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Beer flavor and aroma can be quite complex, so it’s a bit of a surprise that there are only 4 main ingredients in beer. These beer ingredients are also quite simple. Whether you're making beer at home or it’s being brewed at a commercial brewery, the most common ingredients used to make beer are;
Beer recipes have also been very consistent for hundreds of years and the same ingredients that were used centuries ago are still being used today. The oldest regulation related to food and drink in the entire world is the German Beer Purity Law, Reinheitsgebot. It stated that the only allowable ingredients for brewing beer were water, barley, and hops (they omitted yeast, possibly only because its mechanics were not fully understood at the time).
When compared to the old Purity Law, the current list of the most common beer ingredients used today has really only been expanded to include other cereal grains (listed below). There are, of course, a whole host of various specialty items (like marshmallows, lavender, and fruit) that have made their way into modern beer. But good brewers only add these sparingly, and ideally they enhance, as opposed to detract from the final results.
Water is the most prominent ingredient in beer by volume. Beer is actually (typically) more than 90% water, so the quality of the water used to brew beer is quite important. At the home brewing level, the most common types of water used to make beer are;
- well water,
- tap water,
- spring water,
- distilled water, and
- reverse osmosis water.
Modern commercial brewing methods involve precise water chemistry adjustments in order to mute or highlight certain elements of aroma and flavor. But today even home brewers have access to detailed water chemistry information and tools that make adjusting water chemistry easy. Well discuss the various types of water and what needs to be done to use it, if anything, below.
Well water is certainly used by some folks to brew beer. However, it’s the most risky. The naturally occuring flavor of well water can definitely make its way into the final product, which isn’t always ideal. Also the minerals in well water can interact with beer ingredients in a negative way. Well water is also somewhat of a wild card because even if it tastes good and water chemistry is tested to verify mineral content, an influx of new groundwater due to storms above can rapidly change the chemistry.
Our opinion is that well water isn’t the ideal source for brewing water. We think it’s the best candidate for reverse osmosis filtration, which will strip the water of its natural taste and flavor, as well as minerals. This way brewers using well water will have a blank canvas to start with and the water chemistry will surely be ideal.
We’ve used tap water to brew hundreds of gallons of beer, often with only minimal adjustment. For example, for probably 75% of the beer we brew we only adjust the water by adding half of a campden tablet to the kettle before beginning the brew day. Campden removes chlorine and chloramine which is common in almost all tap water in the United States.
However, occasionally water chemistry can make or break a beer style. For example, when brewing very dark beers, very light beers, or west coast and hazy IPAs, we’ll still add the campden but will also adjust water chemistry further.
One advantage of using tap water is that water chemistry details can often be downloaded from local MSD websites. These data sheets typically list all of the pH and mineral content needed for perfectly dialing in brewing water chemistry.
The most common changes we make for tap water are adjusting pH (for light and dark beers) and changing the sulfate to chloride ratio for bitter beers like west coast IPAs and softer beers like New England IPAs.
Spring water is a great choice for making beer. It typically tastes great and has a netural pH and low mineral content. This gives brewers a fairly neutral palette to start with for making adjustments. Also, campden isn’t needed because there shouldn’t be any chlorine or chloramine to get rid of. So, if you’re looking to brew beer without having to make any adjustments at all, spring water is the best choice.
However, if you’re looking to make precise water chemistry adjustments to match a specific style, spring water is a bit less ideal. To make water chemistry adjustments you’ll need to know the “starting” mineral content. I.e. what is already there? Manufacturers don’t publish mineral content on the labeling so there will be no way to know the exact mineral content of the water before calculating for adjustments. Even if you can find mineral content on the web for bottled water, it’s likely wrong. For example, Crystal Geyser has 7 bottling plants in the United States that literally span the entire country.
Distilled water will be similar to spring water but there will be almost no mineral content at all. This can become an issue during fermentation if yeast are not able to consume adequate amounts of the minerals they need.
If distilled water is used to brew all-grain beer, water chemistry adjustments definitely need to be made and “brewing salts” will need to be added to the water. However, various sources on the internet say that distilled water is fine when used to brew extract beer because malt extract contains (presumably, added) minerals necessary for fermentation.
Reverse Osmosis Water
Reverse osmosis filtration removes almost all mineral content from drinking water. Brewing with reverse osmosis water is a bad choice for those who aren’t going to do any adjustments. However, for folks who want to adjust water chemistry, reverse osmosis water is a great water source.
Grain is the second most prominent ingredient in beer, by volume. The most commonly used grains for making beer are;
- corn, and
Other types of grains are also used to brew beer, but these are the most common. For example millet, quinoa, buckwheat, and others are used to make gluten free beer. But these types of grains are not typically included in “normal” beer recipes.
Remember the Reinheitsgebot German Beer Purity Law we discussed earlier? Barley was the only grain allowed in beer according to that decree.
Honestly, beer hasn’t changed a ton since then and barley is still by far the most commonly used grain in beer. In fact, we’ve brewed a lot of SMASH beers where malted barley is the only grain in the recipe.
However, it’s hard to nail down the characteristic taste, color and aroma that barley creates in a beer due to the fact that there are a LOT of different types of barley malt. This is because barley is kilned during processing and the level of kilning has a significant impact on how it affects beer.
Wheat is another fairly common ingredient used to make beer. It contains a lot of protein which makes beer hazy. It also makes for fairly light bodied beers with a solid and long lasting head. It’s hard to nail down the characteristic flavor of wheat, but it definitely exists. It’s a soft and light flavor that still has a bit of a bite. If you’re into beer and food pairing, wheat beers are best paired with lighter fare when making complementary matches.
Rye is said to impart a crisp, spicy, and dry character to beer. We think it’s the perfect addition for more aggressive beer recipes. Telluride Brewing Co.’s Bridal Veil Rye Pale Ale is a great example of this. As far as ales go, this one has a ton of character and perfectly embodies how rye can “spice up” a recipe.
However, before you go crazy with rye in a beer recipe, understand that it can be difficult to work with. Making a beer with a large amount of rye will make for a more foamy, gummy mash. So be careful.
Oats are said to impart a smooth and rich flavor to beer with a thicker mouthfeel. It’ll also add a bit of haze due to the protein content. Adding a lot of oat definitely produces a characteristic “oaty” taste. This is a weird way to describe it, but you know how Lucky Charms cereal tastes? Not the marshmallow, the cereal. That’s the taste of oats. Lucky Charms is primarily made with oats. In fact, we got crazy once and made a cereal milk stout beer with a few boxes of the stuff. We wanted to hate it…but it was delicious.
Just so we’re on the same page, it’s well worth clarifying that brewers typically brew with ‘flaked maize,” not cracked corn. Flaked maize has been gelatinized and is easy to convert into sugar during a typical mash. Cracked corn needs to be cooked to soften the grain and break down starches before they can be turned into sugar by enzymes during the mash. Cracked corn can be used, but it’s a pain to deal with.
Corn is a common ingredient in commercially produced light beers because it’s inexpensive and produces a light colored beer with a low body. It’s also used in throwbacks like pre-prohobition pilsners and classic styles like the cream ale. Corn produces beer that’s light in color, light in body and smooth drinking. It’s great for rounding out an American-style light lager. But it’s not going to add a whole lot of character, if any, to a recipe.
Rice is perhaps our favorite adjunct to brew with. It catches a lot of flack because macro commercial beers like Budweiser are said to lean on rice fairly heavily, but in our opinion, that’s not such a bad thing. We’ve brewed several beers with rice and they were all delicious. In fact, our Japanese rice lager and our forbidden rice dark lager were two of the best beers we’ve ever made at home.
Adding rice to a recipe is a great way to skew the end product towards the clean, crisp, and dry end of the scale. Beers made with rice tend to have a super light body as well.
Though, be aware, as with corn, rice requires a bit of extra preparation to use. Regular rice can’t be thrown into a mash with malted barley and other grains without first cooking it. The best way to do so is cook it like one would normally cook rice for eating. However, omit the butter, salt, etc. Don’t add oil either. Butter and oil will kill head retention in the beer and could also produce a “rancid” vibe after it sits for a while.
Base Malts, Adjuncts, and Kilning
Grains are further separated into base malts and specialty malts and adjuncts. They can also be described as malted and non-malted. Additionally, grains are also kilned (dried). High-kilned malts are darker and will make the beer taste different and look darker as well. Here’s what we mean by this.
Malted grain has been germinated, the germination is then stopped, and the grain is then kilned. This produces enzymes that convert grain starch into sugar during the mash. Without these enzymes, sugar will not be produced during the brewing process unless amylase powder is added.
Unmalted or “raw” grain is often added to beer to produce a sharper taste or to increase haze. However this grain does not have the enzymes needed to turn starch into sugar and an entire batch of beer could not be made with unmalted grain alone. The addition of malted grain or amylase enzymes is necessary to create brewing sugar.
Base malt, as the name suggests, is malted grain. It also makes up the majority of all grain added to any given beer recipe. The purpose of base malt is to supply starch as well as enzymes that will convert starch (base malt starch and adjunct starch) into sugar.
Adjuncts are the specialty grains and items, which make up a small portion of the ingredients in a recipe, that are added for color and flavoring purposes. For example, this heavily roasted Midnight Wheat malt adds color and produces chocolate and roasty flavors, but it does not contain the enzymes necessary to convert starch into sugar. It also should only make up 1-7% of the grain bill. The base malts and other adjuncts will make up the rest.
Kilned and Roasted Grains
The last thing to mention about grain, which we’ve already alluded to, is that after drying some grain is kilned or roasted. This causes the husk, and sometimes even the grain, to darken. This in turn will make the beer darker. It also starts to change the flavor. Generally, the darker the kiln or roast, the more roasty and toasty the flavor of the beer!
Hops, otherwise known as Humulus lupulus L., are one of the most important beer ingredients, in terms of taste and aroma. They provide bitterness as well as a variety of other flavors and aromas. They’re also antimicrobial so they provide protection against unwanted microbes that could potentially “spoil” beer.
Currently, more than 250 varieties of hops have been cataloged, world-wide. So we aren’t going to be able to describe every variety here. However, we’ll talk a bit about the most important aspects of hops, in terms of beer flavor and aroma. We’ll also talk about the different categories of hops and different form factors that hops come in. First, the primary chemical components of the hop plant are;
- beta-acids, and
- essential oils.
Alpha acids are the main source of bittering in hops. However, alpha acids must first be isomerized in order to unleash the bitterness. Isomerization happens at high temperatures (during the boil) and the longer the boil, to an extent, the more bitterness is created. For example, a large amount of high alpha acid hops that are boiled for a long time will create a very bitter beer.
Similar to alpha-acids, beta acids also provide bitterness. However, beta-acids do not isomerize with temperature. Rather, they begin to become bitter as beer oxidizes. Which coincidentally is the opposite of of what happens to alpha-acid bitterness, which tends to fade as beer ages. Choosing a beer with high beta-acids will create a stable bitterness in beer that lasts long after alpha-acid bitterness fades.
Hop Oils / Terpenes
Hops contain oils and these oils contain terpenes. There are actually hundreds of terpenes, but there are several that stand out in hops. Most notable are myrcene, humulene, caryophyllene, and farnsene.
Myrcene presents as the aroma that most folks would generally describe as “hoppy,” but it also is described as floral and citrus. Humulene is most notable for its “spicy” contribution to flavor and aroma. Caryophyllene is most often described as “earthy.” And Farnesene is often described as woody, and herbal.
Additionally, ẞ-pinene, one of our favorites, provides a nice “piney” vibe and is the predominant aroma component in hops like Idaho 7, also one of our favorites. And limonene is best known for its orange and citrus fruit qualities. The Centennial hop varietal is high in limonene and was the predominant hop we used in our Two Hearted Ale clone.
All of these essential oils are heat sensitive (some more than others) and degrade fairly quickly when tossed into a rolling boil. For this reason, flavor and aroma hops (as opposed to bittering hops) are added either late in the boil, after the heat has been turned off, or even in the keg during fermentation.
Hop Form Factors
Hops also come packaged in a variety of ways these days. The most common form that hops arrive in are hop pellets. These are hops that have been picked, dried, and then pelletized. Non-pelletized whole cone hops are popular as well. These are hops that have been dried and then compressed, but not pelletized. Wet hops are fresh hops that have been picked and then shipped straight to the brewer so they can be used fresh, without being dried.
New Hop Products
A lot of new hop products have been developed recently. For example, a relatively new product called cryo-hops has changed the way a lot of home brewers and professional brewers make beer. Lupomax Hops and Cryo Hops are regular hops made with concentrated lupulin from whole-leaf hops. They’re designed to maximize hop flavor and aroma without imparting as much of the bitter or leafy vegetal taste.
Hop dust is pure lupulin dust that forms on the hop cones. It isn’t mixed with any vegetable or leaf matter at all and is a super potent of hop flavor and aroma goodness.
Hop oils and terpenes are concentrated oils that are extracted from whole cone hops. There are several varieties of oils. Some are designed to be added at any point during the brewing process while others are designed to be added as a dry hop addition.
Yeast is perhaps the most complicated ingredient to describe. There are only two primary types of yeast used in brewing: ale yeast and lager yeast. However, there are more than 1000 known strains of yeast suitable for brewing beer. Wild yeast and bacteria are also used to brew beer but to a much lesser extent than ale and lager yeast.
Ale yeast is a top fermenting yeast, which literally forms a floating “yeast cake” on top of the liquid during fermentation. For this reason ale yeast is often described as “top fermenting.” Ale yeast is most active at about 70F and above and as temperature drops, activity slows down. Ale yeast produces a much more flavorful beer than lager so it’s used for beers that don’t require as much of a crisp clean vibe.
Lager yeast is bottom fermenting, which means it spends it’s time beneath the liquid during fermentation. For this reason it’s often referred to as “bottom fermenting.” Lager yeast is more tolerant of lower temperatures than ale yeast and is used to ferment beers in the 55 degree range. However, lager yeast is even active at much lower temperatures and is used to “clean up” the flavor profile beer during “lagering” process, which happens near freezing. However, lager yeast also moves slower at low temperatures and lagering often takes 6 or more weeks.Within the ale and lager yeast categories exists several hundred strains of yeast with their own unique qualities. We encourage you to explore the White Labs yeast catalog to learn more.