In full disclosure, I work for BSG, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rahr Malting Company in Shakopee, Minnesota, and do bring some bias with the answer that follows. BSG sells malt, hops, and a wide range of brewing supplies to homebrew retailers and to commercial brewers of all sizes. This is a relatively new job for me; some readers probably remember that I worked for Paul Mueller Company, a stainless steel company, for the last 20 years, and that I am also affiliated with the Springfield Brewing Company in Springfield, Missouri. OK, enough of the legal disclosure, let’s get on with this great question!
For the sake of this answer, I will assume that the four ingredient classes of beer are water, malt, hops, and yeast. If we simply look at water as a percentage of beer, it comes in at the top of the ingredient list, making up 85-90% (weight percent) of most beers.
The surprising thing to brewers who really focus on water as an ingredient, is that water is oftentimes treated like nothing very special. Some recipe writers and homebrewing books, take a generic approach to water where the same basic instructions are used for almost every beer. I am not going to focus on water in this question, but will leave the topic by encouraging brewers to give water the respect it deserves!
By weight, malt and other sources of fermentable sugars (adjunct cereal grains and brewing sugars) make up the second most prominent classification of brewing ingredients. Malted grains can be generally divided into two broad classes: 1) white malt, and 2) specialty malt. White malt refers to the chalky-white color of pale, enzymatic, barley malts. I like this term better than “base malt” because not all base malts are “white”; for example, pale ale, Munich, and Vienna malts all can be used for base malt, but they are not white in color. Semantics, but none-the-less important.
White malt begins as barley and the intrinsic properties of the barley have much to do with finished malt quality. Specifications like protein, beta glucan, enzymatic power, kernel size, and uniformity of modification are influenced by barley quality. Barley quality is affected by numerous factors, including: Variety, rainfall, irrigation, fertilizer use, temperature, humidity, soil type, fungal diseases, bacterial blights, and weather near the time of harvest. The bottom line is that the raw material being malted has a huge influence on finished product quality.
Two malting companies beginning with the same barley can end up producing white malts that have different analytical specifications and different sensory properties, and they can end up producing malts that are essentially indistinguishable. Differences in steeping regimen, germination control, kilning, and finished batch blending all influence the final product.
Sometimes the white malt is the canvas that supports other malts, and sometimes that simple canvas is the beer. When you are interpreting a recipe, don’t get too hung up with the white malt supplier. The key is using great malt as your foundation.
There is an important caveat to this general rule. If a recipe calls for German Pilsner malt, do not substitute this ingredient with pale malt from North America. Both of these ingredients are white, 2-row, barley malts, but they are not the same thing because beers made from these two ingredients have very different flavor profiles. The same holds true for 2-row malts from different parts of the world.
Specialty malts are affected by the same things that influence white malt quality, but there are additional factors that come into play. These include malting method, malt modification, kiln design (for kilned specialty malts), roaster design and operation (for roasted specialty malts), and special process techniques that are used for certain ingredients. With such a multitude of variables comes a very wide range of special malts. As a side note, the term “specialty malt” typically refers to any malt that is not a white malt.
It is totally unreasonable to view 50 ˚L crystal from two specialty malt produces as the same product, just as it is unreasonable to equate two IPAs simply based on their ABV, IBU, and color. The only thing you know for certain when comparing two special malts that have the same color specification and same name, is that the malts produce the same wort color (maybe) and that they share a name. Analytical color is a single number, but two wort samples with the same analytical color value can actually appear quite differently.
In the case of crystal malts, there are a variety of methods that can be used to make this sort of malt. Some maltsters produce crystal malt in the kiln, a challenging method, and others use roasting drums. And some maltsters who use the same basic method, for example a drum roaster, for production, may arrive at the color specification differently. For example, an equal blend of 150 ˚L and 50 ˚L crystal malt can be used to produce a batch of 100 ˚L crystal. This method can be spotted because the batch of 100 ˚L looks like a blend of light and dark grains. Knowing how your malt color specification is achieved is something that can shed light on malt flavor.
When a brewer shares a recipe and they find it important to mention the maltster by name, they probably place importance on this ingredient. When a brewer publishes a recipe with a long list of special malts without the maltster’s name, they may be subtly saying “this is all the information I am willing to give!” Special malts are often the jen e sais quoi of the brew. If you want to be a more observant consumer, check out what you can when seeing bags of malt stacked in your favorite brewery.
Hops are the next most prominent ingredient in beer, and have really escaped the whole branding question. Hops are described in two ways: 1) by landrace, and 2) by variety. Landrace hops are those associated with a growing region. These varieties developed by selection and remained “pure” because of geographic barriers, such as mountains and large areas where hops are not grown, surrounding these places. Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, sometimes simply called Hallertauer, is perhaps the best known landrace hop because the Hallertau is the largest hop growing region in the world. Then there are hop varieties that have been developed through hop breeding such as Citra®. The interesting thing about a variety is that the same variety, including landrace varieties grown in atypical places, does not always express bittering and aromatic properties the same, and these differences may be detected when growing the same variety in different places/region (terroir) or when the same hop is harvested at different times from a given hopyard. None of these things has to do with brand. Note that a different place does not mean a different growing region. Dr. Tom Shellhammer’s group at Oregon State University have published data showing differences in Cascade hops grown in the same valley.
Hops are a very deep ingredient, and differences with how they are grown, matured, harvested, kilned, baled, processed, packaged, and stored have very real effects on hop quality. In my biased view of beer and brewing, I think the tangibles of this topic are beyond the reach of most homebrewers because few homebrewers (and smaller craft brewers) have access to the range of products offered to commercial brewers by the hop industry.
By weight, yeast comes in as the #4 ingredient. Without ranking this ingredient against others, I will simply state that yeast is really important! Most brewers will agree that yeast strain is much more important than “brand,” but the supplier can make or break a strain. The genetics of the strain are supplier independent (assuming more than one supplier offers the same strain), but not all suppliers deliver the same yeast quality. Viability, vitality, purity, and package quality are all things that your yeast supplier influences. There is really a great selection of yeast, both liquid and dried, available to today’s brewer. The key with yeast brand is using yeast from a supplier that is reliable. Not all yeast suppliers sell to all brewing markets, so know your suppliers.
I hope this sheds some light on this topic. Great beer begins with great ingredients. Although this sort of phrase has become cliché by beer marketing campaigns, it is undoubtedly true, so make note of your suppliers and use those ingredients that produce the beers you want to enjoy!