Making beer is similar to cooking; essentially you have ingredients and a process. The hobby of making beer at home is known as “Homebrewing” Homebrewing is a hobby that many people enjoy and it isn’t hard to catch the homebrewing bug. Why?
Well, because you can make beer as good or better than some of those you can buy. This may seem like an incredible statement, but it’s true because the big commercial brewers are trying to make beer at the lowest possible cost and the ingredient selection is 'sometimes' driven by economics. Homebrewers do not have these kinds of constraints; a little extra here and there and you can make some of the best beer possible.
Beer is comprised of four basic ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. These basics are the same for Homebrewers and Professionals. There really are not any real ‘secrets’ to Homebrewing. It is mostly a matter of selecting the right choice of ingredients, blended in the right proportions and utilized in the best way. A brief, non-scientific description of each of the basic ingredients is listed below.
Malted Barley– Homebrewers and professional brewers begin every batch with malted barley (malt). Barley is a grain grown in most parts of the world similar to wheat. It is ‘malted’ by allowing the seeds to sprout and then quickly stopping the sprouting process by heating the grains. This begins the process of converting the grain’s starches into sugars. Malted Barley provides the fermentable sugars which the yeast later uses as food. The temperature and length of time the grain is heated will determine the color (Lovibond) and flavor of the grain. You can break malts into the following categories: Pale Malts or your base malts, Light Colored Malts, Dark Colored Malts, Caramelized Malts, Roasted Malts, and Other Grains sometimes also called Adjuncts. Malts can add caramel flavor, nutty flavors, roast flavors, etc. to beers. Most recipes will have a base malt and added specialty malts for flavor and color. See below for more detail on Base Malt vs. Specialty Malts.
The malt is mashed during the brewing process (soaking the barley in water at a specific temperature and time). Mashing converts the starches to fermentable and unfermentable sugars. The yeast “eats” the sugars created by mashing and two byproducts are made – carbon dioxide and alcohol, the beginnings of every great beer.
Lovibond– This is the color rating of the grain, the higher the number, and the darker the grain – i.e. 20 vs. 120-crystal malt. Dark grains provide different flavors and performance than lighter grains will.
Base Malt vs. Specialty Malts– Base malt is the type of barley used to provide most of the fermentable sugars and the backbone of every recipe. You can substitute base malts with malt extract using the alternate, and shorter, method of extract brewing with a Partial mash. Specialty grains (malts) are malted barley that have been kilned, or cooked, usually at higher temperatures and different lengths of time than Base Malts, which gives them color as well as flavor. The higher the temperature and the longer the grain is cooked, the darker the resulting grain. It’s like making toast, darken it lightly and you have a grain similar to 20 lovibond crystal malt; leave the bread in the toaster too long, and you have a very dark grain like roasted barley, which is in the 450 – 500 lovibond range.
Malt Extract– The homebrewer’s shortcut to mashing; this product comes in the form of a syrup or dried malt extract (DME). It is malted barley that has been mashed and most of the water has been removed. More water remains in the syrup form than in the dried (powder) form. This leads to a question that is asked frequently and debated hotly in many homebrewer circles. Can you make as good of a beer with extract as you can with “All-Grain”. Many agree that it is possible to make excellent beer with malt extract.
Adjuncts, Sugars, Spices and Fruits- Additional materials are sometimes added to the beer depending on the recipe and style. This can include adding Belgian candi sugar to Belgian-style beer, and fruit to fruit-flavored beers; spices to holiday beers, Oats to Oatmeal Stouts, Rye to Rye beer, etc. The bottom line is you can put almost anything in beer – if you dare. Once again this is part of the fun of making your own beer, you get to determine what the beer will taste like by selecting what goes into the beer.
Hops– hops are cone-shaped flowers that grow on vines, they add bitterness, flavor and aroma to beer. When added to the boiling wort, the amount of hops added, how long the hops are boiled, and the alpha acid percentage of a particular hop will determine the amount of bitterness, flavor or aroma that is derived from the hops. Generally, hops added in the beginning of the boil (60 to 90 minutes boiling time) will add bitterness; hops added in the middle of the boil – 30 minutes boiling time - will add some bitterness, but will also contribute to the flavor; hops boiled for 10 minutes or less contribute to the wonderful aroma of quality beer. The bitterness balances the sweet flavor of the malt. Hops also provide a preservative effect to the finished beer – such versatile little flower!
Alpha Acids– Percentages above 10% are considered high, 5.5 to 9 medium, and 5 and below are low alpha acid ratings. High alpha hops are typically used for bittering, and lower alpha acid hops are used for flavoring and aroma. However, there are a number of hops that are considered dual-purpose for their bittering and aroma qualities.
Water– If you can drink it you can brew with it. However, using bottled spring water can produce a better beer depending on the quality of your local water. If you’re comfortable with your tap water – feel free to use it.
Soft vs hard water:As a rule of thumb, Pilsners and dark beers should have Soft water. Hoppy beers like the British styles require hard water. You can harden your water by adding calcium carbonate (gypsum).
Yeast– Arguably the most important ingredient in beer; yeast is a single cell microorganism that feasts on sugars, resulting in the production of alcohol and carbon dioxide (the bubbles in beer). Different strains of yeast have different flavor characteristics; they are available in dry or liquid form. Dry yeast is considered to be of lower quality (and price) than liquid yeast, but great beer can still be made with dry yeast. Liquid yeast is sold in a variety of forms and types Generally, ale yeasts perform best at room temperature (60 – 77 degrees) and lager yeast perform best at refrigerated temperatures (48 – 58 degrees).
Those are the basics of homebrewing. In no time flat you’ll be pouring yourself a nice, tall, cold one into your personalized beer mug or personalized beer glass and wondering why you’ve never tried homebrewing before this.