Having the right ingredients on hand means you’re never far from a home-cooked meal, even if the refrigerator is a touch empty. With some chicken broth, a bag of dried beans, and some herbes de Provence, you’re on your way to soup. Pasta, canned tomatoes, and dried oregano put spaghetti marinara within reach.
The same is true for homebrewing. Sometimes the urge to brew hits, but for one reason or another, you can’t get down to the homebrew store. But if you keep the right ingredients on hand, you’re never far from a great brew day.
Even though I mostly brew all-grain, I always keep several pounds of dried malt extract (DME) on hand. A convenient source of fermentable sugars, DME should be in every homebrewer's cupboard anyway for making yeast starters, but pale varieties can serve as the base of just about any beer style.
Keeping a few specialty malts around gives you the flexibility to brew a reasonable example of just about any style you like. Tuck away one pound of each of the following six specialty grains, and open up a world of homebrew possibilities:
- Caramel/Crystal 10
- Caramel/Crystal 60
- Caramel/Crystal 120
- Black malt
- Chocolate malt
- Roasted barley
All-grain homebrewers, of course, will want to always have a bag of their favorite base malt stashed away: American 2-row, English Maris Otter, or German Pilsner, it’s your choice.
Hops store incredibly well in the freezer, so there’s really no excuse for not having at least a few varieties at the ready for a spur-of-the moment homebrew day. The possibilities are endless, but you’ll want at least one good, all-purpose bittering variety and a handful of aroma and flavor breeds. Dual-purpose hops (high alpha acid hops with desirable aroma and flavor qualities) such as Amarillo, Centennial, and Simcoe give you even more versatility.
When selecting hops for long-term storage, remember that pellets take up less room than the equivalent whole cone product.
You can get away with keeping liquid yeast handy if you know you’ll use it within a month or two. Otherwise, dry yeast is a homebrewer's best friend when it comes to true spur-of-the-moment homebrewing. Dry yeast lasts for a year or more in the refrigerator, and the high cell count means that even if viability drops by half, you probably still have enough cells to do the job. Dry yeast limits your selection of beer style somewhat, but the flexibility to homebrew when you wish compensates for the comparatively small selection of strains.
Here’s where you can really have some fun. When the urge to brew strikes, you can rely on an old standby homebrew recipe or create something totally new. But be sure to write it down because, like a great dish, sometimes the best results come from a bit of this and a dash of that.
So, next time you visit your homebrew store, stock up on a few pantry essentials, and when you find yourself with an unexpected brew day, you’ll be ready to go.