Using Specialty Grains and Extract: Tips from the Pros

Extract brewers have it easy when it comes to making wort. Rather than crushing pound after pound of grain and mashing at carefully controlled temperatures, malt extract is simply stirred into hot water and often boiled. It’s a great way to get started in the hobby and a time-saving way to make excellent beer. By using high-quality extract and a bit of know-how, a skilled homebrewer can produce tasty, award-winning batches.

Many pros use extract too — especially in small brewpubs, where extract saves time and money and helps the brewer produce consistently good batches. Don Gortemiller, head brewer at Pacific Coast Brewing Company, has won more than a dozen GABF medals for his extract beers, which range in style from hoppy IPAs to Scottish ales and Belgian tripels.

Winning awards, however, requires more than a few pounds of extract and hot water. Extract brewers must become skilled in the use of hops, wort chilling and good yeast management. They can also learn to use specialty grains to add flavor, color and body to their brews.

With names like crystal 40, carapils, black patent, caramel and chocolate malt, the world of specialty grains might confuse the brewing neophyte. For opinions and tips on using specialty grains, we turned to three extract-brewing pros.

Brewer: Don Gortemiller of Pacific Coast Brewing Company in Oakland, California. His first brewing experience was with a homebrew kit in 1975. He helped open Pacific Coast in 1988. Before that, he was a chemist at Chevron.

By using good extract, you can get pretty close to brewing a great beer, one that rivals any of the best beers out there. Here’s the bottom line: the fresher the extract, the better. No extract has an infinite shelf life, so there can be some spoilage if the stuff gets too old.

In addition, many extracts have a signature flavor. It’s something you can’t get rid of. Perhaps it’s hopped or tastes kind of fake or phenolic. Your goal is to find extract with a flavor that’s as neutral as possible, so that by adding specialty grains and hops, you determine the flavor of your beer yourself.

Our extract is produced locally. The specific gravity is around 1.415. Commercial extract is usually between 1.435 and 1.449. That little bit of extra water that’s been removed can hurt the beer. You can improve your beer by finding out when the extract was produced and using it as soon as you can.

Our beers are based on a pale malt-extract base. The rest of the flavors we get by “mashing” grains off on the side. When we mash, we’re just extracting the flavors and colors, not converting starches over to sugar. So it isn’t a “mash” as much as it’s steeping the grains.

The grains we steep are black patent, roasted barley, caramel malts and other roasted specialty malts. It’s important to understand that these kind of roasted grains don’t need to be mashed in order to extract the desired qualities.

It’s desirable to have a false-bottom brew kettle, to get better extraction of color and flavor from the grain. Just steep the grains in warm water, drain that liquid away and let the grains rest against the false bottom. Then spray warm water over the grains to rinse away the rest of the flavor and color.

If you use a grain bag, you may not get good extraction, because you can’t rinse the grains very well. One way of improving extraction with a grain bag is to squeeze the bag with your hand. While this will get out more liquid, you run the risk of scalding your hands in the hot water. Just think of how you can burn your hand by squeezing a tea bag! Plus, squeezing and dipping the grain bag like a tea bag will extract tannins from the grains, and that will make your final product astringent and unpleasant to drink.

Also, if you’re dealing in bigger quantities, you might end up with a very bulky bag of grains. The bag will be saturated with water, which makes it heavy and tough to move around, messy because it will always drip water, and impossible to squeeze effectively. Given all that, it’s easy to see that using a false-bottom kettle is the best way to steep specialty grains.

Brewer: Paul Lemley of Gettysbrew in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Paul has a doctorate in biological chemistry. He began working on the business of opening a brewpub five years ago. It has been up and running for more than three years.

We get in this discussion all the time because brewers have an absolute bias toward brewing with grains. It’s like having an argument about sports- car transmissions. Now, I like manual transmissions, but I know that automatic transmissions can do the job just as well, if not better.

The same is true of malt extracts. I have a hard time believing that anyone can do a much better job than Briess or Muntons. They create a consistent product. This saves energy and makes it unnecessary to go through the trouble of handling grains.

When it comes to specialty malts, it’s interesting to note that you can get extracts for them. Briess, for example, has regular extract styles like light, amber and dark. You would use these as the base for your beer. However, you can also get specialty grains in extract form. The most popular brand is Morgan’s Master Blends, which is a line of specialty grain extracts from Australia. The grain types include caramalt, chocolate malt, wheat malt, roasted black malt and carapils.

When it comes to formulating recipes, if you work out the recipe for an all-grain beer and determine the ratios you will use for grains, you can translate those ratios into an all-extract beer. For example, if your beer is 95% base malt, 4% crystal malt and 1% chocolate malt in an all-grain, you do the same breakdown when translating to extract. Just be sure the targeted original gravity is the same.

Oats and rye don’t come as extracts but homebrewers can get them in one-pound bags. You’ll need to put them in a hop bag when adding them to the brew kettle. You boil these grains throughout the one-hour boiling to extract the sugars and other characteristics you want. Another option is to steep them alone, like a tea bag, at 155° to 160° F. This will yield about 25% of desirable sugars, an efficiency that’s far less than you would get with a full mash. You will get some characteristics that you were seeking, though they will be mild. Oats are particularly good for cutting bitterness. It’s one reason why they are used in oatmeal stout. Rye, by contrast, has a very distinctive taste that I don’t particularly like.

We like to look at brewing as something that isn’t rocket science. We’re always trying to find ways to simplify the brewing process. Extracts, whether for your base malts or specialty grains, are definitely the best way to go.

Brewer: Ken Novak of Legends Brewhouse and Eatery of Green Bay in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was a homebrewer for more than five years before he started brewing for Legends.

Making extract beer is really quite simple. We use a four-barrel extract system and use only extract for our ales and lagers. The only ingredients are liquid extract, hops and dry yeast.

Obviously, that means there are no specialty grains in our beers. In truth, there’s probably no way we could even use grain in our system. Our 140-gallon kettle has a filter that would get all blocked up. And a grain bag would be too huge to handle safely and effectively. At home, it’s much easier to use specialty grains; you can simply steep them in a cheescloth bag to add flavor and color to your beer.

To make our beers, we use different kinds of base malts, including golden light, light, amber, dark and weizen malts. This combination allows us to brew a dunkel, a weizen, a light, an amber, a nut brown, a pale ale and a bock. The only way our beers differ from one another is through their base malts and hop profiles. And we’re still able to produce great beers!

We also use glucose. Glucose (also known as corn sugar) is 100% fermentable sugar often used to create secondary fermentation in unfiltered beers and create carbonation in the finished product. It can also be added to increase specific gravity and raise the alcohol content. Glucose is relatively flavorless, so it doesn’t impart much flavor to the brew, though excessive use will produce a thin-bodied beer.

At home, the key to using specialty grains is to just barely crack the grain. Put it in a bag and lightly run a rolling pin over it. This cracks the husks but holds in the flavor. Then you just put the grains in a hop bag and drop the bag in warm water, maybe 150° F. By steeping the grains for about thirty minutes, you get the color and flavor that you want. Crystal malt is the most versatile specialty grain. It adds great color and body to the final beer.

Issue: February 2001