Posts Tagged extract

A colossal failure

People talk a lot about the recipes that work, but little about the ones that are colossal failures.  There’s a lot to be learned from those failures, though. So, let me share one of mine.

A few years ago, my friend and I decided to make a pineapple pale ale.  The details of the recipe are lost to the sands of time, but the gist of it was an extract “pale” ale (it was a bit darker than it should have been) with a boatload of hops, and some pineapple.

We didn’t realize that the sugar in the pineapple was basically going to ferment out completely.  While we were expecting this tropical pale ale kind of taste, what we got was an intense sourness.  Really, really intense sourness.

We also didn’t hop the beer very well.  I wish I could remember details, but we put almost all the hops in the boil, without enough aroma hopping.  Then we dry hopped it, and we did that waaaaaaaaay too long. That left a hop profile that was bitter to the point of being angry, then very, very, very green.

Between the sourness and the bitterness, the thing drank like it was sucking the moisture off your tongue.

Yeesh.  Lessons learned.

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Beginners’ Tuesday—What are Extract, Partial Mash and All Grain Brewing?

Veteran homebrewers tend to throw the words “Extract,” “Partial Mash,” and “All-Grain” around, and I remember when I started brewing that I found that really confusing. So, for this week’s Beginners’ Tuesday we’ll discuss what each is, and what advantages and disadvantages each has.

Extract Brewing

Extract brewing is the simplest form of homebrewing, and it’s the version that almost all homebrewers start with. You may be surprised to know that it’s also what most homebrewers end with. Something like 4 out of 5 homebrewers does extract brewing exclusively, and many people in the other fifth still do it on occasion.

Extract brewing uses malt extract for the fermentable sugars. The most time-consuming and delicate part of making a beer in the traditional (all-grain) method Is converting the starch into sugars. With extract brewing, you let someone else do that hard work! Malt is converted on a large scale in a factory, then either condensed to form liquid malt extract or dried out to make dry malt extract. Either one is added to hot water to produce the wort.

There are a wide variety of kits that use hopped malt, which are the ultimate in brewing simplicity. Hop extract has already been added to the malt, so all you need to do is stir the mix into hot water, cool it, dilute it and add the yeast. You can do the whole thing in under two hours with practice.

Unhopped extract give you a little more control over the recipe, with slightly more work involved. You have to add your own hops, and boil them for an hour. Many recipes also have later additions that are boiled for the last 15 minutes, or last 5 minutes. The hour-long boil adds a little time and a little complexity, but not much.

Extract brewing often uses steeping grains to add color or flavor to augment the extract. You’re not getting sugars from these grains, but you’re getting other flavor chemicals. Crystal malts are often used for this purpose.

These days, there is a staggering variety of malt extracts available, and one can make almost any style of beer from extract, including wheat beers and rye.

The advantage to extract brewing is its simplicity. Nothing takes less time or equipment, and nothing is more forgiving to mistakes. Now, more than ever, the diversity of beer available to the extract brewer is nearly comprehensive. I can understand why 4 out of 5 brewers love making great extract beer and never move on to more complicated techniques.

The disadvantages to extract brewing are relatively small. To some, it feels untraditional. You are also restricted in the control you have over the recipe. While you can have some flavor from steeping grains, it is extremely difficult (or basically impossible) to say, “This beer is great, but it has a little too much pilsner malt and it needs more Munich.” There are differences in flavor between British and American base malts, and that’s tough to capture in extract. Cooks, gourmands, wine enthusiasts and others who have palates that easily detect subtle differences in flavor may find the versatility in extract brewing to be inadequate, as broad as it is.

Most people cannot tell the difference between extract and all-grain beer in a blind taste test. Some people detect a noticeable tang in extract beers that they may or may not find unpleasant. I don’t know whether this is a result of genetics or palate training, but if you think extract tastes tangy, you may be well served by moving up to a more complex method.

Finally, oats cannot be used in extract beer. If you want to make an oatmeal stout, you have to use partial mash or all-grain brewing. (This dilemma is precisely what inspired me to move up to a higher level of complexity.)

Partial Mash

If you find that you love beermaking, but want to do more than extract allows, I have good news! Partial mash brewing overcomes almost all the potential downsides of extract brewing without a significant investment in new equipment. You can use the full range of brewing grains including oats, so you can tweak flavors to your heart’s content.

With partial mash, you are going to produce some of the sugars for your beer by converting starch in the grain, and then you are going to use malt extract to provide the rest. Most partial mash approaches are about getting a few missing flavors into the beer, so normally, the extract is still most of what you will be fermenting. You can still do this in a relatively small pot, like a 3.5 or 4-gallon. You need room for 3-4 pounds of grain and 2-3 gallons of water.

Partial mash requires you to use a base malt, which is a grain that has high levels of the enzymes that turn starch into sugars. Ales usually use 2-row or 6-row malted barley as the base malt. Lagers typically use pilsner malt. Anything that you’re using that’s not a base malt is a specialty malt, which might include crystal malt, roasted barley, biscuit malt, oats, wheat, rye and many others. To get the sugars out of those grains, you’re going to need an hour of time and you’re going to need to control the temperature of your water to between 150 and 158 degrees. That makes it a little complicated for beginners, but lots of people move on to partial mash after a small number of extract batches.

I’m planning a future Beginners’ Tuesday post on how to do your first Partial Mash.

The advantage of Partial Mash is that you get most of the versatility of all-grain brewing with the more simple equipment of extract brewing. The disadvantages are that it is more complicated and time-consuming than extract brewing.


All-Grain is the most complicated and most traditional method of making beer. None of the sugar is coming from extract; all is starting as starch in the grain. This requires more complicated equipment. You can’t use a few gallons of water to extract the sugars and top up later, like you do with extract and partial mash brewing. If you’re making a 5-gallon batch, you will need a pot that can hold 5 gallons (or more) of water, AND 14 pounds or so of grain. You also need very good temperature control. There is little margin for error—if your temperature is significantly wrong, you will have no sugars to ferment.

The upside of all-grain brewing is that you have ultimate control over your recipe. You can literally make any kind of beer you can dream of, you can tweak ingredients to your heart’s content, and make your mixture of grains as complicated or precise as you want. The downside is that it is very time-consuming and complicated, and it requires a fair amount of expertise to pull it off.

For those who want the ultimate homebrewing experience, all-grain is the goal. Fortunately, you can build to it by making your partial mashes more complicated over time. I’ll do a post on this someday, too, after we cover how to get into partial mashing.

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