Not long after any homebrewer begins brewing, someone will ask him or her the big “all-grain” question: “Have you gone all-grain yet?” It provokes one of several responses:
- “Me? I went all-grain after four batches.”
- “Gone all-grain? I started all-grain.”
- “Wow. I was a partial-mash guy forever, but I made the upgrade to all-grain just two months ago.”
- “I still brew extract, but as soon as I have the space, I’m going all-grain!”
Some also adorably (but not necessarily mistakenly, so long as they’re not using any dehusked malts) say they’re going “whole-grain,” which is, I suppose, more or less true but still sounds as if they’re brewing with nothing but bran muffins.
But you know what you almost never hear? “Nope, not me. I’m sticking with extract. I just don’t think all-grain beers are going to be any better than what I can make with extract, and in fact extract saves me time and offers distinct benefits besides!”
And that’s crazy, because that’s a perfectly sensible response. For all that’s made of going all-grain—and it definitely has its advantages—it’s not a requirement to produce your best beer. Here, let’s talk about why you should think about “going extract” rather than “going all-grain.” Extract offers speed and consistency while sacrificing only minimally in terms of control and not at all in quality. Moreover, even those who have previously “gone all-grain” can make the transition back to extract with some pretty straightforward recipe adjustments and still brew almost any style.
Comparing Extract and All-Grain
The traditional argument for all-grain brewing is control. Because you’re producing your own malt extracts (via your own mash with your own water in your own vessel), you can make decisions not available to the extract brewer. Extract brewers get whatever was made in the factory that day, and who knows whether Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. (or Dr.?) Maltmaker was having an “on” day that day? If you’re an all-grain brewer, though, you’re working with your own materials and deciding about mash steps and temperatures, water-to-grain ratios, runoff speed, and more, all of which give you control over the finished product. You’re also doing it for a fraction of the cost because malt extracts are rather more expensive than grain, especially if you buy your grain in bulk.
That’s accurate, but let’s not pretend that all-grain brewing doesn’t come with its own costs and risks. First, it takes longer. Prepping and doughing-in, mashing, mashing out, vorlaufing, lautering, maybe sparging—it all takes time. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, what if you’re bad at it? And even if you’re good at it, what if you make bad choices? And even if you make good choices, what if your water betrays you because you don’t know that for six months out of the year you’re brewing with minerally cistern water instead of softer river water? Yes, you have control. But no, control is not universally a good thing.
Extract, though, is a consistent and reliable product that is ready for the boil and pre-loaded with the brewing salts and minerals needed to make good beer (or at least avoid the kinds of water profiles that make brewing excessively challenging). Many brewers would genuinely benefit from having a bit less control, and nearly all would benefit from having a significant chunk of time put back in their days. In more than a decade of brewing (both all-grain and extract beers), the only fault I’ve ever perceived from my malt extract is oxidation—and that risk can be minimized and is not exclusive to extract (I’ve purchased stale grain, too).
What we usually think of as “extract flavor” is really a failure to properly adjust recipes to account for the “controlled” aspects of extract. Extract beers are sometimes described as less complex than all-grain beers and are often described as heavier and/or sweeter than all-grain beers (since malt extract is usually less fermentable than the wort produced in your own mash). Both of these are recipe issues that can easily be addressed and are usually only about approximating the base malt portion of the recipe. From that point forward, we can usually add the same ingredients to both recipes. Let’s take a simple recipe for ESB as an example. Suppose your ESB recipe called for the following:
8 lb (3.6 kg) Maris Otter
8 oz (227 g) 45L Crystal
8 oz (227 g) 65L Crystal
Convert the base grains (2-row, 6-row, Pilsner, Munich, Vienna, Maris Otter) first. Most brewing software can do this for you, so all you need to do is select dry or liquid extract (and maybe color, though pale extract can be used almost universally) and add the appropriate amount to generate the same gravity you would produce from the base malt. Another rule of thumb is that the appropriate weight of liquid extract can be calculated by multiplying the grain weight by 0.75, or dry extract weight by multiplying by 0.6 (so, 8 pounds/3.6 kg becomes 6 pounds/2.7 kg of liquid extract or 4.8 pounds/2.2 kg of dry extract).
Specialty grains that are described as caramel or crystal or chocolate/roasted can simply be purchased and milled and steeped in grain bags while heating your brewing water, so no adjustment is necessary.
Some grains, though, have not been kilned sufficiently to convert their starches into sugars, and steeping them can yield excessive starch/protein in the finished beer. In addition to the base grains noted above, these include wheat malt, rye malt, and most 10–20L character malts (Victory, biscuit, aromatic, honey malt, etc.). While these can be steeped, I would recommend doing so only in amounts under half a pound (227 g) each and not more than 10 percent of the total grist. The resulting proteins/starches can have adverse flavor and appearance effects.
Once we have our extracts and steeping grains selected, we have one final adjustment to make: body/sweetness. Reducing one usually means reducing the other, though the adjustment does not always work in reverse. For a lighter, drier beer, consider a simple sugar addition of about 5 percent of your gravity points (swapped in for some portion of the base-replacing extract). Table sugar (beet, cane, etc.) is fine, but you could also add some flavor (should you wish to) by using a darker Belgian candi syrup or honey. For a sweeter, heavier beer, do nothing—you’re welcome. For a drier, heavier beer, adjust with sugar as above and then add maltodextrin powder to “bulk up” your beer, without sweetness.
One final word on recipe conversion: flaked grains. It’s true that flaked oats, flaked barley, flaked wheat, etc., must be mashed to generate sugars, but in most recipes they’re used to promote body and head retention rather than used as a source of gravity points. Steeping them, then, extracts the very proteins that we want from them, even without starch conversion. I’ve steeped these my entire brewing career, with no ill effects, and any clarity loss was minimal (and/or addressed by fining agents such as Irish Moss or gelatin).
That’s the basic process—now, how do we get the most out of extract beers?
As with all brewing ingredients (unless you’re making a lambic), buy fresh, fresh, fresh. How will you know whether it’s fresh? You won’t, any more than you can be sure that a sack of grain you’re buying is fresh. But you can increase your odds of getting good, fresh ingredients by purchasing from a shop/vendor with robust sales and a quick pull-through, where things don’t sit around much on the shelves. Some extracts have “produced on” dates on them, but it’s not remotely universal (basically just Briess, in my experience).
Match your extract to your base grist. If you’re replacing Munich malt, use Munich extract; Pils malt, Pils extract; wheat malt, replace with wheat extract; and so on. If the extract is simply listed as “light” or “extra light” or “pale malt extract,” it’s most likely just a blend of 2-row barleys (and maybe some light crystal malts). Amber and dark extracts include crystal or chocolate malts and may be found in kits, but I recommend sticking with pale extract and steeping your crystal/chocolate malts for yourself.
Boil it all. Full-volume boils are, oddly, not usually recommended in kit instructions, generally because new brewers (whom the manufacturer assumes are the ones doing the brewing) lack the equipment and/or heating potential to boil 6+ gallons (22.7+ l) of wort. As soon as practical, go to full-volume boils—it simplifies the recipe conversion process (for a partial boil, hops/IBU calculations have to be adjusted to account for the fact that it’s a higher-gravity boiling wort, reducing utilization) and eliminates the potential for contamination when you add cool (un-boiled) water post-boil.
Adjuncts are your friend. Since you’re probably adjusting body/sweetness anyway, play around with molasses, syrups, honeys, and more to yield interesting flavors!
Grain is still your friend. Use steeped specialty malts liberally to generate complex flavors (though don’t use them wantonly—excessive use yields beer that tastes like coloring with all the crayons looks).
Avoid water adjustment. All-grain brewing often entails making adjustments to brewing water with salts/minerals, but extracts typically come out of the can ready to ferment, from a water chemistry perspective. If you have softish water, you can use your standard tap water. If you have approaching-hard or hard water, consider diluting (or even replacing entirely) with reverse-osmosis (RO) or distilled water. And until you’ve brewed a recipe and evaluated it, do not add brewing salts to the water. Adjust for that in future recipes only after tasting.
Last (but not least), choose a well-attenuating yeast from within the yeast family (ale, lager, Belgian, weizen, etc.) that matches the style you’re brewing. Despite your recipe-based efforts at promoting attenuation and dryness, you still want to stack the deck in your favor. Selecting a yeast with a relatively high level of average attenuation will provide one more safeguard for your beer’s flavor profile.
With the range of extracts available today (and the list now includes even rarities such as rye extract and rauch-malt extract), very few styles are off the table for extract brewers. Still, some are easier than others. Almost any lager or American ale will be a good candidate, as are the British pale and brown ales. Stouts and porters, likewise, are perfectly viable options, as are weizens (thanks to wheat-malt extracts).
More challenging might be the Belgian styles: it can be difficult to get them sufficiently dry to match our expectations and their style attributes. Still, judicious application of simple sugars and syrups can get you home, as can high-quality wheat extracts, where appropriate! Likewise, rauchbiers can be difficult to accomplish if you can’t find a fresh, high-quality rauch-malt extract: steeping smoked grains can be successful, but you should attempt it with a lighter amount of a more-intensely smoked grain (hickory-smoked malt, perhaps). Liquid smoke and peat-smoked malts are not recommended: the flavors are too intense/artificial/undesirable. Trust me.
The Real Extract Advantage
Can you guess what the real advantage of extract is? The greatest extract-beer advantage isn’t time—though you’re on the right track. Extract brewing is faster, which means you can brew more frequently, and that’s the real advantage. Brewing faster usually means brewing more, and brewing more usually means brewing better. If your choice is (as it so often is) between brewing an extract batch in two hours or not brewing at all, then you’re far better off brewing with extract (especially if you follow sound extract- brewing practices). Time is beer.
Besides, beers are really made in fermentation. From the top of the boil, there’s virtually no difference between your extract batch and the equivalent, time-intensive, “controlled” all-grain batch. The difference is that you’ll get to the top of the boil a lot faster (and a lot more often) than your all-grain buddies will. You’ll get a lot more experience on the cold side and probably produce better beer. So, the next time an all-grain brewer looks askance at how you brew, ask him/her how often (s)he brews—and then propose a brewing duel, right then and there. I know where I’d lay my bet. And when the showdown comes, maybe you’ll convince an all-grain brewer to “Go Extract!”