Fresh Malt Extract is Best

Picture the scene: You walk into your local homebrew shop intent on brewing a great batch of beer this weekend. Grabbing some extract off the shelf you notice it’s dusty — typical of many homebrew shops where grains are milled daily. It’s hard to say how old it is. “Didn’t they change labels on this malt extract a while ago?” you ask yourself. “How long has it been on the shelf? Is it fresh enough to use?”

Arming yourself with a few basic pieces of information about malt extract will guarantee your next batch of homebrew isn’t affected by outdated ingredients. Longevity is only a part of it. How the malt extract was shipped, handled, and stored makes a big difference, regardless of age. Keeping your malt extract fresh and stored properly has a bigger impact on your beer than you’d think.

Extracting the Info: A quick primer

Malt extract is a great way to brew, saving time and energy on brew day. The two types, liquid malt extract (LME) and dried malt extract (DME) are both excellent and convenient tools to brew with. Many homebrewers and commercial brewers use liquid malt extract, which contains water, and comes in a syrupy form, alike for its ease of use. Dried malt extract, which comes in a powder form, is also used by homebrewers and commercial brewers, and is known for its excellent storage qualities. DME contains more malt sugar per pound compared to LME, due to the lack of water content. This is important to remember when formulating and converting homebrewing recipes. When a recipe calls for 1 pound of DME, you will need to use approximately 1.2 pounds of LME. Water, which needs to be present for mold and bacterial growth in malt extract, as well as color change, is almost non-existent in dried malt extract. I often recommend using dried malt extract instead of liquid malt extract for this reason, but often handling and ease of use also come in to play.

“No matter what extract you use, fresh is best. It gives you the best chance to brew a beer without off flavor,” says Bob Hansen, Technical Services Manager at Briess Malt & Ingredients Company. This is more critical of liquid malt, as it contains water. Bacteria and mold both love sugar, but it’s the water in liquid malt that is critical for either to grow and survive. Your malt extract has had quite a journey to get to you — and the path your malt extract took, something completely out of your control, may have had a big effect on how it looks and tastes. Which brings us to the biggest concern you have as a homebrewer: How will it affect how your beer tastes?

Know Your Enemies

Heat is the main enemy of liquid malt. Although heat and water are what we use to make beer, introduction prior to the brewing process is detrimental to your ingredients. If you’re familiar with the Maillard reaction, an important browning reaction in both the malting and brewing processes, this is exactly what happens in your can of liquid malt when exposed to heat. (Side note: The Maillard reaction is defined as a nonenzymatic reaction between sugars and proteins that occurs upon heating, and is responsible for browning of many foods, for example toasted bread, grilled meats, and kilned malt.) It darkens the malt and changes its flavor as reactions occur. At only 20% water, liquid malt extract is quite dense compared to a wort boiling during the brewing process. For this reason the Maillard reaction creates different flavors than caramelization that occurs in a kettle during brewing. “Most commercial beer isn’t made with liquid malt extract and therefore doesn’t undergo this unintentional Maillard reaction that LME does in its container,” says Bob Hansen. “This causes a distinctly different malt flavor we aren’t used to in beer we buy at the store.” Because of the low water content in dry malt extract this Maillard reaction can’t occur, and thus is virtually unaffected by heat. Have you ever heard someone mention that beer made from liquid malt extract tastes different from a beer made using all-grain brewing? A “twang,” or sharper malt flavor is left in the aftertaste of your beer when the Maillard reaction (or browning to the extract from heat) occurs in a can of malt. Although dried malt extract may taste slightly different than beer brewed with all-grain, this is not due to the Maillard reaction, but due to the brewing process all extract goes through, creating some color change and caramelization.

After heat, water and humidity can be an issue as well, in both dried malt extract and liquid malt extract. As temperature changes, so does the humidity inside the headspace of a container or bag. In DME, this causes the sugary powder to become a solid brick. Beyond making the malt more difficult to dissolve, this may also create a mold issue.

With liquid malt in a poorly sealed container, or undergoing a rapid temperature change, condensation builds pulling moisture out of the malt and into the headspace of the container. If there are any bacteria in that headspace, it just got what it needed to grow. Bacteria and mold will grow on the surface of the malt in the moisture on top, or on the rim or surface of the can, but not actually in the malt. This bacteria and mold is growing on the droplets of water that were released from the malt. This mold may have less of an effect on the malt than you think, and can even be removed to salvage the malt by carefully scooping or skimming it out. However, it is probably a sign that this malt may have been subject to temperature swings, and possibly enough heat to have a big effect on the flavor of the malt (see: Maillard Reaction from earlier in this story.)

Expiration Information

If you are unsure how the canister is labeled, you can contact the manufacturer and they will let you know how to read their batch, lot or production number.



Many manufacturers recommend using malt extract, both dried and liquid, within two years. This gives you a clue as to when malt was produced with a “best buy” date, just count back two years. This may or may not matter though, if the malt has been stored well. The date provided is not a definitive end date, it’s a suggestion, and is not regulated like food that can spoil easily. Malt extract, especially dried malt extract, stored cool and dry, will last a very, very long time. If dried malt extract is not exposed to water, or humidity, and is sealed well, it will last for many years. In fact, your bag will lose its label, get buried in your box of brewing gear, and come out a decade later ready for use, if sealed completely and properly. The lack of water in the product makes it ideal for extended use over a long time period.

Some Don’t Like It Hot

Heat darkens liquid malt extract. All malt extract, both liquid and dried, start by using the same brewing process as a commercial brewery producing wort. Grain is mashed in a mash mixer or mash tun, and then is transferred to a boil kettle. Instead of hops being added, the malt is sent through an evaporation process (which can vary by manufacturer). All of these processes add heat, which in turn adds color through caramelization of sugars. The more heat malt is exposed to, the faster the color change. Even if your malt was made five days ago, but traveled in a truck during a heat wave, and then sat on a warm retail shelf, the malt will have aged, and browned, exponentially.

That strong, sharp malt “twang” or “bite” flavor left in your beer as mentioned earlier, can get quite strong, quite fast.

Keep Cool

So what can be done to keep your malt extract tasting great at home? First, the fresher the malt the better chance it’ll taste great. If your malt was made a few weeks ago, as opposed to a few years ago, it probably hasn’t been exposed to excess heat, or extreme temperature changes. Secondly, once the malt is in your hands, keep it cool. Tip: You can freeze your liquid malt extract. The second you pull it out though, you’ll be exposing it to a big temperature swing, so you’ll want to use it right away, that same day, so as to avoid mold or bacteria growth on the condensation created inside the can. Refrigerating your malt is okay, but not ideal, as the fridge is a humid place. If condensation builds in the canister you’ll have issues. If you plan on storing the extract in the fridge, be sure you store the extract in an airtight container.

“It’s possible to make a great beer from malt that is five, even ten years old if it was transported and stored properly and then frozen fresh,” says Bob Hansen, “It’ll taste just as good as the day you put it in the freezer.”
Hopefully this prepares you to make great beer from malt extract. Keep it fresh, keep it cool, and you’ll make beer that’s just as good as anything you can make from brewing with all-grain.

Issue: October 2015