OK, so now you have all your equipment. But where is the beer? What do you use to make this stuff?
According to the Reinheitsgebot or German Beer Purity Law originating in 1487, the only ingredients which could be used in the production of beer were water, barley, and hops. That has since been amended to allow only malted barley, but adds malted wheat and cane sugar. It also now recognizes yeast as the fermenting organism which was unknown at the time the law was enacted. Yeast was discovered by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century.
The Belgians right next door have historically scoffed at the law, deciding they will use whatever they want to produce their very unique style of beer. Brewers around the world, including Germany, are no longer constrained by this law but it is still held sacred in many areas.
As the Reinheitsgebot states, the ingredients for beer are: good clean water, malted grains, hops, and yeast. Lets start with the water.
Water sources around world vary widely in the source, quality, mineral content, filtration, municipal treatment plants, etc. But, beer is made nearly everywhere around the world in one form or another. The water in England is very hard with a high mineral content. The water in Ireland is softer and the water in most of Germany is softer still. Water across the US varies significantly from city to city and in rural ares. Yet all these places make world class beer.
A simple rule of thumb, if your water is good to drink, it will be OK to brew with. Here in Colorado Springs we have some of the purest water for brewing that can be found. I use a two-stage under-sink water filter just because I wanted to but began brewing with just tap water. There are water treatments you can add to increase the mineral content of your water to more closely duplicate styles from around the world. The most common are Burton Water Salts, Gypsum, Calcium Carbonate, and Calcium Chloride. There are even styles of beer that use plain old table salt.
Most home brewers start with liquid (LME) or dry (DME) malt extracts. These are prepared for you to skip the mashing and sparging process and just start boiling the wort. These extracts are available from Extra Light to Extra Dark, wheat or barley, plain or hopped and can be used to make very good beer. I like to equate using these to opening a can of soup, adding water, and heating it up, perfectly acceptable. Many of these extracts are sold in Beer Recipe Kits to make a specific style of beer and may have some specialty grains already in the extract or included in the kit.
All-Grain brewing is just what it sounds like, brewing with malted grains instead of prepared extracts. But what is malted grain?
Malting of grain is done after harvest. The grains are spread evenly, usually on the floor of a large warehouse or malthouse, where it is steeped in water to increase the moisture content and held at constant temperature for the grains to germinate or sprout. At this point the grain has developed its maximum starch content. The grain is then air dried to stop the growth and kilned for varying lengths of time at specific temperatures to produce the desired color and specification. Malted grains range from pale to crystal to amber to chocolate to black and everything in between. The primary workhorse or base malt for most beers is 2-Row Pale Malt. Most others are typically considered specialty malts and are used in unlimited combinations to produce a beer’s particular malt character.
Hops are the female flower cones of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. They are the bittering, flavoring and stability agent in beer. There are many different varieties of hops, each with its own unique flavor profile. Some are used as just a bittering agent, others for their particular flavor or aroma. It seems each year the hop growers develop new varieties. Hops are available in two different forms, hop pellets or whole cone hops. The advantage to hop pellets is better alpha acid or flavor extraction. Whole cone or leaf hops seem to me to be more authentic and are much easier to strain out of the wort at the end of the boil. You can even put them in a muslin hop bag and just remove the whole bag. Pellets don’t work in bags so well as they disintegrate and escape the bag. But really either form or a combination is fine.
Yeast is the magic ingredient. It consumes the sugars produced from the mashed grains or from the extracts and converts it into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and a myriad of other trace compounds. It is available in dry or liquid form and in many different strains to produce nearly any style of beer you wish. Dry yeast is the least expensive option but has had a reputation for not being as pure as the liquid form. I have never had a problem using it. It is produced by several manufacturers both in the US and overseas. Liquid yeast for home brewing is produced in the US primarily by two manufacturers, Wyeast and White Labs.
Adjuncts are other ingredients used to increase the gravity of your beer or to add flavors. Some of these are sugars, honey, molasses, fruit syrups, oak chips, chocolate, and spices. There is really no end to what kind of beer you can make. If you think it sounds good, try it. It will probably be wonderful!
Now…Go make that beer!