See what I did there? With the picture? It’s a bill. For grains.
You, as loyal readers who don’t miss a Saint Brewis article and wait with bated breath for each weekly feature, you may think you’re experiencing déjà vu this week but you’d be slightly off. We’ve looked at grains in the past but this week we’re talking about grain bills. They’re obviously similar but they’re not the same. There’s a method to my madness, though. You see, in previous Vocabrewlary Lessons we’ve covered the main ingredients in beer (grains, yeast and hops) as well as some other general topics to help you know what’s on a beer’s label (SRM, IBU, and gravity). Now that we’re acquiring these bits and pieces, I want to take us down a path that covers each step of the beer brewing process. You can’t brew a batch of beer without a recipe, so here we are.
Per the usual, my typical disclaimer about the fact that this is a general overview of the topic mentioned above and not an in-depth science lesson applies.
So…what’s a grain bill?
A grain bill is essentially the grain “recipe” or grain “ratio” for the beer being made. It’s inevitable that I make reference to my previously mentioned grains post so let’s just get it out of the way now. Deal? As noted in that article, grains contribute color, flavor, aroma, head retention, body and a host of other characteristics to your beer. It’s for that reason that an American IPA is going to have a completely different grain bill than any type of stout. The easiest thing to point out is that one of those beers is going to use a dark malt and the other…well…isn’t.
Can a grain bill be whatever a brewer wants?
If a brewer is making a beer “to style,” meaning they’re making a measured version of a defined beer style (American IPA, Vienna Lager, Weissbier, etc.), then yes, there is something akin to a template that can be used to craft the recipe. For example, a Berliner Weisse is typically made with at least 50% wheat and the rest of the grain bill is pilsner malt. Of course brewers tweak these recipes as they see fit but doing so can move the beer from one style to another if they’re not careful. Too much of one malt or another can make the beer too dark or too sweet, and too little of a malt can have the same impact on the other end of the scale.
Of course these tweaks that a brewer chooses are what makes your favorite local brewery’s IPA taste better than the IPA at that other local brewery that you have an unhealthy and unnecessary hatred for. Choosing to use a certain malt for 30% of a grain bill instead of 28% makes it have a completely different taste profile. Furthermore, using for example Crystal Malt 120 (the higher the number the darker the color) as 5% of your grain bill instead of Crystal Malt 60 for that same 5% makes a gigantic difference when you’re using enough grains to make 1,500 gallons of beer. Additionally, there’s a whole bunch of science behind which grains work better with others and which grains need other grains to work well too. So, much like cooking, a recipe always tastes better when someone knows what the hell they’re doing.
This lesson was short and sweet but if you’re as into beer as we are, odds are you’ll be able to use this phrase in conversation within the next couple of weeks. We like to imagine it this way:
Your Friend: What do you think of the beer, *insert your name*?
You: I like it. I bet they used Crystal 60 in the grain bill.
Your Friend: *head explodes because their mind is obviously blown*
You: *turns to look at Camera A whilst flashing a thumbs up, breaking the 4th wall* Thanks, Saint Brewis! *wink*
Does that beer actually have Crystal 60 in it? I can all but guarantee it won’t but your friend doesn’t know that and they won’t dare to challenge you unless the brewer is there or the ingredients are on the label. Which reminds me, don’t say that line if the brewer is right there or the ingredients are on the label.
If this lesson tickled your fancy, stay tuned because next week we’ll look at how we get these grains ready to make beer.
Do you have a beer term that you’d like to know more about? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below with something you’d like to see explained in a future Vocabrewlary Lesson.