The Beer Hacker: 5 Tips for Extract Brewing

Having brewed extract-based beer for years (I still haven’t made the jump to all grain), I thought I’d share some hacker-ish tips to help improve your extract brewing. These are tips that are aimed more for the beginning homebrewer, though hopefully more advanced brewers will appreciate them too.

Use grains in addition to malt extract

Whole grains: crystal 20L and black patentAdding grains to the mash adds character to a beer that extract alone cannot add. I’m not talking about mashing barley grains—although you could, you would then technically be brewing a partial mash—but steeping (not boiling) adjunct grains in the mash water. Typical grains used here would be Crystal, chocolate malt, and black patent. These are grains that are simply used to add flavor, color, and mouthfeel to a beer (not fermentables).

I like the Papazian method for using adjunct grains: add them to the kettle water, put it on the stove to heat to boiling, and extract them just before the boil. The end results is the grains steep nicely in the heating water, lending their character to the beer.

Using grains like this with extract will definitely improve your beer.

Use boiling bags for steeping grains

Nylon boiling bagUnless you’re set up for sparging your wort, steeping grains in the kettle can be a pain to deal with: as the mash approaches the boil, you’ll need to strain the grains out with a hand strainer. Invariably, you won’t be able to remove all the grain from the kettle, and you’ll likely splash or drip hot liquid around the kitchen.

There are a variety of bags that are available from your homebrew supply shop, ranging from cheap muslin boiling bags that are good for one or two uses, to sturdy nylon reusable bags that typically have drawstrings. Need a more Macguyver-esque alternative? Cut the lower 12 or 18 inches from a pair of clean, new nylon stockings (be sure to tie off the open end).

Place all the grains into a grain bag for steeping, and when it’s time to come out, grab your tongs and fish it out. No mess!

These also work great for whole flower hops.

Use hop pellets in place of whole flower hops

Hop pelletsIf you love to use whole flower hops (I do), no worries—just use a boiling bag (see above). But if you’re looking for a less messy option that works just as well, use hop pellets. These are hops that have been dried, ground up and pressed into pellets and are, in essence, super-concentrated hop pills.

One thing to consider when using hop pellets instead of whole hops is that you will, on average, see about 10-15% more bitterness from pellets, so you will want to adjust your recipe accordingly. This is because the lupulin glands of the hops have been broken open in the pellets, and the lupulin is the chemical in hops that act on the beer.

Hop pellets also work very well if you are dry hopping the beer.

Use dried malt extract instead of malt extract syrup

Dried malt extractThe best results I’ve had in extract-brewed beer (getting desired color, for instance, and flavors) come from using dried malt extract (DME) in place of syrups. There are several reasons:

  • The heating and concentrating process of making the syrup often darkens the malt, so even pale malt syrup will be darker than it should be.
  • Syrup scorches much more easily in the brew kettle, lending darker colors (and burnt flavors) to the beer.
  • There’s more control over the final outcome of the beer (see my next tip below).

Also, DME is generally easier to handle than syrup, and, properly stored, will last longer.

Use pale DME as a base malt

Even though DME is available in "grades" or types ranging from extra pale through dark, stick with pale as a base when you’re formulating extract recipes. The reason? You’ll have better control over the color, flavor and mouthfeel through the use of grains and adjuncts, and ultimately more flexibility in your brewing.

For instance, a recipe for a stout may look something like seven pounds of pale DME, a pound of Crystal 80L, a half pound of chocolate malt, and a half pound of roasted barley and a quarter pound of black patent. An amber ale, on the other hand, may look something like six pounds of pale DME, a half pound of Crystal 40L, two ounces of chocolate malt and maybe just a hint of black patent for a reddish tint.

You see what’s happening? You’re controlling the color and style of the beer with the adjunct grains, and not relying on a particular color of malt extract for it. You’ll also end up with a beer that it more flavorful and has better mouthfeel as a result.

When starting from a neutral, pale base malt you can build any beer you want.