Last time, we looked at all of the equipment we’ll need for our first homebrew, plus a bunch of stuff that we don’t need need, but that is Major League Nice-to-Have Town. Now, we need something to put in it.
Today, we’ll look at
Beer is made from four key ingredients: water, sugar (fermentable sugar, I should say), hops, and yeast. And actually, hops aren’t technically required, but you’ll hardly ever see a beer without them. Three plus a yeah-but-not-technically, we’ll say.
Water — A tasteless, odorless, and nearly colorless chemical required to sustain all terrestrial life. It is the most common molecule on Earth, and can be found covering approximately 70% of its surface. It is a liquid at room temperature, and the Celsius temperature scale is based around its freezing and boiling points, which are defined as 0 ºC and 100 ºC, respectively. The refractive index of water for the yellow sodium D line at 20 ºC is 1.333. It is commonly available from taps installed in most buildings.
Water will make up more than 90% of your beer, and so I highly suggest that you purchase a water filter attachment for your kitchen sink. Purchase bottled water for your beer only if your tap water tastes genuinely bad — your particular tap water will impart its own unique character to your beer. As long as your water tastes good, you should use it in your beer. An entire science exists around the replication of specific brewing waters. It’s that important.
Fermentable sugar — Your primary source of fermentable sugars will be malted barley. Barley is a grain that is very similar to wheat in appearance. Malted barley is created by steeping barley in water until it begins to sprout. The germinated barley is then dried. This germination produces some sugars, along with starches that are converted to sugar in a process called mashing. These sugars will be converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide during the fermentation process.
These surgars can also be derived from wheat, rye, and other grains. Some breweries, particularly the big American ones, also use rice and/or corn. If I may be permitted a brief editorial, please please please don’t emulate these breweries.
Hops — Green, conelike flowers that grow on long, green vines (or bines, technically). These add bitterness and floral flavor and aroma to your beer. Some hops also impart citrusy, earthy, or spicy flavors. There are dozens upon dozens of different hop varieties, but you’ll probably quickly find a few that are your favorites. Americans are particularly fond of the “C” hops, (i.e. Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, etc.)
Yeast — Microorganisms that eat sugar and excrete alcohol, carbon dioxide, and various other byproducts depending on the strain. Different yeast strains will produce beer with different flavors, but the end result, barring contamination, is the conversion of sugar to alcohol.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: Homebrewers do not make beer. Yeast makes beer. The stuff that homebrewers make is a non-alcoholic tea called wort (pronounced wert). Yeast then converts the sugars in the wort to alcohol and carbon dioxide, turning the wort into beer. They don’t get paid for this, and many of them die in the process or are discarded afterward. They have a terrible union.
Your First Recipe
I’ll make this easy for you. For our first homebrewed beer, we’ll use Morebeer.com’s Extra Special Bitter kit. This kit contains all of the ingredients you’ll need, minus yeast, which can be found here. This is the same kit that Mel and I used in our first homebrew. It’s an easy recipe to start with, and the results will probably knock your sock off. New socks can be found here.
Let’s go over what’s included in the kit.
The kit comes with 7 lbs of Ultralight Malt Extract. Malt extract exists to make your life easier. No malting, no mashing — that work has been done for you. After mashing, most of the water is removed from the resulting liquid, producing a concentrated syrup that happens to be one of the most delicious substances known to man. Almost all of your fermentable sugars in almost all of your recipes will come from malt extract (unless you eventually decide to try mashing yourself — we haven’t braved that yet, and probably won’t until we have a house to do it in).
In addition to the extract, the kit also includes 8 oz of Crystal Malt 40L, 8 oz of Honey Malt, and 4 oz of Special Roast. These are what we typically call specialty grains, malts that we will steep in our wort, allowing them to add their unique characteristics to the beer. In this particular case, Crystal Malt adds color; Honey Malt adds a sweet, nutty flavor; and Special Roast adds a biscuity flavor and a deep, orange color.
In general, the more malts that are used in a beer, the heavier and more alcoholic the beer is. This recipe uses a moderate amount of malts. A light lager would probably use half as much malt, while a big barleywine might use as much as 11 – 12 lbs of malt extract along with another pound or two of specialty grains. There is a lot of room for experimentation, and no two beers are the same!
The kit contains 1 oz of Magnum hop pellets, and two 2 oz packages of Kent Goldings hop pellets. We’ll get into more detail about how we’re using these hops when we get to brewing. As for what hop pellets are, they are hops, simple as that. Okay, they look like rabbit food after having been squeezed down into pellets, but ounce for ounce, they’re exactly the same thing, only they stay fresher longer and are more convenient to store.
Magnum hops are primarily used for bittering, because they are very, very good at it. You can get a lot of bitterness out of a little bit of Magnum, and the bitterness they impart is so smooth that even people who are typically sensitive to hop bitterness can enjoy the flavors it provides. You may find yourself using this one frequently.
Kent Goldings hops have a mellow, flowery aroma and flavor that perfectly compliments malty beers. Many English beers use them to great effect.
The yeast we are using is called English Ale yeast, produced by White Labs. These little guys impart a rich, malty taste to the beers that they make. During fermentation, they also produce organic compounds called esters, which add a slightly fruity flavor and aroma to the beer.
Based on the combination of malts, hops, and yeast that we are using, we should expect a semi-sweet, nutty, mellow, flowery, slightly fruity beer. That’s a lot of different flavors from just a few ingredients! Already, you should be seeing the power of homebrewing.
By now, you’ve noticed two more ingredient bags in your ESB kit: a little, white tablet labeled Whirlfloc, and a 4 oz bag of white corn sugar.
The Whirlfloc tablet is what’s called a clarifier. During the boil, you’re going to see lots of little globs of stuff floating around the pot. Whirlfloc (also called Irish moss in some circles) helps to precipitate these globs out of suspension, giving you a clearer beer in the end.
The corn sugar will find use in a couple of weeks, when you are ready to bottle the beer. By this time, almost all of the fermentable sugar in the beer will have been eaten by the yeast. But we need to carbonate the beer, and the only easy way to do that is to have the yeast produce carbon dioxide!
To remedy this, we will add just a little bit more sugar before the beer is bottled, in a process called priming. The yeast remaining in suspension in the beer at the time of bottling will then turn the sugar into carbon dioxide, which the caps on the bottles will hold in, forcing it to dissolve into the beer, creating carbonation. But, more on that later.
In our next article, we’ll learn about the most exciting part of brewing: sanitation! I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun it is!
After that, we’ll get to brewing. Don’t worry.