There are four main ingredients in beer. Water is the first one, but the remaining three aren’t earth, wind and fire no matter how good your night is.
In our beer-ginners guide to ingredients, we’ll take a good look at all four (and yes, there are only four main ingredients!), which are water, malt, hops, and yeast.
If you’re a homebrewer it’s important to understand the intricacies of all four beer ingredients, and also adjuncts and other ingredients which we’ll discuss here too.
The four main beer ingredients
The four main beer ingredients are water, hops, yeast, and yeast. Let’s start from the
The first main beer ingredient is water. This may seem rather ordinary, but beer is mostly water. This is the reason it’s wet.
Water is a vitally important ingredient in beer, but sometimes is highly regarded for the wrong reasons. The chemistry of the water – the levels of dissolved salts and minerals – is critical to the successful brewing of many beer styles.
In a pre-industrial age before we had a firm understanding of chemistry, brewers made beer according to the water they had available and brewed style to match it.
Modern brewers can create the precise water profile they want irrespective of their location to perfectly match the beer styles they want to brew.
Water needs to be high quality, free from contaminants and smells. Today most brewers filter their water before adding the salts and minerals, if needed, to create the right water chemistry for their chosen beer style.
You’ll often find breweries pride themselves on the quality of the water they use, so you’ll often find it touted as coming from a mountain spring (at the end of a rainbow in Zealandia), or at the very least some reputable source.
Some types of beer specify the actual hardness of water used to define the characteristic of the beer.
If you’re a home brewer, the most important thing to consider is “does the water taste good?”. If you like the way your water tastes, then chances are you’re on the right track.
If you don’t like the taste of your water, it’s possible to use bottled water which is surprisingly cheap these days (or surprisingly expensive if you buy posh). Purified spring water is a great choice, but avoid distilled water if you can. The process of distilling the water can leave it without minerals, and generally it’s the minerals which make the water taste good.
If you have to use the only water available, and it doesn’t taste as good as you like, then perhaps boil it first, then leave it to cool. This destroys any bacteria in the water, and possibly improve the taste.
To naturally create alcohol, you need a sugar source as well as yeast. In cider the sugar comes from apples, in wine from grapes. In beer the sugar can come from a variety of grains, primarily barley but also wheat and others.
While fruit sugars are simple and immediately fermentable, the starches in grain need to be broken down into simple sugars, more readily digestible by the yeast.
The process by which this commences is called malting. Malting creates the enzymes that are needed to break down the sugars and starts the process of breaking down the barley starches into simple sugars. The breakdown of these starches commences in the malting plant and is continued in the brewery.
The first part of the malting process involves germination where the maltster takes the grain and steeps it in water.
After about two days, the germination starts and the enzymes needed to break down the starch are produced. The germination is then stopped by drying out the malt by kilning it.
The way in which the drying out is done and the temperatures used can produce a wide range of malt types that in turn are used to create a wide range of beer styles. Just as cooking sugar on a stove causes the sugar to change to toffee and roasting coffee beans sees them develop stronger flavours, the kilning of these specialty malts leads to the development of darker colours and more intense flavours in the grain.
The range of flavours can include toffee, caramel, biscuit, stewed fruit and toast through to roasted flavours including coffee.
If you’re a home brewer you have a variety of options for malts – liquid malt extract, dry malt extract, 2 row, 6 row, pale, amber, dark! With so many options it’s hard for a budding young homebrewer to know where to start. But don’t panic, as herein lies the fun!
Beer recipes typically specify which ingredients to use, so are a great place to start.
Malt starts it life as barley. The barley goes to a malt house where the grains are germinated from being soaked in water. As soon as germination takes place (i.e. the barley starts to sprout), the process is stopped.
The grains are then dried and roasted to give colour. Essentially this is what you’re buying with an all-grain recipe. If you’re making an extract batch, additional steps will be taken.
The grains at this point are still starch rather than malt sugar. Converting the starch into fermentable sugars involves a process called mashing.
Mashing is where the grains are cooked at very specific controlled temperatures (breweries use monitoring equipment to ensure all batches are cooked at the same temperature). The mashing process allows enzymes in the grain to convert starch into sugar. These sugars are then separated from the grains, and condensed to either a thick syrup or dry powder.
If you’re making an extract batch, then you’ll be using either a dry malt extract or a liquid malt extract, with the two being interchangeable.
The benefit of dry malt extract is it’s easier to handle and store. Liquid extracts as an alternative have a consistency like honey. Both can be bought pre-packaged.
Liquid extract can be purchased from a local home brew supplier in whatever quantities you need for a recipe or your level of thirst.
To add variety and finesse to a beer, there’s a plethora of specialty grains which can be added to a beer recipe. These may add body, colour, character, or flavour to your beer. Other grains also find their way into beer, including wheat, rice, and corn. Rice and corn as cheaper grains have traditionally been used to keep production costs down, but serve to add flavour in their own right and thin out a beer.
To delve a little deeper, here’s a guide on types of malt.
Hops are flowers. Once you know that, you’ll probably never forget you’re drinking flowers when you drink a beer.*
*Ok, so not just the flowers, the hops can include the cones as well. The flower thing didn’t quite work by saying “flowers and cones”.
They’re from the Humulus Lupulus plant, and the reason they’re used in beer brewing is they keep the beer fresher, longer, and the key ingredient in helping a beer keep it’s head.
While mainstream brewing came to treat hops as something of a one-dimensional ingredient used to impart bitterness, the hop has come to be celebrated by the craft brewing renaissance.
To be more specific, hops are the flowerlike cones of a climbing vine. In the middle of each hop cone are little glands that contain resins and oils. While these can contribute flavour, aroma and bitterness to beer, they are not soluble in water. They need to be boiled as part of the brewing process in order for the resins to dissolve and impart their bitterness.
The longer hops are boiled, typically around 45-90 minutes, the more bitterness they will lend to the beer. Added later, they contribute aroma to the beer.
In many craft beers hops are added after the boil, during fermentation, or even during maturation, in a process known as dry hopping. This contributes substantial flavour and aroma to beers without increasing the bitterness.
While beer itself dates back beyond the beginnings of civilisation, hops are a relative newcomer to the brew having only been used for the last 1000 years.
While many different herbs and spices have been used in beer, hops were popular because they also have a preservative effect on beer.
There are a wide range of hop varieties, each with their own unique characteristics and each adds something different to a beer. The hop variety used is often a selling point for many craft beers. Some hops are highly processed to create hop extracts that can be used for a variety of reasons in beers from stabilising foam to preventing light strike in beers packaged in light green and clear bottles.
Hops are used to impart a bitterness, flavour, and aroma to beer. Different hops have various flavours, aromas, and bittering potential.
For home brewers, hops are commonly available in pellet and in loose form.
Yeast is a single-cell organism, a type of fungus. It eats simple sugars and, in doing so, creates carbon dioxide and alcohol as by-products, together with a range of other compounds that together contribute flavor and aroma to beer.
There are two main types of yeast, ale yeast and lager yeast. Ale yeasts are often referred to as top-fermenting because of where they appear most active in the fermenter, while lager yeasts are regarded as bottom fermenting. Ale yeasts tend to ferment best at warmer temperatures (above 15°C) while lager yeasts will work at much colder temperatures.
With the huge popularity of light lagers, yeast has tended to be forgotten about as an important ingredient. With most pale lagers, ‘crisp’ and ‘clean’ are most commonly used to describe the flavours, when in fact these adjectives are really describing the lack of yeast flavour because lager yeasts ferment much more cleanly than ales. In ales the flavours and the aromas produced by the yeast are important aspects of the beer. Yeast can contribute characteristics that can be described as fruity or spicy, but can include such aromas as farm yard and horse blanket, not pleasant sounding but acceptable in the right beers!
There are many different strains of yeast. Some are used to make bread, some wine, and others beer.
While any yeast can be used, the wrong yeast will impart off flavours to the beer.
Generally in beer there are two different types of yeast; ale, and lager:
Ales are typically fermented at higher temperatures, around 65 degrees or more, and ferments on the top of the wort.
The fermentation process is relatively short, often taking seven days or less depending on the temperature of wort and amount of sugar.
Lager yeast are bottom fermenting yeasts. They ferment at relatively low temperatures, around 40 – 55 degrees. Consequently, the fermentation process can last for three weeks or more.
Both yeasts are available in dry and liquid form. Dry yeast is easy to use and is pretty forgiving, and also less expensive. Liquid yeasts are more expensive and can be difficult to use.
There are more options for liquid yeast than dry, and the type selected can have a noticeable effect on the flavour of the beer.
Adjuncts and other beer ingredients
While malted barley is the most common sugar source for brewing, a number of others can be used as well. Corn, rice and cane sugar can all be used, generally to lighten the body and flavour of beer.
While craft brewers generally avoid adjuncts, many have begun to use – or rediscovered uses for – a variety of herbs, spices and non-traditional ingredients to accentuate and complement some of beer’s naturally occurring flavours. These can include spices, honey, fruit, coffee and chocolate.
“Beer ingredients”, written by Terry J.