Extract Vs. All Grain - An Unbiased Look

Methods for homebrewing beer typically fall underneath one of two styles, Extract or All-Grain. Whether you are a new brewer choosing the path you’ll take, or an experienced one entertaining a change of pace, we’ll look at both methods with an unbiased approach to help you determine which format fits you best. We'll look at three wort preparation setups. Brew-in-a-Bag (BIAB), which is a single vessel all grain approach. The other two methods are extract brewing and a full-sized (3 vessel) all grain system.

What is Extract? And What is All Grain?

Beer is made from grain, water, yeast, and hops. The difference between all grain and extract brewing lies in how the the sugars are acquired in the brewing process. All grain brewing is the traditional method of making beer and used by just about all professional breweries. The brewer takes crushed malted grains and mashes them to convert starches into fermentable sugar. In the extract process, this work has already been done and the sugars concentrated into a syrup or dry powder format. Malting companies produce the extract that allows homebrewers to skip the conversion process when brewing beer at home. This removes the need for a mash or handling of 10-12 lbs of malted grain. The extract format essentially allows the brewer to start a step ahead of the all grain format. Where an all grain format requires equipment to mash the grains, the extract format only requires the addition of the extract to water to achieve the wort. Nearly all homebrewers make their first beer using the extract format because of it's relative simplicity. There’s a lot of debate between the two formats of brewing and the advantages or disadvantages of each, but keep in mind both methods have produced award winning beer and there’s no right answer, just what’s right for you. Now let’s begin.

Start-up Cost of Extract and All Grain Brewing (Hot Side)

Assuming you have no equipment and want to make 3-5 gallon full boil batches, let’s look at the minimum startup cost for both. We’ll only look at hot side equipment for this, which is the equipment needed before it goes into the fermenter (cold side).

All Grain BIAB All Grain 3 Vessel Extract
7.5 Gallon Kettle $70 Ported 7.5 gallon kettle to serve as an HLT $200 7.5 Gallon Kettle $70
50,000 BTU Burner $55 Mash Tun with a BIAB bag or false bottom $140 50,000 BTU Burner $55
Large BIAB Bag $9 7.5 Gallon Boil Kettle 70$ Large Spoon (For stirring in extract) $8
Large Spoon (For stirring mash) $8 2X 50,000 BTU Burner(one for HLT, one for Kettle) $110  
  Large Spoon (For stirring mash) $8  
  3 Tier Brew Stand (price will vary widely)  
Total: $142 Total: $528 + Cost of Brew Stand Total: $133

The bottom line prices show that the hot-side startup costs for BIAB all grain brewing and extract brewing are very similar, with a 3 tier all grain setup costing significantly more. Cold side equipment will cost the same for all three setups. Now let’s look at the cost of a batch. A standard 3 vessel brewstand for all grain brewing. Brew in a Bag (BIAB) only uses one vessel.

The Per Batch Cost of All Grain and Extract Brewing

Extract is the most expensive malt ingredient available to a brewer. Let’s compare the cost between liquid extract, dry extract, and an all grain batch. For this comparison, we’ll use a simple base recipe to reach 1.060 gravity points. For all grain we’ll assume 75% efficiency Note: It’s very possible to have efficiencies into the mid eighties, but 75 serves as a nice middle ground). I won’t include the hops, as those will be the same throughout.

All Grain Liquid Extract Dry Extract
10 Pounds Pale Ale Malt at $1.45 per pound 8 Pounds Light Liquid Extract at $11.95 per 3.3 pounds (must buy 3 cans) 6.6 Pounds of Dry Malt Extract at $4.95 per pound (must buy 7 pounds)
0.8 Pounds of crystal 20 at $1.65 per pound (must buy 1 pound) ... ...
$16.15 grain cost / 5 gallons $37.50 cost / 5 gallons $36.30 cost / 5 gallons

A big win for the all grain format is the ingredient cost. Many established homebrewers are well familiar with the cost of dry and liquid extracts being significantly more expensive for than a comparable amounts of grain. With the extract formats, you may be able to save some small leftover extract not required for the current batch for another recipe in the future, but this is a difficult and messy task. Don’t forget that you must add hops and yeast to that price, so an IPA even with dry yeast can end up costing an extract brewer 50$, and an all grain brewer just 30$. Using these numbers, It would take one batch to cover the cost difference of BIAB equipment over extract (8$). However, if you were to use a small 3 vessel system, it would take 20 batches to cover the cost difference between an extract system (not including the cost of a brewstand, which could require 10+ more batches). So if you’d like to “save money” by homebrewing, a modest BIAB system off the bat is the ideal option. The next consideration is the length your brewday.

The Length of Your Brew Day (To the End of the Boil)

An extract batch takes much less time than an all-grain batch. So if you have a newborn in the family, a shorter brew day could be the difference between brewing and not brewing at all, so time is always something to consider with your situation. Let’s look at the times for each.

All Grain BIAB All Grain 3 Vessel Extract
Heat Mash Water - 20 minutes Heat Mash Water - 20 minutes Heat Water -30 Minutes
Mash in - 60 Minutes Mash in - 60 Minutes Dissolve portion of extract with steeping grains - 15 Minutes
Mashout - 10 Minutes Batch Sparge - 30 Minutes Bring to boil - 10 Minutes
Raise wort to boil while grain bag drains - 10 Minutes Raise Wort to Boil - 10 Minutes Boil 60 Minutes
Boil 60 Minutes Boil 60 Minutes Dissolve Rest of extract - 5 Minutes
~2 Hours 45 Minutes ~3 Hours 15 Minutes ~2 Hours

These times are of course estimates, but the fact that there is no mash or sparge of any kind with extract brewing saves you at least an hour. Once all said and done, on a good day, an extract batch can be finished and cleaned up in just a few hours. All grain batches will take around four to four-and-a-half hours when all said and done. The best thing to do is evaluate your options, choose the best setup for you, and start making some awesome beer.

Final Considerations

One last thing to consider is the ability to create and design recipes. Extract can be limited by the type of base extract available. When brewing all grain, there are many methods and styles of mashing that can take the exact same ingredients and produce widely different final beers. Color (SRM), body, and mouthfeel are all examples of where all grain allows full control, while extract formats are limited to the style of the extract they use. The Decision is Yours to Brew How You Want. Just Remember These Few Things: 1. Over a longer period of time, extract batches will cost you a lot more. 2. Take into account the time you can allot yourself to a brew day. 3. Lastly, brew what you want, how you want to brew it.

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