We home beer brewers have heard the debate since we first cornered off a section of the garage or took over the kitchen for a day, and the debate will always continue: which is better, all-grain brewing or extract brewing.
While the merits have been debated in every brewing book and across the internet, this article is not the place to choose sides. Here we’ll focus on brewing with malt extract solely, because there are differing methods and opinions among many homebrewers.
What Is Liquid Malt Extract?
Malt extract is a natural and nutritious concentrated sugar that is extracted from malted barley, and can be made into a sugary liquid or into a dry powdery form.
Liquid malt extract (LME) has a thick consistency like molasses, where the dry malt extract (DME) looks like powdered sugar.
Malt extract is commonly used by homebrewers who want to save time when brewing beer. Later on in the fermentation process, the healthy yeast will be feeding off of the sugars in the wort, which will make alcohol.
Aside from brewing beer, bakers use it for its flavor, proteins, dough conditioning enzymes, mineral salts and other nutritious materials that help promote strong yeast activity, and healthy yeast activity is very important in the creation of beer.
How Is Malt Extract Made?
When using whole-grain barley to make malt extract, the barley is ground and mixed with water, then germinated, and then it is dried. Under a controlled heat, the natural enzymes in the grain convert starches into fermentable sugars. This is known as “mash”, which is filtered to remove insoluble fiber, and then clarified further by a whirl-pooling process.
What remains after is a sweet liquid wort, which is then fermented to make beer. Under a combination of heat and vacuum, the wort is then evaporated until it I nearly solid. This makes a concentrated, viscous, stable, sweet, and flavorful malt extract.
The Different Types Of Malt Extract
There are three different types of malt extract:
- Liquid malt extract (LME)
- Dry malt extract (DME)
- Hopped malt extract (HME)
Liquid Malt Extract
This is the standard (and easiest) method of making the extract. A typical mash is conducted and then the wort is dehydrated down to about 20 percent water. LME has a shelf life of about two years in proper conditions (a cool and dry space) although it tends to degrade over time.
Dry Malt Extract
DME is created the same way as LME initially, but then goes through an additional dehydration step. This takes it from 20 percent water down to 2 percent. This is basically in powder form.
When stored properly it lasts much longer than LME, although once it is exposed to air, especially in humid environments, the powder starts to clump which can make it more difficult to use.
Hopped Malt Extract
As you can imagine, HME is a malt extract with added hops. While the process to make HME is a bit more difficult, there are a few beer ingredient kits that include this type of malt extract in their recipes.
If you are looking to buy some HME to experiment with, most beer supply retail stores should be able to help you. This can reduce your home brewing time considerably.
Is one method preferable over the others for better extract brewing? Not necessarily; the method you choose depends on your storage setup and in the case of already hopped malt extract, how hoppy you want your finished beer to be. All methods, when utilized correctly, can create delicious beer, no matter what type of malt you choose to use.
What Is Malt Extract Good For?
The main benefit of malt extract is that it simplifies the process for you when making your beer. Mashing grains takes great care and requires constant control of temperature and volume.
An added benefit: malt extract can be actually be good for your health! It is dense in nutrients, containing essential vitamins and amino acids. It can improve your mood as malt contains hordenine which activates dopamine receptors in your brain. It reduces anti nutrients which improves the digestibility of protein.
It is also good for digestion as it improves the health of probiotics in your stomach, and can improve your heart by regulating cholesterol levels and reducing belly fat.
HOWEVER, we all know that too much beer is not healthy and undermines any of the positive health benefits mentioned above. Drinking beer in moderation is always recommended.
What Does Malt Extract Taste Like?
The taste of barley malt extract is generally sweet and nutty. Many people have compared it to caramel, coffee, toast, or raisins. Other items that are malt forward include malt scotch, malt whisky, malted milk shakes, and the candy Whoppers (a.k.a. malted milk balls).
The Different Types of Malt Extracts
Dry malt extracts come in a few different flavors:
- Dark – best for porters, stouts, and any black beer
- Amber – for dark and sweet beers
- Wheat – For blondes, wheat beers, and as an additional ingredient to make a hybrid flavor
- Light – for pilsners and pale ales
- Extra light – for very pale beers, such as lagers
The light style is generally used as a base in most extract beer styles.
Liquid malt extracts have an expanded palette:
- Extra Light
- Vienna or Munich – perfect for many German styles of beer
- Rye – for specific rye beers
- Sorghum – for gluten free beers
What Can You Use As A Substitute For Malt Extract?
Some people find the malt flavor too strong. Other people are gluten free (yes, barley contains gluten). With that in mind there are a few options to replace barley malt extract:
- Corn Syrup
- Rice Syrup
- Brown Sugar
Keep in mind that these items will certainly affect the flavor profile of your beer, and will also require tinkering with the process. Consult an expert if you want to use any of these possible substitutions.
Is Malt Extract Gluten Free?
Unfortunately, malt extract is not gluten free. Barley is not gluten free and the gluten is not removed during the mashing and dehydration process. When you see “malt” on the label of a product, you can pretty much assume that it contains gluten.
So if you have celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, beer made with barley malt extract should be avoided.
Tips For Better Beer Brewing With Malt Extract
Here are a few tips for better extract brewing when using malt extract.
Stir, Stir, Stir
When adding the malt extract keep stirring. It might be difficult (after all, you only have two hands) but frequent stirring will benefit your beer in the end. Extract is heavier than water so without stirring it is likely to sink to the bottom, burn the malt, and scorch the pan. This is especially true with DMEs as it tends to clump and if that clump isn’t broken up, it will sink to the bottom and stick to your pan.
Consider a Partial Boil
Most recipes call for 60 minutes of boiling, but you can do a partial boil instead of a full-volume boil to save time, especially if you are using a beer ingredient kit.
A partial boil takes less time to come up to heat and allows you to use a smaller brew pot. But a full-volume boil makes for more efficient hop extraction plus you will be less likely to darken your wort.
Get That Wort Cooled Down Quick
Get that boiling wort cooled down to yeast pitching temperature as quick as possible to avoid contamination. If possible, try to get a wort chiller, but if you don’t have have a chiller in your homebrewing equipment, you can use your sink filled with lots of ice and water while stirring the ice water one direction, while stirring the wort in the other direction.
You will have to keep changing the water every five minutes, or when the ice melts and the water starts getting warm.
No, don’t blindly throw your ingredients in your pot and make it up as you go along. Like any chef, start with the recipe but as you get more confident in your brewing skills, step away from the recipe and start adjusting to your taste.
More hops? Why not? Added fruit flavors? Sure! It’s your brew… make it yours.
Setting aside the malt brewing vs. all-grain brewing debate, there is no shame brewing with extract, and it’s clear that delicious beer can be made across the flavor spectrum by using malt extract.
Although the process is slightly different depending on whether you use liquid, dry, or hopped malt extract, the end result is not tremendously different from the all-grain method. If care is taken during the mashing and dehydration steps, the end product will be delicious beer tailored to the profile you want.