The Beer Hacker: Web-based beer brewing software

One year ago I wrote about Beer Brewing Software, reviewing five Windows programs and ultimately picking BeerSmith as the overall best brewing software available. (It still is, by the way.) At the time, I wrote:

I only looked at programs that run on a single computer—even though in this wired-internet-"web 2.0" world it seems like a no-brainer that there should be web-based brewing sites that do all the same things, only online and shareable with other users out there. Perhaps there are, but that’s a subject for a future article.

Well, that future article is finally here, and in surveying the field of online, web-based beer brewing software, I’ve found three sites that aim to fit that niche, but my overall conclusion is that the field is wide open.

Now, my criteria might be a bit limiting: like many of the "next generation" websites out there, I want a "Web 2.0", free-and-unlimited-access web application. (It could be ad-supported, or offer pay-for-premium access somehow; but generally, I want to be able to create, save, and share as many recipes as I want without being charged. I’m greedy, I know.) Essentially, I want to be able to access and manage my brewing recipes and notes from anywhere online.

Let’s take a detailed look at those three sites, and then cover just what it is that should go into such a website.

The Beer Recipator

Beer Recipator logoThe Beer Recipator is an online "beer recipe calculator" that has been around since 1997. The problem is, it’s been around since 1997… and hasn’t changed since the last major update—in 1998. The site offers several handy calculators, a discussion forum, a recipe database (user submitted), and, the most important part, the "Spreadsheet" which is the actual page where you build your recipe.

Beer Recipator screen shotThis is done via a two-step process: first, you enter various "starting" values, like the beer style, unit types, and grains, sugars and hops used in the recipe. The next step is the "spreadsheet" page.

This is an all-in-one entry page, divided into logical sections (you can see an example in the screenshot). The other sites I checked out follow this convention as well, though only the Recipator follows the "Spreadsheet" paradigm literally: when you finish a recipe, you stay on the main entry page (just as if you were using Microsoft Excel), whereas the other sites take you to a preview or summary page (with an option to return to the entry form).

You enter the various recipe data through form entry that lets you fine-tune various details (extract points and color for grains and syrups, for example, and bitterness units for hops). When you hit the "Calculate" button (any of the various "Calculate" button peppering the page will do), the Spreadsheet is updated according to the values you entered; you can scroll down and tweak various numbers as needed.

Once you spend a few minutes getting acquainted with the site, it’s easy enough to use, seems fairly accurate and covers all the bases, and even allows you to post the recipe(s) on the site (giving it a bit of a social aspect, as well).

It’s freely available without limitations, which is good. However, I have my list of criticisms:

  • No user accounts. I can post recipes to the site with my name, email, and website URL but that seems to be the extent of it.
  • Clunky interface. This might seem petty, but face it, the form handling on this site is less than ideal and the interface doesn’t take advantage of more modern (and ubiquitous) browser technology.
  • Outdated data. Particularly with the beer styles. Not such a biggie, since it doesn’t hold you hostage to any particular piece (I can custom-enter anything in the forms), but still, I’d like to have up-to-date items and numbers to reference.

Essentially, it works very well in a pinch, but is designed more for one-off recipes or one-time entries than as a recipe management system. That, and the fact that it’s over a decade old (and is very much showing its age, cosmetically and technically), is the big strike against it for me.

That having been said, if I’m just tinkering with numbers or recipe ideas, this is the best site for doing that.

BeerTools.com

BeerTools.com logoBeerTools.com is a site that offers pay-for-use recipe management; you can sign up for a trial account but you will only be able to save one recipe.

Beyond the trial account, you can sign up for "Gold" accounts on a tiered pricing package system: from $1.25 per day to $4.25 for three months all the way up to $99.95 for 10 years. They also offer some combo deals—pairing Gold memberships with software or a magazine subscription.

I signed up for the trial account. They primarily offer two tools to build/manage recipes: their "Generator" and "Calculator."

BeerTools.com Calculator screenshotThe "Recipe Generator" takes you through a step-by-step wizard which first allows you to select the style you are creating (annoyingly, these are listed in BJCP style number order and not something logical, like alphabetically) and the type of recipe (all-grain, extract, partial mash), and then moves on to things like the extracts, specialty grains, hops, etc.

It’s an easy enough process—if a bit limited—but I ran into one terrific limitation: when building a test American Pale Ale recipe, I selected "Liquid Light Extract" and "Crystal Malt 10°L"—both of which are entirely appropriate for the style. However, the Generator determined that those ingredients produced a color too dark for the style, and refused to let me continue the wizard until I corrected it.

That’s pretty much a deal breaker for me. Guidelines are great, but not if they force me into an impassable dead end.

I was able to bypass the Generator manually by clicking on the "Recipe Calculator" link, which took me to the page of the same name—which is basically ad "advanced" version of the builder and which helpfully remembered the selections I had made in the Generator before getting stymied by the system.

The Calculator screen is straightforward enough, but not entirely intuitive to use; to select multiple items (grains, extracts, hops, etc.), you need to select which form field line you’re editing via a radio button and then a drop-down selection. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? You’d be right; it’s more complicated than it needs to be.

Click "Calculate" and you get the final screen, summarizing your beer and giving you the option to save the recipe. I don’t know how or if trial members can share their recipes; I searched around their Recipes page but couldn’t find mine, so I can’t judge as to how good the sharing features are. The multiple-option recipe search form is nice, though.

There is another nice feature on this site I hadn’t considered: Cost to brew. I don’t know what pricing criteria it used to calculate this—or if it allows users to customize their ingredient prices (which would be a great option)—but it’s a feature I’ll add to my desired list.

Overall, this is not something I would return to.

TastyBrew.com

TastyBrew.com logoThe TastyBrew.com site is the closest of the three to what I’m looking for.

After you create a user account (free), you can add recipes to the system. (If you hit the site anonymously, they still have some recipe-building tools you can use, but you won’t be able to save anything.) That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though; the site also offers articles, forums, the ability to connect with other users, and user journals (blogs, basically).

TastyBrew.com screenshotThe recipe system is still in beta, however; a notice at the bottom of the recipe "Preview" page states that you will not be able to edit the recipe one it’s saved. Nor is there any way to delete it, or otherwise "manage" it; it appears in the list of recipes and that’s it. This places the site on the exact same footing as the Beer Recipator (at least until they—presumably—add the various management functionality and move it out of beta).

Despite this (rather serious) drawback, there are two more pluses to point out: first, all recipes are licensed under Creative Commons copyrights and belong to the users who submitted them. Second, they offer a nice visual color representation using a pint glass of beer (more creative that a simple color swatch).

The recipe entry page is straightforward and easy to use: text entry fields and drop-down selections where appropriate, and just enough dynamic functionality (the "standard" alpha acid percentage for hops is automatically filled in, for instance) to be promising.

I would like to see the yeast entry handled as an optional drop-down selection list; right now it’s plain text entry.

Overall, it’s definitely moving in the right direction. There are still a number of kinks to iron out, but the site has potential.

What should a web-based brewing site have?

Basically, it should be a full Web 2.0, AJAX-y, highly dynamic site with all the "usual" elements: bookmarking, tagging, RSS feeds, social networking, APIs, plugins, Creative Commons copyrighting schemes, user ownership of their data/content, free to use—all the buzzwords and functionality people have come to expect.

Okay, perhaps a little less of the Facebook/MySpace kind of stuff; I guess I’m envisioning something along the lines of what Google might create, with the polish, ease-of-use and social aspects of say, a Flickr.

Tall order, I know.

Here’s some of what I’m looking for in such a site:

  • All of the standard recipe-building features offered in other software (and the recipe sites reviewed above);
  • User accounts with profiles;
  • Full recipe management: create, edit, share, import, export, print, delete, etc.
  • Two recipe "types": the base recipe, and the "session" recipe—i.e., a record of a specific brewing session (based on a recipe). So my Pale Ale recipe would be the "main" one, and I would have multiple Sessions based on it. (Not to be confused with The Session.);
  • Import and export recipes using the standard BeerXML format to allow interop with other programs;
  • Flexible beer styling system; offer up the "standard" BJCP styles as well as, say, the BeerAdvocate styles, and include the ability for users to define their own styles;
  • Several recipe-building modes: at minimum, a "wizard" which is the easy, step-by-step mode, and an advanced mode (all on one screen, for instance);
  • An ingredients database that is user-customizable, and lets users enter their own prices for ingredients;
  • Auto-calculate cost of a recipe (based on user prices);
  • User ratings/reviews of recipes (which in turn can lead to "top recipes" stats, etc.);
  • Perhaps allow multiple users to collaborate on recipes.

As near as I can tell (or find), nobody is doing this. The sites I reviewed above are all on the right track (to various degrees), but the reality is, nobody is there yet; the niche is wide open.

Which leads to me two questions:

First, is there such a site that I’m not aware of?

Second, web development and PHP programming is what I do (in my other life)… should I undertake to build such a site? (Could be interesting to follow in future Beer Hacker articles.)

And to finish a little tongue-in-cheek, the natural name for such a Web 2.0 site should of course be "Brewr". (Don’t bother rushing out to register "brewr.com" though… it’s already taken.)

Fake logo for "brewr.com"

6 Responses to The Beer Hacker: Web-based beer brewing software

  1. Brewmaster says:

    Do it! I’ll help you test it and document it (seriously). I work in IT and I’m familiar with the software testing process. I’m a GNU/Linux geek and I really like that you are talking about Creative Commons. Maybe you are are thinking of GPL’ing the whole thing?

  2. My friend and I are actually getting ready to do a website like your description. Right now we don’t have anything up, just a stump site, but we plan on making it a free site, with a smooth interface, that makes life easy for the homebrewer.

    Would be more than happy to work with you.

  3. hiikeeba says:

    I like the last option best as well, and I hope Jordan finishes his site soon.

    Great post. Thanks.

  4. Hey, the site is: http://beerenthusiasts.org/. Nothing much there yet, but we plan to implement all the tools, recipe keeping, reviewing, searching, etc. Hopefully will begin development soon.

  5. Adam says:

    Here’s a website for you. Covers most of the features you are looking for. If not already in existence, then they are slated for planned out for upcoming release.

    The Recipe Tavern
    http://www.recipetavern.com

  6. bryan says:

    Yep, I have been to tastybrew before. I will never go back. Lots of attitudes (right danno?). Never post about a bad experience because they WILL flame you. The worst brewing web site I have ever used.