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Malt extract offers excellent quality and versatility and is perfect in some setting. So how did it get a bad rap?
By Michael Mandelbaum as published in the September - October issue of "The New Brewer" Magazine for Micro and Pub Brewers

Just about any product we use today has been processed in one way or another. We accept that fact because the people who are doing the processing - whether they're pasteurizing milk, weaving fabrics, or turning cows into steaks - do what they do better than we could. They have more know-how. And experience. And equipment. They do it less expensively than we could, more consistently and better.

Brewers, too, have traditionally depended on others to produce the ingredients and equipment they need to make beer. Though there was time when individual brewers grew their own grain, cultivated their own yeast, pumped their own water, and stoked their own stoves, that degree of self-sufficiency isn't possible today, and if it were, it wouldn't make good business sense. Brewers buy their grain, yeast, water and energy from specialists who produce such things better and less expensively. This gives brewers time to brew beer, which their suppliers and others buy from them.

Doesn't it make equal sense to brew with extract? "There's no doubt in my mind that brewers can make some great commercial beers using malt extract," said Mike O'Brien, marketing director of the Michigan-based Pico Brewing Systems. "Most brewers refuse to believe it, but their disbelief is an intolerance not based on science."

That brewing with extract has an image problem is no news to the brewing industry. Whether that image is warranted, however, is another issue. "There's a sort of "instant-coffee-versus-home-ground-coffee" mentality," O'Brien said about using malt extract. "But that mentality is based on half-truths and innuendo. It certainly doesn't hold true with the new methods of extract production."

Basically, there arc five reasons why brewing with extract makes sense:

  • extract producers invest in the best technology and quality control;
  • the wide variety of extracts makes production of specialty brews easy, economical and consistent;
  • extract brewing saves space, solves spent grain disposal headaches, and eliminates the need for expensive equipment purchases and upkeep;
  • exotic, imported extracts are instantly available without the inconvenience and problems associated with importing whole grain; and
  • with care, extract brewing means no bad batches, no equipment downtime, and the insurance of quick-wort matches in emergency situations.

With such obvious advantages attendant to extract brewing, what, then is the reason for the apparent preference among some brewers for full mashing at all times?

The prejudice seems to go back to the Prohibition Era. Since no beer production was allowed, farmers had no justifiable reason for growing malting barley (as opposed to feed barley), and quality malting barley essentially disappeared. The left bootleggers no alternative but to do what they did best: Improvise. Since the feed barley was being mashed to produce desizing syrup for the cotton industry, it was a simple matter for the bootleggers to mash it a second time to produce the wort for malt syrup. The remashing, however, along with the use of feed barley that has a smaller kernel size, increased the likelihood the wort would retain some hull taste.

Add in all the other challenges bootleggers faced - scarcity of hops, inferior yeast, make shift equipment and the accelerated brewing cycles necessitated by the constant threat of being found out by federal agents - and it is no wonder that the primary goal of producing alcohol overshadowed the desire to produce medal-winning brews.

But that was then and this is now, and extracts have some a long, long way. Producing extract has become as much a science as an art, and manufacturers who make extract produce consistent, high-quality extract. Specially trained experts maintain quality control through each stage of production. Not only is the grain itself of high quality and consistency, but checks and tests arc conducted at every stage in the extracting process. Every mash is controlled for time an temperature to achieve the optimum yield from the grain.

What does that mean to the owner of a brewpub or microbrewery? In addition to quality and consistency advantages, there's yet another compelling reason for brewing with extract: lower labor costs than full-mash brewing. What might take a brewer eight or ten hours on a full-mash system takes about four hours using extract. "A full-mash operation would put about 16 hours on our work week," said Jeff Snelles, head brewer for the Shannon Pub, in Rochester, N.Y., which produces about 350 barrels a year using extract.

Dean Wiltse, owner of Wiltse Brewery in Oscoda, Mich., believes that the economies of extract brewing are extremely attractive for small breweries - especially those being added to existing bars or restaurants. An extract system allows a small staff to focus on both brewing and food.

"A brewpub's primary interest is food," Wiltse said. "You need to be able to make good beer, you just can't devote too much time to it.

"Using extract, you can brew in half the time and with half the equipment - which is perfect for many small operations. Why would a guy want to put in a full-mash system if he knows he's probably only going to be brewing 200 barrels a year?"

When he opened in 1994, Wiltse opted for an extract system on which he brewed a wheat beer, pilsner and Paul Bunyon ale using extract augmented with grain. He wasn't the least bit concerned with the "snobbery" associated with full-mash brewing. "What Americans are finding out is that quality and freshness are what's important," he said.

When volume of production grew significantly, however, and he needed to expand, he went with a full-mash system. "Because of the cost of brewing more beer and because of customers' intrigue with grains," he said. "When we got to a certain volume - 200 barrels - it made more sense to go with grain, although economically, it wouldn't if that meant you had to hire a brewmaster.

Besides labor, storage and disposal are also minimized with extract. The hundreds of square feet of storage space typically needed to store grain sacks is reduced to five or ten feet of shelf space when extract replaces the grain. There are also the auxiliary concerns associated with the use of bulk grains including spoilage, inferior product quality, delivery glitches, cleanup, pest control and health issues. And while it often takes a lot of labor and luck to dispose of thousands of pounds of spent, wet grain, the empty extract containers can be tossed into the recycling bin.

There can be no argument, however, that the prejudice against extract brewing persists. But why? "One reason may be that because malt extract comes in a can, some people do not take the same care in safeguarding its freshness that they do with their grains," said O'Brien. "Naturally, as it would with older grains, the resulting beer would suffer. The misconception would grow as to the poor quality of extract beers."

Control is an issue often mentioned by brewers when asked why they prefer using a full-mash system of extract. By being able to control the mashing process, the argument goes, a brewer is better able to control the characteristics of the wort. Yet even the most avid full-mash brewers wouldn't dram of malting their own barley; they realize maltsters do it better because of their expertise an specially designed equipment. And what happens when control over a full-mash batch of beer fails, and the brew goes down the drain instead of into bottles? Such a problem rarely occurs when every step of the extract process in controlled by the extract producer. And given the consistency of the extract itself, reproducing a great beer is more achievable than attempting to recreate a fell-mash beer, given the variation in weighing and evaluating grains.

Does extract brewing diminish the artistry involved in producing a unique brew?

Nothing could be farther from the truth. There's nothing to stop a creative brewer from exerting as much or as little control over his or her final product as in a full-mash brew. It's completely possible- and desirable - to create brews with individual profiles through using different blends of extracts. Depending on the capabilities of the brewing system, it is also possible to produce even more unique characteristics by supplementing the wort with grains such as black, chocolate and Munich malts and roasted barley. There are also all of the infinite variations possible through control of hop types and the hopping rate, yeast, carmelization and fermentation times and temperatures.

In addition, a brewer can make use of adjunct to further fine-tune other qualities of the brew. Glucose, dextrose, maltodextrin, barley syrup and rice syrup are some of the possibilities.

In fact, rather than limiting versatility and creativity, the use of extracts enhances a brewer's ability to add the personal touches that make fine, unique brews. "And putting some grain in with the extract gives you even more 'from scratch' taste," said Shannon Pub's Jeff Snelles. "We use roasted barley for out stout and that works pretty well."

But can a brewer make a quality beer from extract? James Spence of the American Homebrewers Association in Boulder, Colo., is convinced that the taste distinction between the two brewing methods is illusory. "All things being equal, brews produced from full mash and those from malt extract are virtually indistinguishable," he said.

Dean Wiltse agrees; "I would have put my extract brews against 70 percent of beers made with all-grain," he said. "In a survey of 800 customers, 96 percent listed total satisfaction with my beers. Beers made with extract can be every bit as good as beers made exclusively with grain."

Pacific Coast Brewing Co.'s many wins at the Great American Beer Festival attest to that fact. The Oakland, Calif brewery has been brewing with extract since it opened in 1988. Since then, its beers have won more than a dozen GABF medals including a silver in the Scottish Ale category at the Great American Beer Festival in 1989. Last October (1995), Pacific Coast took a GABF silver in the India Pale Ale Category and a gold for its Belgian Triple. All are made using extract.

Another GABF award winner in 1995 was the Cottonwood Grill and Brewery in Boons, N.C., which took home a bronze medal in Belgian-Style Specialty Ales. Head brewer Kinney Baughman says when he started homebrewing in 1980, he was disappointed with the quality of the extracts on the market. "I went to all-grain, and it wasn't until five or six year later that I began experimenting with extracts again. I was amazed at the improved quality of the extracts on the market at that time." Today, all of Cottonwood's brews have an extract base, although Baughman mixes in some specialty grain for all his brews.

And Baughman has continued to win awards. At the 1996 World Beer Championships, Cottonwood brought home three bronze medals, being recognized for its Flemish Brown Ale, Flemish Brown Framboise, and Abbey Ale.

"What the extract debate boils down to is this - the end must justify the mans," O'Brien concluded. "Full-mash brewing is half art and half science, and there's a lot of risk and a multitude of variables involved in producing a great beer. By relying on the technology and experience of the high quality malt extract producers, brewers can assure themselves of a more consistent product, while reserving the right to hone their artistry with other facets of the brewing process."

Award-Winning Honey Gold Ale
Cottonwood Brewing Company

Yields 4 bbls

  • 140 lbs Light Malt Extract
  • 14 lbs. 10 SRM Crystal Malt
  • 24 lbs. honey
Kettle Hops:
  • 7 oz. Cascades
  • 8 oz. Perles
  • 16 oz. Mt. Hood
  • 5 oz. Tettnangers
Finishing hops in hop back:
  • 8 oz. Cascades
  • 8 oz. Perles
  • 16 oz. Mt. Hood
  • Wyeast London Ale No. 1028 or
  • Lallemand's Nottingham dry yeast

1. Mix honey 50/50 with water and heat to 178 degrees F (78 degrees C). Hold the honey water mixture at this temperature for at least an hour or two so as to approach, if not achieve, pasteurization of the honey without sacrificing its subtle aromatic components.

2. Grind the crystal malt and steep in kettle. Remove when the water reaches 170 to 180 degrees F (77 to 82 degrees C). Sparge grains until 10 to 15 gallons of wort have been collected. Add wort to kettle.

3. To aid in the mixing of the malt extract with the boiling water premix it 50/50 with boiling water. This prevents the concentrated malt extract from descending to the bottom of the kettle in a glob where it would caramelize.

4. Once the water comes to a boil, add the premixed malt extract and let it boil for 10 minutes. Add the kettle hops. After 30 minutes add 3/4 cups rehydrated Irish Moss.

5. End boil 30 minutes after adding the Irish Moss an stir honey into the wort.

The honey adds a residual sweetness to this beer making it one of our most popular offerings in the summer.

Brewer's note: Although the Honey Gold recipe calls for a hop back, we hold off on our hop back hops with this brew in an effort to accentuate the honey character. I would guess that most breweries could use this recipe without a hop back to good affect.

Also note that we have a hop back on each of the four lines that come from our kettle. We are a 4 bbl brewery, and fill four 1 bbl fermenters simultaneously during the chill.


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