Brewing 101: Grocery Shopping (Ingredients)

This is second in a introductory series about homebrewing and I’m starting with the basics, ingredients, equipment, and process before delving into more complex topics.

If you’ve ever talked to a German about beer, you’ll have been told that beer has four, and only four, ingredients: water, hops, yeast, and malted barley (sometimes wheat). Not entirely true, but these are indeed the building blocks of your standard beer. You can add all kinds of other fun and useful ingredients in small quantities to improve flavor, clarity, alcohol percentage, and much more.

Flavor-wise, hops, yeast, and malt generally contribute a similar amount to the final taste of your beer, though certain styles are distinguished by favoring one ingredient over the others. This article serves as an overview

Water. Most tap water is fine, though you might consider spring water if yours is particularly nasty. If the water tastes good, it’s probably good to brew with. If not, running “bad” water through a Brita filter can help, and spring water – not distilled – can be substituted for tap.

Hops. These little flowers, Humulus lupulus, are what give beer many of its most distinctive characteristics, especially in the case of very bitter or floral beers like an IPA. They are added in small amounts, generally from 0.5 up to 2 ounces per gallon. Fun fact: hops are in the Cannabaceae family.

There are dozens of varieties of hops, from light floral or citrusy German hops, to earthy English hops, to dank and resiny from the Pacific Northwest. If you like a strong hops character, an IPA would be a good first beer. The typical American IPA is an excuse to try out various hops in large quantities.

Malt. Barley is the most common malt for beermaking and even wheat beers use generally half-half wheat and malted barley. The malted wheat or barley has been malted to ready its starches to be converted to sugar. Malt is generally inexpensive and used in copious amounts, several pounds per batch, then discarded once it has been cracked, steeped, and the sugar extracted. The resulting sugary liquid is called wort. Barley can be anywhere from lightly roasted to chocolate malt, which has a dark and bitter bite akin to French roast coffee.

Generally, only malted barley is used in beer, though it may be mixed with wheat, oats, or other sugars to build body, flavor or to boost alcohol. Wheat tends to be light in flavor and body. It’s a necessary ingredient in beer styles such as the hefeweizen or Belgian wit.

Homebrewers can go the all-grain method, and extract sugars directly from the malted grain or they may buy pre-extracted sugars in the form of liquid or dry malt extract.

All-grain will save you money and allow you more flexibility but it involves a one-hour mash, the steeping period where sugars are extracted from the grain by enzymes in the barley.

Extract saves you the step of extracting sugars, which allows you to better estimate the strength of your beers and it saves time and space. It also happens to generally be more expensive. Lastly, malt extract tastes a bit like maple syrup, so if you’re looking for a pancake topping, it could do double duty.

If you like the bready, malty character of beer, try an amber ale or an English mild. If you enjoy roasted coffee flavors, try a porter or Irish stout.

Yeast. These little guys are the star of the show because without them the sugars in your wort would never be converted to alcohol. Once they’re done with their work, however, they are left aside.

Yeast comes either liquid or dry. For simple recipes where yeast isn’t the star, dry yeast is the simpler and less expensive option, e.g. Safale US-05 is common for most IPAs and clean-tasting ales. Liquid yeasts can help round out a unique flavor profile.

If you like yeast in your beer, the aforemenioned hefeweizen (which roughly translates as yeast-wheat in German) or a Belgian witte is for you. In most beers, yeasty haze is to be avoided and left at the bottom of the bottle.

There you go. Ready for your first beer groceries run.

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