Everyone knows that good beer is made of three ingredients: grain, yeast and hops. I would also include water and flavourings in the list because they both can play an important role in the flavour of beer.
This page describes, in detail, the ingredients that go into making beer. For more information on how to brew beer and recipes, see Brewing Beer at Home.
Malted Grain or Malt Extract
Beer is made when yeast consumes grain sugars. In it’s raw form, grain is full of complex carbohydrates. In order to convert it to simple sugars that will feed the yeast, it needs to be malted. There are two ways to get malt for beer making: malt extract or malted grains.
Using malt extract skips the whole process of extracting wort from the malted grains. It comes either as dry malt extract, or a liquid malt extract. If you want to use a malt extract, then be sure to follow a recipe that uses the particular kind of malt extract that you bought. They are not easily interchangeable in a recipe.
Buying malt extracts is easier than making your own; however, the resulting beer will taste… like… homebrew. It’s just not as good as making homemade wort.
Malting is a process that involves sprouting grain until it has a rootlet that is equal to the size of the original grain. At this point the grain has activated the enzymes required to convert the storage starches into simple sugars. The grains are then heated to prevent them from growing any further. The grains are then fully dried and toasted.
Beer is generally made from malted barley because barley naturally has a high starch content, along with the enzymes needed to convert the starch into sugar, and proteins required to feed the yeast. Furthermore, barley husks are perfect for filtering the wort. However, beer can also be brewed with wheat, rye, oats, corn or rice. All of these will require more filtering.
I only make all grain beers or mixed malt-extract and malted grain, so my process involves making wort with malted barley.
Traditionally all alcohol was made from wild yeasts. However, this doesn’t always result in a tasty brew (depending on regional variations in wild yeasts and your ability to control them). Also wild yeasts tend to die out at 5% alcohol, so they aren’t ideal for stronger beverages. Over time, specific strains of yeast have been cultivated to make beer, wine, etc. These specific strains of yeast are selected to ferment at particular temperatures, and influence the flavour of the end product.
You can buy yeasts onlineor at your local brewing shop.
Hops are a cone-shaped flower of a vine. They are used for flavour and as a preservative. Generally they are added several times throughout the brewing process. Early on, they add bitterness to the beer. Added at the end of brewing they give beer that distinctly “hopy” flavour.
There are a number of different varieties of hops, which each add their own flavour to the beer. You can find them in pellet form online or at your local brew shop.
Water is a BIG part of beer. You don’t need distilled water, but you do want to avoid using bad-tasting tap water. I use tap water, but we have fairly nice tasting water (once you get rid of the chloramines). Here’s a post on water, if you want to learn more about filtering water for brewing (and other fermentation).
Irish moss is actually seaweed that you can buy either in powdered form or as dried leaves. It is added in the last 20 minutes of boiling. It helps to clarify beer by causing the proteins from the wort to clump together and fall to the bottom of the boiling pot.
Sugars are added to beer for two main reasons:
1. To raise the alcohol level of the beer without using more wort. Wort gives the beer the sugar it needs to make alcohol, adding more wort would make a darker beer with more alcohol. If you want a light beer with more alcohol then you need to replace the sugars from wort with added sugar.
2. To carbonate the beer at the end of the brewing process.
The type of sugar you use will effect the flavour of the beer. Obviously honey and maple syrup will flavour the beer. I generally use dextrose because it’s cheap and available at my homebrew shop.
Added to the boil
Flavourings can be added during the boil of the wort. This means that they will be sterilized during the process, so there is little risk that they will contaminate the beer with unwanted yeasts.
I recommend adding things like spices, coffee, dried fruit, cocoa nibs and vanilla beans to the boiling wort.
Added during secondary fermentation
You can also add flavours when you transfer your beer for secondary fermentation. This is better for bringing out flavours in fresh fruit and herbs. Just be sure to wash them thoroughly to avoid contamination. Usually the alcohol levels will be high enough that wild yeast that are carried on the fruit won’t be able to contaminate the beer, but it is definitely a risk.
Secondary fermentation is best for fresh flavours like herbs, berries and fresh fruit.