If you troll the Homebrew forums or groups on any social media sites, you will come across the the question; which makes better beer extract or all-grain? You will read a mixture of answers with many people stating all-grain makes better beer, and you will even have those who claim they can taste an extract beer every time. That’s a bunch of BS. Sorry, to those of you claim that, but I’m being 100% honest here. I am primarily an all grain brewer, and I prefer that process because it’s more fun for me. But I have done blind experiments where instead of saying to someone “Is this extract or all-grain?”, I have said instead removed that 50/50 shot by saying “I brewed 2 variations of this recipe, which do you prefer?” Then followed up with “Can you guess what the difference is?”. This will be news to any of my friends in my homebrew club reading this, but I sometimes brew extract beers when I’m pressed for time and don’t tell anyone they are extract. I have not once….not one single time EVER had one ask me “Is this an extract batch?” First I’m going to explain my personal feelings on the differences. Just remember though, because all-grain is more versatile, does not mean that it tastes better. In this write up I am talking strictly about flavor and aroma of the beer, not which method you can produce the most varied styles. In part 1 of this, I will discuss why some people perceive all-grain as being superior and some things you can do to up your game in extract brewing to make fantastic extract beers. In the next segment, I will go though my extract brewing process in detail for those who may be interested. (Note: Also check out the extract to grains conversion suggestions I have HERE. You may find it useful at some point)
First, why do people think all-grain beer tastes better? Well, in my opinion there are 3 major reasons some perceive a difference. The first is the complexity factor. No doubt about it all-grain brewing is more complicated. There are more steps and more places for things to go wrong, and when you have more steps and a more complicated process, you get a bigger sense of accomplishment when the product is complete. This can give you the perception that it’s “better”. Also, to be honest, when brewing extract you are limited to the beer styles you can accurately produce to the world-class level. However, that list of styles you can brew accurately is growing considerably with advances in extracts and specialty grains. Today you can replicate just about any classic style with extract and specialty grains. The addition of Munich, Marris Otter, and Rye malt extracts over the past few years has closed a huge gap for the extract brewer.
The second major reason is that most people start out with extract, at least their first few batches. There is a learning curve to getting to know the hobby. You can read about brewing, sanitation, fermentation control, and so on. But in actual practical application, those factors take time to get used to. They don’t take long, but they do take time to get the feel for and build your own process you are comfortable with. Once that is done, your beer will improve. For many brewers, this also happens to be the stage where they move to all-grain. They feel they have sanitation down, and the basics of boiling and fermentation process down. Once that comfort level hits, they look to all-grain. Well, little do they realize that their extract beers have also probably gotten better.
The third reason is water. We are told that if your water tastes good, you can brew with it. That is 100% true. As long as it’s de-chlorinated you will not get off-flavors from the chlorine, and if it’s not high in sulfur or dissolved metals it the beer will taste and smell fine. But there is a difference between good beer and great beer. Therefore, one needs to remember that when using extract, either liquid or dry, most of the ions in the water source that the malting plant used to make the extract, are inside the extract. So when you take your filtered tap water, and add extract…..you essentially are also adding mineral additions. Depending on your local water profile, this can be a slightly negative addition. But since most extract brewers are novices, we don’t want to complicate the matter with water chemistry right off the bat. So we say if it’s good water, it will make decent beer. Now, if you switch to all grain, all those minerals that were a slight detriment before, are now a required asset. Those water ions and minerals are benefiting your mash and your yeast and more importantly they are not in double quantities. Makes sense right?
Now, let’s take a look at some simple things you can do to up your game in the extract world. All of this is assuming you are already buying the most fresh product you can. Freshness of the extract is paramount and should have been a concern from day 1.
1. Go to full volume boil. This is probably one of the biggest changes you can do to make better extract beer. When people start out, they generally start with a 5 gallon pot and boil 3 gallons, then cool that 3 gallons of concentrated wort, add it to the bucket, and top up with fresh water. Well, you are not getting the best utilization of the hops this way, plus you end up darkening and at times over cooking the wort because of they concentration of sugars in the water. This is more true in the higher gravity beers. Going full volume boil, in a 7-10 gallon pot out on a propane burner will give you a better and more consistent product, without the excessive darkening and kettle caramelization normally associated with extract beers.
2. Get reliable fermentation temperature control. In both all-grain and extract brewing, fermentation temperature is essential to making consistent high quality beer. You cannot make world-class beer by by letting ambient temperatures ride. The best, and cheapest, methods for heating is to submerge your beer in a tub of water with an aquarium heater in it which you can set the temperature. For cooling, nothing beats an old chest freezer or refrigerator with a temperature controller. Controlling your temperatures of fermentation is just as important of a move as going full boil.
3. Consider switching from liquid malt extract (LME) to dry malt extract (DME). What I have found, especially for lighter beers like pilsners and cream ales (some of which people say are impossible to get right with extract…..NOT TRUE) that DME retains it’s color better than LME. The reason is that for reason’s unknown to me, LME oxidizes a bit easier than DME. I would imagine it has to do with the water. When LME oxidizes it darkens. This is natural and unavoidable. It also happens relatively fast. The second thing is that DME is easier to use and store. Store DME in an airtight container and any unused portions are going to stay fresh for weeks. LME is very difficult. You can adjust your recipes a lot easier using more exact quantities instead of being tied down to 3lbs at a time. You can use an odd amount of DME, like 2.75 pounds and store .25 pounds for a later batch or your yeast starters. With LME you are mostly tied to 3 or 3.3 pound increments. So unless you supplement with additional DME, you are limited. I personally use DME in almost my extract beers. Just word of caution though, 3 pounds of LME will not give you the same gravity as 3 pounds of DME. You will end up with a higher gravity with DME because of the water weight. So make adjustments accordingly in your brewing software.
4. You MUST use specialty grains. Specialty grains are going to add dextrins, flavors, and complexity you will not get from extract only beers. A small amount of carapils in every batch will benefit your head retention as well.
5. Use distilled or Reverse Osmosis water. The reason is the same as I explained above. Extract already has the water salts from the brewer’s process in the extract. Both DME and LME have these salts. So avoid doubling up your water’s salts by using distilled or RO water.
6. Learn to utilize the late extract method. By adding only 1/4 of all your extract at the start of the boil, and reserving the last 3/4 for the last 15 minutes of your boil. You will avoid kettle caramelization and most importantly, darkening. This is extremely important if you are trying to brew light beers, like cream ales or pilsners. This does affect your hop utilization, so be sure you tell your brewing software that X amount of extract is late addition extract. The software will adjust your IBU’s. For stouts and porters, or other dark beers, late extract is not as important but I feel it will benefit the beer in flavor.
7. Pitch enough yeast. This is another common issue I see with extract beers, even when experienced brewers toss together a quick extract beer. Since the extract brewing process is so much easier, they tend to neglect the care they put into yeast pitching in their all-grain beers. I’ve read it before and seen it many times. I’ve read people say they only do starters for their all-grain beers and don’t worry about with extract. I ask….why? The product you get from extract wort and all grain wort is essentially the same. You should treat it the same if you expect excellent results. So consider making yeast starters or at minimum rehydrate and/or pitch a double packet when using dry yeast.
If you do those 7 things, over time, your extract beers will beat out quite a few all-grain beers. I promise you that. In part 2, I will show my extract brewing method. It’s really nothing Earth shattering or different from many other people. But if you are reading this, you may find my method of some value.