes the best beer in the end. Experiment cautiously so you end up with 5 gallons of beer that everyone can enjoy.
As you become more familiar with techniques and ingredients, you will be able to get more creative with your recipes and fine-tune them to so you can make the best homebrew possible.