"Open Source" Beer?

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The other day I caught PRI's "The World" segment on "Open Source" Beer. The web site is here or maybe here. The uh, developers have a good line of patter going on about how they have the "the world's first open source beer!", but it's hard to see what's going on here that's special.

First, you can't copyright recipes (at least in the US), so the whole notion of their being an Open Source beer recipe is kind of silly. At that level, all recipes—at least those published in the US—are Open Source. Unless the European laws are substantially different, which I doubt, then the restrictions that the designers are trying to levy "you are free to earn money from Our Beer, but you have to publish the recipe under the same license (e.g. on your website or on our forum) and credit our work" are unenforceable. Note that they could potentially copyright a particular expression of their recipe, but if you look at their page, it's just the ingredient list along with relatively standard brewing directions.

One could imagine that they've filed for a patent, but that would require that there be something inventive. Let's take a look at the recipe:

  • 6 kg pilsner malt
  • 4 kg m√ľnsner malt
  • 1 kg caramel malt
  • 1 kg lager malt
  • 60 g Tetnang bitter hops
  • 50 g Hallertaver aroma hops
  • 300 g Guarana beans
  • 4 kg sugar
And here's the boiling instructions:
The malt extact is brought to a boil in a large pot with the hops and approx. 70 ltr. of water.

After half an hour, the Guarana beans and sugar is added.

The mixture simmers for about an hour, and is then filtered and cooled in a sealed container.

This is a pretty typical beer recipe, with fairly standard ingredients. If anything it's underspecified. For instance, the Beer Recipator lists three different varieties of Hallertauer hops, but we're not told which one to use. This kind of stuff matters. There are only two unusual (and I use the term loosely) features of this recipe. The first is the addition of the mild stimulant Guarana. It's not clear why anyone would want this in their beer, but Guarana is a standard ingredient of energy drinks, so there's not much use here. The second is the use of 5 kg of sugar (by the way, it would be nice if the authors told us whether they meant sucrose or corn sugar; again, details matter). This is a not uncommon element but there's some controversy over whether it leads to off flavors. Oh, yeah, one more unusual element: there are two uses of hops in beer. The first is for "bittering" and bittering hops are bolled with the wort (the malt extract and water). The second is for aroma and aroma hops are only added towards the end. The recipe here only seems to use bittering hops, which is a bit unusual in my experience, though might be appropriate depending on the style of beer this is supposed to be (they don't say).

So, as we've seen there's nothing unusual about this recipe. But maybe it's hard to find recipes? Actually, not so much. The Beer Recipator has something like 5,000 recipes listed. There's also the Cat's Meow, which has a zillion recipes. So, there's no shortage of perfectly good, much clearer, beer recipes. Absent some Cooks Illustrated style research, there's no reason to believe that this recipe is any better than any other (and given the broad variety of beer styles, it's not like there's one best recipe anyway).

Most importantly, beer isn't at all like software in that the informational component of production is very small. Given that you have the source code for a piece of software and a platform reasonably similar to that where the software was developed you'll get pretty much the same binary as the authors did. By contrast, with beer, even if you have a good recipe and reliable ingredients, you still need quite good technique to get solid results. Back when I was homebrewing, I lost several batches because they were infected due to improper technique. The problem is even worse if you're a commercial brewer because you not only need to turn out decent beer but you need to turn out beer that tastes the same batch after batch (as an aside, I've heard it said that this the real proof of the skill of Budweiser's brewmasters that their consistency and quality control is so good. You may not like their product but it's the one they intend to make and every can is near-identical) even in the face of inconsistency in the ingredients. Having a good recipe is only the very first step and one that's not at all hard to take without help from a bunch of Scandinavian students.


Look again at the Copyright Office link above -- you can't copyright ingredient lists, but you can definitely copyright the textual part of the recipe.

You're absolutely right that you can copyright the textual part of the recipe, but the only interesting part is the ingredient list. The rest of it is simply generic instructions that you'd find in any book on brewing. Given the recipe list, any competent brewer would be able to reproduce the rest of the procedure.

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