Brewing your own beer is an exciting experience; you learn a lot about beer and of course, the end result is a batch of your favorite beverage. There’s a lot to learn, but having a kit to work with makes it easy to get started. However, after your first batch when you’ll most likely use the ingredients included with your home brew kit, you’ll need to start learning more about beer ingredients and more importantly, how to choose high quality ingredients to use in your home brewing projects.
There are of course, only four ingredients in most beers: water, malted barley (or in the case of some beers, barley is substituted with other grains), yeast and hops. While the basic ingredients don’t vary all that much from one beer to the next, the kind and quality of ingredients you use can make all the difference in the world. For that reason, choosing wisely is essential.
Breaking Down Your Ingredients List
Generally speaking, you won’t need to go too far out of your way to find water that's suitable for use in brewing. Tap water usually isn't the best choice, especially if your water has a lot of minerals or chlorine and you don't have a water purification system in your home. Most home brewers prefer to use store bought purified water. With that out of the way, let’s move on to the other three important ingredients.
Hops give beer its bitterness, and usually the type of hop you use will depend on the style of beer that you're brewing. The amount of bitterness varies between different hop varieties and is indicated by the International Bittering Units (IBU) rating associated with the hops. For example, an American Lager would typically use Cluster hops rated around 10 IBUs, whereas many American IPAs use Columbus hops that clock in around 50 IBUs.
For most recipes, you'll be using hops in pellet form. Pelletized hops are more concentrated, delivering more IBUs to your beer than would leaf hops. Pellet hops are also more shelf stable than whole leaf hops, so they're much easier to store until you're ready to use them. Many recipes only require pelletized hops. Whole leaf hops are used for "dry hopping" since they are easy to remove from the wort after they've done their duty. Many brewers do swear by whole leaf hops, though, as they are typically a fresher product that contribute a more intense flowery flavor.
Barley is largely responsible for the body, color and overall flavor profile of your beer. It’s also the food supply for your yeast and without it, the fermentation that makes beer possible wouldn’t happen. But before barley can be used to make beer, it goes through the process of malting. This involves steeping the barley so that it germinates, then drying and roasting the barley to a level of darkness that's appropriate for the beer style.
Needless to say, the malting process is time consuming and somewhat tedious, so most home brewers choose to purchase barley that's already been malted. For beginning brew masters and even intermediate level home brewers interested in convenience, malt extracts are the way to go. Malt extracts are available in both liquid and dry (powdered) form, and some malt extracts even include hops.
Finally we have yeast, the magical microorganism that turns the sugars in your wort into alcohol. There are some general brewers' yeasts that can be used to produce a number of beer styles, but the vast majority of beer styles will require a specific kind of yeast.
Historically yeast has been supplied in dry form, though in recent years liquid yeast packets have become all the rage. Dry yeast is usually less expensive, but it does require rehydration. Liquid yeast is on the pricier side, but there are usually a lot more varieties to choose from. Whatever kind of yeast you end up using, be sure to check the expiration date on the package.
As for how to select good quality ingredients, the answer is to buy your supplies from a reputable home brew supplier that's known for providing top quality ingredients. That’s really the only secret to getting the most out of your home brewing – but it’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten by any amateur brewer.