Homebrewing with Extract: A Complete Guide
Extract brewing is a fast and easy way to get your favorite beer brewed, and some people think that it’s not as good as All Grain brewing. The fact of the matter is, it’s just different. The part where you extract the sugars from the grain has already been done for you, on a large scale, most likely by companies that have perfected the process and can put out tons of high quality malt extracts to consistent specs. This week on BrewCranium we’ll answer some of the common questions and issues that we get from extract brewers, and explain how to make award winning beer by combining your favorite specialty grains and high quality malt extracts!
Liquid Malt Extract vs Dry Malt Extract
First things first, let’s talk about the kinds of extracts available. Liquid Malt Extract (LME) is malt extract syrup, and we’ve found some of the best to be made by Briess Malting and Ingredients Company. We’ve literally used hundreds of pounds of this stuff, and it’s always consistent.
LME and DME are made by mashing on a huge, 500 barrel scale, then vacuum evaporated so that it doesn’t create a ton of color during the concentration process. For LME, it is kept with a little more moisture than DME so that it stays in liquid, syrupy form, which some brewers prefer, and find easier to use.
When it comes to using both of these products in your beer, it’s all about hitting the gravity that you want. Despite the old taboo of not mixing these, which seems antiquated and silly, use what you need to hit your gravity! Most of our recipes are a mixture of LME and DME so that we hit the gravities that we want..
One thing you’ll want to keep in mind is that extracts are always a little darker than mashing the actual grains, due to the processing involved, so lighter beers will always be just a little darker.
Have you ever tasted that ‘Homebrew’ flavor in your beer, or in your friends’ beer? A lot of times, this tastes like a residual ‘cloying’ sweetness, not so much like the beer didn’t ferment all the way, but more like an overbearing sweet characteristic that doesn’t balance with the rest of the beer. Many times a HUGE contributor to this is brewing with extracts that aren’t fresh, another reason why we prefer to use the American made products from Briess. No transoceanic shipping, just fresh LME and DME whenever we order it!
Fresh ingredients are always step one, but with the exception of super light and simple styles, such as pilsner, the other key to building world class beers is by using your extracts in conjunction with fresh steeping grains. We like to stick to the base malt only malt extracts, like Pilsner Light, Golden Light, and Bavarian Wheat, then get the majority of our color, flavor and complexity by steeping grains.
Mini-Mash vs Steeping
10 or so years ago, the concept of ‘mini-mash’ started to get big on the homebrew scene. A mini-mash is when you aim to get 30 - 50% of the sugar for your beer from an old school mash, then use malt extracts to bump your numbers up to where you want them. The benefit of this is using less extract, especially if it’s not super fresh, and staving off that ‘homebrew’ flavor everybody hates so much!
WIth the exception of the mash pH and overall extraction efficiency, it really is a brilliant way to make great homebrew. You get the flavor of the base grains, can extract lighter colors, and maintain a little more control in your extract brew. We’ve found that modifying this method for our recipes has helped in producing a ton of great beers!
When you’re steeping, it’s a little less metered, and you’re not counting on sugar production from the grain, but more looking for the flavor, color and complexity of the malts. The most important part of both of these methods is consistent process.
Find Your Process and Stick To It
Even though there’s less process in extract brewing, your process is still VERY important. We like to use the same process, or as close to it as we can get, with every single extract beer that we make. This helps us to be consistent no matter what the specialty and steeping grains or malt extracts are, and makes it easier to build our recipes.
Starting with about 7.25 gallons of water, we fire up the burners and add all of our steeping grains at the same time. If there are base grains present in the steeping grains, this basically puts them through all of the rest stages and helps ensure conversion given the way higher water to grist ratio. Because there’s no harm if there aren’t base grains, we do this no matter what beer we’re brewing.
Some brewers like to hold their steep around general mash temps, and that’s always a good method. In theory, just about any base grain that you add will reach its full conversion potential in about 15 minutes at 150° or so.
Once your temperature gets to 165° F, it’s time to get the steeping grains out of there. About 168° F, the tannins on the grain husks begin to be able to dissolve into solution, which can throw your bitterness way out of whack and taste generally awful. We also avoid squeezing the steeping bag because that mechanical action can pull the tannins off, too. Instead, we plop the bag around for a couple of minutes like it’s a tea bag to make sure all of their goodness has been given up to the wort, drip dry over the pot until they’ve been mostly cleaned, and it’s off to feed the chickens with them!
From here, we let the wort get to a boil and kill the flame. Especially if you’re using LME, this is VERY IMPORTANT! There is no worse flavor in your beer than burnt LME on the bottom of the kettle, and there’s no way to get rid of it!
Kill the flame and make a wicked whirlpool, then dump your extracts in slowly, which with liquid extracts, is the only real way anyway because it’s about the same consistency as molasses! Make sure it’s all going into solution and not sticking on the bottom, and in most cases you can use the hot wort in the pot to get all of the sticky stuff left in the container it came in.
When adding DME, we do the same thing. Big whirlpool, and drop it in a little at a time to make sure that all of the DME is going into solution. You’ll notice that, because the sugar is so concentrated, if it gets hit by any steam or any moisture, it will start to clump and harden up, so don’t worry! Get what you can into the water and you’ll be golden!
From here, it’s time to boil! You’ll notice as you come up to a boil, the proteins will start to form on the top, and you’ll be rushing headlong into a boil over, which is a pretty normal thing, at least for me! We like to keep a spray bottle handy, usually with just tap water or Star San, and keep the foam down until the hot break hits, which is when the proteins denature enough to let us boil without exploding.
A 60 minute boil is crucial for any beer, but unless you used pilsner malts during your steep, you don’t have to do a 90 minute boil with extracts. Even with Pilsner Malt Extract, enough of the volatiles have been dealt with during the process of making the extract.
Split Volume Boil
Another bonus of brewing with extracts is that you can brew on smaller equipment using the Split Volume Boil Method. When you’re doing this, you’re basically making a concentrated wort, then using some distilled or pre-boiled water to top it up in your fermenter to 5.5 gallons.
The benefits of this method come for those who don’t have a lot of room to brew, or don’t have a big enough kettle to make a Full Volume Boil. This means you can boil the wort in a stockpot on your stove (just watch the boilover carefully - nothing is worse than trying to clean a concentrated sugar solution off of your stove and counters!).
While a Full Volume Boil is ideal, you can still make killer beer this way. You’ll boil and add your extracts in the same way, turning off the flame, then getting back up to a boil and doing your hop additions. At the end of the boil, try to use either pre-boiled or distilled water for topping up, and make sure it’s as cold as you can get it! You don’t want to use fresh, cold tap water because there are still chlorine and chloramines in there, and that flavor can be pretty distinct in your finished beer, which is a horrid flavor.
When it comes time to mix them, add a gallon or so or your cold water to your fermenter first so you’re not pouring boiling liquid into it - unless it’s a stainless fermenter. Most of the PET and plastic fermenters don’t like liquid above 120° F or so, and it’s easy to avoid. Add your first gallon, then get your wort in there! If you have someone helping you, you can pour and mix them at the same time to make sure the temps stay nice and low and nothing warps or breaks. It’s important to mix them really well at this point before you take your gravity reading, both to aerate and to give all of that sugar a chance to spread evenly throughout solution.
The short answer is all of them. We like Briess Extracts because they are fresh, high quality and consistent, and tend to stick to the lighter colors. When building your recipe, think of the extracts as what they are - just the base grain.
While Briess has Dark and Amber Malt extracts, both of which are phenomenal in smaller quantities to boost a big Barelywine or Imperial Stout, we tend to stay away from using them as 100% of our base. This gives us the opportunity to use whatever other grains we want to get our color, flavor and complexity, and makes the finished beer better.
The theory here, and why some scoff at Extract Brewing, is that by using the extracts that have already been made complete by specialty malts and roasted malts, adding any more in is unnecessary. The beer’s already been done, your just mixing in the water and boiling it. This is why we prefer to stay to the Pilsen Light Concentrated Brewers Wort (CBW), which is 99% American Pilsner and 1% Carapils, Golden Light CBW, which is 99% American 2 Row and 1% Carapils, and the Bavarian Wheat CBW, which is 65% American Wheat and 35% American 2 Row/Pilsner, and any of the mostly base malt CBW varieties, like CBW Rye. This gives us the ultimate control of the beer we’re trying to make, which is the whole reason to do this!Thank you all for reading! Hopefully this article will help you be more confident in brewing your next extract batch! For step by step information from water to pitching yeast, take a look at our Brewing with Extract Guide! Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest! Watch our awesome YouTube Channel, BrewChatter TV, for tons of cool interviews, homebrewing information and more! Brew On!