I'm new to home brewing and want to make sure I'm using quality ingredients. I've been to a few stores, but have trouble knowing if what they offer is good quality or not. What tips / techniques can i use to be sure I'm getting the good stuff?
Well, for hops at least:
- You want non-permeable gas-barrier packages
- Vacuum sealed
- Opaque (to prevent light exposure)
One thing to note is that for 'bittering hops' - that is, hops added early in the boil such that their bitterness is imparted, but the flavor and aroma are largely boiled off by the end, the quality doesn't matter as much as for the aroma hops.
Buy them from the store. Try making beer with them. See if the beer tastes OK. If yes, keep buying from that store. If no, find a new store.
Check the date on malt extracts. Are the cans at your store all within date or are there cans that have a decade of dust on them?
In addition, I always taste and smell each individual ingredient while adding it to the brew. Knowing what the ingredients taste like on their own will help in identifying problems, crafting recipes, etc.
Taste some of the ingredients after brewing. Spent grain? Yum! Spent hops? Maybe. Spent hot break? Ew!!!
In the long run a well trained set of senses will be your best weapons for making great beer.
The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to be sure the hops are green. This is a very easy test, even for a novice brewer, and brown hops are no good.
If you are talking about hops used for aroma/flavor (these are the hops you add toward the end of the boil), they should have a pungent aroma, like the one you want your beer to have when it is done.
- Pick a store that has been around in your town for a long time. Go in on a Saturday afternoon and see how busy they are. Usually only a couple of these places will have survived 10 years or more anyway, so any place that's been around that long will be just fine.
- Once inside, I would not worry about anything they have in their fridge. All yeast and hops today are vacuum-packed and if kept refrigerated before the (usually conservative) expiry date will be perfectly fine to use.
- The least of your worries are malt extracts, since these are what everyone buys and so the turn-over is high.
- Your main worry needs to be your own partial ingredients, left-overs that have stayed in your own fridge (or worse, kitchen cabinet) for 6 months after you first opened them. That 100g opened vacuum pack of hops that is half-used and sitting beside the blue cheese in the fridge may not be so fresh if you use the remainder 4 months later.
In short, anything you buy new from an established homebrew supply store will not cause you any grief if used shortly after purchase. Your own leftovers for the next batch might be iffy.