As an intermediate to advanced brewer, I probably brew with malt extract more than most other brewers of a similar level of experience. A lot of it has to do with the limitations of brewing on an electric stove inside a one-bedroom apartment. The only all-grain, full boil batches I brew are with my cousin/brewing partner Andy every couple of months. At home I can brew one or two gallon all-grain batches on my stove top using the brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) method. For my full, five gallon batches I brew at home I typically use a partial-mash method where I mash about one-half to two-thirds of my fermentable sugars, and top off with malt-extract and/or other sugars to make sure I have enough fermentable sugars for the yeast to convert into alcohol.
Like most brewers I started brewing with malt extract. Extract can come in dry or liquid form. There are pros and cons to liquid as opposed to dry extract that could be it’s own post. The biggest benefit to dry extract is that it is easier to use in small quantities. If I have a one pound bag of dry extract, but I only need 8 ounces, I can measure out what I need, tightly roll up its plastic bag, and easily save the rest for later. With liquid extract oxidation is more of a concern after you open the can or bottle it comes in.
Both are made roughly the same way. A maltster will mash grains to make a wort, just like an all-grain brewer would, but then the malt house will then reduce the wort into liquid extract syrup or evaporate it into dry extract. Extract brewing is roughly similar to making your own tomato sauce at home, but using canned tomato sauce as a base instead of peeling and mashing fresh tomatoes.
The great thing about extract is that it is the easiest way to brew. You do not need to buy large amounts of grain. Since the maltster has already done the work of mashing the grain, you do not need to buy or build a mash tun and other equipment required to brew all-grain at home. You also cut the time of your brew-day in half by not having to do a mash rest. Extract is a great way for a beginner or somebody who is intimidated by all-grain brewing to get started.
Extract will also have all the nutrients and salts the yeast will need for a healthy fermentation. The minerals from the maltsters source water are still in the extract. The only adjustment you need to make to your brewing water when brewing with extract is make sure the water is free of chlorine.
You can make excellent, even award winning beer with extract, but it does have it’s limitations. There are far more varieties of grain than there are extract. It would be almost impossible to brew a Vienna Lager with a base of Vienna Malt because there is not a Vienna Malt extract available that I am aware of. When mashing your own grains you also have more control of the body of the beer. If mashed at a lower temperature the beer will be lighter-bodied with a more fermentable wort, or if the mash temperature is higher the beer will be fuller bodied.
The ingredients for all-grain brewing are less expensive than buying malt-extract. Once you make the initial investment into buying and or building equipment for all-grain brewing, you will be paying less on ingredients per batch.
There are limitations to how light an extract beer can be. The process of making the extract naturally makes it darker. I brewed the extract version of Pa’s Video Board Lager with only pilsen malt extract; the lightest malt extract available. The extract beer was noticably darker than the all-grain version. The difference is purely cosmetic, but if you brew a witbier with extract don’t be disappointed when it isn’t exactly white.
This topic came to mind in the past couple of weeks as I started working on a recipe for a Northern English Brown Ale. I could do my regular partial mash, but I have a lot of things going on this summer and a quicker brewday is appealing. The less time I have the stove going during the summer is also better. I am confident this beer will come out excellent either way. I will probably decide when I go to the homebrew shop this weekend.