Dear Mr. Wizard,
In looking through all your wonderful extract recipes I’ve noticed a wide range of temperatures and steeping times for the specialty grains. Is there some formula to determine how long what type of grain should be steeped? I am beginning to develop my own extract recipes, and that is one of the few variables I still don’t understand.
Mr. Wizard replies:
As difficult as it is to admit, brewing is a whole lot like cooking and there are many ways to get the job accomplished. Steeping is one of these tasks. When using malts as color and flavor additives to extract brews, there really is no exact science. Grains like crystal, chocolate and black malt do not change when they are mashed the way pale, Munich, wheat and pilsner malts do, for example. Most specialty malts contain either fermentable sugars (crystal malts) or roasted starches (chocolate malt) and neither type is enzymatically altered when soaked in hot water. This is as true for brewers that "steep" these malts as it is for brewers who "mash" them.
In practical terms, this means that steeping temperature is not terribly important in the grand scheme of brewing. A good cooking analogy is tea. Some tea bags intended for "iced tea" suggest using hot water to extract the flavor and aroma from the tea bag while others suggest using cold water. Increasing the water temperature used to brew tea may extract more tea color and flavor per unit weight of tea leaves but not much more. When tea is brewed using very hot water, excessive tannins are extracted and the tea has an astringent, harsh character.
The same holds true in brewing with steeping grains for extract beers. Beers made from steeping grains in the temperature range from about 120* to 160* F will taste very similar. Steep temperatures greater than 160* F will produce beers with progressively more astringency, but this difference in flavor will likely be marginal. All-grain brewers need to be much more cautious about mashing temperature because enzymes are involved and these enzymes are irreversibly de-activated at temperatures above their denaturation point.
If I were brewing a beer made from extracts and special malts, I would steep my grains at 150° to 160* F for 30 to 60 minutes and sparge or rinse the grain bag with water at about the same temperature. This method will work as a very good starting point. Only if the resulting beer had odd flavors attributable to steeping temperature or time would I consider changing the temperature. Happy brewing!
For more of Mr. Wizard's wisdom, pick up the latest copy of Brew Your Own available now at better homebrew shops and newsstand locations.