Understanding homebrewing ingredients

Often people start homebrewing with a cheap concentrate, supplied generic yeast and some household sugar. The results are less than impressive.

Instead of being a happy homebrewer, they get discouraged and give up.

Quality is king. This principle applies to any type of brewing – simple kits through to all grain.

Spend a few dollars

For a few extra bucks you can get a higher quality concentrate, a premium brewing yeast, extra malt extract and hops. The homebrewing world is now opening up to you.

Your premium brewing concentrate will contain better raw ingredients and mean a better tasting beer.

Homebrewing yeast US-05 is a great starting point for a range of beer styles

Homebrewing yeast US-05 is a great starting point for a range of beer styles

A quality brewing yeast will give you an adequate yeast count to ferment your beer properly. You will also have more control over the style of beer you make and your beer will have a fresher character.

A great starting point is Fermentis SafAle US-05.

Versatile, clean and perfect for a wide range of beers.

Using malt extract instead of sugar will mean your beer is full flavored and tastes like beer should. It will also keep a better head and lace your glass beautifully.

If you like hop character, consider adding extra hops. There are a wide variety to choose from and they will make a big difference to your beer.

If you are concerned about spending more than usual on your brew, remember you get what you pay for. And with homebrewing, a little extra gives a lot back in return.

When you break down an extra $10 or $20 per six gallon (23 L) batch, the cost per beer is tiny.

Keep it fresh

Fresh is best for ingredients. Look for yeast stored in a fridge at your local homebrew shop. Hot temperatures will degrade the yeast count and eventually make it unviable.

Likewise, check the expiration date on yeast and ‘best before’ date on homebrew concentrates. Malt extract can stale – turning dark, with over the top toffee notes.

Hops should be bought and stored frozen. Exposure to oxygen will also degrade hop flavor and aroma so re-seal packages tightly.

Hops should be green and smell fresh. Old hops become yellow and smell slightly cheesy – not an admirable quality in beer!

Beer, unpacked

Beer has essentially four ingredients – water, malt, hops and yeast. There are some other elements used for specific purposes, but if you get your head around these four you will have a great start.

Water

The wet stuff makes up over 90 percent of your beer, so will impact on flavor and quality. As a basic rule, if you can drink it, you can brew with it.

Hardness

Water hardness refers to the levels of dissolved minerals. Hard water has high mineral levels and doesn’t lather soap well. Very hard water can be tricky to brew with.

Hard water can be useful however for some beer styles. These include stouts and British ales. If you are brewing this style of beer and your water is hard, give it a shot and see what happens.

Usually we are better off though softening hard water to brew better beer. You can filter your water or use a substantial proportion of bottled water (over half) to give your water a softer profile.

Adding minerals when brewing is a reasonably complicated topic and doesn’t really come into play until you start working with grains. Leave this until you get more advanced with your brewing.

Chlorine

If your water is very chlorinated, this will come through in your beer. Again, you can filter or use a proportion of bottled water.

You can also drive off some of the chlorine through splashing and pouring violently between containers.

Boiling tap water will also agitate out the chlorine, but will need to be cooled and aerated again (yeast needs oxygen to work).

This can be done with an aeration stone, splashing violently or pouring between containers.

Agitate water to drive off chlorine.

Rainwater

I don’t encourage using untreated rainwater as it will contain microbes and contaminants that can spoil your beer.

To use rainwater safely you would need to boil, cool and aerate it. You may be better off using filtered water if you wanted a softer water profile.

Malt

Malt refers to malted barley and is the backbone of beer’s flavor profile. Malt is barley that has been soaked until it germinates, and then dried and roasted to various levels.

This malting process makes enzymes and starches available to the brewer, which in turn extracts a sweet and malty liquid.

This liquid is either then:

  • Boiled with hops and fermented to make beer.

  • Boiled under a vacuum to make liquid malt extract (like that in homebrew tins and chocolate bars).

  • Sprayed in a heated room and dried into a powder (dry malt extract).

We are focusing on the second two points here. The recipe in this guide uses hopped liquid malt extract (in the Pale Ale concentrate) and dried malt extract as an additional fermentable.

As your brewing skills progress, you can also use small amounts of crushed speciality malts to impart particular flavors in your beer.

We cover how to easily use specialty malts in our advanced kit homebrewing guide Kit. Unleashed!

On hops

Hops are the spice of beer life. It adds bitterness to offset malt’s sickly sweetness and deliver a balanced beer.

It also adds a delightful flavor and aroma.

Different varieties can offer floral notes including citrus, passionfruit, tobacco and spice.

You will most likely see hops in their pelletized form, which gives a longer shelf life at the (slight) expense of quality.

Hops are also available whole, in plugs or as an extracted oil.

Hops in homebrew tins

Manufacturers of homebrew concentrate kits often add a measured amount of hop oil to liquid malt extract to create the necessary bitterness.

Unfortunately much (if not all) of the hop flavor and aroma is lost in the manufacturing process.

We will need to add this back in if you want hop character.

Bring back the hops

We can easily add hop character, but first some background info on how hop bitterness, flavor and aroma is extracted…

Bitterness

Hops need to be boiled to extract the bitterness. Bitterness is extracted incrementally the longer you boil – one hour is usual in all grain brewing.

As the manufacturer has already added in the hop bitterness, we don’t need to worry about this process unless you like particularly bitter beer.

Flavor

Flavor compounds are also extracted through boiling, although some can be extracted through steeping (ie soaking in boiled water).

Brewers usually boil hops for 20 to 40 minutes to extract all of the flavors. After 40 minutes the flavors are boiled out and lost.

Aroma

Hop aromas are easily lost though boiling and more readily extracted through steeping. Brewers add aroma hops at the very end of the boil or during fermentation.

Adding hops in our recipe

In light of these processes, we will introduce a hop profile in our beer after fermentation has wound down.

We go into detail on how to add hop character in another article.

Yeast

Yeast was a silent partner in the vast majority of brewing’s 7000 year history. Up until the last few centuries, brewers thought fermentation was the work of the gods or some other magical force.

Science has since unveiled yeast as the genius behind beer’s success. It’s still magical though to see it in action.

Find out more about caring for your yeast.

Other elements for later

Finings for clear beer

Once you get a few brews under your belt, you may want to focus on brewing clearer beer.

Clear beer comes naturally as yeast and other compounds eventually fall out of suspension. You can speed this process up through using finings.

These are products which cause yeast to clump together and (now being larger and heavier) drop out quicker.

Finings are gently mixed into the fermented beer and left to clear before bottling.

Most commonly you can use household gelatin. There are also products available such as isinglass and polyclar PVPP. Chilling your beer before adding finings will improve their effectiveness.

Clear beer however is only one indicator of quality, and a crude one at that.

For example beers heavily hopped for flavor and aroma will have a slight haze caused by hop tannins and still taste amazing.

However most beers will benefit from clearing, either through time or finings. Harsher compounds can attach to yeast haze, so once it drops out of suspension, your beer will taste much cleaner.

We cover clear beer extensively in the Kit. Unleashed! homebrewing guide.

Minerals

You may also hear about brewing minerals or salts. These are things like calcium sulfate (gypsum), bicarbonate soda, Epsom salts, etc.

Brewers use these to create a water profile to suit a specific beer style. Save these for when you have mastered the basics.

Often brewing concentrate kits already have these added, so is an unnecessary effort at this stage.

Fruit, herbs and spices

Another area brewers experiment with is adding extra flavors in the form of fruits, herbs and spices.

Coffee stout, raspberry wheat, pumpkin ale, chili lager…

The options are endless. As you get more brewing confidence, have a go and see what happens.

Be warned though that some of these flavors can go a long way. Less is more, at least to start with.


Homebrewing With Kits—The Beginner’s Guide

To help you master homebrewing with kits, I’ve put together a guide based on my experiences over nearly two decades of homebrewing.

This is the information I wish I had when I first started. I hope it helps you make awesome homebrew.

Download your copy today.


Homebrewing Basics Series