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The Basic Ingredients of Beer

Most quality beer consists of 4 main Ingredients:


Barley Malt




Beer is over 90% water. Because it is the main ingredient by volume, to brew good beer, you need to start with good water. To keep it simple, the water you use for brewing should be free from chlorine or other chemicals, and should have some basic minerals. A good rule of thumb: If the water is good to drink, it is almost always good for brewing your own beer. One exception is distilled water- distilled water has no mineral content, which the yeast will need to ferment the beer properly.

Most tap or spring water has a dissolved mineral content sufficient for brewing with barley malt extract. If using tap water and your tap water is chlorinated, you should either filter the water or boil it to remove the chlorine. Some municipalities are now using Chloramine for water treatment. If this is the case in your area, the water will have to be filtered to remove the Chloramine as boiling will not remove it. If you do not have a water filter, buy bottled water or find a source of filtered water nearby. Many grocery stores now have machines where you can buy filtered water by the gallon, using your own container.

 Barley Malt

Barley malt, in whole grain form

Barley malt is the chief ingredient in beer next to water. It is the main source of fermentable sugar, and also contains many minerals and vitamins that help the yeast to grow. Most brewers start out using barley malt extract, in syrup or powder form, as in this form it is ready to boil up and ferment.

Barley malt is made from whole barley, in a process called malting. First the grains are sprouted and allowed to grow for a short time, until the grain proteins have been converted into starch, the ideal food source for young plants. When the seed has reached the optimum starch content, the growth is stopped by kilning the barley at low temperatures to dry it out.

The darker specialty malts like caramel and chocolate are made by heating the wet barley to temperatures of about 150 oF. The heat activates enzymes that are naturally present in the barley grains, which convert the starches to sugars. After the starch conversion is completed the grains are roasted to caramelize the sugars. The temperatures and length of time determine the final color of the specialty malt.

Barley malt extract is made by mashing the pale barley malt in water to convert the starches to sugars. After starch conversion, the sugars which are dissolved in the liquid are rinsed through the grains, a process known as sparging. The sweet liquid is then condensed into barley malt extract or spray dried into dry malt extract. This is usually done at low temperatures in a vacuum environment to preserve the light color of the barley malt extract.


Hops, in pelletized form

Hops, as used for brewing, are the flowers of the hop plant, a climbing viney plant that grows well in many climates. Hops contain acids which add bitterness to beers is boiled for a period of time. Adding bitterness to beer helps to balance the sweetness of the beer, as well as acting as a natural preservative. Hops also add flavor if boiled for a shorter duration. If boiled for a very short time, steeped at the end of the boil, or added fresh to the fermenting beer, hops also add a delicate aroma to beer.

As the oils present in hops that add flavor and aroma are highly volatile, they are easily lost in an extended boil. Thus , many recipes for beer call for adding hops in 2 or 3 stages:

Bittering or boiling hops: If boiled for over 45 minutes, a significant amount of bittering from the hops is dissolved into the beer.

Flavor Hops: If boiled for 10- 20 minutes, the flavor compounds are released into the beer without adding too much bitterness. Most of the aroma is lost, even with a shorter boil.

Aroma or finishing hops: A delicate hop aroma, a desired characteristic of many beers, is infused into the beer if the hops are added in the last 5 minutes of the boil, or steeped at the end of the boil, or added to the fermenter. Adding hops in the fermenter is called dry hopping.

Hops have not always been the primary herb used in beer. Centuries ago, many other herbs were used to add bittering, flavor, and medicinal properties to beer and other fermented beverages. Some of the herbs traditionally used in beer include mugwort, heather, and wormwood



Types of yeast available to home brewers

(clockwise from top left)

Wyeast liquid yeast in a foil self starting pouch (available in 2 sizes), White labs liquid yeast in a 35 ml tube, Wyeast liquid yeast in a 150 ml tube, dry ale & lager yeast's (Vierka Lager, Edme Ale, Munton's Gold Ale, and Danstar Ale) , and dry wine yeast (Red Star and Vierka Mead).

Without yeast, beer would not exist. Yeast is a unique single cell organism that eats sugar and expels alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast comes in many variations, or strains, and there are two major categories of yeast that determine the type of beer produced.

Ale yeast is the most commonly used by home brewers. Ale yeast is top fermenting, meaning that it concentrates near the top of the fermenting beer. Because it thrives in warmer temperatures, usually between 60 to 75 oF, ales can be fermented at room temperatures without any temperature controlling equipment. Examples of beers fermented with ale yeast include Pale Ale, Nut Brown Ale, and Stout.

Lager yeast is a bottom fermenting yeast that ferments at lower temperatures, usually between 45 to 60 oF. After the lager is fermented is is often allowed to condition in the fermenter at very low temperatures (usually between 35 to 45 oF) for 2 to 8 weeks. This process is called lagering. Examples of beers fermented with lager yeast include Pilsner, Marzen, and Bock.

Yeast for home brewing is available in two forms, liquid and dry.

Dry brewers yeast is similar in appearance to common bakers yeast (unless you want beer that tastes like bread, stay away from bakers yeast for brewing), having a grainy, powdery appearance. To produce this yeast, the living yeast cells have been dehydrated carefully so that the water inside of the living yeast cells is removed without killing the yeast. When the dry yeast is introduced to liquid, it becomes rehydrated and is ready for brewing. To achieve the best results when using dry yeast, it is a good idea to rehydrate the yeast in water, and then add the rehyrated yeast to the unfermented beer. Dry beer yeast is inexpensive and has a shelf life of 1 to 2 years if stored in a refrigerator. The selection of dry yeast is limited, however.

Liquid brewers yeast is hydrated yeast in a hibernating state stored in a liquid, and is available to home brewers in two forms. Some yeast is available in a tube or vial that is ready to pour into the fermenter; no preparation of the yeast is required. Dozens of strains, both ale and lager, are available. Liquid yeast in this form is very perishable and is usually only viable if used within 4 months of production, unless a starter is made (see our brewing tip, making a yeast starter).

Some liquid yeast is also available in a foil self starting pouch. These pouches have a small bubble of sterile nutrient solution sealed inside, floating in the liquid yeast solution. Before brewing, the small inner bubble is popped to mix the nutrients with the yeast. This new source of nutrients causes the yeast to "wake up" from hibernation and start to grow. This causes the foil pouch to swell, indicating the yeast is ready to add to the fermenter.


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