There are many other fermentables used in brewing beer besides barley. Any starch or sugar can be used as a fermentable adjunct in the making of beer. There are basically two classes used in brewing, those that require mashing and those that don't. Natural starches such as potatoes, pumpkins, corn and rice must be mashed to convert their starch to sugar prior to fermenting. But there are many other kinds of fermentables that don't require mashing, and are available to the extract brewer. Some examples are all sugars, fruits, juices, honey, maple syrup and molasses.
Yeast require several things for a healthy fermentation. These include fermentables, nutrients like amino acids, minerals and vitamins. Most grains have sufficient nutrients for a healthy fermentation. The fermentables listed below don't, and when you get close to using 20% of these fermentables in your grain bill you should think about adding a yeast nutrient or energizer. When yeast don't get the nutrients they need, you end up with a slow fermentation with many unwanted byproducts which cause off flavors in your beers.
The first class of fermentables are the simple sugars including those from fruits and honey. These sugars include:
gets its sweetness from the monosaccharides fructose and glucose. It has approximately the same relative sweetness as granulated sugar (97% of the sweetness of sucrose, a disaccharide). Most micro-organisms do not grow in honey because of its low water activity of 0.6. Water activity is sometimes defined as “free”, “bound”, or “available water” in a system. Water activity can be used to predict the direction of water movement - water will show net diffusion from regions of high water activity to regions of low water activity. For example, if honey (aw ≈ 0.6) is exposed to humid air (aw ≈ 0.7) the honey will absorb water from the air. Bacteria usually require water activity of at least 0.91, and fungi at least 0.7. This makes honey ideally suited for making mead. Because of its antimicrobial nature, there was less chance of producing bad mead than bad beer or wine.
Honey is almost 100% fermentable and will therefore lighten the body and increase the alcohol content of beer, much like cane sugar and other fermentables. Unlike cane sugar, honey will lend some of its characteristic flavors to your beer, depending on how much you use. As you get around 50% honey, your beer begins tasting more like mead and less like beer. The name for this beverage is Braggot or Bracket. These days most meadmakers don't boil their honey for fear of losing the subtle aromatics. When honey is added to beer, it must be either boiled or pasteurized because it contains wild yeasts and other undesirables. Once diluted, the osmotic pressure of raw honey is no longer there and the wild yeasts and other microbes are free to multiply. Try lighter honeys in lighter beers and darker honeys, like buckwheat, in more robust beers. Honey flavors vary widely depending on the source of the nectar. If most of the nectar is of one source, like when the hives are moved to pollinate a farmer's citrus orchard, then it takes on a characteristic flavor and aroma. Honey is sold to meadmakers as varietal honey. Some of the popular varietals are orange blossom, clover, basswood, tupelo, etc. and can be as obscure as carrot blossom honey. Try adding honey as a source of fermentables to your beer, for a special character as old as beer itself.
Maple Syrup is another interesting fermentable for beer. It tends to work better in beers that are less hoppy. Try to find 100% maple syrup, not the pancake syrup labeled "maple syrup" but made with mostly corn syrup. Grade A is more expensive, but Grade B has a more robust maple flavor and is better in brewing. According to Al Korzonas in his book Homebrewing Vol. 1, a half gallon (about 2 liters) will produce a very, very subtle maple flavor in 5 gallons of the lightest, mildest beers. If you want more maple flavor, try adding 3 to 4 quarts (about 3 to 4 liters) to your beers. Mr. Korzonas says that you can easily add a gallon to a beer such as a stout. Most of maple syrup's aromatics will be scrubbed during primary fermentation, so it's best to add it during secondary fermentation.
is a sweetener commercially produced in Mexico from several different species of agave, including the Blue Agave (Agave tequilana), Salmiana Agave (Agave salmiana), Green Agave, Grey Agave, Thorny Agave, and Rainbow Agave. Agave nectar is sweeter than honey, though less viscous. It has a malty aroma with a hint of sweetness to it. Agave nectar is said to be 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar. It is often substituted for sugar or honey in recipes. Vegans in particular commonly use agave nectar, or agave syrup as it is often called, to replace honey in recipes. It is also used as a sweetener for cold beverages such as iced tea because it can dissolve quickly. Many award winning meads have been made with agave nectar. If you feel like experimenting with alternative fermentables, this is a good choice.
Candi Syrup or Candi Sugars
sold in many homebrew shops in the past were mostly pure sucrose or sucrose that had been caramelized for added color. These days, there is a better product you can use. It is made by the company dark candi, inc.
and it is supposed to be the same syrups used by the breweries in Belgium. Your local homebrew shop LHBS should be able to get it for you, if not, it's available at most online homebrew retailers like MoreBeer.com. There really is no substitute for this syrup unless you make your own.
Molasses is the residue left from sugar cane processing. It contains impurities not wanted in the white, refined sugar. It does however contain most of the flavor and gets more flavorful the darker it gets. One cup in 5 gallons of beer will give a noticeable flavor.
Brown Sugar is simply white sugar with molasses added for flavor and color and will not substitute for candi sugar in a Belgian Ale recipe. It is the molasses that adds all the flavor, and like molasses, the darker it is the more flavor it contributes.
Black Treacle is a British product similar to molasses, but not exactly the same. Some say you can't make an authentic Old Ale, such as Old Peculier, without Black Treacle. There are several kinds of treacle sold, many may be simply molasses. Get the one labeled as "Black Treacle" for brewing. It is dark, sweet and full of highly caramelized flavors and aromas. In Jamil Zainasheff's recipe for Old Treacle Mine, an old ale, he calls for 0.5 lb or 227 grams in a 5.5 gallon batch, added during the boil.
As far as brewing is concerned, vegetables either contain starch or they don't. Vegetables such as potatoes and yams can add fermentables but must be mashed. Other vegetables used in brewing include the chile pepper, although not technically a vegetable. Peppers can be added to beer or mead. Some of the very, very hot ones like habanero, are way too intense for anything but hot sauce. You can cut out the seeds and pith, soak them in milk a few days, and add them to the end of the boil to reduce the intensity but still get some of the flavor and aroma. Other peppers like the Serrano are OK being seeded and having the pitch cut out (this is where most of the heat is). Regardless of which chile you choose, start with a small quantity and work your way up on the next batch. I made 3 gallons of chile mead that would have won medals except for the intense heat. Now it can only be used as a marinade.
Fruit juices are fine to add to your beer but you must be aware of a few pitfalls. First, you must be sure that what's on the front label is in the bottle. Check the ingredients to see if your cherry juice is really white grape juice with a little cherry juice for flavoring. Second, check the ingredients to be sure it doesn't contain any preservatives like sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate, which will inhibit your yeast. And third, make sure the majority of the fruit juice is not refined sugar syrup. If so the main ingredient will be "high fructose corn syrup". Many cider makers buy their juice freshly squeezed at the orchard so they know exactly what's in it. Some even ask for a specific percentage of each type of apple they want in the mixture for their meads. Juices sold at some whole foods markets, or health food stores and labeled as all natural should be fine, just double check the label.
Fruit Purees and Concentrates
-are grown and packaged at the farms in Washington and Oregon. They are great to use in your fruit beers and melomels (fruit meads). These are picked at the height of ripeness and packaged immediately to preserve the freshness. They are pasteurized and ready to be used.
There is a great variety of fermentables such as fruits to choose from, many you won't be able to find locally. You will be able to get more consistent quality from these products than just about any other, unless you pick your own and rush home to spend hours and hours processing the fruit. No thank you. If you do use your own fruit, you will need to kill the wild yeasts, bactiera and fungi growing on it. You can pasteurize it yourself by adding as little water as possible, heating to 140-150°F (60-66°C) and holding for 10-15 minutes. You must then cool as quickly as possible. Other ways to sanitize the fruit include using sulfites. Winemakers have used metabisulfites in their fermentables for ages. They work by producing sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas in an acidic solution. The SO2 will inhibit most of the yeast and bacteria long enough for your cultured yeast to dominate the fermentation. The sulfites don't add any flavors to the end product but a small percentage of the population are extremely allergic to sulfites.
Other grains may be used besides barley, including:
-produces a creaminess and oiliness due to high oil and fat content. Not much flavor contribution. Unmalted oats tend to produce a haze and are often used in Belgian Wits for the mouthfeel and haze it produces. Problems with stuck mashes can occur if used in quantity. Oats lend a creaminess and silkiness to a stout which is difficult to describe. Try Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout and a regular stout, like Guinness, to discern the difference. According to John Palmer, "Instant Oats" are the only variety that has been fully gelatinized and thus are the only variety that can be directly substituted for flaked oats in a recipe. The other kinds, whole oats, steel-cut oats, rolled oats, and quick oats all require some form of cereal mash before being added to your main mash.
Wheat-produces less color than base malts, improves head formation and retention, and is used in small quantities in many styles. Wheat flavors are like a malty spiciness, especially when used with weizen yeasts. Since it has no husks, it can create problems when mashing and lautering where runoffs may become very slow or stuck. Wheat is sold in several forms. One form is
which has been used for brewing beer nearly as long as barley. It has equal diastatic power. Malted wheat is used for 5-70% of the mash depending on the style. Wheat has no outer husk and therefore has less tannins than barley. It contributes protein to the beer, aiding in head retention.
is a common adjunct in wheat beers. It is an essential component in Belgian Wits and Lambics. It adds a starch haze and high levels of proteins but will also add more of that "wheat sharpness" to your beer than malted wheat.
Rice-can contribute to a beer's dryness, but doesn't have much flavor. It helps accentuate hop bitterness and is used to increase alcohol content without adding any flavor. It is used in American style lagers like Budweiser.
-is light in color and helps to produce a creamy head and an oiliness in beer. Its flavor is described as spicy, or like an apple brandy. It too can cause problems in mashing and lautering.
Wild Rice-is not a rice at all, but seeds from wild marsh grasses. It produces a sweet, nutty flavor but is too expensive to be used in quantity.Sorghum-is high in tannins (or polyphenols), and usually creates cloudy beers. Used mostly in Africa.
Corn (Flaked Maize)
-is used mostly to increase a beer's alcohol content but will produce a "corny" flavor. It is used in Miller Lite lager. Flaked corn does not require boiling prior to being mashed.
There are many types of fermentables used in beer production. Before experimenting with these fermentables, talk to other homebewers or hit the forums with your questions. Many homebrew books discuss these fermentables and sugars in detail and are a good source of information.
References: For this article, I adapted information from the book Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels, How to Brew by John J. Palmer, Homebrewing Vol. 1 by Al Korzonas and from articles on honey from wikipedia.
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