The First Time Homebrewer: Extract or All-Grain?

I'm off to today to the American Homebrew Association conference in Minneapolis, and that seems like a perfect excuse to launch a week or so of homebrew blogging. (As if an excuse is needed.) Let's start the discussion with an age-old dilemma: if you're looking to get into the hobby, should you start with extract brewing or all-grain?

Most of the homebrewing world is geared to introduce newbies to homebrewing by a method called “extract brewing.” I'm an unusual partisan here: I have absolutely no problem with extract brewing as a method of making beer. With the products available today, you can make fine beer that way. What I'd like to argue, though, is that when you start, you should start with all-grain.

Extract brewing has one sole, small advantage but other major disadvantages. The process involves a product called malt extract—a distillate of wort boiled down either to a thick syrup or fine dust. The invention probably dates back to Prohibition, when breweries were looking for ways to continue production without making beer. They made the powders and syrups as a way of keeping their equipment in service, and sold them to customers with a wink and a nod. (“Don’t add yeast and water,” they’d advise as a way of instruction.) Some of the original kits were as easy as dumping the syrups into warm water and pitching dry packets of (often bread) yeast. Homebrew from distant decades was notoriously bad, for pretty obvious reasons.

For decades, the only reliable way to make beer at home for many hobbyists was extract. As recently as the late 1970s and early 80s, the ingredients homebrewers had access to were terrible. In my interviews with Rob and Kurt Widmer, they both described the dire state of the moment. Here's Kurt:

I did extract for awhile. The hops that were available were cheesy, old stale hops, extract out of a can, the yeast was freeze-dried packets—so, honestly, I don’t know anyone could have made great beer with those ingredients, but that’s what was available.

Things have changed a lot since the 1980s. Now, with homebrew shops in most towns, and virtual ones populating the internet, there’s no reason to whip up bathtub beer. If you want to do an extract brew, you can get quality syrups or dry powder and add sachets of crushed specialty grain for more complexity. We can now buy high-quality hops, packaged fresh in oxygen-free containers. Yeast is perhaps the biggest improvement, and that alone allows homebrewers to make beer of professional quality. The extract allows brewers to skip the mashing stage and save time.

So what are the downsides? Making extract beer is like baking cake with a cake mix. It robs the brewer of the ability to finely tune his recipe, and worse, makes it impossible for him to shape his beer through different mashing techniques. So much of the beer's character is built in the mash. Brewers can now choose from among many different base malt types beyond the dozens of specialty malts. In mashing you control the fermentability of your wort, meaning you can make it thinner or thicker, sweeter or drier.

And if the ingredients and equipment for making extract brewing have improved since the 80s, they've gotten even more impressive on the all-grain side. (I have a very crude set-up compared to the kinds of rocketships you can build--but aren't required to--if you wish.) Extract brewing saves a bit of time, but not that much; you only need 60-90 minutes more to make a regular batch of beer with regular malt. You have a lot more control with all-grain, which for the homebrewer who is fussy about his hobby (and beer), is a huge advantage.

Fair enough, you might say, but a full all-grain set-up is a pricey commitment, so why not start with extract and then scale up if I want to tackle all-grain? This is usually the main reason people start with extract. But let's break it down. Homebrew starter kits—invariably assembled for extract brewing—are themselves relatively spendy (usually around $200), and most either end up unused in the basement or require major overhaul during the upgrade to regular, all-grain brewing. It's not actually a cheap way to brew your first five-gallon batch of beer; it's just cheaper than the equivalent all-grain set-up.

But why brew five gallons? That volume has become standardized, so everything is keyed toward making beer in five-gallon tatches. But there's no reason to start with that much beer. If you're willing to experiment with one-gallon batches, it changes everything. You can get into brewing for a relatively small up-front cost and see if it's for you. If you find the mashing onerous and want to go to extract brewing, at least you're making that call, and it's an informed decision.

Extract brewing is fine, but it's not the place you should start. In my next post, I'll explain how to do this easily and on the cheap. You can dip your toe in the wort with a $40 test batch, learn how the entire process works from the bottom up, and then decide what your next move should be.