I see some beer recipes that specify ingredients by supplier, and others that take a more generic approach. Does it really make much of a difference to the finished beer if ingredient substitutions are made within a type, for example Munich malt from one maltster substituted for Munich malt from another maltster?
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!
I need some advice on treating brewing water for all-grain brewing. I lived in an area of very soft water, But now I’ve moved to an area of high alkaline, very hard water. I installed a water softener in my house and now my water analysis shows that the pH is 7.3, the total alkalinity is 226 ppm, and the calcium, magnesium, and sulfates are all low. The softener didn’t raise the sodium and chloride too high, (Na+ 88 ppm and Cl- 71). I understand that calcium is needed for any style of beer and that mash pH should be about 5.2. I’ve thought of diluting the water with distilled water to reduce alkalinity and adding minerals Back. Should I measure the pH of the mash and adjust it with lactic acid if necessary?
Carolina Beach, North Carolina
I want to recap a few things before suggesting a solution to your water woes. Before your move, you had soft water that worked well for brewing. Now you have water from a softener with a high pH. I will save pH for last because that is the least of your worries.
For starters, what does “soft” refer to when discussing water? The term “soft” is generic and simply means that water is low in calcium and magnesium. When water containing a mix of calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate (the soluble form of carbonate), is boiled or held hot for an extended time, carbonate crystals are deposited according to the following reaction:
It is worth noting that the carbon dioxide gas formed in these reactions escapes into the air and helps drive this reaction; this is why these reactions do not have equilibrium arrows. Excess calcium and magnesium are shown to help illustrate the concept of permanent hardness.
The hardness removed by this reaction is called “temporary hardness,” and the calcium and magnesium that remains is termed “permanent hardness.” In other words, temporary hardness = total hardness – permanent hardness. The practical importance of this equation is that total and permanent hardness can both be directly measured, whereas temporary hardness is calculated by difference.
Brewers know that high carbonate water is not ideal for brewing; understanding the concept of permanent hardness is helpful and explains why it helps to add calcium sulfate and/or calcium chloride to this sort of water. This is why so many brewing recipes suggest adding a pinch of gypsum; too much calcium is unlikely to cause a brewing problem, but too little is not a good way to start the day.
Since most homeowners who also homebrew do more with water than brew beer, this hardness discussion oftentimes includes the topic of water deposits in the home. If you have water that contains temporary hardness (total hardness ≠ permanent hardness), you will end up with carbonate deposits in your water heater, and hard water, in general, results in soap scum. Homeowners will install water softeners in their homes to combat these two problems.
Softeners work by replacing calcium and magnesium with sodium using an ion-exchange column (the column is usually filled with polystyrene sulfonate resin beads). It is important to note that softeners do not remove carbonates, and they do not increase chloride levels in the water because the brine used to displace calcium and magnesium ions from the ion-exchange column is flushed as part of the regeneration cycle. Since water softeners are not exactly cheap to purchase, install, and operate, most homeowners only purchase softeners when water hardness is a problem. And problematically hard water usually originates from limestone aquifers and is rich in carbonates.
There are two important take-home messages from the discussion above: First, brewing water with too little permanent hardness can be remedied by adding calcium sulfate (gypsum) and/or calcium chloride. Some brewers like to add some magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), but calcium is absolutely required for mash enzymes and is more effective at adjusting mash pH than magnesium . . . not to mention that too much magnesium tastes very bitter and may cause GI tract “issues.” Second, water softeners produce water with essentially no hardness, and softeners do not remove carbonates. This means that softened water requires further treatment (calcium is required for brewing), and also means that softened water is usually high in carbonates because, as mentioned above, most hard water comes from limestone aquifers.
Although modern brewing technology is, in many cases, extremely different from state-of-the-art methods from the past, there are plenty of breweries in the world that continue to use these older methods. Why? Because replacing capital equipment is expensive, and modern technology can be very difficult to justify if the investment is not required to replace equipment that has ceased to function. This is why many breweries continue to use older methods of water treatment that are based on “wet chemistry” conducted on a large scale.
While effective, these older methods require a fair amount of chemistry knowledge to understand, and a fair bit of analytical capabilities to monitor and control. The handy thing about water treatment is that reverse osmosis (RO) has really changed how drinking and process water is demineralized. RO water desalination was developed in the 1950s at UCLA and at the University of Florida, and became commercially viable in the early 1960s when the Loeb-Sourirajan Membrane was developed by scientists at UCLA.
Today, RO water treatment is used by municipalities to produce drinking water from seawater, and is also used at the point-of-use to produce drinking water for home consumption and for sale at grocery stores. RO systems require soft water and are installed downstream of softeners. This makes them an attractive thing for homeowners to buy after a softener is installed.
Note: Distilled water is very similar to RO water. The primary difference in the two has to do with how the water is demineralized; distilled water is boiled to remove minerals, whereas RO water uses a membrane. Both systems produce mineral-rich water as a waste stream. Since distillation requires far more energy than RO filtration, distilled drinking water is far less common than RO drinking water.
Using RO water makes adjusting water very easy. With RO water you don’t have to change your mineral additions based on how your water changes during the course of a year (most people are surprised by how inconsistent tap water actually is), and you don’t have to explain the details of your water chemistry to another brewer when exchanging recipes. The latter can be very challenging, and is probably why many authors resorted to the old “add a tsp. of gypsum” advice.
If you want great brewing water, tailored to the types of beers you want to brew, without learning any more than you currently know about water chemistry, use RO water. Either buy it at the store or install an RO system and be done with it. Seriously, that is the way to go. When using RO water, you must add minerals. I like using a combination of calcium sulfate, calcium chloride, and a touch of sodium chloride. If you are using roasted malts, sodium bicarbonate or calcium carbonate (the former, baking soda, is easier to use because it is water soluble without having to adjust pH) helps balance the acidity of these malts. I prefer adding roasted malts after mashing is complete, and I don’t worry about how they affect pH.
And that brings up the last question you raised; water pH. This value, in and of itself, does not mean anything to brewers. The pH values that matter in wort production are mash pH (pH 5.2–5.4 is the ideal range), wort pH flowing from the mash tun (anything from pH 5.2–5.8 is great, and pH 6.0 for the last runnings is tolerable), and wort pH before the boil (I like pH 5.2–5.4, and nothing greater than pH 5.6). If you find that you need to acidify mash or wort, lactic acid or phosphoric acids are easy to use. You can also add calcium since it reacts with malt phosphates and amino acids to decrease mash and wort pH. And if you need to bump the pH up, baking soda is really the easiest thing to add. Don’t worry about the sodium since you are really not adding much at all.
I hope this helps to remove some of the hardness associated with water chemistry, arguably one of the most confusing of brewing subjects!