Extract brewing, the stepchild of the brewing family, can produce top-quality brewpub and microbrewery beers. The key is understanding the properties of malt extracts and working with them.
I have had the unique experience of professionally brewing a wide variety of beers using many different methods, from cask-conditioned English ales using single-temperature infusion to Reinheitsgebot lager beers using upward infusion, and including work in malt extract brewpubs using ale, wheat, and lager yeasts. I also worked at a malt extract brewpub in Australia with limited access to supplies.
The most difficult of these formats to master was the malt extract lager brewpub. In going from full mash brewing to extract brewing, the brewer loses a degree of control over wort quality. The process is rebrewing as much as it is brewing. For this and other reasons, many avoid and even look down on extract brewing. Malt extracts, however, can produce great beers if the brewer understands the peculiarities of malt extract and how to work with it.
This article provides some simple tips for successfully brewing with malt extract. Although the context is commercial extract brewing, the practical issues are equally relevant to home brewers.
Light Lagers From Extract
Malt extract makes worst the style of beer people drink most. The challenge is to make the lightest lager beer of high drinkability using an extract that allows as complete an attenuation as possible. Dark beers and ales are easy to produce in this production format, because their flavor profiles are already included in most extracts. Brewers therefore face the classic flavor choice: a flavor-neutral alcohol medium (light lager) versus a flavor-positive alcohol medium (dark beers) as a target profile. Extract is more flavor-positive than flavor-neutral.
Very little textbook information is available on brewing with malt extract. The old brewers never use the stuff, and the manufacturers aren’t brewers and don’t pretend to be. Although certainly not a textbook presentation, the following discussion is intended to shed some light on successful extract brewing practice.
Factors Affecting Flavor in Malt Extract Brewing
Evaluate residual sweetness. One measure of a beer style is its sweetness, a function of residual sweetness, or the sugar left in the body of the beer after fermentation ends. Call the manufacturer and ask for the reduction time and temperature used when concentrating the malt extract, and try to determine the type of sugar that is produced. Focus on this sugar and its fermentation parameters. Try to visit the plant or one like it to see the process through brewers’ eyes. Study beer styles that include these types of sugars. Add high maltose corn sugar to thin the body when needed for the two lightest styles. Use 21-day brewing cycles with lager yeast; longer fermentation times lead to greater attenuation and minimize residual sweetness. The greater the residual sweetness of the extract, the higher the adjunct ratio, which can be taken as high as 20–25%. Don’t boil light worts longer than 45 min; they have already been boiled once and caramelize easily.
Ensure flavor and nutrient consistency. Batch-to-batch consistency and successful quality control depend largely on the quality of starting materials. Inspect the top of the extract containers for mold and check dates and shelf life. Malt extract comes pasteurized and nonpasteurized; nonpasteurized extract makes the lightest beer but has the shortest shelf life.
Using calcium (calcium sulfate
, for example) and noniodized salt (sodium chloride) in the foundation water helps the yeast metabolize the complex sugars contained in malt extract. As a rule of thumb, use 2 oz calcium sulfate and 1 oz noniodized salt for a 7–10 bbl batch, adjusting as necessary for water hardness.
Check for swollen containers; extract can start fermenting on its own. Use the freshest, lightest extract first for the lightest beers possible.
Work within the limitations that extracts impose on styles. Manufacturers’ in-house flavors are always a factor, regardless of specifications. Most companies have a full range of extracts, but some extracts consistently ferment more completely than others. Excellent-quality extralight malt extract is the hardest malt extract to find. I have often found that a blend of two brands of extralight are better than either alone (I have blended, for example, Briess CBW Brewers Gold and Premier Extra Light). The lightest nonpasteurized extract I have ever used was Coopers Light, and the lightest pasteurized extract was Munton & Fison Cedarex Light.
Adjust flavor profile if necessary. When stuck with “extract tang,” seek a more dominant flavor profile.
Focus on quality. If your extract or system won’t do all styles well, make the beer that your system makes best. Always focus on quality, regardless of limitations.
Circumvent budget limitations. High quality can be achieved within tight budgets by blending imported extract with domestic extract. Alternatively, infuse specialty and pale grains in the foundation water (145 °F [63 °C] for 45 min) to add character, then add extract to the kettle as usual.
Even if you must use “a Corona mill, a dog chain, and a pillow case,” stick to a commitment to the quality of the finished product. Much can be done for a relatively low investment. Add other extracts such as honey and molasses, for example, to introduce familiar flavors. Adjuncts are often used in extract brewing as a correction factor rather than as a full-mash short cut.
Consider production and labor requirements. Extracts make possible double-density brewing — boiling twice the required amount of extract in the kettle and diluting to normal levels for fermentation (10 bbl knockout = 20 bbl beer).
Extract brewing produces little to no spent grains, so less storage and waste disposal space is required. The extract brew day is 4 h, whereas the full-mash brew day is 8 h.
Evaluate costs. A malt extract system costs $ 5000–10,000 less than a full mash system and takes up less space. Where the cost of garbage removal is high and the market for spent grains is poor, extract brewing will always be viable.
Customize, innovate. Blend extracts with local products to regional flavor profile preferences. These include wheat extract, oatmeal, grits, and fruits.
Listen to consumers. Seek customer feedback and monitor sales receipts to make sure your money is where their mouth is.
A Versatile Option
Although a brewer might prefer full-mash brewing over malt extract brewing, it is a brewer’s duty to make great beer, anytime and anywhere, using any format and any system. Sometimes using malt extract is the best was to a superb beer.
In addition to their central role in all-extract breweries, extracts can be used in full mash systems to enhance the flavor range of the brewery’s products.
Malt extract’s brewing qualities have not yet been improved to the point where the full range of top-quality beers can be produced. Many extract manufacturers produce extract for the baking industry first and the brewing industry second.
In the future, freeze-dried worts and fractional crystallization (freeze concentration) technology will provide much-needed improvements to the malt extracts of today. Simpler sugars, energy savings, and longer shelf life need to be realized if malt extracts for brewing are to improve. As these qualities change, so will the stigma of mediocrity that malt extract carries among brewers.
May your next beer be your best!