One of the easiest ways to save money as you begin homebrewing more often — and a way to ensure you have ingredients on hand when you decide to brew up a batch of beer on a whim — is to purchase ingredients in bulk. The initial investment is higher, but by the time you get to the end of your 50 lb. (23 kg) bag of base malt, or 1 lb. (0.45 kg) bag of hops, the price you have paid may be less than half that compared to buying the same amount of ingredients on a batch-by-batch basis.
One of the perceived downsides of this approach is freshness of ingredients. Yes, using the freshest ingredients is always best, so it will not pay to buy ingredients that will be left sitting around for longer than they will be good for, but if you brew often enough to use the malts and hops before the quality begins to degrade, you may find it worthwhile to purchase in bulk. That is, if you know how to properly store your ingredients. For this column, we’re going to focus on malt and hops, which are the two ingredients used in (almost) every homebrew recipe and most commonly available to homebrewers in bulk.
The primary enemy to stored grains is moisture. While the first inclination to store malt may be to refrigerate or freeze it, these environments usually have a higher moisture content than open air and will actually be more detrimental! Instead, grains should be kept in a dry environment with limited temperature fluctuation, around 50–70 °F (10–21 °C). Store the grains in the original packaging until opened, and then in an airtight container for best results. In addition to temperature considerations, storage should also be in an area with low-humidity and free from pests (mice, insects, etc.) that may be interested in a snack.
When purchasing grains that will be stored, the best option is to purchase them un-milled and wait until brew day to crush the amount you will need for that batch. Humidity will have a greater, and quicker, impact on milled grains — however if properly stored, milled base malt should still be good for 6 months with minimal depreciation. Longer than that and you should expect a loss of aroma, however the malt will likely still be OK to use if kept dry.
Bags of bulk-purchased grains often have a “best by” date printed on them. This date should be observed, however the grains may still be suitable past this date. If you question the quality of the grains, the best test is to taste them. Grab a small handful of grains and chew on them. If they do not taste stale or have a mealy texture, than the grain should be fine.
If stored at a consistent temperature below 70 °F (21 °C), unopened liquid malt extract (LME) will have a long shelf life (up to a couple of years) without significant depreciation. Better yet, frozen LME should last indefinitely (however, freezers with thaw cycles may cause water in the LME to separate and risk mold growth). LME should never be exposed to temperatures above 90 °F (32 °C) as this can cause Maillard reactions that will change the color and taste. If purchased in bulk, a good idea is to divide the LME into amounts typically used in single batches in Ziplock bags, removing the air, and then freezing.
Dried malt extract can be stored like whole grains, however moisture is even more detrimental as it will turn the DME into a brick, and possibly lead to mold growth. Stored properly, it has a very long shelf life. “Although we recommend using dry malt extract within two years, if stored properly in a dry place (humidity is the enemy) and an airtight container, this product can have an indefinite shelf life,” says Aaron Hyde, Director of Homebrewing at Briess.
Unlike grains, hops should always be stored in cold environments — refrigerating them is OK for short-term storage, but freezing them is better, especially for long-term storage. The other concern with stored hops is air contact. Over time, oxygen exposure will lead to a loss of alpha acids (bitterness). Leave hops in the original packaging (which should be air-tight or purged with nitrogen) until use, and then repackage the unused hops in as airtight of packaging as possible. If you have a vacuum sealer, that may be the best way to re-package hops, however a Ziplock bag with as much air squeezed out as possible will do the job. Stored like this, hops in all forms will see minimal degradation in a freezer. Pellets will usually degrade slower than whole leaf hops, but both can be stored for a year (or two, or three) in proper conditions with little negative impact.