10 Steps to Better Extract Brewing
Extract brewing is viewed by some as a streamlined process compared to all-grain brewing. It omits one major step of all-grain brewing (the mash) and the brewday is shorter. However, the differences between extract and all-grain brewing are more extensive than the presence or absence of the mash. In fact, extract brewing has its own set of challenges not faced by all-grain brewers. In this article, I present 10 brewing tips specific to extract brewing.
1. Know Thyself (and Thine Brewery)
If an extract brewer wishes to brew consistently quality beer, he (or she) should get to know the details of his system and how they effect his brewing. Brew an extract version of a beer brewed by an all-grain friend or an extract clone of a beer you enjoy. Taste your beer side-by-side with the all-grain or commercial beer and note every difference you can. How do the color, bitterness, malt character and yeast qualities stack up? Once you have this information in hand, use the following information to correct or adjust for any of the problems you may be experiencing.
2. Pump Up the Volume
The biggest improvement most extract brewers can make to their process is to boil their wort in a larger volume. Early homebrewing books instructed brewers to boil the malt extract for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch in as little as 1.5 gallons (5.7 L) of water. Although this is convenient, this convenience comes at a price. Boiling a thick wort is guaranteed to darken it unacceptably and severely limit the amount of hop bitterness. No matter what volume a recipe calls for, always boil your wort at the largest volume you can manage.
These days, most homebrew shops carry relatively inexpensive brewpots. A 16-qt. (4-gallon/15-L) pot will allow you to begin boiling from around 2.75 gallons (10.4 L) down to 2.5 gallons (9.5 L) in an hour, and a little stirring as the wort comes to a boil will prevent boil-overs. At this volume, you will be able to brew light-colored beers with reasonably high levels of hop bitterness — especially if you use the extract late or Texas Two-Step technique. (For more information on these techniques, see the October 2004 issue of BYO).
If your situation permits, the best solution is to get a “turkey fryer” propane cooker and a 7-gallon (26-L) or larger pot. This will allow you to boil 6 gallons (23 L) of wort down to five gallons (19 L) in a typical 60 minute boil. With this setup, the lower color limit you can achieve is determined by the color of your extract and your beers can be as hoppy as any all-grain beer.
Sometimes your brewpot isn’t the limiting factor. Sometimes your kitchen stove doesn’t kick out enough heat to boil much wort vigorously. Two things can help in this regard. First, close the lid on the pot almost all of the way. You should never boil wort in a completely closed pot. However, you really don’t need the lid cracked very much to provide an escape for the volatile chemicals you want to boil off.
A second potential helper in this regard is a coil immersion heater. Many travel places sell these devices (for around US $15), which are just a small heating coil that plugs into the wall. The coil is meant to be placed in water, tea or soup to heat them up. On their own, these would be useless for wort boiling as they don’t produce enough heat. However, used in conjunction with a stove, they can increase either your boil vigor or the amount of wort you can boil vigorously slightly. Just the movement induced in the wort by having a hot spot inside the kettle can be a good thing. Keep in mind, though, the potential shock hazard of these devices. I wouldn’t use one unless it was plugged into an outlet with an interrupt.
3. Other Dark Forces
Boil volume is not the only factor in wort darkening. Another problem is the potential to caramelize partially dissolved malt extract. When you stir malt extract into hot water, it does not dissolve instantly or evenly. Little “blobs” of extract can remain intact for quite awhile, even when everything looks dissolved. These “blobs” will sink to the bottom of your brewpot and can caramelize there. So, whenever you stir in extract, turn off the heat and stir until you don’t see any undissolved bits of extract — then stir for another minute or so.
Two other factors in wort darkening are heat and time. On a commercial scale, most brewers used to aim to evaporate 10% of their wort in an hour (these days, the target is even lower). When boiling a small amount of wort on a stove, it’s easy to evaporate a much higher percentage. If this is happening, turn down the heat or increase the amount of wort you are boiling.
The longer you boil your wort, the darker it gets. So, boil your wort only as long as the longest hop addition requires. And, keep in mind that some liquid extracts have already been boiled (although others have only been evaporated). Liquid malt extract only needs to boil (or steep at temperatures over 160 °F/71 °C) for 15 minutes to sanitize it.
4. Fresh Extract
This point does not need to be elaborated on, but I can’t leave it out, either — always use fresh malt extract.
5. Got Grains?
In order to get the colors and flavors you want from your specialty grains, without extracting excess tannins, you need to do one of two things — either steep in a small amount of water or in weak wort. A small amount of water means 1–3 qts. of water per pound of grains (2.1–6.3 L/kg). If you steep in a larger volume than that, add malt extract until the specific gravity is over 1.010 before adding the grains. And finally, rinse with a very small amount of water — 0.5–1 qts. of water per pound of grain steeped (1–2 L/kg) works well.
In extract brewing, the extract manufacturer collects the wort and concentrates it. When the wort is concentrated into extract, some volatile compounds are lost. To brew the best extract beer possible, you need a way to replace at least a portion of them. The simplest way to do this is to make some wort yourself by doing a partial mash in your brewpot.
To do this, add some 2-row pale malt to your recipe. For every pound (0.45 kg) of pale malt, subtract 0.53 lbs. (0.24 kg) of dried malt extract or 0.73 lbs. (0.33 kg) liquid malt extract. When making a 5-gallon (19-L) extract beer, I usually shoot for “steeping” a total of around 2–2.5 lbs. (0.91–1.1 kg) of grains, including base malt and specialty grains. Steep this liquid in 1.5–2 qts. of water per pound of grain (3.2–4.2 L/kg) at 148–158 °F (64–70 °C) for 45–60 minutes. After increasing your boil volume, I feel that doing small partial mashes — which are really just glorified grain steeps — is the technique that will help extract brewers brew better beer. Note that partial mash wort is also typically more fermentable than that of malt extract, which can help if your beers consistently finish at a high final gravity.
6. Sugar is Sweet
Another key difference between all-grain and extract brewing is that an all-malt wort made from grains is almost always more fermentable than an all-malt wort made from extract. Early beer kits solved this problem by combining the malt extract with sugar — which is completely fermentable — to yield reasonably dry beers. (And, because sugar is colorless and many of these kits were no-boil kits, the color could actually be fairly light.)
However, because early US homebrewing was largely a negative reaction to pale American lagers, anything that reminded homebrewers of Bud, Miller or Coors was shunned — and this included adding an adjunct like sugar to their beer. Virtually every homebrewing expert told brewers to replace the sugar — all of it, no matter how much or in what style of beer — with darker and less fermentable malt extract. The result? Homebrew that was darker and sweeter than it should have been.
If high final gravities are a problem for you, swapping some sugar (cane or corn) for a portion of the light malt extract in your recipe can help. Swap sugar and dried malt extract on a one-to-one basis. For liquid malt extract, add 13 oz. (0.37 kg) of sugar for every pound (0.45 kg) of extract deleted from the recipe. If you end up with more than 10% sugar in your recipe, consider adding 1/4 tsp yeast nutrients to the beer. You probably won’t want to have sugar occupy more than 30% of your grain bill. Also, be aware that the color of your beer may decrease slightly when you add sugar.
Boiling at a lower wort density does a lot to improve bitterness in extract brews . However, extract brewers should also do everything else they can to get the most from their hops.
Although boiling your hops in a bag is convenient, this decreases the amount of bitter substances (alpha acids) that are extracted from them. Add the hops loose to your brewpot. If you let the wort sit in your brewpot for a half hour after you cool it, the pellet sludge will settle to the bottom and you can siphon clear wort off it. Also, knock down any hop pellet residue clinging to the side of your brewpot as you boil.
Finally, consider “spiking” your wort with a small amount of neutral high-alpha hops to your beer along with your normal hop charge. Magnum hops usually have around 16% alpha acids and don’t have a real strong varietal character. If your beers are normally a little less bitter than you’d like, add a quarter ounce (7 g) or more of Magnum, or any other “strong” hops, along with the specified bittering charge. This will boost your bitterness without changing the hop character of the beer.
Hot wort carries a lot more heat than you might realize, and the dilution water you add to bring the volume up to 5 gallons (19 L) isn’t cooling your wort down as much as you might think. For example, pouring 2 gallons (7.6 L) of just-boiled wort into 3 gallons (11 L) of water at refrigerator temperature (40 °F/4.4 °C) still leaves you with wort over 110 °F (43 °C). (How far over depends on the gravity of the wort.) Stovetop brewers should take advantage of their smaller wort volume and always cool their wort in their brewpot before transferring it to their fermenter. Use a reliable cooling method and measure the temperature of your wort before pitching.
Getting a wort chiller is the best solution, but many beginners don’t buy this piece of equipment at first. The next best solution is to cool your wort in your sink or bathtub. By changing the cooling water every 5 minutes, you continually draw heat away from the wort. And, during this time, the hop debris and other sediment can settle to the bottom of your brewpot. Once the brewpot is cool to the touch (i.e. below human body temperature), siphon the wort to your fermenter and add the dilution water. Here, the dilution water can cool your wort down effectively if it is below fermentation temperature. A little “temperature strip” on the outside of your fermenter will let you read the temperature of your wort.
Malt extract is condensed wort and it contains everything that wort contains, including dissolved minerals. Any minerals in your dilution water are added to the (unknown) amount of minerals in the extract. Unless you have a good reason not to, always use soft water (or even distilled water) for extract brewing. A little bit of calcium in the boil — under 1/2 tsp of gypsum or calcium chloride — might be a good thing in some circumstances. However, if you’re trying to add salts to your brewing water to make “Burton water,” you are ending up with “Burton plus” water due to the minerals already found in your malt extract. Carbon filtering city water is advised.
Once you’ve made your wort, the yeast will convert it into beer. To make the best beer possible, you need to give your yeast three things — enough “teammates” to get the job done, a stable and reasonable fermentation temperature and adequate aeration. The first of these is where most extract brewers could improve. Either make a yeast starter or get enough yeast from another source (previous fermentation, brewpub) and pitch with it. You’ll want about 1 cup of yeast solids per 5-gallon (19-L) batch.
Some of the best aspects of extract brewing are its simplicity and the fact that you can do it in a relatively short amount of time on your stovetop without a lot of specialized equipment. Improving your beer does not necessarily mean spending much more time brewing it or buying lots of new gadgets. If you follow the advice in this article, you can brew much better homebrew in about the same time as the old, standard method took.