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Quality Extract Beer (is Not an Oxymoron)

Quality Extract Beer (is Not an Oxymoron)

Maybe you're new to home brewing, and want to learn the craft without the added investment of a mash tun and hot liquor tank. Perhaps you're a seasoned all-grain brewer, and want to brew a great beer, but you're short on time. In either case, extract brewing is a great way to make quality beer, but there is a stigma attached to extract brewing that it produces inferior beer. Much of the stigma might be attributed to the fact that many extract brewers are new, and therefore haven't begun making yeast starters, or using proper temperature control during fermentation. Either way, a lot of the "this tastes like bad home brew" flavor is falsely blamed on the extract, instead of the skill of the brewer. Many brewers don't take the time to learn how to make great extract beer, because they move on to all grain at the same time that they start to get serious about their beer. I'm here to say that very high quality beers can be made with extract, but more attention needs to paid to do it correctly. Here are some steps that can get you from "This tastes like home-brew." to "Where can I buy this?" when brewing extract beers.

Happy Yeast Means Happy Beer!

This should be a given, but I can't talk about quality beer without mentioning yeast. Making adequate-sized yeast starters and pitching enough viable yeast cells is critical to making great beer, and is often overlooked when brewing extract beers. Look up "yeast starter calculator", there are many tools available to help determine how large of a starter you need for your beer. Use a ratio of 1g dry malt extract to 10ml water will achieve the proper gravity of 1.040. Cool to room temp and pitch the yeast, allowing 8-12 hours for it to bud and reproduce new cells before brew day. The other side of yeast health is proper fermentation temperature. Many brewers use temperature controlled chest freezer set-ups to control temperature. "Swamp coolers" are another low-cost option. Many guides are available online about these solutions. If you can't control the temperature, brew beer that suits the conditions you already have. The cooler months can be advantageous for a frugal brewer, find a place in the house that stays around  60-65F, and it can be a perfect place to ferment most ale styles. In the summer, when the ambient temperature in the house is higher, choose styles like Saisons and Belgian abbey ales. These styles call for yeast strains that prefer the warmer temperature.

Water Profiles for Extract Brewing.

Water is another complicated topic that is usually tackled once the brewer has moved to all grain. In extract brewing, a brewery has already mashed the grain with a proper water profile and mash PH, and concentrated it into an extract for you. If you introduce your tap water, you're introducing a second water profile into the beer. You could be exceeding the proper amounts of many salts and minerals, as well as adding in chlorine and chloramine, negatively affecting the final flavor of the beer. Use distilled water, or reverse osmosis water whenever brewing extract, and you can avoid some of these off flavors.

Steeping Grains vs. Mashing

When brewing extract beer, brewers will typically steep a mixture of specialty malts to introduce malt flavor compounds into the beer. Steeping is different than mashing the grain. In mashing, grains are held to the correct temperature to activate enzymes that convert starches to sugars. This process has already been achieved by the producer of the extract, and all the sugar we need for the beer is in the extract used. The goal of steeping is to use osmosis to draw flavor compounds out of the malt, like making a tea. Grains should be crushed and added to a grain bag, and then kept in the water at 150F-170F for 20-30 minutes. In order to extract the flavor without extracting unwanted tannins, don't exceed 170F. To further avoid tannins, either steep in a weak wort (add enough extract to get the wort to 1.010 before steeping) or steep your grain in a smaller volume of water (.5qt-1qt of water per pound of grain)

"My extract beer is always darker/sweeter/less bitter than I intended."

A common problem with extract beer is that it often comes out darker in color than the brewer intended. One of the causes for this is boiling in a smaller volume than the finished batch. Many extract brewers start off boiling in 1.5-2 gallons of water, and add the rest of the water later to make a full 5 gallon batch. If possible, boil the full volume of wort the whole time. Boiling a full volume of wort can also help with hop bitterness. A common problem with extract beer is that they aren't as bitter as intended, adding hops to the full volume of wort can help isomerize all of the bitterness from the hops.

The other cause of dark wort is kettle caramelization. When adding extract, turn off the heat momentarily and stir constantly until you can see that the extract has dissolved. If it doesn't dissolve immediately, it can sink to the bottom and be scorched by the heat at the base of the kettle, darkening and caramelizing the wort. (Early german brew kettles had chains that were dragged across the bottom of their kettles during the boil to avoid this phenomenon, and allowed them to brew remarkably light colored pilsner beers!)

If you are finding that your extract beers have a high finishing gravity and are too sweet, even after making yeast starters and fermenting at proper temperatures, you can use some table sugar in place of some of the extract the recipe calls for. Table sugar is completely fermentable, so it can help dry out the beer and keep it from finishing too sweet. If more than 10% of the grain bill is sugar, add some yeast nutrient when pitching the yeast. Don't exceed 30% table sugar in the recipe.Also know that if more sugar is used, the wort will be lighter than expected.

Great Beer in Less Time

With the holidays approaching, I turn to extract batches to capitalize on the little free time I have. I brew extract batches every year to give away as christmas gifts, or when I need home brew to have for holiday get-togethers at home, but have a tight schedule.  With these tips, you can step up your extract batches to the level of your all grain beers, and enjoy quality home brew in less time. For the new brewers getting starter kits under the tree, follow some of these tips and you can make brewery quality extract beer at home, without confusing yourself over PH, water chemistry and mash tuns before you have the basics down. Cheers, and happy brewing!

Ben Fredette
Ben Fredette

Ben enjoys good beer, strong coffee and loud music. This Certified Cicerone continues expanding his knowledge of beer, hands-on. He’s the guy on the brewery tour asking too many questions. Famously open-minded, you can find him drinking a 3-year-old imported sour beer one night, and an American light lager the next. When he’s not writing for, Ben can be found cooking, home-brewing, rock climbing, or playing the drums.

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