By Andrew Perron (Brewing Techniques)
Brewing software can help automate routine calculations and free up more of your time for creativity. Brewers today have many options, and no two programs are alike. This summary should help get you started in your search for the one that’s right for you.
It is well accepted that brewing is part art and part science. Using computers to help with recipe formulation can free up your artistic energy, and many brewers have devised their own spreadsheets to automate key calculations. Some computer-literate brewers have taken this a step further to create a data base with a friendly interface that allows record-keeping and further automation of the brewing process. Many of them have been generous enough to share their programs by way of the internet, and several other programs are commercially available. This article identifies some of the multitude of brewing software, shareware, and freeware titles available commercially and on the web and compares their performance in several real test batches. I will also include observations about such things as ease of installation and interface.
To test the brewing software profiled in this article, I used an IBM Aptiva C77 equipped with a 200 MHz Pentium processor and 32 MB of RAM running Windows 95. This setup far exceeds the minimum requirements of all of the software tested, so the comparisons were not inhibited by technical difficulties. Each program has its own software/hardware requirements, and you should make sure your system is compatible before shelling out any money.
The constants: Batch size. I used the software to brew 5.5-gallon batches in an insulated mash tun with a false bottom.
Boil time/loss. In all cases I boiled the won for 60 minutes and the loss in volume experienced was approximately 1 gallon. Before taking the specific gravity measurements I topped off the level in the carboy, if necessary, to obtain the desired 5.5 gallons.
Efficiency. Where possible, I input my system’s typical efficiency of 90%.
Thermal mass. For those programs that required a value for the thermal mass of the mash tun, I set it to 0.21. This value was suggested to me by other users of similar systems and based on their experience, and mine, it appears to be accurate.
IBUs. In those cases where the IBU calculation method was user-configurable, I decided to use Glen Tinseth’s formula to maintain uniformity (1). Note: In systems that weren’t user-configurable, it is virtually impossible to determine what formula was used by the programmer.
I installed all software according to the programmers’ recommendations. In most cases the installation went smoothly; Brewer’s Calculator was the exception. This program took it upon itself to reorganize my desktop — it not only realigned the icons, but also changed their location and order. Nothing was deleted or rendered inoperable; nonetheless it was a surprise.
Some program files were compressed in .zip format, which is a common way to exchange PC files. For those unfamiliar with this format, decompression utilities such as StuffIt are readily available for download as shareware from the web.
I ran all of the programs through their paces with three test brews. The recipes and the calculation results are summarized in the box on pages 54–55. My observations follow, in alphabetical order. Some programs surveyed do not, of course, have full recipe formulation capacity, and I’ve simply provided observations on their functionality. I’ve also included some information in a separate box on a few other programs that arrived too late for a full comparison. Some of my opinions may have been colored by my own wants and peeves, but, ultimately, the decision is yours about which program is right for you.
General Notes: Unless noted, all of the programs evaluated are suitable for brewers of all levels and can accommodate extract brews, partial mashes, and steeping grains, though few are set up for decoctions (these are noted in the text). All of the programs include adequate help functions for my needs. Some data, such as malt specifications and hop alpha-acids, vary slightly from program to program, even for the same ingredient; the user should verify values when accuracy is critical. Most of the programs do not explain how their calculations are being performed, which might be a source of irritation for some advanced brewers.
Generally, if a program has a feature that is either excellent or abysmal, I will mention it. Otherwise, readers can assume the program is average. I didn’t notice any real limit on batch sizes (though I did not put this element to any rigorous testing, either); it appears that all programs could be used in pub brewing operations. I have refrained from identifying any one program as better or worse than another because these judgments depend to a large extent on individual brewing systems. Now let’s begin.
Here we have a recipe formulator with a lot of features built into it. The program includes a carbonation chart and a handy sheet that provides calculations for achieving a given carbonation level using your preferred method, whether it is force carbonation, priming with sugar, or kräusening. The conversion calculator is also a nice feature because it not only converts between Imperial, metric, and American units but also provides for specific gravity compensation at a given temperature. One complaint: If your hydrometer is calibrated at a temperature that differs from the program’s scale (which is based on a temperature of 60 °F [16 °C]), the values provided by the gravity correction calculator become meaningless.
The malt and hop data bases are quite complete, and if for any reason the malt or hops you are using are not included, the program allows you to include new data. The water chemistry calculator is a nice feature to have integrated into the recipe formulation software. Although it is not as easy to use as BreWater (see page 54), it is quite versatile and is a welcome addition for a brewer trying to emulate the water profile of a specific brewing region.
Having said all that, this program is not the easiest to use. The input field for setting mash efficiency is not in a convenient place and may therefore be overlooked when formulating a recipe, thereby making the calculations less valid. Another inconvenience is that the program requires you to input a target gravity and IBU value and then specify what percentage of the input value is to come from each malt or hop addition. This may be logical with respect to the malt because it is common to refer to the grain bill in percentages. When it comes to hops, however, you can’t simply select the quantity of late hop additions based on the bitterness they provide. If you do so, you’re not likely to achieve your desired flavor and aroma contributions. On top of this, the program doesn’t include a place to input additional ingredients such as finings or flavors other than in the comment field, which might cause these ingredients to be overlooked when it comes time to brew. In addition to the technical annoyances, the default print size on the printout is too small, the page contains too much information, and the printout is not very well organized — all of which means that it will not be a very useful recipe to follow on brew day.
Finally, the two-step saving procedure is not very user-friendly. First you must select the “Keep Recipe” button and then you must save the brewsheet separately before exiting. The program also doesn’t prompt you when overwriting, which means that if you engage in a “what if?” session you could accidentally overwrite the recipe you intended to keep.
At $ 15 to register, this program is a good value for the money because it’s a complete package and is easy to use. A possible catch for some users is that Lotus 1-2-3 is required to use it, and the spreadsheet is not modifiable.
This Excel spreadsheet may not have the most functionality built into it, but for the price (it’s “postcardware” — see Table I) it is a good value, and simple to use at that. Despite the fact that the author is Canadian, only American units are available, not metric or Imperial, but that’s only a minor annoyance. The limited selection of pre-input malts is a little more inconvenient, but it is simple to add others. The fact that there are no pre-input hops whatsoever is perhaps a greater inconvenience.
The on-screen references for color (for example, that 4 °L is gold, like Pilsner Urquell, and 10 °L is amber) are a nice touch, allowing you to visualize the final result by comparing the calculated values to these references. Because the program doesn’t calculate volume for water infusions or sparge water, it is best suited to calculating grain bills and hop additions to target gravity and bitterness. At the very least, it’s nice as-is for keeping records of various batches; you can also customize it (unlike ABCBrew) to add features and calculations that you would like to see and then simply save a copy of the whole file, like any spreadsheet (the author does ask that you forward him a copy of your modification to see what you’ve done with it). The printout is also customizable, allowing you to leave blank fields for recording relevant data to be input later.
The Beer Recipator allows home brewers to formulate their recipes online with a set of interactive web pages consisting of calculated tables. To save your work, you post the recipe online for retrieval later, print it, or save the resulting page locally.
Though it may take a little while to get comfortable with it, the Beer Recipator has many things in its favor. Probably its best feature is that it is multiplatform; it doesn’t matter what kind of computer software you have (as long as you can access the internet, of course), and you can share your recipes with any other internet user and have access to them wherever you have access to the internet.
You can also change the malt and hop specifications easily (but only for your individual recipes) and then push a button to recalculate your mash efficiency or bitterness. Once your grain bill is entered it is conveniently converted to percentages. The color strip indicating the approximate color of your beer is a nice touch, and for such a simple device it comes reasonably close, though it is naturally dependent upon the color settings of the computer’s monitor. The recipe report can be printed out easily and is conveniently compact. It gives you almost all of the ingredient information you need to go brew; only some additional ingredients, such as Irish moss and water treatment minerals, are not included.
I did have a question about the program’s color calculation. It apparently derives an approximate SRM value from the calculation of HCUs (homebrew color units), which is really the only way short of a spectrophotometer or a comparative color chart to determine SRM values. As with any of the programs that don’t make it clear how the approximation works, you need to take this color reading with a grain of salt.
Unlike most other programs, this one allows the user to input different efficiencies for each grain. If the figures for the specific malt used are available from a malt analysis sheet (or from BT’s 1997 Brewers Market Guide), this feature allows for better predictions of yields and wort density.
If you have access to the internet, the Beer Recipator is definitely worth checking out. Its relative simplicity and functionality won’t disappoint you.
BreWater is handy when you only need to calculate water treatment alone. Not only is it simple to use, but it practically runs itself, making a certain number of systematic guesses regarding your desired water profile based on data from famous water profiles. You can select the ions you wish to modify and choose the chemicals with which to modify them (depending on what you have on hand). You can even make further modifications to the salt additions after it has done its calculations, if you so desire.
BreWater comes with a large number of famous brewing water profiles already built in and provides a good water tutorial for interpreting your own water profile. The only inconvenience is that the water profiles are saved with eight-character names that are not very descriptive. The profile browser, however, allows you a quick look at all the profiles, so you can select your chosen one without being constrained by the eight-letter names.
When all is said and done, BreWater is a very nice water treatment program with a price that can’t be beat: it’s free.
Brewer’s Calculator is one of the few commercially available programs out there, and it’s been around for a while. A number of features make it an attractive option, despite its $ 40 price tag (although as mentioned before, you should make sure these features are useful to you before shelling out the money, especially with so many inexpensive alternatives out there).
Probably the nicest feature is the inventory option. You may choose whether or not to have the recipe you are working with subtracted from your inventory, which is useful if you want to engage in a “what if?” session. The inventory will even remind you when you’re getting low on a certain malt or hop and both inventories can be independently programmed to remind you at different levels. Also, the grain bill display is shown in percentages as well as by weight, which is especially handy if you want to create the same recipe for use on another brewing system. The yeast attenuation component is user-configurable so that you can make the values consistent with your previous experience with a given strain and get a reasonably accurate final gravity estimation. This makes it by far the most evolved attenuation feature of all the programs. Another plus is the filter on the recipe list. You can have the recipes shown, or not, based on the date, title, or category, making it very easy to find a certain recipe or choose a recipe from a given category.
The program unfortunately has its shortcomings. It doesn’t calculate water temperature. Instead it merely indicates the quantity to use based on your chosen mash thickness and provides a space for inputting the temperature that you choose to use, which must be computed elsewhere. Furthermore, the ingredients lists can’t be scrolled through using page-up or page-down keys or the arrow keys, obligating users to click a page-down button with a mouse. The recipe printout contains too much information written in a font that is too small for it to be useful on brew day, but it does make a nice record for extra notes or a printed log. Perhaps the problem I dislike the most is that the program doesn’t consult with the user before overwriting an existing recipe.
All in all, Brewer’s Calculator is a good program, though it may take a while to get used to.
Brewer’s Workshop is another commercial program. It is nice to work with, with a great interface and well-integrated functions, but it’s a bit pricey and is somewhat lacking in functionality.
Among its redeeming qualities is that, like the Brewer’s Calculator, you can tell the program when to subtract the recipe ingredients from the inventory. Also, the water chemistry calculator is similar to the BreWater program described above, though this one has fewer built-in water profiles.
The printout generated by the program represents a good balance between content and presentation. Just the right amount of information is included and the font is readable enough to make the report a useful guide during the brewing session. The program will also print labels for your bottles, though they may not be works of art. Unfortunately, the program only prints labels of one size, which happens to be that of pre-gummed labels.
The program will also correct your hydrometer reading for a given temperature, and also calculate your anticipated final gravity. To round it all out, it can convert your recipes to text, making it easier to share them with others, and it has a score sheet so that you can do your own evaluations or track the beer’s performance in competitions.
Now the downside. The weakest portion of the program is in the area of mash calculations. Only the initial infusion is displayed, and the suggested temperatures of the strike water were consistently far off. The program also requires that the user input the sparge water volume at the beginning of the process, which makes me suspect the program was designed for direct-fire mash tuns. The program doesn’t take top-off into consideration, so if you add an infusion to raise the temperature (as I do) it will throw off the calculations.
The mashing schedule is displayed as a graph, which would be a useful feature for some. Recipes can be collected into recipe books and grouped together based on common characteristics. The nondescriptive names used for recipe books are a little annoying, but once you’re inside a recipe book, the recipes are listed by their actual title. One of the program’s advertised features is the price-per-bottle listing. You would have to input the purchase price of all ingredients for this to be accurate, of course. All in all, it’s not a bad program despite its shortcomings.
This shareware program seems to be designed mainly for extract brewers. To begin with, the mash efficiency is not configurable by the user, and the focus seems to be on including top-up water. I also dislike the short (limited to eight characters) recipe names, as well as the use of only American units. Finally, the precision of the IBU and SRM estimators must be phenomenal since the author chose to keep four decimal places for their calculation; that level of precision is probably not achievable even by a laboratory analysis.
On the plus side, when you select a malt, the program gives typical usage information for the malt that may be helpful to a newbie. Also, the ability to switch units directly on the brewsheet for the hydrometer readings and the alcohol content are helpful additions. The printout uses a large font that makes it very easy to read, and it doesn’t contain too much extraneous information. On the other hand, I couldn’t get it to print correctly on my printer.
All in all, Brewing Solutions (though not my mug of beer) has and will continue to make many brewers very happy.
The last of the three commercial programs reviewed, BrewWizard is a fairly complete program, though a mash calculator is conspicuously absent. The encyclopedia that comes with the complete (and more expensive) version seems to be full of useful information that many brewers, especially less experienced ones, should find interesting. For example, one entry explains how to take a proper hydrometer reading. The water treatment feature is easy to use, but not quite as painless as BreWater’s automatic profiles. BrewWizard also provides kräusening calculations for those interested in carbonating their beer in this fashion, and has an inventory option that some brewers might find useful. Finding recipes is easy — you can filter by type (extract, partial mash, full mash) and by style category. The printouts are useful, and you can also opt to convert to HTML so the recipe can be shared on the web.
The malt data base and hop data bases are a little sparse, but are easy to add to and customize. An infusion calculator would be a welcome addition. I do wish the program didn’t automatically open to the encyclopedia, though.
This program has quite complete lists of malts, hops, and yeast. It uses calculators that can be run separately from the main program, which is great for conducting “what if? scenarios about carbonation, IBUs, and mash parameters. The printout is decent and has a nice large area to jot down notes from the brewing session. The program can also convert recipes to text, and produce basic labels.
The water volume calculator is a little inconvenient because it asks for a water temperature for the initial step (I would prefer being given the water temperature for a given strike temperature at a given mash thickness). It does work very nicely for subsequent infusions though, and will actually provide you with the weight of a decoction to obtain the same increase in temperature. Unfortunately, you can’t input the thermal mass of your mash tun, which is probably the reason the calculated results are different from the actual figures obtained in the test batches. One last not: You are not prompted when overwriting a recipe, so be careful.
Mashcalc is a simple, but powerful, little program that can calculate up to two water infusions for a given grain bill, allowing a two-step infusion or decoction mash. Mashcalc also has a scaling option that allows you to take a recipe of a given volume and scale the ingredients to brew a different volume. It is nice to use and can be readily assessed. The compact screen area also makes it easy to navigate from one area to the next. Minor complaints: You can only temporarily change the thermal mass of the mash tun, the units are not shown for weight and temperatures (based on my results, I conclude that weight is in pounds and temperature is in Fahrenheit), you are limited to two infusions, and the program won’t tell you the weight of a decoction.
Like the Recipator, this program allows for internet interaction. The malt and hop specifications are modifiable once you have chosen your ingredients, which gives it added flexibility should the exact ingredient in question not be among those listed. It includes a color strip that indicates the approximate color of the resulting beer, and it actually comes reasonably close. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to compare to a commercial beer, like the Beer Formula Calculator, but that doesn’t necessarily help if you’re not familiar with the beer in question, no mater how popular it is. The printout is good, but long; printing just the first page works quite nicely, though.
One interesting feature from a comparative standpoint, is that the program displays the IBU calculations from different calculation methods. And best of all, it won’t even cost you a dollar to add a recipe to the bank.
In many respects, SUDS has the most features and is the easiest program to use in the group. This new version of SUDS was released from the same author as the original SUDS, for a long time the standby in brewing software. The updated version could well become the new standard. It is relatively complete compared to the other offerings and it seems to provide accurate results (based on the result from the test batches); the interface is also well thoughtout. Recipes can be displayed either by style category or by individual recipe. The recipe itself exists as a template, and details for individuals batches, including space for judges’ comments, are saved separately, which is especially handy because SUDS, like most of the other programs, doesn’t warn before overwriting a recipe. SUDS unfortunately doesn’t allow global changes in units, so that those of us on the metric system have to manually change the unit for each parameter — though this could be handy for those who want to mix units.
The beauty of SUDS does not lie solely in its presentation. It allows the user to select method (mash, step, extract) and allows entry of a global efficiency figure to apply to a recipe. The program calculates a final gravity prediction, though the attenuation figure you can provide doesn’t seem to affect that calculation. The water calculator is excellent — it will conduct complete calculations and provide you with all the infusion and sparge water information you need. The inventory feature only subtracts ingredients when a batch is brewed. A shopping list feature can suggest predefined quantities to reorder and apply them to your inventory when purchased. Other niceties include a usable “convert to text” feature which allows for easier sharing, and a good data base of malt, hops, and yeast.
On the downside, SUDS will only calculate two infusions and doesn’t provide for temperature increases by decoction or application of direct heat. A carbonation calculator might be a nice addition, as would a label-maker program and a “low” warning for the inventory, but that’s getting a little picky. As-is, SUDS is a delightful program to work with.
This freeware program didn’t have instructions, but it is simple to use. The interface is straight forward: You enter quantities for each addition, alpha-acids, time in kettle, wort gravity, and final volume, and it cranks out an IBU figure. The one area that is a little confusing is when the gravity reading should be taken: preboil, postboil, at time of addition, or average. I assumed the calculation was based on average boil gravity, and it came quite close to that measured for the wheat beer. The other inconvenience is that you have to re-enter the gravity figure for each addition.
So if all you want is a simple-to-use IBU estimator, it’s definitely worth trying.
Even if you like doing all of your own calculations by hand, you might want to check out some of these programs. They can automate some of the more tedious aspects of recipe formulation, and may also provide you with a handy data base for storing your recipes. Each has its merits and its disadvantages. Some may be difficult to use initially, but anything can become easy with enough practice. None of the programs is so difficult that it takes the joy out of brewing and recipe formulation. Consider your needs, and keep in mind that if the program you like best is lacking in one area or another, you might be able to supplement it with one or more of the standalone programs, like BreWater, MashCalc, and Tinibuw. With most of the programs available in demo versions or marketed as shareware, don’t hesitate — formulate!
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