a brewing material, malt extract is useless. At least that’s what Brew
Your Own might have said in the middle of the 19th Century if it had
been published then. As we saw in the first article (“A History of Malt
Extract: Part 1,” October 2004 BYO), the British Navy had tried it
extensively, but the beer brewed from it had been rejected by the
sailors. Two things changed this: nothing and politics. The “nothing”
was the use of vacuum in removing water from wort. The “politics” was
radical alteration of the way in which the British government changed
taxation on brewing.
Early attempts at making malt extract had simply boiled the water off at atmospheric pressure. This takes a lot of time and a lot of energy and makes the procedure expensive. More importantly, it has a huge effect on flavor. At best such wort would have been highly caramelized. At worst it would have had a strong burnt taste. In addition, prolonged boiling would result in protein breakdown so that the resulting beer would have had poor mouthfeel and foaming characteristics.
Advancing technology in the late 19th Century made it possible to concentrate wort under vacuum. This meant that the process was shorter and cheaper — and that less heating was required since the boiling point of the wort is much lower under vacuum than under atmospheric pressure. This also meant that the beer made from it would taste better!
Malt extract had continued to be made throughout the 19th Century, mainly for medicinal purposes. According to one writer, it appears that a good deal of this in the mid-19th Century was imported to England from the US and Germany. Apart from one reference to a Professor Reitch of Bohemia producing a solid extract in the 1870’s, I have found nothing more on this. Presumably it was small-scale production, made only for medicinal, and later, food use; the Germans would certainly not have used it for brewing!
The impetus for a return to using malt extract in brewing in Britain came in 1880, when Prime Minister Gladstone introduced what became known as the Free Mash Tun Act. Prior to this time, taxation on beer was on malt and hops. Apart from a couple of brief periods when addition of sugar was permitted, this meant that other ingredients were banned. And because the revenue from these taxes was so huge, compared to other sources, this ban was rigidly enforced by the Excise.
What Gladstone did was to abolish the taxes on ingredients and to apply a new tax on the beer, based on the original gravity of the wort before fermentation. Now, brewers could use whatever they liked in their mash tuns, hence the name of the act. So they started to look at things like sugar and cereals that were cheaper than malt. Malt extract was also a possibility. This, coupled with a growth of its use in health foods offered possibilities for entrepreneurial manufacturers.
First on the market, starting in 1881, was the Standard Malt Extract Company. This was later renamed the English Diastatic Malt Extract Company Limited, which shortens nicely to the EDME we know today. Before the end of the century, others were in on the act, including Macadams of Dunbar in Scotland (British Malt Products), Paine and Company (John Bull), followed in 1903 by Edward Fison (once Munton and Fison, now just Muntons).
None of these new extract makers were big, compared to the brewing industry, for their products were only used by brewers as additives. This could be done in one of three ways:
• Adding directly to the cooled wort, in order to improve fermentability
• Adding to the copper as a “wort extender,” increasing wort gravity
• Adding a “diastatic extract” to the mash to increase yield from the grain malt
The first approach is now little used, and carried an obvious risk of infection. The second is still used today, and is an effective way of making high gravity wort. It is an effective way for all-grain homebrewers to make things like barleywines, without needing to use a long boil.
In the third approach a special extract was prepared, using high-nitrogen low temperature kilned barley malt. It was then mashed at low temperature (120 °F/49 °C), the liquid separated, while the solids were remashed at higher temperature (154 °F/68 °C), and this liquid separated. Both liquids were combined, and evaporated to syrup at a maximum of 115 °F (46 °C). The resultant product was very high in enzymes, hence the name diastatic extract. They are generally not used today, partly because of much-improved malt quality, and partly because other enzyme preparations are now available.
The Homebrew Revolution
The extract business grew as its use in foods — such as cakes, cookies, and malted drinks — expanded. Its application in brewing remained relatively small, until it was taken up for homebrewing. This did not happen first in Britain, but in America, when politics reared its ugly head again and Prohibition was introduced. Brewers who had spent years building up their business suddenly found their product banned. What on earth could a poor brewer do to avoid ruin? Many things were tried by various brewers, such as producing near beer, industrial alcohol, candies, ice cream, soft drinks, dairy products and — of course — malt extract.
Malt extract had already been produced in America as far back as 1896. In fact, Muntons in Britain started importing extract from the USA in 1919. (It did not take over Fison’s until 1934.) And, as a result of a sugar shortage in the First World War, the US government had pushed the use of malt extract as a sugar substitute in baking. What this meant was that, at the onset of Prohibition, a retail distribution network for malt extract was already in existence. So, many brewers jumped on this bandwagon, including such well-known names as Schlitz, Miller and Anheuser-Busch, with the latter introducing a hop-flavored extract in 1925. And, of course, Pabst — whose Blue Ribbon extract remained as a homebrewer’s standby long after Prohibition’s demise. Indeed, Blue Ribbon stayed around until recent times, when it became the Premier brand and eventually ceased to be made in the US.
As with the growth of organized crime on the back of illegal alcohol, so the effect of Prohibition on homebrewing was dramatic and unexpected by the authorities. By the early twenties, there were over two hundred manufacturers of malt extract in this country. It has been estimated that in 1930 enough extract was produced to make 700 million gallons of homebrew! It could only be sold for “food” use and it was illegal for retailers to offer recipes with it. A 1927 meeting of the National Malt Syrup Manufacturers adopted rules to instruct advertisers to avoid mention of beverage potential and to concentrate on food applications.
As if there was any doubt as to the way in which the extract was used, a second industry sprang up, providing all the other needs of the homebrewer. You could buy bottle caps, cappers, rubber tubing in places such as Woolworth’s and Kresge’s. Hops were also readily available; one writer calculated that some 13 million pounds of hops from the 1926 crop were unaccounted for, presumably because they were used in homebrewing!
Who first came up with the idea of using malt extract in homebrewing? I don’t suppose we shall ever know who led what was effectively a great campaign for freedom of choice. A homebrewer of some note was H. L. Mencken, noted writer and critic. He appeared to have a good grasp of brewing fundamentals, using hops for both bittering and flavor, and he even used yeast brought from a Munich brewery by a friend. However, malt extracts used then were mainly designed for food applications, rather than for brewing, and would not have given beer of the quality we look for today. Also, most homebrewers did not appear to understand the subtleties of the process and used quite crude techniques. One of the most common mistakes was bottling before fermentation was complete, which often resulted in exploding bottles.
Another mistake was the over-liberal use of sugar. It was common to use the same amount, or more, of sugar as of malt extract, a level that would have made the beer exceedingly thin. Whilst this may have been acceptable when no other beer was available, as soon as Prohibition was repealed in 1933, homebrewing rapidly declined. But the taste lingered and homebrewed beer had a bad reputation among the general public right up until the present “new wave” of homebrewers lifted the craft to a higher level.
For the next major step in extract brewing we must return to the British Navy in the Second World War. By now, the Navy did not supply beer on its ships, having substituted it with a daily ration of rum, which was much easier to transport and store. But there were a lot of English soldiers in the Pacific theatre, many of them homesick and yearning for a pint of honest English ale. So, in 1944, they decided to fit out two “amenities” ships, which could provide the troops with both recreational facilities and beer. This meant they had to be able to brew on board.
The fitting out of the ships was carried out in Vancouver, but the process was designed in England and the brewing equipment was manufactured there. In the end, only one ship was actually fitted with a brewery. The kit for the second had to be cannibalized because some parts were lost in transport. The ship was the Menesthaus and she left port in 1946, complete with a working brewery and enough supplies to brew 250 English barrels (10,800 US gallons) per week.
The brewery had a 55-barrel capacity (about 240 US gallons), and used distilled water that was produced on board. Malt extract and hop concentrate came from England, though it is not clear how the hop concentrate was made. Yeast was a strain from the Guinness Park Royal Brewery in London, via a culture from the University of British Columbia Faculty of Agriculture. The extract was dissolved in hot water and boiled, with the hot wort being continuously passed through the hop concentrate. The hopped wort was then cooled to 62 °F (17 °C) and pitched with yeast. The
fermenter construction was unusual; as the head formed, excess yeast passed into a yeast back, where the beer separated from the yeast was run back to the fermenter. In other words, it closely resembled a Burton Union system, with the important exception that the whole system was pressurized at 7 PSI.
After 6 days fermentation the beer was fined with isinglass and the yeast allowed to settle over two days. After chilling to 32 °F (0 °C), it was carbonated with CO2 recovered from the fermentation, and either passed to storage tanks, or racked into 5-gallon (19-L) stainless steel tanks. Even the use of these casks was a novelty, as virtually all English brewers of the period still used wooden casks.
Apparently, the system worked very well with few problems, and the product had good storage stability. On the maiden voyage of the Menesthaus in 1946 the beer was advertised as being the product of the Davy Jones Brewery, The World’s only Floating Brewery, and was very well-received by its customers in Yokohama, Shanghai and Hong Kong. But, by then the war had ended and the ship sailed back to England where it was taken out of service and brewed no more. And, as far as I know, no other sea-borne brewery has yet been built.
The recent history of homebrewing is well known. The sharp decline in the diversity of beers post-Prohibition, and the continuing homogenization afterwards eventually led to a backlash. People wanted flavor in their beers, even if they had to brew their own to get it! Homebrewing got a big shot in the arm in 1979, when it was legalized (at the Federal level) in the US.
Since then, improvements in extract quality — and the quality of information on brewing techniques — has led to a rennaisance in homebrewing. Currently, around 80% of homebrewers brew most of their beers using malt extract. Not bad for a ingredient that is useless as a brewing material.
Terry Foster is a frequent contributor to Brew Your Own magazine.
Historical Extract Recipes
(5 gallons/19L, extract)
OG =1.068 FG = 1.005
IBU = 20–30 SRM = 10 ABV = 8.1%
This recipe was compiled from a variety of sources as an illustration of what homebrewers were up to in those dark days.
3.3 lb (1.5 kg) malt extract syrup
(back then, it would likely
have been Pabst Blue Ribbon
5.0 lb (2.3 kg) cane sugar
2 oz. (57 g) hops (any variety, and
they would probably have been
old, even “cheesy”!)
Red Star dried yeast
Step by Step
Boil the hops in 3 gallons (11 L) of water for 1 hour, strain off the liquor. Dissolve the malt extract and sugar in the liquor, add cold water to 5 gallons (19 L) and pitch yeast. When fermentation has appeared to stop, bottle off and allow to condition.
That 70’s Brew
(5 gallons/19L, extract)
OG =1.049 FG = 1.009
IBU = 37 SRM = 8–12 ABV = 5.2%
A pre-modern homebrew recipe. For authenticity, brew while listening to “Cold Gin” by KISS.
4.7 lb. (2.1 kg) Muntons Light liquid
pale malt extract (back then it was
Muntons and Fison’s)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Muntons light
dried malt extract
1.5 lb. ( 0.68 kg) cane sugar
10 AAU Northern Brewer hops
(2 oz./57 g at 5.0 % alpha acid)
0.5 oz (14 g) Fuggles hops (15 mins)
1 package EDME Ale yeast
1 cup corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Dissolve the malt extracts and sugar in 3 gallons (11 L) warm water. Bring to a boil, add the bittering hops, and boil one hour. Add the finishing hops 10 minutes before the end of the boil. Strain, or siphon off from the hops, and add cold water to make
5 gallons (19 L). Cool to about 70 °F (21 °C). Pitch yeast and allow to ferment. By 5–7 days, final gravity should have been reached; rack into a
fermenter. One to two weeks later, rack again, prime with corn sugar and rack into keg or bottles. The beer should be ready to drink after conditioning for a week or so.
Menestheus Mild Ale
(5 gallons/19L, extract)
OG =1.038 FG = 1.009
IBU = 28 SRM = 12 ABV = 3.6%
This is an interpreation of the ale brewed on the Menestheus. The special processes used on the ship are not duplicated, but it is a pretty fair mild ale!
3.3 lb (1.5 kg) amber malt extract
1.75 lb (0.8 kg) dried malt extract
7.5 AAU Whitbread Goldings
hops (60 mins)
(1.25 oz./35 g at 6.0% alpha acid)
Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) or White
Labs WLP005 (British Ale) yeast
0.75 cup corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Dissolve the malt extracts in 3 gallons (11 L) warm water, stirring well to ensure the extracts dissolve properly. Bring to a boil, add the bittering hops and boil for one hour. Strain, or siphon off from the hops, add cold water sufficient to obtain 5 gallons (19 L) and cool to about 70 °F (21 °C). Pitch with yeast starter and allow to ferment. By 5–7 days, final gravity should have been reached; rack into a fermenter. One to two weeks later, rack again, prime with corn sugar, and rack into keg or bottles.