The popularity of all-grain brewing has surged in recent years. In this column I’m going to step outside the norm for Beginner’s Block and talk more to the advanced brewers about simplifying their homebrew experience. Going back to the roots of homebrewing in many parts of the world . . . brewing with malt extract. By that I mean any batch of beer that utilizes malt extracts, it could be extract only, extract with grains, or partial mash batches of beer.
In 1999, a survey of BYO readers found that extract brewers represented 88% of BYO’s readership; only 12% of survey respondents identified themselves as exclusively all-grain brewers. By 2006, a similar reader study showed that those identifying themselves as all-grain brewers had grown to 38%. Fast-forward to 2018, and the number of readers identifying as all-grain homebrewers grew to 79%. Talk about a trend . . . in 20 years, all-grain brewing among our readers has gone from the minority to the majority. The American Homebrewers Association reports similar trends. According to their homebrew shop survey conducted in 2012, 64% of homebrewing purchases included malt extract. By 2018 that number has shrunk to 44%. But extract brewing is still homebrewing and should always be kept as a possibility by every homebrewer.
Pros vs. Cons of Using Malt Extracts
In my opinion the biggest advantage of extract brewing can be summed up in one word: Time. Sure, many Brew-In-A-Bag brewers will claim they’re saving time, but no all-grain brewer can claim time savings like extract brewers. I’ll go into the time-saving details later. Other big pros include: Better consistency, less equipment, less cleaning, less hassle, and less space. The equipment and consistency can be a great aid for beginner homebrewers while space can be a huge advantage for apartment brewers. The cleaning and hassle aspect is great if you have kids or are trying to multi-task with other things in your life.
The main cons of extract brewing I often hear revolve around the fact that malt extract is more expensive than bulk grain and that the base malt profile has been pre-determined for you. Expense is true, but consider the value of your time saved by not processing that grain into wort — no milling, no 60-minute mash, no cleaning the mash tun, hoses, pumps, etc. As for the beer’s base malt profile, there is plenty of maneuverability. Would you like the beer drier? Add less malt extract and supplement with simple sugars. Enzymes are another possibility if you want very dry beer (see the “Brut IPA” article in this issue for more information on this). Want more body? You can add unfermentables like maltodextrin or lactose or choose from a plethora of body-building specialty grains. There are also a fairly large variety of malt extracts available such as Maris Otter, Vienna, Munich, Pilsner, amber, pale, and many various dark extracts. Some manufacturers even provide the exact grist profile of the mash used to produce the malt extract.
Eliminate the Mash?
The first obvious time-saving element is realized by eliminating the mash from your brew day. Even partial mash brewers will save time and effort since heating water for, say 2 lbs. (0.9 kg), is going to be much faster than several gallons of strike water. Partial mashes can be performed in a saucepan or small insulated water cooler on the side while water in the main brew pot is heating. For those recipes that don’t require a mash, just steeping grains, the steeping process can be conducted while the water comes up towards a boil, but I’ll always remove the grains when the water gets to 170 °F (77 °C).
Eliminate the Boil?
Boiling is optional, although at least a pasteurization step should be performed. That means that heat requirements can be greatly reduced and subsequent chilling can be hastened with water consumption reduced. Boiling is performed for three main reasons: Sanitation, reduced dimethyl sulfide (DMS) levels, and to add bitterness from hops. A pasteurization step would take care of sanitation, DMS is not an issue with malt extracts, and hops can still add some bitterness if enough are added. There is a caveat here, the isomerization process of alpha acids from hops will be minimal unless the wort is heated to near-boiling. So unless you can find some pre-isomerized hop extract, I would not suggest brewing, say, a German Pilsner with a firm bitterness using this no-boil technique. But a brewer could conceivably bring the water to 170 °F (77 °C) (with steeping grain if so desired), stir in the malt extract and hops and/or other spices, let sit for 15 minutes, then chill, transfer into fermenter, and pitch yeast — think zero-IBU IPAs here! You could conceivably have 5 gallons (19 L) of wort ready to be pitched in an hour depending on heating and chilling capabilities.
Unfortunately I hear it time and again from all-grain brewers: “I just don’t have the time to brew.” The reality is that you most likely do have time if you expand your range of brewing techniques to include brewing with malt extracts. Do yourself a favor and give extract a try. You may find that you end up extracting yourself from your exclusive all-grain brewing ways and brew more often as a result.