Homebrew recipe writers often take the experience level of their readers for granted. They usually assume that every reader knows the process, acronyms, and abbreviations that they use. Most of the written shortcuts that homebrew recipe writers use are pretty simple to understand, so there's no need to let recipe conventions get in the way of learning how to brew. Today I'll share the basics of how to read any standard homebrewing recipe.
The introduction to a homebrewing recipe usually lists the specifications of the beer you want to make, like the alcohol content (ABV) or bitterness level (IBU). If you're not familiar with the acronyms used in recipe specs, take a look here before reading on.
The body of a recipe begins with the type of grains and sugars that will go into your beer. This section is referred to as the "grain bill" or "grist". Depending on the level of difficulty of the brew, there could be all extract, a mix of extract and grain, or only grains listed. This section will also include any sugar adjuncts, like Belgian candy, molasses, or maple syrup. If it's not specified, most sugar adjuncts can be added in the last 5 or 10 minutes of the boil. Shorter boil times preserve the delicate aromatics in these ingredients.
For an all-grain recipe, the amount of grain may need to be adjusted to match the original gravity for your specific brewing system. When I brew, for example, I know that 10 pounds of grain will produce 5 gallons of beer with an O.G. of 1.054. For someone else, 10 pounds of grain might make a 1.046 or 1.058 beer. Almost all brewers will be in between these values for 10 pounds of grain. The only way to find the efficiency of your system is to brew a few batches and take careful notes. Once you know your efficiency, you can adjust any recipe accordingly. Making a beer with the right O.G. is an essential step in accurately brewing a recipe.
On a rare occasion, you may run across a recipe that will list the grain bill in percentages, rather than pounds. The more mathematically inclined are welcome to use algebra to figure out the right amount of each grain to get the proper proportions and O.G. The rest of us use a recipe calculator program like ProMash or BeerSmith to do the calculation.
After the grain bill, you'll find the hop schedule. A hop schedule tells you the amount of hops to use, what variety they should be and how long they should be boiled.
When reading a hop schedule, the number of minutes listed is the amount of time they should be in the boil. This can be confusing the first time you go through a recipe. If you're doing a typical 60-minute boil and the hop schedule says "2 ounces Magnum 45 minutes", this means you need to add the Magnum hops 15 minutes after the boil starts so that they boil for a total of 45 minutes.
There are a couple of brewer code words that make their way into the hop schedule from time to time. At the beginning of the list, especially if you're brewing all-grain, you might see the acronym "FWH", which means First Wort Hop. Hops labeled FWH should be added during the sparge, before the boil kettle is filled and long before the boil starts. Adding the hops when the wort is cooler allows more flavorful, less bitter compounds to be extracted from the hops. The other phrase that can be used in a hop schedule is "Flame Out". When a hop is added at flame out, it means that you add the hop the instant you turn off the heat, but before you begin to cool. Hops added at the very end of the boil contribute the most aromatics and no bitterness at all.
Yeast and Fermentation
The bottom of the recipe will list the recommended variety of yeast. A good recipe will also give a suggested fermentation temperature. I always give a suggested fermentation time (such as, "transfer to secondary after 2 weeks" or "bottle after a month"), but these should always be looked at as a base guideline. Fermentation is only complete when you have 2 consecutive gravity readings that are equal. A recipe may also recommend an aging period after fermentation is done. Don't skimp on the recommended aging, even if waiting is tough! For lagers or high-alcohol beers, aging will make the difference between a mediocre beer and an excellent one.