As the recipe editor at Brew Your Own magazine, I’m often tasked with creating recipes for folks who brew with extract from an all-grain version. I wanted to share some of the basics of what I do so that everyone can take any all-grain recipe found online, through a brewery, a fellow homebrew club member or from friends, and create an extract-based recipe themselves. We will also look at the building blocks to crafting extract-based beers as stand-alone recipes.
Base Malt Considerations
First off, I often swap out most, if not all of the base malts for a very light colored malt extract. So what are base malts? You can identify them with names such as Pilsner, pale ale, 2-row, Vienna, mild, and sometimes Munich malts (not all Munich malts are base malts). Other brewing grains such as wheat, rye, and oat malts can also serve as a base malt. Generally they are self-converting, meaning they are able to enzymatically convert the starch found in brewing grains into sugars and dextrins during the mash.
I personally prefer to use dried malt extract as a base malt substitute rather than liquid for many reasons including better storability and it’s easier to measure out in small increments. Light-colored dried malt extracts are produced using the maltster’s base malts and sometimes a touch of specialty grain like a dextrin malt to build body. These light-colored extracts are going to produce a straw-yellow colored beer. By themselves, they can produce a light-bodied, easy-drinking beer, or can make for a great jumping off point for a more complex beer. Extracts such as wheat, Pilsner, Vienna, or Munich can be utilized depending on your desired goal for the beer.
Specialty Grain Considerations
The only reason I will keep grain base malts in an extract recipe is if a large percentage of the specialty grains should be mashed instead of simply steeped. How do you know if the grain should be mashed instead of steeped? Steeping grains fall into the categories of crystal/caramel (cara) and highly-roasted malts. There are some notable exceptions to this rule like Special B (or Special W) malt, which is actually a steeping grain. Any good homebrew shop should be able to answer correctly in this arena and there are charts found online as well.
If you have 10% or more by weight of specialty grains in your recipe outside of the steeping world, then I recommend mixing a 1:1 ratio of base malts to specialty grains to perform a partial (or mini) mash. Mashing specialty grains include the likes of biscuit, aromatic, brown, melanoidin, and honey malts to name a few. Also any grain that is not malted is included in this such as flaked barley, flaked oats, and torrified wheat.
So what specialty grains should you choose? Basically if you can become adept in the partial mash process, there are very few constraints on your brewing process. Almost all styles of beer are possible with extract as the base. Smoked beers (rauchbiers) are going to be one of the biggest challenges of any extract brewer because smoked malts are enzymatic and usually comprise 25–75% of the total grain bill. Learning the nuances of various specialty grains are something that even professional brewers who have been at it for decades are still constantly learning. I advise doing your own research and then it will be trial-and-error time to advance your understanding in this department.
The Steep vs. Mash
The main difference between a steep and a mash is time and temperature. When performing a partial mash, the grains and water mixture should be kept between 145–162 °F (63–72 °C) for 30–60 minutes. This is because there is an actual biological process occurring in the mash that is sensitive to temperature and takes time to complete. Generally warmer mashes can be held a shorter time period though as the biological process speeds up.
Grains that are being steeped don’t need the assistance of any biological processing, so it’s more like a coffee or tea steeping process . . . you’re simply trying to extract the sugar and some other flavor and/or color components from the grains. And just like those steeping processes, you do still want to be cognizant of time and temperature. You never boil your coffee beans or tea bag, and the same holds true of steeping grains. A steep can be complete in 15–20 minutes so long as those extractables dissolve in the water.
Water is the first up: If you are brewing with extract, I always advise using either reverse osmosis (RO), distilled, or tap water, as long as your tap water is soft (aka low in dissolved salts like carbonates). Next is full-volume boil vs. partial-volume boil. If hops are going to be a big part of your beer’s profile, then I generally advise full-volume boil. If not, then you can look at doing a smaller-volume boil and adding water just before pitching yeast. Finally, there is the boil . . . is it even necessary? In all honesty, many extract-based recipes may not need to be boiled for 60 minutes, let alone boiled at all. If you want to explore this more, I advise doing some research about the benefits of a boil in brewing.