June 30, 2011

The Joy of Extract Brewing

I recently took what some might consider to be a step backwards in my brewing. I put away my mash tun and my large(ish) kettle and I brewed a batch of extract beer. When I first started brewing, "all-grain" seemed like a peak to surmount: the pinnacle of the art of brewing and the black belt in homebrewing Karate and after making the leap to all grain brewing several years ago, I had not looked back. 

As with all aspects of brewing, though, the more you learn, the more you realize just how much you don't know. Making wort can get as complicated as decoctions, monitering pH and water mineral levels and more. Then come the water reports, pH meters, endless gadgets for steeping, washing, rinsing, sparging, and mashing grains. Calculations, spreadsheets and programs start to block out the scenery. "Didn't I get into this hobby to lean back, enjoy a beer, and relax while brewing?" I would think to myself. 

Granted, all grain brewing doesn't have to be complicated at all. It's really just steeping grains at the correct temperature and then rinsing them, but extract brewing has a built-in simplicity that called me back (my cramped apartment and my increasingly scarce free-time started to call me back too). The more I brew and read about brewing, the more I realize that, cliche as it is, fermentation is the most important aspect of brewing. Making wort from grains is great fun, but 90% of the time quality beer (and not so quality beer) lies in the hands of yeast.

There's something evocative about brewing beer the same way I did when I first started. Getting out the old kettle, steeping grains, adding extract and hops, the wonderful smells in the kitchen. These are all things I get from brewing all grain beer, but with half the time invested, and much less clean up. I can bang out an entire batch in less time than it would take me to mash and sparge an all grain batch. Most importantly, the beer turned out great! Extract may not have all the possible flavors and nuances of all grain brews, but extract-wort is high quality wort, and in the tutelage of healthy, fresh yeast in their preferred temperature, the beer was great.

Back to Basics Pale Ale
5 gallon batch formulated for 3 gallon boil
50 IBU

6 pounds Gold DME
0.5 pounds demerara sugar (or corn sugar if you don't steal your wife's tea-sweetening sugar for brewing like I do) add at end of boil
1 pounds Caramel Pils

2 oz northern brewer @ 60 minutes
1 oz columbus @ 10 minutes
1 oz centennial @ 1 minute
1 oz Simcoe dry hop (Simcoe RIP: use columbus or other American hop instead)

Safale S-05 open fermented for that added character and sense of danger


  1. When I first started brewing I rushed to become an all grain brewer. I thought that was the natural order of things and that all real brewers were extract brewers. I never really enjoyed all gran brewing, more complicated, more time consuming, more ways to mess up, so I quit brewing. Years later I have come back to extract brewing. I love it. I brew good beer that my friends and I like to drink. I don't think I will go back to all grain.

  2. @Anonymous - Thanks for your comments; your story is very cool. I think a lot of the bad rap extract-based homebrew gets is because it's the way beginners make beer, before they get a grip on things like pitch rate, temp control, etc. Once you have a handle on those things and know how to work with or around the limitations imposed by extract (fixed fermentability, etc.) I think you can brew great beer. And ultimately we're doing this for personal enjoyment, right?

  3. Anonymous, thanks for sharing the great story! Extract or grain can be made into great beer in the hands of a good brewer.

  4. Every year I brew at least one batch of my favorite extract beer, the Patersbier kit. When you've got a yeast as amazing as the Trappist High Gravity, who needs a complicated mash schedule? And really, isn't the ultimate technical goal of brewing consistency? What's more consistent than malt extract? Every brewer should pride themselves on their extract brewing abilities.

  5. Patience with temperature points was my biggest flaw with extract brewing, before I went all-grain.

    The expectation among many startup extract brewers is that all the temperature-specific work is done for them. Knowing that adding the appropriate portion of fresh extract at 212 degrees F. & stirring well is most of the battle will eliminate most 'extract twang'. Water profiles matter a bit too, but that's likely to scare off potential beginners.

    The truth is that temperature in the boil & fermentation make a bigger difference in finished beer quality than any other recipe factor. Oh, and don't load up on the sweet-smelling caramel malts! Remember, that Gold or Amber malt already has some caramel, and if you go for Munich you're sitting pretty.