I have just received delivery from Northern Brewer of all the ingredients I will need to start my next couple of brews. (Look for an “On Tap” update in the coming days) Since I bought a second carboy I like to use one for a regular session brew and the other for some more experimental ales that often require longer conditioning times, like the 90 minute IPA I have cold conditioning right now.
Well the delivery reminded me I need to post the Part 2 (out of 3) in my “Getting Started” series. Now we have the equipment we need to create most styles of ale its time to review the basic ingredients. This post is meant to be an introduction and we will be getting into the details and varieties as our journey progresses.
The major ingredient in homebrew is malt. Malt is a significant factor in colour (it is British Brewer after all), taste, and alcohol level in ale. Simply put malt is the product of soaking grains in water until they begin to germinate. The grains are then heated to halt the germination process. This 2-stage “malting” process causes the grains to produce essential enzymes required to modify the grains starch into sugars and enable the yeast to do its job. Different varieties of grain are used each with a specific flavour or colour characteristic. Certain varieties are toasted or smoked to produce darker, nuttier or smoked flavour characteristics. We will get into the various types of grain some other time, especially when we review recipes and the types of malt they are based on. Basically there are two categories – the Base Malt, and Specialty Malt. Base malts make up the bulk of the a batch and are typically based from one of 2 types of barley, either 2-Row or 6-Row. These grains are very efficient at breaking down the starches into sugar. Specialty malt provides a small amount of sugar but its main function is to provide, colour, flavour and body to the finished ale.
Ale made by the professionals is based on an “all-grain” process using hundreds of pounds of malt in the process. Modern homebrew technology has evolved over the years to enable us mere mortals to create all-grain based brews but the process is long, complex and requires a relatively large quantity of grain. As yet I have not attempted an all-grain process (time, money, space reasons) and instead use a combination of malt extract and a smaller amount of specialty grains.
Malt extract comes in two varieties, Dry Malt Extract (DME), and Liquid Malt Extract (LME). Both replace the need for a large quantity of base malt grains. Most suppliers provide malt extract manufactured with some flavor and color characteristics required to produce most of the popular ale styles today. Most of the recipes we will be working with will use a combination of specialty grains and malt extract.
Another significant ingredient are Hops which contribute significantly to the taste and aroma of an ale. Hop resin is made up of alpha and beta acids. Alpha acids are responsible for the bitter taste in the ale and tend to be put in at the beginning of the brew process. The higher the alpha the more bitter. Beta acids have little effect to the flavor of an ale instead providing the aroma characteristics and are added to the brew in the middle and end of the brew process. Hops are supplied dried or as pellets. I prefer pellets as they have a longer shelf life. Popular English hop varieties include Kent Goldings and Fuggles.
Finally the magic ingredient, the bacteria that converts the sugar from the malt into alcohol during the fermentation process, the brewers yeast. Yeast is also a significant contributor to the taste of an ale. There are two main types of brewers yeast, top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting. Top-fermenting yeast causes a foam to form on the top of the brew (wort) during the fermentation process, prefer higher temperatures (61 – 75 F), produce a fruitier flavour, and a higher alcohol content. These yeasts are typically used in ales. Bottom-fermenting yeast works at lower temperatures, ferments more sugars, creating a dry crispier taste and is commonly used in lagers. Yeast requires oxygenated wort in order to produce healthy yeast cells. Today yeast is sold to homebrewers in either a dried or liquid form with hundreds of different strains replicating many of the strains used all over the world by professional breweries.
There are other ingredients used in a brew, from sugar, irish moss, to speciality additions such as oak chips, spices and fruit. There are infinite possibilities of colour, taste, aroma, and strength. This is what makes homebrewing so much fun and if you can boil water on a stove and follow a simple recipe you can make great tasting ale. Next time we will introduce a basic brewing process following a simple recipe to create a British staple – Best Bitter.