The Beer Ingredients
In the previous part of this series we’ve pretty much settled on the idea that brewing your own beer at home is quite simple and you don’t need sophisticated equipment to do that. And that is generally true, until you start digging deeper into the actual process and the methods employed, as each of the ingredients may require additional treatment and steps in the production workflow that will make the entire brewday longer and more sophisticated. So let’s look at what goes to the brewing kettle and how this affects your brewing practices and brewing setup.
Malt is the base of beer as we know it, barley malt being the most commonly used type in beer brewing. It is the source of sugar (maltose) that gets converted into alcohol and CO2, along with many other substances that make beer beer. Malt usually comes in two distinct forms and depending on the one you choose in your recipe, your equipment needs may vary significantly.
Grains - this is the most common, traditional form of malt that has been used for thousands of years. In essence, it’s barley grains that have been germinated, and then dried in order to obtain starch, which will ultimately be converted into sugars. The most widespread, varied and affordable, this form of malt, however is the most complicated to work with, as it requires mashing and sparging before actual brewing, and therefore requires at least two separate vessels to be integrated into your brewing system. That’s why using grains is often considered an advanced stage of homebrewing, most beginners should avoid at first.
Extract - this is the simpler form of malt that is available both as a liquid and as a powder, and usually found in ready-to-use recipe kits. In essence, extract is actual malt that has been mashed, sparged, and then dehydrated for future use. It only requires a single vessel to work with, as you simply add it to boiling water and you’re all set for making beer. However, convenience comes at a price, since the process of making malt extract makes it more expensive, and the range of flavour options you get is usually far narrower than that obtained with actual malt. Nevertheless, this is the optimal solution for novice homebrewers and beginners, who want to learn how to brew without getting too deep into the technological process right from the start.
Hops - the plant that imparts aroma and bitterness to the beer. Traditionally, hops were used in their natural form, which is female cone shaped fruits harvested once a year from the bine plant Humulus lupulus. Today there are still many breweries who use hops in their default form, but the current industry standard is pelletized (pressed) hop cones, which are easier to store, transport, and use in brewing. Hops are usually added during the boil when making wort, through some beer styles such as IPA also make use of so-called dry hop additions, which are intended for secondary fermentation and storage, in order to obtain even more pronounced hop aroma and flavour.
Regardless of their form, hops usually do not require any additional equipment, other than some basic mesh filtering for recipes that employ large amounts of the plant. But the main complexity while working with hops comes from their astonishing variety, since there are currently over a hundred different varieties used in brewing, each having its own flavour and aroma. Choosing the right type of hop for the recipe and how to use it is something that comes with practice. A lot of practice.
Water - Despite being overlooked by the majority of brewers, water is in fact the main ingredient in beer, as it makes up 95% of the final product. There are many books and discussion threads dedicated to water treatment, profiling, chemical composition, hardness, pH and so on, and all of these aspects are quite important. However, when brewing your first beer, all you need to know about water is that it has to be clean, preferably filtered, with no chlorine in it, and generally good enough to be drinkable as it is. Back in the day, brewers used to simply smell and taste it, and if it was good enough, it went straight to the mash tun and boiling kettle. Definitely a practice for the beginner to adopt.
Yeast - Yeast, in fact, doesn’t go into the kettle but rather the vessel where the beer will ferment after the wort has been chilled. Yeasts are single-celled organisms that convert the sugars contained in the malt into alcohol, CO2, and hundreds of additional compounds that contribute flavour and aroma to the beer. There are dozens upon dozens of different yeast strains, each contributing its own flavour profile to the final beer. But when it comes to equipment, yeast, whether in their liquid form or dehydrated dry form, don’t require any additional hardware. Just pitch enough to the fermenter and let the little guys do their work - it’s them who make beer, since the brewer only makes the wort for them.
All this, of course, is a rather simplified version of the beer making process, as every aspect of every ingredient mentioned above can be dissected into several books of their own. But in order to start brewing, you only need to know the very basics, as they will allow you to make your first beer. And as you brew one beer after the other and start to accumulate your own experience, things will start to become more interesting, and you will be able to dive deeper into the waters of malt mash temperature, mash pH, grain bills, hop addition schedules, water profiling, yeast strain selection, yeast culturing, and many more.