Wonder of wonders, I’ve finally written another Beer Hacker article! To anyone not familiar with "The Beer Hacker," check out the introduction here.
A few years ago I posted on my other blog on the subject of brewing software, and had laid out a set of criteria for what I’d like to see in such a package. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at brewing programs, and figured revisiting and reviewing a bunch of them would make a good topic for the Beer Hacker.
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.
Since I use Windows XP, I’m unable to test any software that runs on Mac or Linux, so if there’s a fantastic non-Windows brewing program out there, let me know. The programs I found and tested are shareware—there is a trial period which you can use the software, then you must buy it at the end of that period for the full-featured version to continue using it.
Here are the programs I evaluated, and their terms:
- Homebrew Calculator: 30-day trial; $25 to buy
- BeerSmith: 21-day trial; $19.95 to buy
- ProMash: 3 recipes/9 sessions; $24.95 to buy
- StrangeBrew: 30-day trial; $15 to buy
- SUDS: 30-day trial; $20 to buy
In addition, I looked at Beer Designer Pro, which is freeware, but I couldn’t get it to work—the site indicates you need the Vbrun50 support file(s), which was more a requirement for the older version of Windows (3.x), and I didn’t want to bother with that (since the program didn’t already come with it).
The rating criteria I use matches my general needs:
- Ease of use
- Clear differentiation between brewing levels (extract, all-grain, etc.)
- Does it calculate color? And give a visual example?
- Export to XML? (If the data is exportable and accessible, I can move it to other programs, etc.)
- How good are the predictors? (For original gravity, final gravity, color, bitterness—four items of criteria)
I installed and tried out each one of these programs, loading a Russian Imperial Stout recipe I had recorded ages ago into them to compare performance. Let’s see how they fared.
This seems to essentially be a Microsoft Access application; the file format it stores data in is MDB, and you are required to open the provided database to store your recipes in. Not only is this counterintuitive (I kept looking for a "new" command), but the program installs this data into "C:/My Documents/Homebrew Calculator"—which on the face of things seems reasonable, until you realize that this is not the actual My Documents folder on Windows XP.
So, two strikes against it right off the bat. Next, when I was entering my recipe, the "Calculations" button kept saying "Errors"… one of which was spawned by it’s own data! It said the maximum Lovibond color number for the system is 500, but their own data for black patent is 525. Hmmm.
The databases are minimal, though expandable, and the overall interface is awkward. This may have been more relevant or "cutting edge" when Access was still new—as was Windows 95—but it’s definitely showing its age.
- Ease of use: Not very friendly; it’s an Access form application, and clunky.
- Brewing level differentiation: Token checkboxes; doesn’t seem to change the recipe handling.
- Color calculation: Yes, but no representation.
- Export to XML: No.
- Predictors: 75%: OG 1.099, no final gravity (though alcohol by volume is 9.5, so you could work backwards), color (SRM) 215.8(!!), IBU 52
Wow, something is funky with their color calculation—it’s off the chart!
Final verdict: I don’t recommend it.
I’ll get straight to the point: I like this program the best. It has a clean, well-integrated three-pane interface (like an email client), seems to be the most user-configurable, and autoscales the recipe based on batch size, among other things. It’s nice and responsive and intuitive.
When you first install the program, it runs you through a three-step wizard to set your preferences and unit value defaults. Nice and user-friendly, and gives you the option to cancel and set preferences manually later.
Databases are comprehensive and very easy to edit, and exportable—along with every other bit of data—to a variety of formats. Including, crucially, XML.
- Ease of use: Excellent. Everything works like you’d expect—double-clicking, drag-and-drop, etc.—and the interface is immediately graspable and obvious. Nice suite of built-in tools.
- Brewing level differentiation: Adjusts recipe and details based on mashing efficiencies… nice. Auto-converts between brewing types.
- Color calculation: Yes, and shows a color representation.
- Export to XML: Yes, and several other formats. Format is "BeerXML", an apparently open standard.
- Predictors: 100%: OG 1.077 for "Extract", 1.092 for "Partial Mash", FG 1.020 for "Extract", 1.024 for "Partial Mash", color (SRM) 60.7, IBU 82.8
Interesting to note, however, the OG estimate from BeerSmith under "Extract" was lower than the other programs.
The big bonus: It autosaves your recipes.
Final verdict: Best of the bunch. This is powerful and easy-to-use for beginners and advanced brewers alike.
I liked this program when I first used it, years ago, but to be honest, it really hasn’t changed at all, and now seems outdated. The interface is a bit confusing and not well-designed; too many bright colors that are harsh on the eyes don’t make this fun for me to look at.
On the plus side, it comes loaded (by default) with a good set of databases for beer styles, malt, hops, yeast, and extras, and is fairly flexible in allowing the user to expand and modify these databases. A user can maintain inventory numbers here also. Much of the overall data and settings can be configured manually, as well. However, there seems to be no way to export this data (which would be a handy feature) and the files are generic-looking DAT files.
- Ease of use: Intermediate; building a recipe and subsequent brewing session record is fairly straightforward, but restrictive: by default you don’t manually enter the pounds of grain used, you have to click a plus or minus button to get to the amount you want. Built-in features like alcohol percentage calculation are handy.
- Brewing level differentiation: Handles all-grain, extract, partial mash well; auto-adjusts numbers based on different inputs (batch size, etc.).
- Color calculation: Yes, and shows a color representation.
- Export to XML: No, but it will export to a text file and and HTML file.
- Predictors: 75%: OG 1.095, no final gravity (although there is a field to enter it manually), color (SRM) 61.1, IBU 115.8
The IBU calculation here was much higher than for the others.
Final verdict: This is a good program for beginners, but ultimately seems to be behind the curve on being up-to-date. Not as flexible/open as I would like.
On the face of it, SUDS appears to be more like BeerSmith than ProMash. The screen is a two-pane system, with "Inventory" and "Categories" in an expandable list on the left, and the data/interaction takes place on the right. Seems fairly straightforward, except there’s a glaring usability problem that I’ve run into repeatedly: there is no "Open" command to open a saved recipe file (unlike nearly every other Windows program in existence), and recipe data is instead integrated and stored as nodes in the expandable tree in the left pane.
Except this isn’t immediately obvious, either, because most programs that offer this interface allow you to navigate down the tree in the right-hand pane, as well. Not so this one. So I waste a bunch of time re-discovering how to find and open data that I’ve entered. This, for me, is a huge strike against it.
Otherwise, it’s a fairly basic program, it gets the job done without many frills. At first I thought it didn’t offer a final gravity predictor, but then I finally found it under the "AHA Comparison" tab, not very obvious.
The databases are very basic, but they are editable.
- Ease of use: Aside from the initial confusion on how to find find and handle recipes, it’s fairly basic and straightforward to use.
- Brewing level differentiation: Allows you to indicate the brewing method in a drop-down menu, and specify how the malt is to be used ("extract", "steep", "mash"), but I can’t tell if these are simply labels or not.
- Color calculation: Yes, but does not show a representation, only the number.
- Export to XML: Yes, but only XML.
- Predictors: 100%: OG 1.099, FG 1.025 (under a different tab, not obvious), color (SRM) 59.2, IBU 88.3
Final verdict: It would be recommendable if it were freeware, but if you’re going to spend $20 on brewing software, go with BeerSmith instead.
This program resembles nothing quite so much as another Access database form application; you can navigate backwards and forwards among recipes (the recipe open dialog lets you sort them by style, brewer, and folder), and each one is contained in a tabbed field map that feels too cluttered, too constricted.
So my same criticism applies as with Homebrew Calculator: when Access was new, this would have been a more relevant program. Unfortunately, it hasn’t progressed beyond that "form" stage.
The included databases are minimal, but expandable; I had to add the Magnum hops from my recipe.
- Ease of use: A bit of a learning curve, has too many "Access database form quirks" to be truly easy.
- Brewing level differentiation: Not really; the only thing I can find is the "Mash?" checkbox on the main screen; turning this off seemed to remove my Cara-Pils ingredient entirely—but only the label; the data was still there.
- Color calculation: Yes, with a color representation.
- Export to XML: Yes. Format is undefined and a bit of a mess, though.
- Predictors: 100%: OG 1.092, FG 1.023, color (SRM) 48.2, IBU 86.9
Final verdict: My least favorite of the bunch, after Homebrew Calculator.
If you’re serious about brewing software, go with BeerSmith. It’s the best of the bunch, both in ease-of-use and features, and is the most up-to-date. For $19.95, you’re getting a ton of value, if you’re a reasonably active homebrewer. (I suppose it goes without saying, however, that if you only have a few recipes to enter, you’re probably better off with a notebook and pen.) BeerSmtih is absolutely worth the investment.