For many home brewers the use of liquid malt extract to brew beer verges on the sacrilegious. For devotees to the art of brewing the only way to home-brew is full grain mashing and by using extract you are compromising your values as a home brewer. But let’s face it extract brewing is where many of us cut our home-brewing teeth so perhaps it is unwise to be too critical. On the face it of a well made extract does have some massive advantages over full grain mashing and that is what I would like to look at in this article.
What is malt extract?
The simplest answer is that liquid malt extract is concentrated brewers wort. Wort is the name brewers give to the sugary liquid that is fermented to produce beer. Producers of liquid extract will typically mash in exactly the same way as a brewer, utilising the same raw materials, equipment and processes, the only difference is that rather than take the wort and ferment it, as a brewer would do, an extract producer concentrates the wort by vacuum evaporation. The result is that wort of 20% solids and 80% water is concentrated to 80% solids and 20% water. This gives a very viscous liquid product which can be packed for home brewing. In essence many extract producers are commercial brewers in their own right so the wort will be brewed and hopped in the usual way but rather than diverting the cooled wort to the fermentation hall it is evaporated instead.
What are the advantages of using extract to brew?
Because liquid extract is a concentrated version of brewers wort the novice home-brewer simply has to add water and yeast and their first brew is on the go. Thus extract brewing is an excellent entry point into the fascinating hobby that is home-brewing. No technical brewing experience is required but extract brewing can be developed and made more complex as the home-brewers skills and confidence improve.
Very little equipment is required so the start-up costs are minimal. In essence you need a bucket for fermentation, some bottles, caps and a corker and you can get started. Contrast this with full grain mashing and you can understand the attraction.
However, to me the main benefit of extract brewing is one of time. It might sound lazy to say it but sometimes I want to brew a good beer that isn’t time-consuming. Extract brewing gives you that. Believe me when I say you can get a home-brew extract into the fermenter and yeast added in less than 30 minutes. You won’t be able to beat that with full grain mashing and the results are often just as good.
What are the disadvantages?
The main drawback of using extract kits is that you have no or limited control over the beer that you produce. In essence your beer will always be somebody else’s interpretation of a particular beer style. If we look at that argument more deeply we can see that not only are you stuck with somebody else’s interpretation of a beer you are also stuck with any poor brewing practice that the extract producer employs. Now before I get myself into trouble with the home-brew extract producers I am not saying that they will knowingly set out to produce a poor quality brewers extract but, some of the common faults associated with extract such as stuck fermentations, hazy beers, colour variability can be a result of the raw materials and processes that they use. However, in recent years home-brew kits have improved significantly, I believe this has gone hand in hand with the growth in the craft brewing sector. As the craft brewing sector has grown and become ever more innovative so the home-brew extract producers have responded. This has led to the growth in home-brew kits that are licensed versions of craft brewed beers such as the Woodfordes, Milestone and St Peters range of homebrew kits. This development has meant that the quality of extract has significantly improved as there aren’t many craft brewers who would want poor quality home-brew kits damaging the reputation of their beer brands. The kits that bear the name of a commercial brewer such as Woodfordes or St Peters go through a rigorous testing process before the brewer will allow the kit to be sold in the marketplace. Furthermore there are some very interesting kits on the market which allow you to tinker with the recipe allowing you to tailor the kit to your own particular tastes. These kits come with the basic malt extract, coloured malt and hop pellets.
Finally here are some simple extract brewing tips.
Always record the batch number of the extract that you use. If you encounter any issues the batch number is critical when you enter into any correspondence with the manufacturer.
Don’t just add the water volume that is suggested in the instructions. Generally the home-brew extract should be at 80 brix but can be anywhere between 79.5 to 81 brix. Thus adding the same volume of water to an extract at 79.5 or 81 brix will give a very different starting gravity. Instead add a proportion of the water volume suggested and then measure the gravity using a hydrometer. This saves over diluting the extract.
Record all the details of your brewing, keep a brewing diary or log book. Such things as starting gravity, final gravity how long the beer took to ferment are all important and relevant details that can help to improve your brewing and are good brewing practice.
For advanced extract brewing look for basic unhopped malt extracts and use these as a base for developing your own beer recipes. This can help develop your brewing skills bridging the gap between kit and full grain brewing.