There are an endless number of brewing ingredients that you can add to your beer, ranging from graham crackers, to spices, to entire pies. In this article, however, we will only discuss the four main ingredients used in the production of beer – barley, water, hops, and yeast. The Reinheitsgebot, or the German Purity Law, only allows these four ingredients in your beer, but lucky for you, they are all you need to make an absolutely delicious beer.
Barley is a cereal grain that has been around for thousands of years. While there are other cereal grains that can, and are, used in beer such as oats, rye, and wheat, barley is the best choice due to the fact that it retains its husk during threshing (the act of separating the grain from the straw). These husks create a filter that results in better flow, which is discussed more in the mashing section of the brewing process page. Out of the three types of barley, brewers use both two-row and six-row.
Two-row barley has a lower enzyme content, less protein, more starch, and a thinner husk than six-row barley. Protein and starch content are inversely related, and the higher starch levels promote a greater efficiency, allowing more beer to be produced from less barley. The thinner husk leads to lower polyphenol levels, and creates a mellower beer. On the other hand, the thinner husk may cause your mash bed to be more unstable during the mashing and sparging processes. Adding rice hulls mitigates an unstable mash bed, but it is something to keep in mind.
Six-row barley, alternatively, has higher enzyme content, more protein, less starch, and a thicker husk. Even though the efficiency is down due to the lower starch levels, the higher enzyme content is ideal for converting additional starches that do not have enzymes of their own. The thicker husk leads to higher polyphenol levels, which can contribute to haze and can impart a slightly astringent taste.
Barley by itself is not ideal for brewing. It must first go through the “malting” process. Malting is basically allowing germination to begin, and then stopping it prematurely. This converts insoluble starches to soluble starches, reduces complex proteins, and develops the enzymes required for mashing. The three steps in this process are steeping, germination, and kilning.
Steeping is the process of hydrating of the kernel by soaking it in water to raise the moisture level to the point that the metabolic processes get activated. Air rest periods quickly follow the soaking, which adds oxygen to the barley. Steeping times can range from 24-48 hours based on the grain type, grain size, and equipment configuration. The steeping awakens already present enzymes, and creates additional enzymes to prepare the kernel for germination. Steeping is complete when the moisture levels are sufficient to allow for the uniform breakdown of starches. At this point, white tips of the rootlets emerge, known as chitting.
In this step, wet barley is germinated by keeping it at specific temperature and humidity levels until modification has been achieved. Modification is the breakdown of protein and carbohydrates and results in the opening of the barley’s starch reserves. Germination usually takes 4-6 days, and produces what is known as green malt. Germination develops a small amount of sugars, soluble starch, and the essential enzymes. The most important of these enzymes are alpha-amylase and beta-amylase. We discuss these enzymes in greater detail in the mashing section in the brewing process page.
The last stage of malting is the drying of the green malt in a kiln and cutting off the germination process. Kilning stops the growing plant from using all of the starches required for brewing. The temperature of the kiln determines the color of the malt and the amount of enzymes left over for the mash. Lower kilning temperatures create a low colored, low flavored malt that is high in enzymatic power. Malts kilned at a mild temperature have less enzymes, but more color and flavor. Malts kilned at high temperatures have hardly any enzymes, but are very high in color and flavor.
Choosing the Right Malts
For homebrewing, choosing malts is largely based on preference. Personally, I like to keep my recipes as traditional as possible, so I research every beer style before developing my recipe. I also reference the BJCP guidelines to see what flavors need to shine through. For example, when brewing malty British beer styles like Brown Ales and Red Ales, I tend to use Maris Otter as their base malt to add some bready character.
For beers that use specialty malts, I highly recommend you determine exactly what flavors you want to come through, and then compare those flavors with the malt companies specification sheets. Many of the big malt companies, like Briess, describe how adding their malt in different percentages of your grain bill change the flavor. Breiss’s American Honey Malt’s characteristics at different grain bill percentages is shown below.
- 1% – 5% adds honey and sweet bread flavors in light beers
- 5% – 10% contributes complex honey, graham cracker, and malty flavor in ales and dark beers
- 10% – 20% delivers prominent warming bakery-like flavors such as biscuit, honey, and brown sugar
As you can see, the same malt can add drastically different flavors to your beer. And, in a 10 gallon batch, the difference between 5% and 15% of a malt in your grain bill is not as much as you might expect. Be cautious with how many different specialty malts you use, or your flavors will become all muddled together. For most of my beers, I tend to use 4 or less malts to make up my recipe. If you ever are unsure of what malts to use, feel free to look through our recipe page to get an idea of where to start.
Hops themselves are the female reproductive structure of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus). Besides adding bitterness and flavor to beer, hops also have bacteriostatic activity, which inhibits the growth of spoilage bacteria in finished beer. The two most important components of the hop plant for brewing purposes are resins and oils.
There are two types of resins – hard and soft resins. Hard resins can be ignored for brewing purposes. Soft resins are what we are more concerned with, as they contain alpha and beta acids. Alpha acids are the precursors to bitterness, with an alpha acid percentage below 5% indicating low bittering values and an alpha acid percentage above 10% indicating high bittering values. Alpha acids only add bitterness to the wort when it is boiled. This process changes the configuration of the molecules and is called isomerization. It changes the alpha acids into iso-alpha acids, which are very bitter and much more water-soluble. The longer the hops are boiled, the more iso-alpha acids are dissolved in the wort and the more bitter the beer is.
Oils are the primary factor responsible for the aroma and flavor of the hops. The oils tend to make the bitterness more pronounced and enhance the mouth feel of the beer. The oils are very volatile and evaporate off during a vigorous boil, so add flavor and aroma hops towards the end of the boil.
Even though all hops are from the same species of Humulus lupulus, there are different variations that can be used to get different characteristics in your beer. Hops are generally described as either bittering, aroma, or dual-purpose hops. Bittering hops are typically high in alpha acids and added at the beginning of the boil to get the most isomerization. These hops are generally added as first wort hops, 90 minute hops, or 60 minute hops. First wort hops are added as the wort is being transferred into the boil kettle. Personally, I always do a 90 minute boil and add any bittering hops at the 60 minute mark after the hot break.
Aroma hops on the other hand are typically mid to low in alpha acids, and are added later in the boil. Flavoring hops are added between 15 to 30 minutes left in the boil. Some of the bitterness will be obtained, but more of the hop flavor will come through. Aroma hops are added at 5 minutes or less in the boil. There will be hardly any bitterness added, and most of the oils will remain. Dual purpose hops are just like they sound, and can be used for either bittering or aroma.
Choosing the Right Hops
Similarly to choosing malts, I choose my hops based on how the beers are traditionally made. For example, when I am designing a German lager like a Dunkel, I will use a German noble hop like Hallertauer Mittelfruh or Tettnang. Likewise, if I am designing an American Pale Ale, I will use American hop varieties that can give me the floral, piney, and citrusy characteristics I want like Cascade or Centennial.
There are over 80 different hop strands, and the major hop suppliers develop more experimental strands each year. There are almost endless possibilities for what hops you can use in your beer, so this is a great place to get creative. Be careful not to go overboard though. Too many hops varieties in one beer can become muddled together and none of the flavors you want will shine through. Also, keep in mind how the perceived bitterness will show in the final product. For example, 25 IBUs in a dry, light lager has a higher perceived bitterness than 25 IBUs in a rich, complex imperial stout. I use the application BeerSmith for IBU calculations. If you have more questions on hops, please feel free to message us or visit our recipes page. We have style specific hop recommendations and explanations for why we chose them.
Yeast selection is paramount to the quality of your final product. One could argue that it is the most important ingredient in your brewing process. Brewer’s yeast is responsible for the metabolic process that transforms the sugar in your wort into ethanol, carbon dioxide, and a number of byproducts that are essential to the flavor or your beer. Fermentation is an exothermic process. Exothermic reactions release heat, so reliable temperature control is essential to producing a quality beer. There are two types of brewers yeast – ale yeast and lager yeast.
Ale yeast, or Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is a top fermenting yeast that tends to add an estery, fruity, and malty character to the beer. It is also known as top fermenting yeast because the yeast rises to the surface and creates a thick and foamy krausen head. Ale yeasts ferment at a higher temperature than lager yeast, with most ranging between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit and an optimal temperature right around 67 degrees. Fermenting at a higher temperature like this adds in those esters that are characteristic of ale beer styles. The higher temperature also causes the beer to ferment faster, with primary fermentation usually finishing in about a week. Beer styles such as IPA’s, pale ales, porters, and stouts use ale yeast.
Lager yeast, or Saccharomyces pastorianus, is a bottom fermenting yeast that produces a sulfurous aroma. They are bottom fermenting yeast because the krausen head is significantly less, and the yeast settle out to the bottom towards the end of fermentation. They ferment at lower temperatures, with most ranging between 46 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit. These yeast strains take longer to ferment, with primary fermentation lasting up to 3 weeks. Because these strains produce the sulfurous aroma and other compounds like diacetyl, it is necessary to let their temperature free rise up into the 60’s towards the end of fermentation to ensure that the yeast properly cleans up after itself. After primary fermentation, these beers need to lager between 32 and 36 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 3 months, and sometimes upwards of 6 months. We discuss fermentation and lagering further on our brewing process page.
Yeast Life Cycle
Yeast has a four stage life cycle during the fermentation process. These stages may vary in time depending on a particular strain and generation of yeast, but the process remains the same. The four steps are as follows.
- Lag Phase
- Growth Phase
- Fermentation Phase
- Sedimentation Phase
The first step is the lag phase, which starts as soon as the yeast is pitched into your aerated wort. During this phase, the yeast cells are adapting to the new environment. This stage can be characterized by a drop in pH and a reduction in oxygen. The yeast cells break down stored glycogen into glucose to begin preparing the cells for reproduction. This step usually only lasts 8 to 24 hours, varying based on yeast health, temperature, and pitching rate. For a successful lag phase, I would recommend pitching your yeast at a temperature slightly below what you are going to ferment at. Pitching at a lower temperature will reduce the amount of byproducts produced in the beginning of the growth phase.
Once the yeast cells have fully adapted to their new environment and have sufficient glycogen reserves, the growth phase begins. This is the phase when the foamy krausen head appears, along with the carbon dioxide bubbles in your airlock or blow-off tube. The majority of attenuation occurs during this phase, as well as much of the flavor development, alcohol production, carbon dioxide release, and heat. The yeast use the majority of oxygen in this phase, which leads to a significant drop in pH.
The growth phase produces the majority of esters and other off-flavor compounds, which is just one reason why it is essential to keep the fermentation temperature under control. Exothermic reactions increase beer temperature, so you need a reliable cooling system. Glycol chillers are some of the most common cooling systems. The growth phase continues until the yeasts’ lipid and sterol reserves are used up, which will be indicated by a reduction in carbon dioxide production and the settling of the krausen head.
The fermentation phase immediately follows the growth phase. The fermentation phase reduces the wort gravity, and cleans up of the byproducts produced during the growth phase. The yeast is suspended in the beer at this point, and continues to convert the fermentable sugars. This process is anaerobic, and the carbon dioxide bubbles produced by the yeast actually strip any leftover oxygen out of the solution. This process can last between 5 to 7 days, until it begins to fall out of solution in the sedimentation phase.
This is the final stage of the yeast life cycle, and occurs when the yeast is out of sugars to ferment and begins to flocculate and fall out of solution to the bottom of the fermenter. The yeast go dormant during the sedimentation phase and produce more glycogen. As discussed in the lag phase section, the yeast requires glycogen to “wake back up.” This is important for those who harvest their yeast. Yeast harvesting will discussed in greater detail in another article, but it can be done by connecting a sanitized tube to the valve at the bottom of your fermenter, and then collecting the healthy yeast into a sanitized container, such as a jug or a converted keg. All it will take is the introduction of new sugar and the yeast will be ready to go.
Choosing the Right Yeast
There are numerous factors you can consider when choosing a yeast strain, such as mutation characteristics and storage tolerance, but the characteristics I mostly focus on are flocculation, attenuation, stress tolerance, and flavor. Flocculation and attenuation are connected, with a strongly flocculating yeast having less attenuation and producing a sweeter, less fermented beer while the opposite is true for less flocculent strains. Attenuation is the percentage of sugars the yeast ferments and converts into alcohol and carbon dioxide. You would want to use a strongly attenuating strain on a dry, crisp beer like a pils or a dry stout, and you would want to use a low attenuating strain on a sweeter beer like a red ale or a sweet stout.
Also, compare what strains enhance what flavors. Some strains, like London Ale III from Wyeast are great with IPA’s because it has a nice balance of hop and malt characteristics with a slight sweet finish. The Irish Red strain WLP004 from White Labs, on the other hand, really enhances the malt flavor and promotes a dry finish with roasty notes. Choose a strain that will enhance the characteristic you want to shine through. One final note – check the recommended alcohol range for a given yeast strain. You don’t want to use a strain that is recommended for a 2% – 5% ABV on a beer that is supposed to be 10%, or it will not perform like you want it to.
Last, but certainly not least, is brewing water. Do not underestimate the impact that your brewing water will have on your finished product. Water is a major factor behind the difference between why a beer will taste different with the exact same recipe when brewed in the United States versus when it is brewed in Germany. You absolutely want to get an analysis on your tap water if you intend on using it for brewing. Personally, I use a reverse osmosis system to filter out all minerals and then add in the salts that I want to use.
Since RO systems are expensive and impractical for homebrewing, hard water is a good option. The ions in it aid several aspects of the brewing process, including yeast health and fermentation. Below is a table that shows the benefits and drawbacks of common ions in tap water.
If you are just starting out, I would recommend brewing with a low mineral water or distilled water to see how it tastes. From there, add some salts if you want to enhance either the maltiness or the perceived bitterness. It is extremely easy to go overboard with salts. For example – I was brewing a Kolsch on a 3.5 bbl system, or about 133 gallons pre-boil. I had been using 1.5 oz of calcium chloride and 1 oz of gypsum, but decided I wanted to enhance the maltiness so I changed the ratio to 2 oz of calcium chloride and 0.5 oz of gypsum. Believe it or not, the beer was unrecognizable. It turned out great, but the half ounce change on both sides was so influential on the final product that our customers thought it was a different beer.
Major Ions and Their Impacts Table
|Calcium||– Lowers mash pH, which is critical for alpha-amylase, beta-amylase, and proteolytic enzymes|
– Increase extract yield
– Less astringency
– Enhances yeast flocculation and sedimentation in fermentation
– Improves clarification, stability, and flavor
|– Too much calcium removes phosphate, which is a vital yeast nutrient|
– High concentrations lower extraction of hops
– High concentrations leads to harsh, thin flavor
|Magnesium||– Benefits yeast metabolism||– More astringent bitterness||0-30 ppm|
|Sodium||– Enhances perceived sweetness|
– Pleasant round sweetness when paired with chloride
|– Creates an unpleasant harshness when combined with sulfate||0-100 ppm|
|Potassium||– Required for yeast growth||– Can cause unpleasant salty flavor||0-8 ppm|
|Sulfate||– Positively impacts protein and starch degradation|
– Promotes mash filtration and trub sedimentation
– Accentuates hop bitterness
|– Can impart a harsh, salty, and unpleasant flavor in beer if used in excess|
– This effect is worsened by potassium and sodium
|Chloride||– Accentuates maltiness, sweetness, and fullness||– Too much can be cloying and and harmful to yeast activity||50-150 ppm|
|Carbonate||N/A||– Can raise pH, causing less fermentable wort and difficulty with wort filtration|
– Harsh bitterness
While this page has the basics of all the main ingredients, it is far from comprehensive. I highly recommend continuing your research. There are numerous, quality forums that have helped thousands of homebrewers with their questions. We will also continue to post more in depth discussions on all of these ingredients, so make sure you subscribe to our newsletter below to make sure you don’t miss any!
Don’t forget, however, that the best way to learn is to do! There is no better way to figure out what ingredients bring out the best flavors than by experimenting yourself. If you are homebrewing, you are brewing for yourself, so have fun with it. I highly recommend using the application BeerSmith when designing your recipes, it is affordable and does all the important calculations for you in real time. If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, please send us a message or leave a comment below. Cheers!