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Building An Ingredient Library, Part 1

Homebrewer Josh Weikert covers a general approach to stocking up on grains and hops and runs down the contents and logic of his grain and hops “library.”

Josh Weikert Apr 23, 2017 - 9 min read

Building An Ingredient Library, Part 1 Primary Image

When I told my wife that I wanted to stock my own grain and hops so that I wouldn’t have to visit my local homebrew shop as often, I’m pretty sure that she—knowing how homebrewers are—pictured something like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Ark (spoiler alert) is driven into the bowels of the giant warehouse. But you don’t need to be that committed to put together a reasonable library of ingredients, and doing so could both simplify your brewing and save you money. Here, I cover a general approach and run down the contents and logic of my grain and hops library, and in Part 2, I’ll get into storage tools and strategies. Before you know it, you’ll be your own private homebrew shop!

The Ingredient Expedition

I love my local homebrew shop, but it’s a pain to get to. For many, even that inconvenient option isn’t an option—they have no “local” shop. Sourcing ingredients, supplies, and equipment becomes a planned expedition. If that’s you, then you should consider building up your own supplies—but even if that’s not you, you should still think about it. First, buying-by-the-batch means you need to plan to brew, which is a structural barrier to regular brewing. Second, it can be tough to find the time to get over to the LHBS and get what you need—it wasn’t unheard of for me to spend as much as 3 hours getting to the shop, getting orders filled/milled, and getting home again.

My first thought was to do what everyone seems to do these days: turn to the Internet. For some brewing supplies, that was fine. DME? One Step? Order them. But for grains in particular, it’s just not terribly practical to order a specific grist mixture. The cost per pound plus the shipping cost mean that you’re probably going to have to reach for the car keys. Instead, I decided to simply become a one-household homebrew shop, at least in two areas: grain and hops. The water I already had. The yeast I could order. But I reasoned that if I had a ready supply of grain and hops, I could simply decide on a yeast strain, order it in (or keep a rotating supply in the fridge), make my starter, and brew away. Still, I needed to figure out what grains and hops would let me brew most any beer.

Stocking the Library

I turned to my brewing log. You may keep an actual notebook or binder; I just make sure to update BeerSmith each time I brew a recipe. What I found was that I brewed about 30 times per year, and while there were a few things that were rare additions (a specific aroma hops or character malt), for the most part I could make nearly all of my recipes work with a surprisingly compact list of ingredients. Here’s what I settled on:

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  • Base malts: one sack each of Maris Otter, Pils, and Vienna (or Munich)
  • “Everyday” malts (the ones I use most often outside of a base malt): 5–10 pounds (2.3–4.5 kg) each of Munich (or Vienna), Victory (a nice light/toasty character malt), Chocolate, British Medium Crystal, and Caramunich
  • “Special” malts (things I use for specific recipes, or might want to): 1 pound (454 g) each of Carapils, Melanoidin, Black Barley, Carafa II, Aromatic, Crystal 120, Crystal 80, Crystal 60, Crystal 20, Biscuit, Pale Chocolate, and Black Patent
  • Hops: One pound (454 g) each of Nugget (for bittering/flavor), Crystal (a good all-purpose herbal/floral/seems-European flavor/aroma hops), and Fuggle (because there’s nothing else that smells quite like English dirt). If you make lots of American styles, a pound of Citra is a good call, too.

Thus armed, I can produce an impressive range of recipes. For example, the past four “Make Your Best” articles featured a Berliner Weisse, Sweet Stout, English-style Honey Ale, and Belgian Blond—quite the diverse group. To produce all four of those beers, the only thing you need to add to this list (in terms of grist or hopping) is a pound (454 g) of dehusked Carafa III, and three pounds (1.4 kg) of wheat. That kind of shopping can be done on an as-needed or when-convenient basis, and if you’re feeling lazy you can try some fun substitutions that might even yield a better recipe!

Believe it or not, that list is a bit indulgent. You could start simpler: buy the base grains, the “everyday” malts, and the hops and let your one-pound bags fill out naturally as you pick up “spares” (like that Carafa III) for your recipes that need them.

In addition, you can pare that list down. For example, you could get by with just a single base malt. You could cut down to just 2–3 crystal malts. You can make do with a single 450L chocolate malt. Far from hurting your beer, it might make it even better. I remember a great talk on simplifying your recipes that Drew Beechum gave at the 2012 NHC in Seattle, and in it he mentioned that when he took his massively complicated (20+ ingredients) IPA recipe and pared it down to just a handful, it actually got better. It’s like when you’re cooking: a great steak is a great steak. Select good ingredients, work them well, and you’ll get a great product. This is an ideal opportunity to do that and to really learn what many of these malts and hops taste like.

The Virtues of the “Brewing-Survivalist” Mentality

Taking this approach is a lot cheaper than buying by the batch. When I worked out what I was paying for ingredients by the batch, I realized that I could buy an entire year’s worth of grain and hops, and the storage equipment for them (so they’d keep that long!) and still save money that year. Doing the math, I realized that my “break even” point for each year (the point at which, even if I decided I hated brewing and never wanted to do it again and just threw out the unused ingredients) would come after only 25 percent of the projected year’s brewing.

This isn’t about abandoning your LHBS, either. I haven’t. It’s just that I make fewer trips, and there are such economies of scale in beer ingredients that buying 55 (or even 10) pounds of grain drops the cost substantially. The same goes for hops—one pound vs. one ounce is a huge decrease in per-ounce or per-batch hops costs, especially if you keep an eye out for deals or sales on hops you use a lot, know, and like.

As for yeast...well, I know I should say that you should get into the practice of yeast banking and growing up your own cultures, but to be frank, I’m not scientist enough for that. I trust the good folks at the professional yeast shops, and since yeast is key to the process, I’m willing to cough up for fresh pitches every time.

Brewing Independence

At the end of the day, stocking an ingredient library also means you have a much greater degree of brewing independence. It probably means more brewing, since you can brew on the fly. At the very least, it means that you’ll be able to—or have to—try some new things on occasion, when you’re running a little low on a particular malt or hops. A little forced experimentation can be a great thing.

From science to history to implementation, in Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s online course Hops: How to Best Use the Spice of Beer, Josh Weikert helps you build better-hopped beers. Sign up today.

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