It started for me, as it does for many brewers, with an extract kit. It didn’t take long, of course, to follow the natural arc—join a homebrew club, develop ideas with a brewing partner, and begin the long process of acquiring all the equipment necessary for all-grain brewing.
All-grain brewing expanded the types of beer we could brew, of course, but more importantly it bypassed the social stigma that seems to be perpetuated in the homebrew community that extract brewing is a shortcut (and that real brewers brew all-grain). We dove headfirst into all-grain brewing, won some medals in homebrewing contests, and really enjoyed the process, but let’s be honest—all-grain brewing took up a substantial part of the day.
Like many brewers constrained by work and family, time became a big consideration and limited my brewing, but an “aha” moment occurred after I read an article about brewing with malt extract by Glenn BurnSilver. The article described techniques that homebrewers and pro brewers alike used to make award-winning (including GABF medals) beers using malt extracts and got me thinking about how I could apply the similar techniques to my own brewing.
Complexity in extract beers is, of course, the primary challenge, as available extracts don’t offer the depth and nuance of better all-grain beers. Mini-mash (partial-mash) methods help restore those layers of malt flavor, but create new challenges for time- crunched brewers—the biggest being the need to maintain a consistent temperature while steeping grains. (For more information about miniature mashes, see “5 Reasons to Partial Mash” ) Home stovetops just aren’t designed to quickly respond to small temperature fluctuations in the typical range for grain steeping and are less than ideal for maintaining a stable temperature.
Enter the sous vide cooker
Inspired by the ways that brewers were using inexpensive sous vide machines to hold temperatures while working with yeasts and bacteria for starters, I thought that if the machine could hold temperatures for yeast cultures, it could probably hold temperatures for steeping, mini-mashing, and even mashing. With a relatively inexpensive ANOVA Sous Vide unit, my experimentation commenced.
One factor favoring a resurgence in extract brewing is the increasing focus on yeast and hops flavors in beer. Malt complexity is important no matter the style, but beers driven by wild yeasts—and the unique flavors and ester profiles they give off—are a bit less sensitive to any negative impacts of extract. Want proof? My first attempt at a sous vide–brewed wild ale advanced to the NHC finals where it garnered a very respectable score (despite being eight months old). The following year, my sous vide extract beer won gold in the NHC first round and again advanced to the finals. Fast-forward to the present, and even though I now brew professionally, I still use this technique for test batches, especially when trying to evaluate a yeast or a new hops.
Over time, I’ve dialed-in the sous vide process to incorporate mini-mashing and mashing unconverted grains for more flavor and depth. Sous vide machines are also perfect for brewing small batches with the brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) technique. Best of all, sous vide cookers aren’t constrained to micro-batches, and what follows is a time-tested method using grains and extract to brew 5-gallon (19 l) batches.
Fill a pot with about 3.5 gallons (13.25 l) of water. Add a Campden tablet (potassium or sodium metabisulfite—to remove chloramines from the water), insert the sous vide unit and set the temperature depending on whether you’re steeping or mashing. While the water is heating up, get grains, extracts, and hops ready, and place any grains into a paint-strainer bag. When the water reaches its temperature, usually within about 30 minutes, place the bag into the pot and use a clip to keep the bag away from the impeller on the sous vide unit. Then set the timer for the amount of time to steep or mash. After reaching that time, crank up the stove burner and set the sous vide to about 190°F (88°C) to help heat the water to boiling as fast as possible.
Note the temperature at which you want to sparge, mash out, or rinse the grains, and when you hit that temperature, carefully pull the bag out of the water and let it drip fairly dry. Depending on the type of beer, start adding the extract as it gets closer to the boiling point.
Another benefit of extract brewing is the ability to compact traditional boil times. Most recipes can work just as well with 30-minute boils as with 60-minute boils, so consider recalibrating your bittering charges for a shorter boil to reduce your overall brew-day times. Your hops efficiency may decline a bit, but if you calculate the value of 30 minutes of your time multiplied by a year of brew days, you’ll find that the extra ounce (or so) of hops is a bargain by comparison.
At the end of the boil, immerse the boil kettle in a sink filled with cold water and stir. After a few minutes, lift the kettle out and drain and replace the water in the sink. Do this several times until you reach your goal of reducing the temperature to about 100°F (38°C).
One of the keys to producing this much wort through a stovetop process is brewing for a higher gravity and blending back with sterile water to the intended starting gravity. Prior to brewing, purchase 3 to 4 gallons (11 to 15 l) of spring water from the grocery store and place two of those into the refrigerator to get them cold. Once your kettle reaches 100°F (38°C), place the wort into the fermentor and add 2 gallons (7.5 l) of the refrigerated water to get to an approximate pitching temperature of 70°F (21°C). Take a gravity reading to see where you are.
Depending on how the boil went, it’s reasonable to expect anywhere between 2 and 3 gallons (7.5 and 11 l) of wort before adding the spring water. Carefully add the room-temperature water to hit your gravity, and make decisions based on your personal preferences—if you’re fine giving up a few points of gravity, you can add extra water to the beer at this point, but don’t throw the entire beer out of balance.
Pitch yeast, seal the fermentor, and then, depending on the strain of yeast you’re using, place it either in a fermentation chamber (if you want to control the initial fermentation temperature) or in an area where it can ferment warmer (if you want a warmer fermentation temperature).
The technique described is one I’ve perfected over the past few years; it produces beer that is award-winning and (in many cases) indistinguishable in taste from all-grain beer. It also works great in evaluating a new recipe, new hops, or new yeast and bacteria strains in a minimal amount of time.
The main advantage is the time savings—it’s possible to brew a delicious beer and be totally cleaned up in 2.5 hours or less. The total cost is slightly higher than a typical all-grain brew because the malt extract costs more than its equivalent in grains, but the time saved is well worth it.
This technique might horrify some brewers with purist streaks, but in this day where the number of homebrewers is declining for numerous reasons, including the time and expense it takes to brew all-grain, it’s more important than ever to find efficiency gains that keep interest in homebrewing alive. And, of course, there is the advantage of multiple use—cooking delicious dishes with your sous vide unit when it’s not busy brewing beer.
Tips for Extract Brewing with a Sous Vide Machine
- Use the freshest extract that you can find. I prefer to use dry malt extract (DME) because sometimes cans of liquid malt extract (LME) can be old. In addition, liquid extract has a tendency to sink to the bottom of the kettle faster and can scorch when it hits the bottom.
- Extract beers tend to finish a little darker than their all-grain equivalent. If you are brewing a paler beer, stagger the times you add your extract. The closer you can get to the 15-minute mark, the better chance you have of keeping the beer somewhere near your target SRM color.
- You need to add some extract when you add your bittering hops for hops utilization (for more information, see “Hops Utilization”. Make any adjustments to your hops depending on how long you are boiling to get the best hops efficiency.
- Make sure to contain any grains or hops in a bag to keep them from clogging the impeller on the sous vide unit so that it can continue to heat and circulate the water.
- Make sure you unplug your sous vide unit before cleaning.
- Relax and enjoy a homebrew.