Beer ingredients aren’t complicated: if you have four ingredients, you can brew a beer. Of course, diving deeper into each ingredient reveals intricacies and details. You could spend years researching each ingredient.
The base ingredients for beer are water, grain, hops, and yeast. Brewers often add adjuncts for flavor, or compounds to clear the beer up or aid in fermentation.
We’ll go over the basics of each ingredient, so you can brew with confidence. You’ll understand the purpose of an adjunct and the different types of yeast.
What are the key ingredients of beer?
Water, grain, hops, and yeast are the building blocks of beer. If all you have are these four ingredients, you have enough to make a great beer. In fact, if you were in Germany, the beer purity law would restrict you to these ingredients!
Each one of these ingredients is a deep, nuanced topic. People have spent years travelling the world to research these in-depth. We’ve even recently discovered new strains of yeast that upend brewing. Our brief overview is a great launchpad into more research.
90 to 95 percent of beer is water. It may not seem like an “ingredient”, but having the right water is the first step of brewing. Everyone has access to tap water. So, the most common method of getting brewing water is adjusting the water you already have access to.
If you’re happy to drink your own water, in general it should be fine for brewing. Sometimes, though, tap water smells like chlorine or other chemicals. In those cases, you can try filtered water, bottled water, or reverse osmosis water for brewing.
Different styles work better with different kinds of water. This is one of the reasons why particular kinds of beers are more popular in specific areas. Their water lends itself well to brewing those beers, so they only need to adjust it a little.
The first step to perfecting your water is figuring out exactly what’s in it. There are plenty of labs that will analyze a sample of your water for a fee. Most of the time, though, it’s not necessary to do that. The best and easiest step is to contact your water company.
If you’re lucky, a water report from your area may be available online. If you use these, keep in mind that the values are averages over the course of a year. You’ll experience fluctuations depending on the season. We recommend speaking to the water utility because they may share this information.
Water adjustments concern two factors: pH and hardness. Both of these can be adjusted before and during the mash. You may not adjust the same way for every beer, though. Some beers need a lower pH or more hardness for their style.
You should adjust for pH on a brew-by-brew basis. The grains you add to the water will drastically change the pH, so what the water starts as isn’t as relevant. You may need to buy pH testing strips or a pH meter to measure this.
The optimal pH for a mash is in the range of 5.2-5.5. This is slightly acidic. If your water is too soft your pH will be higher than this, and you can add calcium. This is usually in the form of calcium chloride or gypsum. If your water is too hard, your pH will be lower and you will instead add calcium bicarbonate.
Most of the flavor of your beer comes from its grain. For brewing, it can’t just be picked from the field and used. It has to be malted. This process involves allowing it to sprout in a wet, warm place. This breaks down the complex carbohydrates in the kernel and allows you to access the sugars.
The vast majority of your grain in any brew will be a “base malt”. This is a light-colored grain that is easy to extract sugar from, and is very commonly made of barley. Some examples of this type are 2-row pale malt, munich malt, and pilsner malt.
For many styles, using a base grain is enough to get the flavor that you’re looking for. However, some styles use specialty malts that impart other flavors into the beer. Brewers add these in small amounts compared to the base grain.
Crystal and caramel malts are one such specialty grain. These are categorized based on how long they’ve been roasted. Long-roasted crystal malts will add a roasted flavor to the beer and darken its color. Lighter ones will add sweetness and caramel flavors instead.
When we go darker than crystal malts, we get roasted malt. Roasted malts are especially popular for stouts and porters. They impart a roasted flavor reminiscent of dark chocolate or coffee. Common names for these grains are chocolate malt or black malt, depending on how dark they are.
Flaked Barley and Other Starches
These adjunct grains are not malted, which means there is no sugar available for a brewer to extract. Their purpose is to add flavor to the final beer, as well as head retention. You can’t use these as a base malt, but you often add them in small amounts to the recipe.
The most common style that uses flaked oats or barley is the stout. These heavy-bodied beers often taste smooth and silky, which is due to this ingredient. Oatmeal stouts in particular use flaked oats in many recipes.
When a homebrewer sees a hop, most of the time it’s in the form of a dried pellet. It’s actually a plant, a vine that produces the ubiquitous “cone” pattern you may see in many hop company’s logos. The pellet form makes the hop less perishable, more reliable, and accessible anywhere.
In brewing, hops add flavor, smell, and bitterness to the beer. They’re essential for very bitter styles such as IPAs, but they’re a part of almost every beer. Some of their compounds are antibacterial as well, which helps you avoid infections.
The variety of hops is astounding. Each of them have their own flavors, from floral to citrus to pine. They also have their own alpha acids, which determine how bitter they will make the beer. For example, Amarillo hops are popular for their medium bitterness and citrus flavors.
Bittering hops have a high alpha acid content and create the bitter flavor in the beer. For this to work, you have to boil them for at least 45 minutes. They’re usually added in the first 15 minutes of the boil for this reason.
These hops do contain oils with flavor and aroma, but they are fragile. An hour of boiling is more than enough to destroy those oils, leaving you only with the bitterness. Some common bittering hops are Centennial, Magnum, and Nugget.
These hops focus on the flavors, not on the bitterness. Their alpha acid level is relatively low, but they have a lot of oils that will impart flavor and scent to your beer. Some common aroma hops include Saaz, Fuggle, and Willamette.
The oils in these hops are very fragile. If you add them too soon, all the flavors and aromas will boil away. The best time to add these are in the last few minutes of the boil or after fermentation has completed, to preserve as much flavor as possible.
Yeast are, simply put, magical beings. Without their ability to eat up all the sugars in your wort, it would never turn into beer. Their main purpose is to consume sugars and expel CO2 and alcohol.
They exist in the air everywhere — this is how beer was originally made, allowing the wild yeast to ferment the wort. However, modern techniques have isolated the organism and packaged it. We no longer need to expose our beers to potential infection.
Some yeast is “neutral” because it adds no discernable flavors to the beer. Others may be chosen for their complex flavor profile. In general, two categories comprise the world of yeast: ale yeast and lager yeast.
Ale yeast is also known as “top-fermenting yeast” because the yeast will float on top of the beer during fermentation. It will ferment effectively at room temperature and works fast. Many ale yeasts create interesting flavors at room temperature. This includes flavors such as esters, chemical compounds that taste like bananas.
Ale yeast is generally used for styles such as porters, stouts, wheat beers, and, of course, ales.
Lager yeast is bottom-fermenting. When the yeast begins to eat, it sinks to the bottom instead of rising to the top. They take much longer to ferment, a few weeks instead of a few days. They also need to be kept at a lower temperature, generally below 60 degrees fahrenheit or so.
Lager yeast works well with lagers, but also pilsners, bocks, and even malt liquor. It tends to have no added flavors and ferments cleanly.
What else can you add to beer?
Water, grains, hops, and yeast is enough to make many styles of beer. However, the world of brewing ingredients is expanding every day. Whether it’s a peanut butter stout, a strawberry lager, or any type of gose, adjuncts are often vital.
Brewers often also use compounds that improve the beer without changing the flavor. You can use these ingredients to clarify your beer or reduce foam, for example.
“Adjunct” is a category that encompasses almost anything that’s not a base ingredient. The goal of an adjunct is to add a flavor or aroma to a beer. Some beers wouldn’t be what they are without their adjuncts.
For example, the gose is a style that relies heavily on its adjuncts. Every gose has coriander and salt added in some form. Fruit beers are also almost impossible to make without adding fruit or fruit juice.
The goal of fining agents isn’t to add flavor, but to make your beer clearer. They remove yeast that are still floating in the beer and proteins that cause haziness. One of the most common is irish moss, which is added during the boil and helps the particles sink to the bottom.
Gelatin and isinglass are also common fining agents after fermentation. It’s worth noting that both of these ingredients are made from animals, so they aren’t vegetarian.
Anti-foaming agents stop foaming at two critical points in brewing. The first time is during the boil. The proteins in the grains tend to foam as they boil, which can build up and boil over in seconds.
They’re also used during fermentation to prevent the foam buildup on top of the wort. If the krausen, the foam that forms when beer is fermenting, is too tall, it may come out of your airlock or blowoff tube.
The most common anti-foaming agent is Fermcap-S. It’s an oil sold in tiny amounts, as only a few drops will do the job. Other anti-foaming agents work in much the same way, but have generic names.
The world of beer ingredients is wide. Each one of these sections could be expanded into an entire book. We would know — we own those books. Once you have a handle on the overarching categories, though, you have a great base to experiment from.
You should now be able to read a homebrew recipe and understand the purpose of the ingredients. You could even use this knowledge to make your own recipes. Do you have any questions about the ingredients? A favorite adjunct to share? Let us know!
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do beer ingredients last?
If you store your ingredients properly, they can last a very long time. You should keep grains dry and cool in airtight containers. If they’re stored this way, they can last up to a few years, although crushed grain has a shorter shelf life.
You should freeze hops for long-term storage. If they are refrigerated and still in their package, they can last up to a year. Once it’s opened, though, the light and oxygen introduced into the package will break the hops down. Their oils are very fragile, which is why they’re packaged with so much care.
Yeast is sold either dry or in liquid form. The dry form will last several years, while the liquid form’s shelf life is around 6 months. However, yeast is a living being and reproduces when used. A simple yeast starter can save yeast from the brink of death.
Where do I buy beer ingredients?
You have two options for buying most ingredients: online or in your Local Homebrew Store (LHBS). Some adjuncts may be available in grocery stores though, such as coriander or fruit juice.
It’s always a good idea to support your LHBS if you can, but sometimes you can’t buy through them or don’t have one in your area. In that case, plenty of online retailers exist that will ship you your ingredients. Some common retailers are Northern Brewer and MoreBeer.
I have specific dietary restrictions. Can I still brew and drink beer?
Beer is becoming more friendly towards people that are vegan, vegetarian, or have celiac disease (gluten-free). However, some of those restrictions are easier to get around than others.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, a brewery may use isinglass to make their beer clearer. This is an animal product, and thus is not vegetarian or vegan. You don’t need to clarify your beer this way, so as a homebrewer you can make only vegan beer without many changes.
Gluten-free beer is much harder, considering the importance of grain as an ingredient. Some brewers brew entirely with other ingredients such as sorghum, rice, or corn. These are grains that don’t contain gluten. They will then add unfermentable sugars and other flavorings as adjuncts. These imitate the flavors you might get from the sugars in barley or wheat.
Professional breweries increasingly use modern methods to remove gluten from beers as well. Some people who are sensitive or allergic to gluten can enjoy these beers as well. These methods aren’t very practical for a homebrewer, unfortunately.