Hobbyists thrive on rapport, with like minds sharing knowledge, triumph and struggle, reminiscing about wide-eyed beginnings and visions of the great frontier ahead. Homebrewing engenders much camaraderie, but inevitably it can also uncover some philosophical divides.
I have found that two subjects generate the most debate: style vs. nonstyle, and extract vs. all-grain. This is always a bit perplexing, since if any hobby should bring satisfaction at any level of competence or philosophy, it is homebrewing. There is plenty of room for all, without compromise. Nearly all of us started out with extract in one form or another, and many never “advance” beyond that format. Frankly, if that is your preference, there really is no reason to, especially with the knowledge and ingredients now available. Whether you are just learning the hobby, are under some equipment or cost restraints, or simply yearn to make the best beer with the least possible effort and potential pitfall, then savvy extract brewing is both practical and rewarding.
This column should give beginners a leg up on their first few brews, ensuring something well beyond mere drinkability, while also offering simple design for basic brewing. Also, for those who choose to stick with extract-based brewing, or keep an ace in the hole when time or resources are precious, it should serve to optimize your avenues and strategies. We’ll explore base extracts and optional specialty grains, followed by the usual hop schedules and yeast choices for recipe formulation to tailor beers that will rival any all-grain brews.
There are dozens of extracts to choose from, but basically two categories, hopped and unhopped. Hopped extract is fine for very basic brewing, requiring nothing more than the contents of the can or pouch. If you simply want to learn how to boil wort, chill, ferment and bottle or keg, then you can take this route. Fermentation and sanitizing are a bit intimidating to some, so if you are uncomfortable with or unsure of the process, start there. Your “style” will be at the behest of the manufacturer, but the overall quality of the finished beer will rest in your technique.
Unhopped wort, on the other hand, can provide what is essentially a blank palette for creating a beer of particular style or personal preference. Unhopped extracts can be infinitely malleable and easily personalized. They are the overwhelming choice of extract brewers. You will also see that familiarity with the products can effectively eliminate any need for specialty malts. Extract with or without specialty grains, well-planned hop scheduling and a favorite yeast pave the road to simple, efficient and extraordinary homebrew. Malt extracts are a better bargain than they were many years ago, and, without the need for anything more than basic equipment, not at all cost-prohibitive.
Extract Without Specialty Malts
Unhopped extracts are carefully produced from wort suitable for a broad range of generic beer styles. All you’ll need to do is devise a hop schedule and select a yeast strain. The manufacturers usually include specialty malts in the formulation, eliminating the need for additional steeping grains. In fact, one of the great myths of homebrewing is that simple extract beers need any whole-grain additions at all and will be boring or too thin.
The first step is to get to know the composition of the extract. The most common vendors, Alexander’s, Muntons and Briess Malt, proudly reveal their extract ingredients. Briess has a dazzling array of extracts and goes the extra mile by offering spec sheets on all of them. They include vital Lovibond ratings at particular extract concentrations, flavor descriptions and suggested use. This information is invaluable for making recipes, especially if you want to forgo specialty grains. For example, Briess’ Pilsen extract is rated at 3º Lovibond when used at a gravity of 1.050, and is made with pilsner and cara-pils malt. Used at that concentration, the wort looks exactly like wort for all-grain kölsch, pilsner or Munich Helles. The cara-pils addition adds body and mouthfeel, just like a fully mashed recipe. Similarly, Briess’ Munich extract is made with equal parts pilsner and Munich malts, just like one of my own all-grain märzen or maibock recipes, and would also be excellent for pale ale and plenty of other light amber brews. Briess wheat malt extract is 65/35 wheat malt/barley malt, suitable for authentic Bavarian hefeweizen as is. The porter and dark malt recipes show an ingredient list designed for porter or stouts, respectively. Muntons makes extra-light and light extracts with lager malts, and its wheat (50 percent each pale and wheat malts), amber (pale ale and crystal malt) and dark (pale ale, crystal and chocolate malts) extracts are excellent for making English wheat ales, pale ales, bitters, milds/browns and porters without augmentation.
Blending these extracts makes the possibilities even more extensive. Munich extract blended with Pilsner or light, for example, will make Vienna lager. Wheat extract can be used in small amounts for better head formation or as an accent. It also can be combined with amber, Munich or dark extract for dunkelweizen or weizenbock.
Extract With Specialty Grains
Unhopped malt extracts combined with steeped specialty grains is by far the most common method of extract brewing. This approach is especially useful for customizing specific brews or adding an extra bit of character. Light, extra light, wheat and Munich extracts serve as the base, putting the character/specialty malt portion entirely in the hands of the brewer. The blank slate that these pale extracts offer is the equivalent to the base malt portion that is used by nearly all brewers to make up 80 to 95 percent of the mash. In this respect, you are essentially making recipes similar to all-grain formulations without the fuss of mashing. To transform all-grain recipes into extract brews, simply steep the recommended specialty malts for 20 minutes at 150 to 170 F and dissolve the extract in this “tea.” Steeped grains and extracts blends add even more diversity and creativity to extract brewing. When I was learning to craft recipes, I usually used the appropriate amount of the light and delicate Alexander’s extract, made exclusively with American 2-row Klages malted barley as my base and experimented with different ratios and combinations of specialty malts based on all recipes, my own research and by poring over the invaluable and insightful writings of Michael Jackson. Alexander’s light malt and wheat malt extract is thankfully still available and is an excellent choice for your American extract beers.
A few things to consider (or avoid, as it were) when brewing with extract:
• Liquid malt extract (LME) will contribute about 1.036 gravity points per pound per gallon of wort, while dried malt extract (DME) will contribute about 1.044.
• It’s essential to find a hop utilization equation and stay with it (they are somewhat variable) and compare results from batch to batch. Remember to compensate utilization for nonfull wort boils.
• It’s best to do full wort boils if possible with a 7.5-gallon (30-quart) for your 5-gallon batches. Your hop utilization will be much more precise. It will also come in handy if you switch to all-grain. Assume about a gallon loss during the boil from evaporation and cold break.
• Insight on recipes can be garnered from extracts “kits” from a homebrew shop. They come with all extract, specialty grains, hops and yeast to make a predetermined type of beer.
• You should do your homework on steeping grains. Raw and flaked grains are nearly useless unless you mash them with diastatic base malts, as are Victory, Aromatic, Amber, Brown, Special Roast and Special B. Stick to caramelized and fully roasted grains and malts.
• The measure of specialty malts should be kept under 2# for a 5-gallon batch to avoid cloying or unwanted heaviness. More is not always better.
• Crystal or Caramel malts have varying degrees of fermentability, and those sugars are extracted with proper steeping. Assume some residuals and some fermentable sugars will be contributed by these malts.
American Pale Ale
Dissolve 4# Light LME and 3# amber LME in 5 gallons of water and bring volume up to 6 gallons total.
Bring to a boil and add 1 oz
German Perle hops.
Boil for 20 minutes and add 1 oz
Boil for 20 minutes and add 1 oz
Cascade hops and kettle coagulant.
Boil for an additional 20 minutes, add 1 oz Simcoe hops, turn off the heat and chill.
Siphon into your fermenter, leaving sediment behind, and add a single package of reconstituted dried ale yeast, one fully inflated Wyeast Activator pack (strain 1056 or 1272), or on White Labs pitchable tube (strain WLP001 or 041)
Ferment at 65 to 70 F.
Steep 1.0# of Crystal or Caramel malt,
80° L, and 6 oz chocolate malt in 2 gallons of water at 160 F for 20 minutes.
Remove steeping bag and dissolve
4.0# Munich LME and 5.5# Wheat LME
(or 4.5# Wheat DME) in steeping tea and top up to 6 gallons.
Bring to a boil and add
1.5 oz German noble
or Mount Hood hops.
Boil for 40 minutes and add kettle
Boil for an additional 20 minutes, turn off the heat and chill.
Siphon into your fermenter, leaving sediment behind, and add a single package of reconstituted dried Safbrew WB-06, one fully inflated smack pack of Wyeast Activator strain 3068, or one White Labs strain WLP300 pitchable tube.
Ferment at 65 to 72 F.