For new brewers substituting an ingredient can be daunting and a bit puzzling. Let’s take a closer look at how to approach this common conundrum.
Often brewers find tempting recipes that have ingredients that are near-impossible to find, or, are simply out of stock. Fortunately, substitute ingredients will almost always yield a brew just as good and, who knows – maybe even better! If it’s a tried and tested recipe and your favourite hops are out of
stock, embrace the opportunity for a variation. With a little planning and tweaking your brew will still be exceptional! Let’s look at some of the guidelines to ‘subbing’ hops and malts.
Firstly, remember that there are a lot of similarities within the ingredients- beer is still essentially water, malt, hops and yeast. Among similar strains of hops or roasts of speciality malt you will find a great deal of overlapping flavours. Some taste remarkably similar.
Secondly, recipe ingredients are usually dictated by the beer style or geographical location. Brewers mostly use ingredients nearest at hand to brew with and always have.
Recipes (and beer styles) ingredients reflect a direct link to their origin- from a Vermont I.P.A hop choice to an English ale use of Maris Otter malt, regional ingredients help define the style.
Using a similar ingredient from that location will help get you right into the ballpark from a style point of view. A good example would be using Centennial hops instead of Cascade, both American, both with similar citrusy flavour profiles…
Hops can be divided into two different roles in a recipe- bittering and aroma/flavour. Most craft beer recipes call for at least one bittering hop followed by one to three (or more) other additions for aroma and flavour.
A high bitterness hop is usually used for bittering and more aromatic flavourful low bitterness hops for aroma. The good news is that you can substitute most high bitterness hops with each other and get very much the same result, as their role is purely for bittering (and they contribute virtually no flavour).
Bitterness is marked on hops packets as Alpha acid percent, AA% 4 being low and AA% 14 being really high. Ask your homebrew shop for advice and try and match the AA% as closely as you can. Within one to two points is optimum.
With aroma and flavour hops the differences become more distinct in the finished beer. Exotic aromas like citrus or pine and fruit-like flavours are the characteristics of some of these hops so it’s important to choose substitutes carefully…Again, asking advice from the homebrew shop is the key for beginner brewers here. The shop can give good advice based on what they have available. Or do a search on “substitute for XYZ hops” beforehand and you should find several good alternate choices to ask for.
Reading up on the flavour profile of the hop is the surest way to understanding how it fits into your recipe and choosing an alternative aroma hop with similar or at least complimentary flavours and aromas is the key to success.
Hop substitution is mostly easy, your local homebrew shop should have enough variants to choose a viable alternative, even if it’s a very obscure hop that you were looking for.
Choosing malt substitutes also requires an understanding of what flavours the recipe is aiming for - flavour wise and stylistically. For example, a lightly roasted caramel malt will often have honey-like sweetness- substituting one with a slightly darker degree of roast will keep you in a similar flavour category. The slightly darker roast might be a bit more caramelly but will still have some honey… Perfectly workable.
The base malts that make up the bulk of our malt bill are less important substitution-wise as the additional speciality malts exert the main influence on the beers malt flavour profile. The correct choice of base malt is only really significant when there is only one malt -making a Lager with a Pale Ale malt
wouldn’t give you entirely the right colour or flavour. Base malts are fairly forgiving as they all tend to have a mild neutral malt flavour.
Speciality caramelised or roasted malts, however, impart a world of rich malty flavours to your beer. The caramelised ones add subtle sweetness through to assertive roasted toffee, and the toasted ones add bready, toast or biscuit flavours. Be very certain of whether it’s a toasted or caramelised malt you need
to substitute -they are completely different- and try and find a similar shade of roast. Malts are all rated according to colour (how darkly roasted) by a scale called Lovibond.
A very pale malt would be 2-3 L or a dark caramel malt 150 L. Generally, its acceptable to substitute caramel or roasted malts 10-15 degrees either way, adding slightly more if it’s a lighter malt or slightly less if it’s much darker. Bear in mind that a darker roast adds much more colour and flavour so go easy.
As with hops its best to ask at the homebrew shop when you place your order. Perhaps, take your recipe along- it will help them to give advice in the context of the other ingredients.
When in doubt it’s a good idea to read a few other recipes of the same style of beer you are making. This will often point to other commonly used ingredients and give you a sense of how that beer is usually constructed. Armed with this knowledge you can easily make appropriate changes.
Substitutions are a part of life for brewers- even craft breweries are often faced with unexpected shortages or a late shipment and need to quickly improvise and adapt. It’s also a good opportunity to shake things up a bit, as a well-chosen substitution might be so good that it winds up being a permanent ingredient!
Written by: Nick Birkby