We home brewers are passionate about making that perfect beer. We all have strong opinions on what type of beer to brew, which style we think is best, and which ingredients create the best taste and flavor profile.
Beer lovers can argue whether a porter, ale, bock, stout or lager is the best, and home brewers have been crafting their own versions for decades. But when it comes to one key element of the process, all home brewers fall into two camps: extract vs all grain brewing.
Which makes the best tasting beer?
There are arguments for either method, and I am here to break down the differences between the two brewing methods, so you can see which one will work better for you.
Table of Contents
Malt Extract Brewing vs All-Grain Brewing: What's The Difference?
To understand the difference between extract vs all grain brewing you need to first understand that the same simple components are used in both. Beer is basically made up of four ingredients: grain, hops, water and yeast. Malted grains are crushed, then mashed, and through this process the starch is converted into fermentable sugar. The liquid created in this process is known as wort.
The difference between the two brewing processes is how the sugars are acquired. How is malt extract made? Others do the work of crushing and mashing the grains so you do not have to worry about that step. The sugars are concentrated into a dry powder or syrup, and this can be purchased by home brewers, thereby skipping a step in the process.
But many prefer to mash the grains themselves. This process requires the special equipment to mash the grains. All grain brewing is used by almost all professional breweries as it allows them to control the ingredients much more easily. Most home brewers start by using the extract as it simplifies the process a bit.
Both methods produce delicious beer. You just have to figure out which is the right method for your home brewing process.
Is There A Taste Difference Between Extract And All Grain Brewing?
This debate has been ongoing since the first home brewer set up shop in his shed or house back during the prohibition era.
Some claim there isn’t a difference, while others believe it is noticeable and that all-grain brewing makes for better tasting beer. The jury is still out.
This group did a blind test and overwhelmingly preferred the all grain beer. In another experiment 57% of tasters preferred the extract. Others have claimed that in a blind taste test most people are unable to determine which tastes better.
What Is Malt Extract?
The extract taken from malt is a whole grain sweetener that is all natural and nutritious. That’s right, beer can be good for your health! In moderate doses, of course, don’t get carried away.
But how is malt extract made? It comes from malted barley, which is ground and then mixed with water and a heat source. This makes the starches turn into a fermentable sugar in the mash due to the mixing under a controlled heat.
Here is how it happens:
- A large mash tun is filled with water and heated.
- The grains are milled and then sent in for mashing.
- Mashing creates fermentable sugar by breaking down the grain’s components.
- The wort (liquid) is filtered to remove grain sediment, and the wort then moves to a holding tank.
- The wort then goes to an evaporator where much of the water content is removed. What remains is the extract.
- The extract goes through a centrifuge to remove more water, leaving a powdery substance.
The Difference Between LME & DME
Now we are getting into the tiny but important details that may make a difference in your brewing process. LME is Liquid Malt Extract and DME is Dry Malt Extract.
Here is a little more information that may be helpful in determining what is the best malt extract for brewing beer.
- Dehydrated to about 20% water
- More flavorful
- Easier to dissolve in boiling temperatures
- Less expensive
- Dehydrated to 2% water
- More consistency in color
- Lasts longer on the shelf so less risk of it going bad between batches
The Pros Of Using Malt Extract
Those who have personally tried the extract vs all grain brewing experiments say there are definite advantages to using the extract:
1) It’s A Whole Lot Faster
You don’t need to wait hours for the mash, just mix the water with the extract and you are ready to boil, and the boiling only takes about 1 hour and you are done.
2) It’s Easier
By skipping the mashing process you don’t need to worry about temperature and pH.
3) It’s cheaper
This process requires less equipment as you will not need a separate mash tun. You can also get by with a smaller kettle.
4) You Can Still Control the Flavor (To a Degree)
This process still allows for the addition of honey, chocolate and coffee flavors. You can still tweak the acidity, adjust the color, and alter the level of bitterness when using extracts.
The Cons Of Using Malt Extract
Of course, there are also two main drawbacks to this process:
1) More Expensive Ingredients
You will pay more for malt and hops.
2) More Difficult Brew And Customize Specific Beers
When using a beer ingredient kit that includes liquid malt extract, you are limited on customizing the recipe to you personal taste and flavor profile.
3) It Might Not Be As Fun
For some home-brewers, the all-grain method is much more relaxing and enjoyable to them, and brewing with extract instead of all-grain doesn’t give them complete satisfaction with their finished beer.
What Is All-Grain Brewing?
The main difference between all grain brewing and using a malt extract is that you will be doing much more time consuming work with all grain brewing instead of purchasing an extract.
This is sort of like making an apple pie by making the crust from scratch rather than buying a pre-made crust. If you do the work correctly and take your time, doing it yourself can make your product better.
While the final product may be better with all grain brewing, you may want to consider all the pros and cons before deciding which malt extract for brewing beer is right for you.
The Pros Of All-Grain Brewing
1) You Have Much More Creative Control
By selecting and processing the ingredients yourself, you have more control over the taste, color and complexity of your finished beer.
2) You Will Save Money
The ingredients on their own are cheaper than purchasing the extract, provided that you follow through and continue to brew the all-grain method. Naturally, throwing out unused materials is not cost effective.
3) Feeling Like You Accomplished More
There seems to be a bit more satisfaction when you finally make your first batch of beer with all-grain brewing. Many amateur brewers really feel like they took the next step towards advanced home-brewing.
The Cons Of All-Grain Brewing
1) You Need More Equipment
You will need a mash tun, a lauter turn, a larger and probably more expensive boiling kettle, and a hot liquor tank. You may want a sparge arm, a pump, and you may find your stove is too small and you will want to use a propane burner.
And of course, all of these additional items mean…
2) You Need More Space
Even the supplies needed in both methods of brewing are bigger when dealing with all grain. With extract you would only need a five gallon pot to produce five gallons of beer, but for an all-grain batch of the same size you will need an eight gallon pot to account for the water that will evaporate or boil off.
In fact, many 5 gallon ingredient kits start with boiling only 2-1/2 gallons of water, and then adding the rest when you transfer the wort to the primary fermentation bucket or carboy.
If you find you are maximizing your space already while using extracts, you may want to pass on all-grain brewing unless you are good at organizing your work space.
3) You Need More Time
It takes significantly longer to go the all grain method. Generally, an extract brew will take three to four hours to complete but an all-grain batch might take five to eight hours from start to finish.
In addition to the longer prep and boil time, you have more equipment to clean up. However, most home brewers enjoy the process and don’t mind the extra time. But if time is a premium for you, then this may not be your method of choice.
What Is The Overall Benefit Of Using One Method Over The Other?
In general, extract brewing is easier to make, takes up less space, is a much quicker process, and if you are a sporadic brewer, then it is usually cheaper.
The overall benefits of utilizing the all grain brewing method is you have more control over your flavor profile and the quality of beer is negligibly higher. Also, if you brew frequently then the investment in more equipment and the raw materials will pay off in less than a year.
As I know through my experience meeting home brewers (and drinking the malt of their labor) each process when well attended can produce excellent and delicious beer.
Many home-brewers have the mindset that using extract with a beer ingredient kit, is somehow cutting corners and not making real beer. I
know many advanced homebrewers that used extract the first time, went to all-grain the next, and then went back to brewing nothing but extract and a kit.
However, it is clear that those who have the time, the space, the patience, the discipline, and the desire, the all grain brewing method works better for consistently delivering higher quality beer and if you brew beer consistently, this is definitely the less expensive option.
Try both and see what you think. You really can’t go wrong with either method.
P.S. A way to move to all-grain brewing is by using the “Brew-In-A-Bag” method. BIAB is a simple way to move from extract to all-grain, while saving money on equipment and saving time as well.
Check out our BIAB article here.