For hobbyists who have neither the time nor desire to conduct a mash, malt extracts deliver malty soul to beer. For partial-mashers, extract supplements the small standard mash with vital malt sugars. And all-grain brewers benefit from a dose of malt extract when efficiency fails to deliver all of the expected gravity points.
Liquid malt extract (LME) is the most popular variety for extract-based recipes because it’s readily available, reasonably priced, and easy to work with. Liquid extract production begins with a mash, just as with all-grain brewing. Maltsters mash a blend of grains to produce a specific style of wort: Pilsner malt for Pils extract, a mix of pale and crystal malts for pale extract, a melange of Munich and 2-row for Munich syrups, and so on. Each malt blend is usually proprietary to the manufacturer.
Once conversion is complete, the malster lauters, boils, and whirlpools the wort as usual, and then gently concentrates it by evaporating off much of the water. This evaporative process is usually conducted in a vacuum, under which conditions only mild heat is needed to reach a boil, thus preserving the malt’s delicate flavor and aroma. The end product is about 20 percent water and 80 percent sugars, proteins, and other solids.
Most brick-and-mortar homebrew stores will sell you any amount of LME you like and will gladly package it in your own container or, for a small fee, in a reusable pail. Mail-order homebrew retailers tend to sell liquid extract either in plastic jugs (3.15 or 6 pounds) or in flexible pouches by the pound. A handful of mail-order companies will even sell custom quantities of LME, but this isn’t terribly common.
Dry malt extract (DME) is produced in the same manner as LME, but after the wort has been concentrated to a certain density through evaporation, it is sprayed through special nozzles into a fine mist. The spray enters a stream of hot air or a warm vacuum chamber, either of which very efficiently separates water from the mist of concentrated wort. The result is the powder called dry malt extract.
DME is only about 1 percent water by weight, and it readily clumps up upon exposure to moisture. Both brick-and-mortar stores and Internet retailers sell DME by the pound, and while the cost is higher than for LME, the dry stuff offers some attractive advantages.
- Dry malt extract has a long shelf life. If kept away from moisture, it can last for several years.
- Dry malt extract is much more convenient to measure than LME, both by weight and by volume.
- For the same specific gravity, dry malt extract takes up less space than an equivalent amount of LME. A pound of LME offers up about 36 gravity points per pound per gallon (ppg), while a pound of DME is 45 ppg and requires less than half the volume.
While extract and partial mash brewers rely on both liquid and solid forms of malt extract for fermentable sugars, these products offer numerous benefits to all brewers. Malt extract is handy for
- Preparing yeast starters
- Augmenting the mash in high gravity recipes
- Making up for lost efficiency when trying new equipment or recipes
- Conducting experiments with unknown yeasts and hops
Even if you’ve “gone all-grain,” be sure to keep a tub of dry malt extract tucked away in a dry place. You never know when you’ll need a few convenient gravity points.