I Tried It: Extract Brewing

It's been a few years since I tried extract brewing and I recently tried it again as part of the Charlotte Beer Babes Ladies Brew Day. 

For those unfamiliar with homebrewing, there are three types of homebrewing: extract, partial grain, and all grain. Extract brewing involves the use of liquid malt extract (LME) or dry malt extract (DME). Dry malt extract is just what it sounds like - a typical mash is conducted and then dehydrated down to about 2% water content, so you're left with what is essentially powdered malt. Liquid extract is the same, except it's only dehydrated to about 20% water, making it a molasses-like goop. All grain brewing uses (duh) all grain and no extract. Partial grain is a mixture of the two. Extract brewing skips the need for mashing and sparging, which are necessary steps in all grain brewing.

The very best way to think of the difference between extract brewing and all grain brewing is to think of the difference between using a cake mix and baking a cake from scratch: with a cake mix, you're given dehydrated cake mix and need to add very simple ingredients, such as an egg, some oil, and some water; whereas with baking a cake from scratch, you need all the ingredients for the recipe and prepare everything.

Because extract brewing skips about the first half of a typical all-grain brew day - you start extract brewing with the boil - it's a great way to try homebrewing without needing the equipment and ingredient investment in all grain brewing. There are also extract brewing starter kits available starting at around $100 that contain the basics, such as the ingredients (LME or DME, pre-measured hops, any specialty grains, and dry yeast) and the equipment (small brew kettle, fermentor, airlock, and sanitizer).

In addition to needing less equipment, you also cut your brew day pretty much in half. When we brewed our extract batch, we started around 12:00 pm and were finished by 3:00 pm. We were sharing several pieces of equipment with the other groups brewing that day, otherwise we would have been finished sooner. Clean up is also a dream compared to clean up after an all grain batch - there is no spent grain to throw away (or use to make dog treats) and a fraction of the brewing equipment to clean and sanitize.

So how does extract brewing work? The first step is steeping your specialty grains for about 30-45 minutes. Basically, you make a grain tea to extract the color and flavor from your specialty grains, which can be brown malt, roasted malt, or any another non-base malt. Then you boil your water (known as liquor when you're using it to brew). Once your water is boiling, you add your LME or DME - in our case, we used DME.

Here's the thing about DME - it's a pain to use. You know how when marine archaeologists find some cool stuff underwater but can't bring it straight up to the surface because the oxygen will cause it to crumble as soon as it leaves the water? That's how working with DME can be. It absorbs moisture in the air and becomes a sticky mess almost immediately. It clumps and is difficult to pour and stir. Which is a problem, because an important step in brewing with DME is stirring it vigorously into the boil to keep it from clumping - you need the DME to dissolve completely into the water. Our DME luckily went into the boil kettle surprisingly easy, possibly because we were all expecting the worst.

After the DME has been added and the boil officially commenced, the next steps are to throw in the hops at the specified times as well as the whirl floc, which is an additive that helps grab all the junk from the hops and anything else floating around in your wort and drop it to the bottom of the kettle so you're left with a cleaner beer. 

I should stop here to explain that we were using an extract brewing kit, but not like the one I described above that comes with brewing equipment. An extract recipe kit is essentially a cake mix because it comes with all the ingredients you need to make a batch of beer according to the included recipe and the instructions. The instructions are extremely simple to use and everything is pre-measured. All you have to do is add the ingredients at the specified times. One thing I always do when I brew is write down the time my boil started, write down the time it's supposed to end, and then fill in the times for any other additions, such as hops or special ingredients. Because I usually get distracted doing other things during the boil, I also set alarms on my phone to remind me. There are apps available to do all this for you, but I haven't tried any of them out yet. 

Once the boil was finished, we cooled the wort down and transferred it to our sanitized carboy. Then we cleaned our equipment and ba-da-boom, we were finished! The beer is currently hanging out in secondary with our additions - we made an English Brown Ale to which we added cacao nibs and cherries to make a cherry chocolate brown ale. Toward the end of July, all the homebrewers are going to meet again to have our homebrews judged, and the winning beer will become a NoDa Brewing Company NoDable! Wish us luck!

Overall, if you're interested in homebrewing but find the all grain process intimidating or aren't quite ready to make the investment in all grain equipment, extract brewing is a great alternative. We all know how delicious desserts made from mixes are and beer made from extract brewing is the same way. Does it require the same level of skill and time? No, but the end result can be just as good and provides an entry point to learning more about a very cool hobby without a huge investment of time or money.

I would also like to give a special shout out to my teammates, Heather Ramsey and Carolyn Newell! We had a fun time working together and (hopefully) making a really delicious beer.