Beer Ingredients : The Foundation of Brewing

The first in a new series focusing on beer ingredients, in this article I give an introduction to the four main components of home brew: malt, hops, yeast and water.

beer ingredients hops malt yeast water

Hops + Malt + Yeast + Water = Beer

Beer is made by fermenting a sugary liquid called wort.

Wort is made by soaking malt in water.

Often wort is boiled with bitter hops which counteract the sweet malt taste.

Fermentation is performed by yeast.

This is beer making in a nutshell.

(Here’s the longer version).

Although many grains can be used (rice, wheat, corn etc.) most beer, and therefore most home brew, is made from malted barley.

Seasoning can also be achieved with many elements. Juniper, peppermint or anything else for that matter all work, but nowadays it’s most common for brewers to use hops. This tradition developed for a variety of reasons, the principal one being that hops are preservative.

So, along with water and yeast, hops and malt are the foundation of brewing.

Let’s look at these ingredients in more detail.


beer ingredients malt

What is Malt?

Malt is cereal grain that’s been germinated (encouraged to start growing) and then quickly dried in a kiln. The process produces enzymes inside the grain that are capable of converting starches already present into sugars. Ordinarily this is useful for the plant as it grows.

Brewers take advantage of this natural phenomenon by soaking the malt in water using a brewing technique called mashing. This encourages the enzymes to convert the starch to sugar, making a sweet, flavourful wort that eventually becomes beer.

Many grains can be malted but, when soaked, not all produce as many fermentable sugars as barley. This is one explanation for barley’s triumph as the beer grain of choice.

This full and interesting account of the malting process, on the BeerSmith blog, is a good listen if you’d like to know more.

Types of Malt

Depending on the kilning temperature and schedule the malting process gives different results.

The longer malt is kilned, the darker it becomes and, generally speaking, the more flavour it has. Note that more flavour doesn’t mean better flavour.

Examples of kilned malt are:

These malts offer varying tastes and levels of ‘maltiness’ but all make a good base for beer.

In addition, there are highly kilned, very dark malts:

Similar to burnt toast, the flavour of these malts can be overpoweringly bitter. They are used to fine-tune beer flavours and colours, rather than provide the bulk of a grain bill.

Speciality Malt

You may have heard the expression caramel malt. This is slightly different in that it’s been steeped in water before being heated and dried. This process leads to caramel flavours developing in the grain.

Because sugar extracted from caramel malt is not as fermentable as that drawn from base malt, caramel is used to add body to beer as well as toffee-like flavours.

Caramel malt is sometimes called crystal malt. It is available in many varieties which are defined by colour.


beer ingredients hops

Because wort is very sweet, brewing traditions developed to include bitter herbs. In the past beer was seasoned with all sorts of things, but hops have emerged as the primary bittering agent.

The hop plant produces cone-shaped flowers containing resins of bitter alpha acids. These must be boiled in order to mix with water, as you’ll know if you’re already a brewer.

The amount of bitterness extracted depends on a variety of factors including type of hop and length of boil. This can be calculated fairly accurately, and is expressed by the unit of measurement known as the IBU.

As well as bitterness, hops also have oils that add flavour and aroma. These are much more delicate than alpha acids and don’t respond well to the boil.

For this reason there are usually several hop additions during the boil. Hops present for the full boil provide bitterness, while the ones thrown in in the last five minutes generally add nothing but flavour and aroma.

With similar thinking, brewers often add more hops to the beer part way through the fermentation. This technique, known as dry hopping, leaves much more aroma and flavour and is characteristic of hoppy beers such as IPA.

Varieties of Hop

There are many types of hop available to the home brewer. Previously they were a regional product but now it’s possible to get hold of almost any kind, anywhere.

The alpha acid content varies depending on the hop variety; it’s important to consider this when choosing hops.

As a general rule of thumb, high alpha acid hops (e.g. 7% and above) are used for bittering and are added at the beginning of the boil.

Examples include:

  • Brewers Gold
  • Magnum
  • Nugget
  • Warrior

Lower alpha acid hops usually have more refined and delicate flavours and are used mainly for flavouring.

Examples include:

Recipes often specify hops according to regional custom. For example East Kent Goldings feature strongly in English bitters, while American ales may opt instead for Cascade.


beer ingredients yeast

After you’ve made wort from malt and boiled it with hops to balance the flavours, you’re ready to ferment.

Yeast are a type of fungus. Humans have long used yeast in brewing because of its ability to produce CO2 and alcohol from sugar.

Today brewers add yeast to wort to purposefully start a fermentation but in the past this often happened spontaneously. The wooden fermenting bin contained a resident culture for example.

In some Belgian traditions, namely Lambic beers, wild yeast are encouraged into the wort, giving the beer a distinctive tangy taste.

Types of Yeast

The main distinction in brewing yeast is between lager and ale varieties. Lager yeast work in cold conditions, while ale yeast ferment at warmer temperatures.

Because lager yeast work at lower temperatures, the fermentation takes longer. This extra long conditioning process is known as lagering, and results in exceptionally pure and clear beer.

Lagers are crisp while ales are complex and fruity. Contrary to intuition, it’s harder to brew lager than ale because any slight off-flavour stands out like a sore thumb.

As well as this fundamental choice, there are many sub-varieties of yeast available to you. Some yeast strains take a back seat, while others contribute strong flavours.

As with hops, yeast is often local in character. Belgian yeast produces different beer to English, Czech to German, and so on.


beer ingredients water

Water is an important brewing ingredient because it makes up the bulk of the drink.

Historically, the available water had a big impact of the type of beer brewed and led to the invention of key beer styles.

Hard water in Burton-On-Trent was ideal for pale ales while the soft water of Dublin made for great stout. These days it ‘s not such a regional concern as you can easily add minerals to change your tap water to match any profile you like. As usual the level of control is endless.

Most brewers get by without any water treatment. However, if you do nothing else leave the water to stand for twenty four hours before brewing, to allow any chlorine to evaporate off. Otherwise this invasive flavour will come through in your beer.

More Brewing Ingredients

As well as the above power ingredients, the options for extending the taste of your beer are never-ending.

The beer flavour balance hovers between sweet and bitter, and you can add ingredients from each camp.

Here is just an idea of the possibilities:

  • Cloves
  • Coffee
  • Ginger
  • Heather
  • Honey
  • Juniper
  • Mint
  • Nuts
  • Pumpkin
  • Sage

Have a look at Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher if you’re interested in these extra ingredients.

To further my understanding of brewing ingredients I’ve started a compendium of beer ingredients.

I’m continually adding to it, so be sure to check it out if you want to find out more yourself.

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  1. Frank D. Harrisson

    Great article, I appreciated it. Interesting though is about Youngling Brewery. They hold the record for continuous operation in the USA. On their way to Mahanoy City Pennsylvania on the banks of the Schuylkill River the Youngling brothers had to hide and sneak out the yeast in Bavaria as it was against the law to export it, a brewers secret. Well they got it here and let it multiply again and again. This says to me that not any yeast will do and also why I prefer Youngling Beer.

    • John

      Thanks for sharing that interesting story. Yeast can certainly make a difference to your beer.