Everyone knows that good beer is made of three ingredients: grain, yeast and hops. However, it’s really not as simple as that.
Here is everything you need to know about the ingredients that go into brewing beer. This is part of a series of posts on homebrewing. For more information see Homebrewing 101.
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 homebrewing: 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 (affiliate links). 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.
Using just 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. However, it can be hard to make enough wort at home to get the concentration of malt required for a dark beer. So using malt extract in combination with malted grain is an easy and delicious solution.
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 for flavour.
Beer is generally made from malted barley because barley naturally has a high starch content, along with the enzymes needed to convert starch into the 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 and rice. Though all of these grains require more filtering.
Traditionally all alcohol was made from wild yeasts. However, this doesn’t always result in a tasty brew because it depends on regional variations in wild yeasts and the 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. Each of the strains have been selected to ferment at particular temperatures and will influence the flavour of your beer. So it’s best to use the yeasts recommended in the recipe.
You can buy yeasts online (affiliate link) or at your local homebrewing shop.
Hops are a cone-shaped flower of a vine. They are used for flavour and as a preservative. They can be added several times throughout the brewing process. Adding hops to the boil will add to bitterness to the beer. Added to the secondary ferment will give the beer that distinctly “hoppy” 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 (affiliate link) 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. Here’s a post on water, if you want to learn more about filtering water for brewing (and other types of fermentation).
Irish moss is seaweed that you can buy either in powdered form or as dried leaves (affiliate links). It is added in the last 20 minutes of boiling to clarify the beer. It caused the proteins from the wort to clump together and fall to the bottom of the boiling pot so they can be filtered out.
Sugars are added to beer for two main reasons:
- 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 a higher alcohol content, then you need to replace the sugars from wort with added sugar.
- 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 have distinct flavours. I use dextrose (affiliate link) because it’s cheap, doesn’t affect the flavour of the beer 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 and bacteria.
Boiling is best for things like spices, coffee, dried fruit, cocoa nibs and vanilla beans.
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 the wild yeast and bacteria 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.