102 Beer ingredients – basics

In the first 101 we covered the general principles of brewing. We touched on some of the ingredients that goes into beer. This includes malt, hops and yeast. In this 101 we’ll cover these in some more details.

Malt is the back bone of most beer. Grain is where malt comes from which includes the sugars and flavours. Grain can be separated into two key types:

  1. Malted grain. This is the grain that provides the sugars for fermentation and producing alcohol. This grain has enzymes in it that can allow other grains to also produce sugar. This is done via a process where the grain is put in water and allowed to start the germination process. Then that is stopped by drying it a kiln. Typically a barley grain is used. This grain type also adds flavour to the wort.
  2. Unmalted grain. This can including just about anything including barley, rye, wheat, rice, oats, and even corn. These grains can’t produce the sugars needed by themselves. They can be added with malted grain to produce the sugars. Alternatively they can be used separately via a process know as sparging to get flavour and colour.

Now there’s a lot more to say about malted and unmalted grain. It can get pretty complex. For now its good to know that malted grain gives you sugars, flavour and colour, while unmalted grain give you just flavour and colour.

To simplify this you can say that you’re after the Malt, and by that we mean the sugars and flavours. These days you don’t have to do the whole grain thing. Instead you can buy:

  1. Liquid malt extract. These come in all sort of ranges from super light to super dark. They contain all the important sugars and tasty flavours you want. Some cans of these even come pre-hopped which means the hop characteristics have already been added (see below for info on hops).
  2. Dry malt extract. Like the liquid type there’s a range of these. They are not as comprehensive as the range of liquid malt, and there’s no hopped versions that I know of. Normally it’s good to keep some of this stuff around to add an extra kick to a brew.
  3. Sugar and other adjuncts. This can be used to replace dry malt extract. Dextrose/glucose, corn sugar, is normally what people are talking about when they say sugar. There’s no flavour so if you replace all your malt ingredients with this stuff it’s not going to taste good. Some variations include Malto-dextrin, Sucrose, Caramel, Honey or Fructose which all have differing effects.

A good over view of most malts and adjuncts can be found at Beer Advocate.

Hops is an additive to beer, a very important additive. In theory you could make a beer without hops, although it would be up for debate whether it actually fits the definition.  However, a beer without hops may not be well liked anyhow. Even the darkest of dark beers tend to contain some. Hops are flowers, or seed cone. They provide a number things to beer including:

  1. Bitterness. Beer is well known as a drink that is bitter. Depending on what hops is added and how long it is in the boil changes the bitterness.
  2. Flavour. Other than bitterness there’s a range of flavours that hops can provide. And with over 100 types of hops available around the world it can get a bit overwhelming at the varieties. Most hops sit somewhere across two sliding scales of flavour. On one slide you have Resin and Spice. On another slide you have Floral and Fruit.  HPA have put a nice visual representation of this.
  3. Aroma. Just like flavour different hops provide different aromas. Flavour and aroma are usually very similar.
  4. Antibiotic effect. Apparently hops helps the yeast that brewers add by hindering other microorganisms. Its like hops was designed to help make beer.
  5. Head retention. One of three factors in keeping the head on a beer is the resin from hops.
  6. Preservation. While not as important for big breweries, the acidity of hops helps preserve beer.

There’s a lot that hops add to beer. The first three characteristics of bitterness, flavour and aroma are normally due to the time the boil. With bitterness coming from the hops that are added around the start of the boil, to aroma that’s put at the end of a boil.

Water is needed. And different water can change the flavour and/or feel of a beer. Hard water is good for darker beers like porters and stouts. Soft water good for lighter beers like pale lagers. Some brewers have been known to adding gypsum to their water in order to replicate the same results UK brewers from Burton get with their pale ales.

Yeast turns all the sugars into alcohol. It also produces carbon dioxide which can be used to carbonate the beer after the original fermentation. This can be done as long as yeast isn’t removed, is still alive, and has sugar to convert when bottled. Like hops there are many strains of yeast, around 100 types. The main types of yeast are:

  1. Top-fermenting yeast sits on the top of a fermenter. Typically they are ale yeasts that work between 10 and 25 degrees Celsius.
  2. Bottom-fermenting yeast sit at the bottom of a fermenter. They’re more of a lager style yeast and work between 7 and 15 degrees Celsius. Because they are at cooler temperatures they ferment slower than top-fermenting yeasts.
  3. As well as those two type there’s a third approach called open fermentation. This uses the yeast in the air to land and ferment the beer. This is used to produce  ‘Lambic’ or sour ales. In this wonderful modern world we now live in you can buy these yeasts without risking infection from other things in the air. These are called Brettanomyces yeasts.

Another long one. To summarise you need Malt, Hops, Water and Yeast. The big choices are around what malts and/or adjuncts you’re going to use then work out hops and yeast. Most people are limited to the water out of the tap and this should suite most brews.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: