Recently I wrote on the subject of mashing overnight. The reason why you might want to do such a thing is to save time, you’ll be able to fit in a brew when you could not otherwise. Of course the process of mashing overnight gives rise to problems that may affect the quality the beer. If you didn’t read the article check it out here.
In reality the easiest option to be able to fit in a brew, save time and not have to worry about drastically altering key parts of the brewing process is to use malt extract.
When Malt Extract Beats All Grain
Using malt extract is a ready-made solution to cut out probably the largest and most time consuming aspect of brewing, the mash. Using malt extract you cut out the mash, runoff and sparge, which in most instances takes at least an hour and a half.
I think an issue that surrounds brewing with malt extract is that it is seen as a stepping stone to all grain brewing. Many homebrewers progress through different technical levels, for example you may start the hobby by brewing a beer kit, want to start experimenting with grain and hops using malt extract as the base for your recipes. It is at this point that most brewers then progress to brewing all grain and mashing. Once you reach this point as a brewer it can seem like a backward step to then revert back to brewing with malt extract.
All grain brewing allows you to completely control the whole process of producing beer and it can seem that using malt extract can take some of that control away. In reality this is not completely true and I think the benefits that using malt extract brings to brewing outweigh the disadvantages.
Of the various arguments you see regarding the use of malt extract compared to all grain the majority mainly focus around the mash. One of the most common disadvantages you see suggested is you cannot control the fermentability of a malt extract beer in the same way you can when you mash grains.
When you brew all grain your main methods of controlling the fermentability of the wort are the temperature of the mash and the mash thickness. The brewer using malt extract doesn’t have control of these two variables so of course you’ll see it suggested that you lose this control.
This argument has only a small amount of validity, there are several variables still within the extract brewers control. There are of course several simple ways to increase the body of a beer that don’t rely on the mash temperature, you may want to;
- Increase the ABV
- Increase the amount of crystal malts or caramel malts
- Adding maltodextrin
- Introduce non fermentable sugars such as lactose
- Using a low attenuating yeast strain
- Decreasing the level of carbonation
All of these things will increase the body or the perceived mouthfeel in a beer and all of these things are options are available to the malt extract brewer.
How about increasing the fermentability and producing a drier beer with less body? What options are available to the extract brewer here.
- Introducing simple sugars (up to 20% of fermentables)
- High attenuating yeast strains
- Using malt extracts with high fermentability (i.e extra light)
- Utilising enzymes by steeping base malts or using prepared enzymes
For those brewers who worry about losing control, you can see there is still many variables that do need to consider and some of them aren’t really explored at all. The utilisation of enzymes for example is something that is never really discussed in much depth, The common assumption is malt extract is a simple way to brew so you don’t really worry about it.
Using enzymes can be as simple as introducing a portion of base malt such as Maris Otter when you’re steeping grains with malt extract. Steeping in a temperature range between 64 and 70 degrees celsius allows the enzymes in the base malt to break down starches not only in the grain but also in the malt extract. The enzymes break down long chain sugars in the malt extract and make the wort more fermentable.
This steeping process takes no longer than a regular extract brewday but introduces amylase enzymes which will alter the fermentability of the wort.
Amylase enzymes can also be purchased from your home brew shop, adding a tiny amount to a malt extract beer can dry it out completely leaving no residual body, this shows their effectiveness and the big effect they can have on a beer.
These kind of variables could each be written about at length and possibly have a whole article dedicated to them. The point I’m trying to get across though is that malt extract brewing doesn’t mean the brewer loses control of an entire part of the process. It just means a little more thought needs to go into developing the recipe. It’s these variables that are going to make the difference between a good and a great beer.
The Biggest Benefits of Malt Extract Beers
In some instances a new homebrewer is better off making malt extract beers than jumping straight into all grain brewing. Some of the most technical aspects of brewing revolve around wort production. Calculating a grain bill to ensure the correct gravity is hit and then ensuring the mash, lauter and sparge are carried out to hit that gravity is something that takes time and practice. Using malt extract on the other hand guarantees the correct amount of fermentables, it’s hard to get wrong.
One of the most complex areas of all grain brewing, water treatment is almost completely avoided when using malt extract (removing chlorine is still important). When all grain brewing and mashing, making sure your brewing liquor has the correct concentrations of minerals has a big effect on the quality of the beer. The minerals in your water supply affect the pH in the mash, which in turn has the knock on effect all the way through the brewing process right through to fermentation. The use of malt extract means the minerals are already in place, the mash took place during production and the home brewer can concentrate on other important parts of the process.
Of course as a brewer you want to improve those processes where active participation is needed, things like the mash and sparge. We sometimes forget though that the passive phases of the brewing process where you’re not actively needed to do anything can provide massive improvements in the finished beer. Fermentation is a good example of this and probably the main area that can be improved at home. Maintaining correct temperatures and keeping the temperature range within a few degrees throughout the fermentation.
There Isn’t Only One Way To Brew
I find myself more frequently switching between all grain batches and malt extract batches. The time saving of brewing with malt extract is just too bigger benefit for me, sometimes an all grain batch can take 5-6 or more hours with cleaning. Fitting that in can seem like adding another thing to the to do list. Malt extract brewing becomes a relaxing couple of hours in comparison.
Hopefully malt extract brewing won’t be seen as a stepping stone to something better as home brewing becomes ever more popular. The quality of malt extract now is improving and hopefully as more people begin brewing the price and range of products will become more appealing. For me it is becoming an equally viable option.