1. Fresh Ingredients, Right Ingredients
This aspect is crucial and cannot be emphasized enough. Regardless of whether you’re using extract or all-grain, it’s important to prioritize fresh ingredients. Although malt extract is more processed than grain, it can still go stale. Liquid malt extract starts to go stale within a few months and darkens over time due to its higher water content. Dry malt extract has a longer shelf life but can also become stale with age.
Purchase your ingredients and use them as quickly as possible. If you’re steeping specialty grains or mini-mashing, only buy what you need for your next one or two brews, especially if they’re already milled. Avoid storing ingredients whenever feasible. However, it’s understandable that you may have leftovers. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
First and foremost, always smell and taste your fresh ingredients. Before using leftover extract, opened hops, or stored specialty grains, smell and taste them again. If something seems off, it’s better to buy new ingredients.
Dry malt extract generally has a longer shelf life than liquid malt extract.
Liquid malt extract will continue to darken as it ages.
Both dry malt extract and liquid malt extract oxidize over time. Store them in airtight containers and keep them away from light. If possible, store them in the refrigerator to slow down the aging process.
Hops should be stored in a dark, airtight bag or container in the refrigerator.
Unopened hops will last longer than those you’ve already used for brewing. Reseal open bags and use them first if they’re still good.
Cracked grain will oxidize and become stale faster than whole malt.
Additionally, when selecting ingredients, make sure they match the beer style you’re going for.
2. Use Grains
You don’t have to go all-out with all-grain brewing to take advantage of the added qualities that grains bring to a brew. Steeping grains can add color, body, and character. I would suggest using a pale malt extract as a base and adding specialty grains for depth. Don’t rely solely on darker shades of extract.
Specialty grains such as crystal, black patent, chocolate, and coffee can be used to enhance color, mouthfeel, and complexity in your extract brew.
An easy way to do this is by turning your kettle water into a large pot of tea. Use a brewing bag (you can buy inexpensive muslin or nylon bags) and put your specialty grains in it. Tie off the top and place the bag in your kettle before heating the water. Check the temperature periodically, and when it reaches 150-170°F, turn off the heat and let the grains sit for about 20 minutes. Then remove the bag and let the liquid drain for another 10 to 15 minutes by hanging the bag over the brew kettle. Avoid squeezing the bag, as this can introduce tannins that create off flavors in the beer.
3. The Boil
Disregard the boil volumes indicated in extract recipes. You want to boil the largest volume of wort possible. Ideally, you should boil the entire volume plus an additional 6-8% to account for evaporation. For a five-gallon batch, a good pre-boil volume would be at least 5.5 gallons.
Small boil volumes result in higher gravity, which reduces hop utilization, increases color pickup, and raises the likelihood of caramelization.
If you cannot boil the entire wort volume at once, consider splitting it between two or more smaller pots. Alternatively, you can boil one portion after another if you have the time. I highly recommend avoiding boiling in volumes smaller than about 2.5 gallons.
Here are a few additional tips for boiling:
Turn off the burner when adding your extract. This helps prevent clumping of dry malt extract and reduces the risk of boil over. Break up and stir the extract until no clumps remain, then carefully turn the heat back on.
A vigorous boil is desired, so avoid letting your wort simmer.
Do not fully cover your boil, as this can increase the chances of a boil over and trap volatile chemicals that should evaporate.
Boil only for the duration specified in your hop schedule. If you can shorten the boiling time to less than an hour, do so to minimize unwanted color pickup.
4. Hold Extract in Reserve
Another beneficial practice for extract brewers is to add only a portion of the extract at the beginning of the boil. This approach offers several advantages. As mentioned earlier, high gravities hinder hop utilization, so by adding less extract, you have a lower gravity during the boil. This is particularly relevant for brewers whose equipment cannot accommodate boiling the entire volume, and it also helps prevent excessive darkening of the beer’s color.
So, how much extract should you add? A good rule of thumb, although not set in stone, is to match the amount of extract with your boil volume. In other words, if you’re boiling 2.5 gallons of a 5-gallon batch, add half of your malt extract. If you’re boiling 3 gallons, add two-thirds of your extract.
5. Buy Your Hops Separately
This relates back to using fresh ingredients. I recommend avoiding malt extract that already contains added hops. Hop oils are volatile and will degrade and fade over time.
It’s always safer to purchase hops separately and add them to the boil. This gives you control over when and how much they’re added.
There’s no denying that excellent craft beer can be brewed using extract. Year after year, extract beers win awards at various brewing competitions. However, I can almost guarantee that all those winning beers were brewed following at least some of the tips mentioned above, if not all of them. If you’re new to brewing, don’t overwhelm yourself. Take it slow, prioritize top-quality fresh ingredients, focus on mastering good brewing practices, and gradually incorporate new techniques as you become more comfortable.
Cheers and happy brewing!