What I Wish I Knew When I Started Extract Brewing

a5e74-20150515_223348Nowadays, I’m mostly an all-grain brewer. But, like many brewers, I started out using malt extract, perfecting basic fermentation, sanitation, and packaging techniques that I still apply. I wasn’t always happy with the results, and like many people “blamed” it on malt extracts. Additional experience and some distance in time, though, make me realize many of the problems were the result of faulty techniques, not faulty ingredients. So, I put together this brief list of suggestions to help out other extract brewers, particularly those who don’t have time, space, or money to create an all-grain setup.

  • Read the ingredients list. Most malt extract manufacturers provide stats on their product, including details on the grains that went into producing the particular extract. Think carefully about what you’re putting into your beer–are you unintentionally using an inappropriate extract for your recipe? For instance, some amber extracts might use a significant chunk of Munich malt. This is great for some styles, but might give you an unexpected flavor for others. On a related note…
  • For most beers, use the lightest extract available, and build up from there with steeping grains. When I started brewing, I thought, “Oh, I’ll use the stuff labeled as ‘amber DME’ to make an amber ale! And add a few other grains to improve the complexity.” This was a mistake! I mean, the result wasn’t bad necessarily, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. I didn’t think about what was in the DME, and as a result I added some unnecessary grains and ended up with a slightly muddled product. One way around this is to start with a very simple light extract, and then build up using crystal malts and other ingredients to get the result you want.
  • Avoid overly concentrated boils. If you are doing a partial volume boil, adding all of the extract at the start can result in lower-than-expected hop utilization (due to the relationship between bitterness and wort specific gravity) or some funky twang. One strategy is to add a certain amount of extract at the beginning of the boil, and then add the rest for a few minutes at the end, before chilling, transferring to the fermenter, and diluting.
  • Don’t bother with liquid malt extract unless you absolutely have to. In my experience, it’s harder to handle, is rather messy, and the container is difficult to clean out. Dry malt extract ain’t perfect, but for me at least it’s easier to get into the brew kettle. Additional comment added after publication: Dry malt extract also is way easier to measure and store with if you have “odd” amounts–e.g., it is way easier to save a half bag of DME than it is to save a half container of LME.
  • Don’t mess with the water too much. Water chemistry can be important, but your extract batch will include the minerals that were in the malt extract as well as the minerals with whatever water you are using to reconstitute the extract. If you add too much, you can end up with an overmineralized mess! I would recommend careful experimentation over a few batches to see what works best, erring on the side of “less is more”. Or, you might try contacting the maltster to see if they can tell you a little more about the water used in their extract production process.
  • Don’t fear the mini-mash. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t nearly that bad (especially after you’ve had a few other batches under your belt). And, it adds a whole host of new possibilities to your recipes! You can easily do it in your kettle with a small steeping bag–no mash tun required. Don’t feel like doing a mini-mash? Don’t worry! You can brew a whole ton of stuff (including most IPA’s, porters, stouts, blonde ales, and the like) with just extract and steeping grains.
  • Fermentation temperature control matters. Perhaps 75% of the time, issues that people blame on extract brewing are actually the result of poor temperature control (the remainder are either due to poor sanitation or poor extract technique). If your beer rises to 80 degrees while fermenting, it’s going to develop some off-flavors, no matter how you derive your wort. It’s fair to say more all-grain brewers have temperature control, and hence the perception that all-grain brewing methods result in better beer. A freezer or refrigerator with a temperature controller unit is easiest (but also most expensive and most space-hogging), but workable alternatives exist.

I plan to brew up an extract batch in the near future–it’s been quite awhile since I’ve done one, and it seems like a good idea to try out these techniques again!

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2 Responses to What I Wish I Knew When I Started Extract Brewing

  1. Joe Monks says:

    I would agree with pretty much everything you said except for DME vs LME. This is something that largely boils down to (no pun intended) experience working with the ingredient and personal preference. I generally use LME and have for years so I’m used to it and have developed tricks for working with it. So when I use DME it turns into a mess. For example, to clean out the LME container I put about a half liter of hot water in the container, shake it a bit and pour into the kettle. The hot water dissolves nearly all the residual LME with no mess.
    Additionally, excessively hard water can affect hop utilization and lower the apparent IBU. We have super hard water in the Northern Hills and I tend to have a difficult time with hoppy beers, unless I use RO water. And to recreate a regional style (English Porter, Czech Pilsner, etc.), attention to water quality can be very important.
    As for quality of final product, i agree that it largely comes down to sanitation, temperature, methods and quality of ingredients (generally in that order). I just love it when people knock extract brewing vs all grain. That way I can tell them about competetion awards my extract beers have won against all grain beers. That being said, the scientist and explorer in me is always looking to learn, experiment and expand. I am excited to expand my repertoire and start all grain brewing this spring! Cheers!

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  2. Andy Farke says:

    Thank you for the thoughts! Yeah, I think personal preference is a big part of LME vs. DME…one thing I do like about DME is that with LME, you are basically committed to using the whole container once you open it, if you are using an “odd” amount of extract for a particular recipe. DME can be a bit easier for minor adjustments in gravity, etc.

    And excellent addendum on hard water…we have the same issue in our part of SoCal.

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