When making beer you can buy beer ingredients in kits, or you can buy your ingredients a la carte. The following are descriptions of the ingredients you may need, as well as what to look for when purchasing ingredients.
Homebrewing stores offer a large selection of beer kits that include all of the beer ingredients you need to start brewing. This is an easy way to jump in and get your feet wet with brewing. We recommend starting here, as there are many great kits on the market today. A beer kit will contain all of the ingredients you need. For example: malt extract, hops, crushed grains (if the recipe calls for it), a printout of the recipe, muslin bags (you will use them like tea bags for the hops and grains), yeast, and possibly a whirlfloc tablet (some kits will contain this to help clarify the beer). Then again, if you have a specific recipe you want to use, you can easily buy your ingredients a la carte.
Malt extract is made from barley that has been germinated and then dried (or malted). This barley is then soaked in warm water to extract the sugars, creating a sweet, sugary, syrupy liquid that acts as food for the yeast you will be adding later. This liquid is then boiled down to make it more concentrated. Malt extract can be sold as a liquid syrup (liquid malt extract or LME) or as a dried powder (dry malt extract or DME). Both are good options. You want to find a version with no added simple sugars (such as corn syrup), as it will likely give your beer an unfortunate “homemade” taste. Many options are available, and you can buy different malt extracts formulated for different types of beer.
Grains are used in a few different ways by home brewers. Some recipes call for specialty grains to be steeped. The act of steeping extracts colors and flavors from the grains and adds a level of freshness and complexity to the beer. Steeping grains are often roasted and do not contain a lot of starch. They are used in conjunction with malt extracts, as steeping does not produce fermentable sugars (and therefore cannot replace the malt extract).
There is another process that home brewers may use, called mashing, which is different than steeping. Mashing is a process that can be used to create your own malt extract (this will be covered in more detail later). If you make all of the malt extract for your brew, this is known as all-grain brewing. If you make some of your own malt extract in conjunction with a DME or LME, this is known as partial mash brewing. The typical grains that are used are sprouted barley and wheat.
You can buy grains that are crushed, or you can mill them yourself at home. Ideally, crushed grains should be used as soon as possible, as they begin to oxidize and soak up moisture after they are crushed. So don’t stock up on grains in bulk unless you have a way to mill them at home. If you are working with pre-crushed grains, you may store them at room temperature, but do your best to use them up within a few days.
Hops influence the taste as well as aroma of the beer. There are two different types: bittering hops, which counteract the sweetness of the malt, and aroma hops, which add to the aroma. And while hops are bred to have chiefly one of these two qualities, they are known to blur the line, with some hops having dual uses as well.
Hops are boiled to extract their different properties. The longer the bittering hops are boiled, the more bitter the beer will become, as more of the resins are extracted. Aromatic hops are added at the end of the boil, as the aromas tend to be lost, or boiled out of the beer the longer the aroma hops are boiled. Usually both types are added to a beer.
Each type of hop has a different percentage of alpha acids (AA) in it (alpha acids comprise the main bittering agents which are extracted through boiling). Generally speaking, bittering hops are high in alpha acids, and aroma hops are lower. Instead of calling for a specific amount of hops, a recipe may call for a certain number of Alpha Acid Units (AAUs), also known as Homebrew Bittering Units (HBUs). AAUs are calculated by multiplying the alpha acid (AA) percentage by the number of ounces of hops to be added (see the equation below).
1 oz ×6 % AA =6 AAU (or HBU)
In the example above, a recipe calls for 6 AAU (or HBU) which would be satisfied by adding 1 oz of hops at 6% AA. If you choose to use a hop at 8% AA, you would only need to add ¾ oz. See the equation below:
6 AAU÷8% AA=3/4 oz
Hops come in three different forms: whole, plugs, or pellets. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Whole hops will give a good aroma to the beer, but they will soak up a lot of the wort when removed from the liquid. They also have the shortest shelf life.
- Plugs retain their freshness longer than whole hops because less of their bulk is exposed to air, but they will also soak up wort like whole hops.
- Pellet hops are easy to weigh out and store because of their size, but they tend to be the messiest when placed in the water to boil. They tend to break apart in the water and settle like a sludge at the bottom of the kettle, or they will randomly float on the surface, which makes straining into your fermenter a little bit more difficult.
Most of the above problems with either whole, plug, or pellet hops can be solved with the use of muslin bags. These will contain the hops and will allow you to drain the remainder of the wort that was soaked up by the hops more easily.
When seeking out hops, remember that freshness is king! Look for hops that are stored in a cooler or freezer and packaged in thick, air-tight bags. Ideally, there will be a high turnover rate at the store you are ordering from, as this will insure that the hops are not just sitting on the shelf getting old and losing their potency.
If you need to store your hops, keep them in the freezer in airtight bags (you don’t want them absorbing food odors). Hops can last several years if kept properly. You will know if the hops are bad if you smell a certain “cheesy” smell when you open up the bag.