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My Journey into Extracts

and Lessons Learnt

by Éamon Poplin
Manager, Modern Homebrew Emporium

Most of us start out using kits and extracts when we first venture into the world of homebrewing, and it makes perfect sense to do so. The process is simpler than all-grain, and certainly the upfront investment in equipment is far less expensive than a seven gallon kettle and a mash tun setup would be.

I’ve been an active homebrewer for about eight years now, and until quite recently, I’d never brewed with extracts. The reason was simple. My old brewing buddy I had learnt brewing from had a three-keggle setup, so all-grain was the only way I knew. When I moved to Massachusetts from the Denver, Colorado area in 2013, I had to leave all my gear behind. Three months after I got here, I had a system put together and simply resumed brewing all-grain.

Some of you may know that I was the victim of an apartment fire not long after New Year’s, and not only did I lose four current fermentations, I lost virtually every bit of brewing hardware I had. Since then I’ve had to depend on the kindness of friends with a spare couch or room, it made no sense to start taking up their space with another all-grain system, so I had two choices—stop brewing until I had new, permanent digs, or scale down and learn extract brewing. Naturally, I chose the latter.

On its face, it didn’t seem too difficult, but what I found was that brewing with extracts presented an entire new set of challenges that I hadn’t considered before. So, what follows are some of the lessons I learnt that I hope will serve to help you in your extract brews, as well as to encourage those of you who brew all-grain to give extracts a go.

  • Add some base malt to your steeping grains. Extracts, either dry or liquid, are made from wort that’s been concentrated. That concentration process will remove some of the volatiles that existed in the original wort. Extracts are also non-diastatic—they lack any enzymes to convert starches into sugars. For some specialty grains, that isn’t a problem, but adding some base grain to your specialty grains can give the fermentability of your overall grain bill a big boost. For every pound of base grain I add, I subtract about half a pound of DME, or three-quarters of a pound of LME.
  • One of my first observations about using extracts was that my beers finished darker than I was used to. For my stouts and porters, this really wasn’t a bother, but my pale ales, IPAs, and my Irish Red finished far too dark. I solved that problem by using a larger pot (about four gallons), so that the wort wasn’t as concentrated.
  • I also developed a technique to add my extracts in two stages. When my ‘grain tea,’ as I called the water I’d been steeping in came to a boil, I added half my extract, and I made certain to remove the kettle from the stove until the extract was fully dissolved into solution. This did two things. First, it kept the extracts from getting too concentrated during the boil, and second, it prevented any extract from caramelizing on the bottom of the kettle. I make the second extract addition 15 minutes before the boil ends, along with any other additional sugars, like Belgian Candi. They only need those last 15 minutes to sterilize.
  • I have also become fond of adding Belgian Candi to almost every brew I make that uses extracts. This has given me beers that are consistently drier and lighter than they had been when I was using extract exclusively. Although my beers fermented well, they always tasted sweeter, because of the concentrated wort that made up the extract. Adding sugar added fermentables to the wort that weren’t malt-based, so the resulting beer tasted drier, even though the finishing gravity values were virtually identical.

Some things haven’t changed:

  • Cleaning and sanitizing. I admit I’m a bit of a nut about this, but on the other hand, most of what can go wrong with home fermentations can be linked directly to improper cleaning and sanitizing. Everything that touches my wort will have had a good soak in Star San, and everything at the end of a brewday will be cleaned with PBW.
  • I always make a yeast starter, and I always rehydrate my dry yeast, using Go-Ferm®.
  • Wort Chiller. Not only does a wort chiller reduce the post-boil time significantly (20 minutes, as compared to hours using an ice/water bath), but the faster you can chill your wort to pitching temperatures, the greater the amount of cold-break material you can settle out, and the clearer your beer will be.

The fire was nothing I want to go through again, but on the other hand, it’s been a blessing in that I’ve been able to expand my brewing skills, and therefore not only make great beer with extracts, but I can pass on these skills to my customers. I have shorter brew days as a result, and a lot less cleanup. I’ll have an all-grain setup again at some point, and I’ll be glad to get back to it. But on the other hand, no longer will I say to myself, ‘Self? I’d love to brew today, but I don’t have the time for it.’ I know now that I can brew excellent beers using extracts, and that means that you can, too!