Here were also wheat, barley, and beans, and barleywine in large bowls. Floating on the top of this drink were the barley-grains.
— Xenophon, Anabasis
Wort preparation, the third essential step in making beer, is the central feature that distinguishes beer from other fermented beverages. To make wine, you crush grapes. To make cider, you crush apples. To make mead, you dissolve honey in water. And to make beer, you prepare wort.
Wort preparation is the process by which a brewer coaxes fermentable sugars from malted grain. In Part III, I offer an accessible introduction to what homebrewers commonly call all-grain brewing. Yes, technically, all beer is brewed from grain because, well, that’s kind of the definition of beer. What all-grain means to homebrewers, though, is that you actually mash grain at home to get at the fermentable sugars.
In this chapter, though, we focus on brewing from malt extract with specialty grains. Why? Because it’s much less time-consuming than all-grain methods. Rather than mash grain as part of your brew day, you simply dissolve malt extract, which is nothing more than wort that has been prepared from mashed grain and then concentrated down to an extract that is easy to use.
In Defense of Malt Extract—A Rant
Some things in life are virtually guaranteed. Professional athletes will always make too much money. Flying coach will always be uncomfortable. And, at some point, if you brew from malt extract, another homebrewer will dismiss you and claim that all-grain methods are somehow superior.
Ignore him or her. Or, if you can’t, then at least ask whether (s)he grows high-protein wheat, mills it into flour, prepares fresh dough, and extrudes it into fun shapes every time (s)he has a hankering for pasta. Arguing that using malt extract is in some way inferior to mashing grain is just as illogical.
Think of all of the convenience products we enjoy in our everyday lives. Do you grow your own produce? Do you make your own shampoo? Do you build your own furniture? Do you personally design and print every jigsaw puzzle you assemble?
If so, then I salute you and hope we have a chance to meet in the two or three free minutes you enjoy each month. If, however, you lead a busy life, then convenience products are probably an essential part of your existence. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about all-grain methods or brewing from malt extract. They’re simply different paths to the same end. What matters most is that you enjoy the beer you brew. Not your friends. Not your spouse. And certainly not a snotty beer judge. If you like drinking the beer you make, then you’re doing it right.
Never forget that homebrewing is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes my idea of fun is spending most of a Saturday mashing grain, boiling wort, drinking homebrew, and being a beer geek. But it’s also fun to take a walk, visit a museum, go on a date, or read a book. Malt extract frees up enough time that a busy person can both make beer and enjoy other aspects of a fully engaged life, including drinking said beer.
I brewed my first twenty or so batches of homebrew from malt extract and later added all-grain methods to my repertoire because I wanted to learn more about beer and get my hands dirty. That’s it. But I also enjoy roasting coffee, baking sourdough bread, hacking my Android device, and dabbling in such imminently practical languages as Icelandic. I would never presume that you ought to share those same interests. (Should you desire a rich and varied social life, I would, in fact, actively discourage it.)
All of this is to say that homebrewing can expand or contract to be as casual or all-consuming as you’d like to make it. Malt extract is a handy product that makes homebrewing more approachable to a broader group of people than it would be if we all had to mash grain every time we want to make beer.
Malt extract has advantages and disadvantages just like everything else. What matters is that we acknowledge those limitations and benefits and proceed according to what matters most to us.
End of rant. Let’s continue.
Steeping Specialty Grains
As we discussed in Chapter 2, there are several types of malt, and we can generally divide them into base malts and specialty malts. While base malts supply most of a beer’s fermentable sugars, specialty malts enhance color, flavor, and aroma. And even when most of a beer’s fermentable sugars come from malt extract, specialty grains still offer a good deal of character.
One particularly advantageous quality of specialty grains is that they don’t usually need to be mashed to access their goodness. The process of making them special does a pretty good job of converting their internal starches to water-soluble sugars, which means that most specialty grains need only be steeped in hot water to gain the color, flavor, and aroma they have to offer.
This has enormous implications for the extract brewer because specialty grains steeped in hot water will perform much the same as if they were mashed with base malt—not identically, but rather similarly. So, if you brew beer from extract, steeping specialty grains is an excellent way to add fresh malt character to your beer. Here’s how to do it.
- Crush the specialty grains. The homebrew store can do this for you, or you can crush them at home. A malt mill is ideal, but if you don’t own one, a rolling pin, wine bottle, or even jumping up and down on a grain-filled trash bag can be quite effective. All you really want to do is break up the kernels a bit. You don’t need to make flour, you just need to crack open the kernels.
- Put the crushed grain in a mesh bag. Muslin and nylon bags work great. You just need a mesh bag that can stand up to some heat and allow a little flow in and out. It’s often convenient to tie the top of the bag into a knot to keep grain from floating away during the steep.
- Plop the grain-filled bag into hot water. How hot is hot? Generally about 150–160°F (66–71°C). I usually heat my water to 160°F (71°C) and then kill the heat and drop in the grain. The temperature drops a few degrees and stabilizes, and it’s perfect for this approach.
- Wait half an hour. After you’ve added your crushed grain in a bag to the hot water, set a timer for 30 minutes and let the grain steep. Some homebrewers even add the bag of grain to the steeping water before turning on the heat and count the warm-up time toward the half hour of steeping. Either approach is effective.
- Pull the bag out and drain it for a bit. Once time is up, just lift the grain bag out of the steeping water and hold it above the kettle for a bit to allow the goodness to drip into your soon-to-be wort. But please do not squeeze the bag of grain. Squeezing has the potential to force some unwanted compounds out of the grain and into your beer. So be content to simply let the bag drip.
When the steep is complete, it’s time to crank up the heat to full whack and bring that barley water to a boil. Once it starts to bubble, kill the heat. It’s important to add extract off the heat. Here’s why:
- Liquid malt extract (LME) is dense and will tend to sink to the bottom of the kettle. A high sugar concentration along with direct heat is a recipe for scorching, which does not make good beer. So kill the heat before you add your liquid malt extract.
- Dry malt extract (DME) is extraordinarily hydrophilic, which means that it readily takes on water. It’s so eager to do so that it forms unwieldy clumps the minute it even enters the same time zone as hot water. Take a little time to whisk it around and dissolve it somewhat before beginning the boil in earnest, lest you end up with a volcanic eruption. So kill the heat before you add your dry malt extract.
With the heat off, add your extract and stir until you have a nice, uniform liquid. This may take some time, so be patient. Once it seems pretty well mixed, congratulations, you are now the proud parent of newborn wort! Smoke a cigar, kick the heat back into high gear, and get ready for the next step: The boil!
Wort preparation has the potential to be lengthy and involved or brief and simple. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach, and I encourage you to experiment with both extract and all-grain methods. Then choose what works best for you. When you first get started, working with extract frees you to focus on the brewing process itself. You always have the option of mashing grain at a later time, if you so desire.
This is an excerpt from our Illustrated Guide to Homebrewing by Dave Carpenter. Want to read the whole thing? Download it here.