Playing With Extract: Sometimes simple can be better

Demographic studies show that all of the fuss and fight that you dear readers (and us) go through, doesn’t matter to the majority of homebrewers. Overwhelmingly, the world’s homebrewers practice the fine art of extract brewing. Surely, they’re not all in the search for cheap booze and nothing else?
Yet, extract brewing carries that stigma of: “It’s not real brewing,” “It makes bad beer,” “It has a twang to it.”

We reject these notions.

The most prevalent reason that an extract beer turns out to be of lower quality is because of the number of new brewers using the stuff. If you get an experienced brewer making beer with extract, you’ll get great beer! You just need to know how to put its best foot forward.

Quite simply, malt extract producers are more proficient makers of wort than the whole of our readership. This is what they do and they have the gear and the knowledge to make it happen. Companies like Briess and Muntons can make a better wort than you or I and probably many of our beloved breweries.

Extracts are definitely not just for freshmen brewers. Experienced brewers focusing on yeast strain, specialty malt, and hops experiments can benefit from the time savings. And brewers focusing their efforts on giant bases for playing with fruits or adjuncts will also enjoy the convenience of extracts.

That’s one of the great powers of malt extract — they’ve taken one of the most tedious and technically involved parts of the brew day and freed us from it.

That’s one of the great powers of malt extract — they’ve taken one of the most tedious and technically involved parts of the brew day and freed us from it. We happy weird few take great joy from all the minutiae, but spending that much time and effort isn’t the optimum spend to happiness for most.

For starters, extract allows you to focus on the other fundamentals of brewing. There’s so much to understand about the boil, chilling, sanitation, fermentation, and packaging that not having to deal with the mash is a blessing. It’s also the reason why, even in this day and age of cheap and easy brew-in-a-bag setups, we still recommend people start with extract.

Water worries become about flavor impacts and not about biochemical impacts to your mash regime. In a world where a lot of all-grain and even professional brewers treat minerals like salt and pepper, it’s nice to have one place where that’s true.

Fighting to maintain stable mash temperatures isn’t a thing. No need to worry about lautering and waiting for gallons of water to drain from pounds of grain. Just fire and go.

pouring liquid malt extract into a brew kettle
There are several reasons to brew with extract, but the timesaving factor is probably the biggest for most people with a busy schedule. Photo by Michael Tonsmeire

Speaking of which, that’s the best reason to use extract — time. We’ve talked extensively about trading time for money. Normally we talk about this in reference to automation, but buying extract is borrowing the maltsters automation for our time gains. Even with all the fancy gear that we have — a quick all-grain brew day is 4-ish hours. With extract, a two-hour brew is no sweat.

Let’s not forget the idea of a bonus beer. We’re big believers in the idea that there is no such thing as too much hot water on a brew day. In fact, Drew usually ends up with a few gallons leftover in his hot liquor tank (HLT). If it’s not being used for cleaning (or watering the plants after cooling down), then why not use it to make beer? After finishing the boil for one beer, Drew’s used the leftover HLT water to make a bonus beer with the extract he keeps on hand.

If you’ve paid attention to all your time playing around in the brewery, if you understand your yeast mechanics, your sanitation, etc., extract just becomes a wonderful short cut to great beer. There are some ground rules to follow:

  • Buy the fresh stuff. The biggest sin you can commit when using extract is buying old extract. Like most food products, time is not your friend. Liquid malt extracts, in particular, will oxidize and produce terrible beer. Old extract is often the source of the “cidery” beer flavor that people think of in bad homebrew.
    • Buy the freshest extract you can find and from places that turn over a lot of extract, quickly. Drew’s local homebrew store – The Home Beer Wine Cheesemaking Shop in Woodland Hills, California, sells from bulk drums that are flushed with nitrogen. Unless you’re certain the extract you’re getting is equally fresh, use dry extract. That’s all Denny uses. (Also, dried extract keeps like a champ.)
    • Drew is usually, possibly unfairly, suspicious of most extract “can kits.” Really scan the dates on those.
  • Plainer extracts are better in our opinion. You’ll see lots of options for extracts of different colors to, say, make a “stout.” In our experience, it’s far better to buy a pale or extra pale extract or a Maris Otter or rye/wheat extract. Then add the extra color and flavor via steeping grains. Speaking of which . . .
  • Add fresh grains. Just like adding fresh ingredients to store-bought broths can make things much better, adding steeping grains is a must for more flexibility and better flavor.
  • Take what the extract gives you: Don’t expect to make the palest and driest beer you can imagine with extract. (Although – an experiment we haven’t tried – maybe some of the leftover enzymes from the Brut IPA days might help). Yes, you can make pale beer and dryish beers with extract, but an all-grain mash will always have the advantage of not having gone through the concentration process that does ultimately have an effect on the wort.
  • Boil at full volume. Instead of boiling 3 gallons (11 L) and topping up with a couple of gallons of chilled water, boil all 5 gallons (19 L) together. It makes your hop calculations more accurate and hop usage more efficient and seems to lend a less “cooked” taste to the beer.
  • Because of the way extract is made, it often has a little higher finishing gravity and more body than all-grain brews. You can adjust that by replacing a bit of the extract with good old table sugar. Replace ¼ lb. (113 g) of dry extract with the same amount of sugar. Replace 5 oz. (150 mL) of liquid extract with ¼ lb. (113 g) of sugar.

On that last point, one of the chief things you can do to up your extract game is to add it late in the boil. Most recipes will instruct you to bring your water to a boil, shut off the heat, stir in all the extract and bring back to a boil. Don’t do that! You only need to boil the majority of your extract long enough to sanitize it.

Instead, we recommend you add roughly 1⁄3 of the extract when the liquid comes to a boil. Doing so provides a chemically appropriate environment for things like hop compound extraction. Proceed as normal and then before you get to the end of the boil, add the remaining extract and stir like the dickens to get it to dissolve before returning to the boil.

How long? The safe and sane rule of thumb says at least 15 minutes, but we’ve seen some folks push that down to 5 minutes under the theory that they’ll stay above pasteurization temperatures for much longer while chilling.

Trust us – if you combine late extract additions with all of the wonderful skills you’ve developed as a brewer to make a clean, sanitary, and well-regulated sugary pool for yeast, you can produce fabulous extract beer in a fraction of the time. It will be good enough for your summer party, your late-night tap raids, and even a competition best-of-show table!

Lazy Day Blonde Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.038 FG = 1.010
IBU = 20 SRM = 4 ABV = 3.6%

This is the lightest, and simplest, extract beer we’ve ever made. You can get in and out and have a tasty beer in no time flat. What kind of beer? The beer-flavored variety, naturally. If you’re feeling fancy, use a W34/70 style lager strain and ferment cooler for a pleasant drinking lager. Also feel free to play around with the finishing hop addition but we like the simple spicy and woody components that Willamette hops provide to this beer. (Reproduced from our book, Simple Hombrewing)

5 lbs. (2.3 kg) Pilsen or golden light liquid malt extract
0.5 lb. (227 g) Carapils® malt
0.5 lb. (227 g) aromatic malt
4.6 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.33 oz./9 g at 14% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Willamette hops (5 min.)
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), SafAle US-05, or LalBrew BRY-97
(American West Coast Ale) yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Steep the malt with 3 quarts (2.8 L) of 170 °F (77 °C) water for 30 minutes. Rinse the malt with an additional 3 quarts (2.8 L) of 170 °F (77 °C) water. Add 4.5 gallons (17 L) of water to the resulting liquor. Add 1 lb. (0.45 kg) of extract to the kettle and bring to a boil.

Total boil time is going to be 60 minutes. Boil for 45 minutes, adding the first hop addition at the beginning of the boil. After that time, add the remaining extract — off the heat and stir well! Boil an additional 15 minutes adding the second hop addition with 5 minutes remaining.

Chill the wort down and ferment at room temperature (~68 °F/20 °C). You can look to package the beer after 10 days. Feel free to add a little dry hops a few days before packaging if you so desire, but we don’t think it’s necessary. Carbonate the beer to 2.5 v/v if force carbonating.

All-grain option: While it flies in the face of what this article is about, if you have the time and want to create your own wort with an all-grain recipe, here is the conversion: Simply swap out the liquid malt extract with 7.5 lbs. (3.4 kg) of your favorite pale malt. And just like with the dry hops, you could look to add a little extra component (like flaked corn) to the all-grain version, but we don’t feel like it’s necessary. Sometimes simple can be better.

Issue: November 2022