Friday, July 1, 2016

Extract Excellence - Make Great Beer with Malt Extract

Almost all homebrewers started this way;  A couple of cans of malt extract, some specialty grains we didn't really understand, a package of dry yeast, a kettle, a plastic fermenter and a dream that we could make great beer at home.  And for most of us the results were encouraging enough that we stayed in the hobby. We learned, we grew, and eventually we started making truly excellent beer.  And along the way we read, or heard someone say..."you can make award winning beer with extract"   Come on, you're no different.  You know you've heard the claim.   "this guy in my club, knows a guy who uses extract and he won the NHCs, and the World Beer Cup, and he opened a microbrewery that only uses extract, and he cured cancer and gout with his extract IPA..." But when you start researching, it is damned near impossible to find an extract recipe that has actually won a major award.

The book Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels is a great resource.  A great way to learn to start thinking about designing recipes.  In the book Daniels goes through many of the great styles that home brewers have success with.  In each style Daniels mentions at least a couple of extract recipes that qualified for the second round.   His research is exhaustive, so we can all trust with some certainty, that people can, and do qualify and win awards with extract beers.

We built on, and took the research even further.   Reviewing every winning recipe from 2010 to 1014, and what we found was that 10 Extract recipes won NHC gold medals.  Further, all of the award winning recipes were in categories that have SRMs over 11.   Only 2 of the recipes were recipes that you would consider extract with specialty grains, the other 8 were recipes that must be considered partial mash. (It is important to note that many, many partial mash recipes also qualified for the second round furthering my contention that Partial Mash is the way to brew beer at home for consistent excellence). The majority of extract beers that won NHC awards were very yeast centric (Belgian/Sour), or fruit flavored.  Only one lager (a dark American) won an NHC gold medal.

So it can be done.  You can actually make an extract batch of beer that can win a major contest with extract.  A truly excellent beer.  A beer you can be proud of, and proudly serve to any one. But to do this, first you have to debunk some myths, and accept some realities.

Debunking Myths:  There are so many myths about extract that they cannot all be explained in depth in this post. So rather than writing a paragraph on each, and for the purpose of this blog, they are simply listed and stated as fact.  Whether or not they are fact is a matter of debate.
  1. "Extract is twangy or metalic tasting." - No it just isn't.  It hasn't been for a very long time.  There was a time, way back when I started brewing when this was kinda true.   The extracts were packaged in metal cans that were not lined. not fresh, and when the technology of creating extract also created some of that taste. Certain sugars were created in the creation of the extract, that didn't ferment well and left a twangy taste.  But that hasn't been the case for a long time. 
  2. "Extract is more fermentable" - That isn't actually true.  in fact, it may be less because of dexterines in the extract.   Every extract is different, and you should check the sheet associated with that extract. Higher PPG does not automatically equal a more ferment-able wort
  3. Extract tastes like caramel - wrong, extract tastes like wort
  4. Extract leaves beer sweet - wrong, well kinda wrong. Some of the sugars created in the process of making extract are unfermentable, or harder for the yeast to ferment.
  5. Extract beers can be identified as different than all grain -  kinda true, unless you do everything correctly and use some grain in your recipe.  An extract batch will taste different than an all grain batch.   But a partial mash batch will save you money and time and is nearly indistinguishable from all grain.   
Realities of extract brewing;  Like the myths, there are just too many realities to go into full detail in one blog.  The most important thing to know is that if you follow great practice, you can make great beer with extract.
  1. More expensive ingredients, more affordable equipment. 
  2. Way faster
  3. Darker in Color - use recipes that feature this as an advantage.
  4. Different techniques for excellence: Techniques like
    1. Late Extract extraction - Adding the extract in the last 10 minutes
    2. Flame of / Kettle off for additions - or dissolve the extract separately and add back in to wort.
  5. Absolutely critical that you follow good practices, 
    1. Full volume boil
    2. Quick chill
    3. Water adjustment for flavor
    4. Aeration
    5. Proper yeast pitch
    6. Controlled fermentation temperature
  6. You must learn to do at least a simple mash - we'll explain more in a separate post.  
    1. For those of you who do not currently mash grains, you will have to learn how.  
    2. If you can make oatmeal with out supervision, you can handle this.  
  7. Best with beers that feature
    1. Fruit flavors
    2. Belgian Influenced
      1. Yeast flavors
      2. Spice Flavors
    3. Sour beers
    4. Darker beers - Stout, Scottish Ale, Brown Ale
So how does a home brewer apply what we have learned here to make a great extract at home?  Well,
if you are a new brewer, you have to accept certain things. First off, you must boil full volume and you must chill quickly.  If you do not have the ability to boil 6.5  gallons of wort, you can do one of two things.  You can reduce your batch size (our preferred) or you can split your boil into two kettles. This is called the Texas two step.  It is really straight forward, you simply split your wort into two 3.25 gallon batches. Second, you must learn to do at least a simple 30- 45 minute mash in a bag. There is just no way around it.  Only two recipes out of over 10,000 entered were purely extract. You have to use some specialty grains, and you have to get some all grain flavor.  Third, even though this is extract you still have to respect the beer and the ingredients.  You have to use chlorine free water, you have to aerate, you have to make water adjustments for flavor, you have to pitch the correct amount of yeast, and you have to ferment at the right temperatures.  Fourth and finally you have to accept that extract is going to be darker in color than all grain.  That is fine, you can make a darker beer.   But remember there are methods you can use to reduce the darkening of the wort, even with extract.

In this series we will be making three batches of extract beer.  We will make a time tested Belgian Dark Strong Ale that I have been making for years, we will be making a Grapefruit IPA/APA, and we will be making a Flanders Red. (Which will be split into separate fermenters to compare sour blends) We will reduce the Flanders to 3.5 Gallons.  We'll be making these batches in the electric turkey fryer. We'll be chilling with the Jaded Hydra.  We'll be aerating by pouring the wort back and forth between buckets.  And we'll be controlling fermentation temperature with a fermentation chamber.  These are all techniques that any home brewer must use to create excellence with extract.

The goal of this is to show you that even if you are limited on your equipment.  Even if you just prefer making extract beer, you can take the steps necessary to make a great beer at home.  This should be fun.  And if you're already an all grain brewer, it should show you that you can make more beer at home by mixing in some extract batches.

What you'll need for Extract Excellence
  • A way to boil 6.5 gallons of wort.  
    • A turkey fryer with a 7.5 gallon aluminum pot will work fine
    • Two 5 gallon pots
  • A large Laundry Tub - large enough to hold your fermenter for controlling temperatures
  • Some large muslin bags - for the steep/mini mash
  • A scale capable of measuring ounces and grams
  • Your regular brewing gear
That is it. That is all you need to make excellent extract beer at home.   You don't need a massive 3 vessel system.  You don't need the ability to perform complicated step mashes.  You don't need to have a big fermentation chamber. (although they are nice).  All of this gear costs less than $300.00.  So yes, you can make great beer at home with extract and, you can get set up for less than $300.00.


  1. Why is it necessary to do a full volume boil? I have seen many video's and watched many people do there steeping/mashing in 3 gallon's then add half of there malt and bring to the boil. after the hop's have been added, during the last 15 minute's of the boil the remainder of the malt is added. after the boil you only need to chill 2 gallon's of wort and if you add pre-chilled water to top up to your final volume it will help with chilling quickly.

  2. Great question. The simple fact is that this series is about extract excellence. It is always better to boil the entire volume for the purpose of creating an homogeneous wort, for hop utilization, for sanitation, and the larger volume of a full volume boil will incorporate everything. My personal experience is that the batches come out so much better when I do full volume boil. I actually prefer my BSDA and Raspberry Wheat (both partial mash) to full grain.

  3. for BIAB, I am rethinking using extract.Not so long ago, there was a significant price diff in all gran vs extract (ymmv). But with loss of efficiency issues and adding to the grain bill or using DME, the prices have come closer. Last batch, I decided to use an extract for Deadringer as it was only $3 more. I am happy with that but don't know if extract is good for those who like to create there own recipes.

  4. Extract is fine for those who like to make their own recipes. But partial mash is even better, and even more reliable. For people who want to speed up their brew days and get more reliable results I suggest Partial Mash