Brewing with Extract: Tips from the Pros

Many homebrewers start the hobby brewing with malt extract and move into all-grain batches, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t advantages to brewing with extract or that great beer can’t be made from it. Two experts on the subject — one on the supply side and one a pro extract brewer — share their advice for brewing great extract beers.

Dan Bies, Technical Services Representative at Briess

In addition to saving time by skipping the mash step, extract brewing also saves time by allowing for a shorter boil. Extract does not require a full 60-minute boil (although specific hop schedules may) as the vast majority of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) is removed during the evaporation phase of production of both liquid and dried malt extract. A boil of at least 10 minutes would be recommended to get additional hot break and destroy potential spoilage organisms. Just remember to turn the heat off and dissolve liquid extracts fully before turning heat back on; LME is very dense and can sink to the bottom of a kettle and scald very quickly.

For many beer styles there are two potential approaches for extract brewers — using 100% extract or using extract and steeping grains. I feel deciding between grain and extract should be based on personal preference. A brewer needs to weigh their values regarding convenience, taste, cost, and flexibility. I feel a small amount of steeped grain brings a fresh grain flavor to any extract brew. I like to use a light extract with a portion of steeping grains to make darker styles, however, you can make really good beer with extract alone.

Whether you use liquid malt extract (LME) or dried malt extract (DME), the resulting beers are very similar — liquid may have slightly more aromatics since they are not concentrated as far, but these differences are minor. I think most people find LMEs to be a little easier to work with but there are plenty who prefer DMEs.

Water adjustments when brewing with extract are not necessary unless there is a specific hardness or minerality that is critical to the style. Extract will contain a certain level of minerality. In most instances I would recommend using deionized or reverse osmosis water to avoid excessive minerality. 

There is a real savings for bulk extract purchases, but I’d suggest purchasing package sizes that will be emptied soon after opening. Liquid extract does not contain preservatives, in fact it is extremely nutrient-rich, which is why yeast (and spoilage organisms) go crazy for it. A partial package has more headspace, which can make for dramatic in-package condensation as storage temperatures fluctuate — at elevated temperatures moisture from the syrup will be drawn into the air space above the syrup. Upon cooling, the air will no longer be able to hold as much moisture and condensation will form on the surface of the syrup which will promote surface spoilage. It is possible to successfully repackage and store extract refrigerated or frozen, although doing so would likely be outside of the manufacturer’s guidelines. In a similar vein, opened DME is also difficult to store; an opened package will quickly turn into a brick above 40% relative humidity.

If you have any concern about the freshness you should taste the extract (about two tablespoon in a cup of warm water) to make sure it meets your expectation before you invest more time and additional ingredients.

In addition to boosting gravity in high-gravity recipes, I think all-grain brewers should consider extract for recipe development. Building on top of an extract can be a great tool for specialty malt, hop, and flavor exploration — a brewer may be able to turn out 2–4 times as many concept brews in the time it takes to brew one all-grain brew by utilizing extract with partial steeps.

Chris Townsell, General Manager & Head Brewer at Buffalo Brewpub

My brewing experience is actually limited to our 10-barrel extract system. I started brewing on it in 1999. It’s a very simple and efficient way to brew. Cost per ounce is unbeatable and if you stay within its capabilities you can make really great beer. We offer 3–5 of our house beers along with other locally- and nationally-touted craft beers. We’re happy to say our beers are still the best sellers. We have been especially successful with our amber ale, Oktoberfest, wheats, and porters. 

We only brew with liquid malt extract from Briess. It’s readily available, consistent, and most importantly, it’s what we know.  All of our beers brewed in-house are 100% extract brews. For darker beers I use darker extracts — mainly Briess’s traditional dark. It offers a darker finished product and stronger characteristics typically found in dark beers like stouts and porters. 

We don’t do any brewing water treatment. We actually just recently installed a water filter and there has not been a noticeable change in the beer flavor. 

Boil times vary based on how long the bittering hops need to be boiled. Our finishing hop additions are all 15 minutes and our first hop addition is boiled either 30 or 45 minutes. 

One downside of extract is how hard it is to brew lighter beers. We offer a year-round lager — Buffalo Lager — but it is not brewed in-house. 

I did once attempt to brew a Pilsner using Pilsen light extract. The lightest liquid malt extract available is Golden, which I wish I had used as the Pilsen did end up being too dark. I have yet to be brave enough to give it another go using the Golden. I’m not able to make a smaller batch than 10 barrels, so obvious concerns prevail. I do plan on attempting another batch at some point and flavoring some of it by individually dosing kegs. I do wish we could brew smaller batches so I could experiment more, but we have a relatively large recipe book and it’s still growing. 

Issue: December 2020