Malt Extract Beer Brewing

by Brad Smith on August 16, 2008 · 16 comments

Brewing with malt extract (liquid or dry) is the starting point for most new brewers. Today many homebrewers use malt extract as the dominant base for their beer.

Editors Note: Author John Palmer and I have done a professional “How to Brew with Malt Extract” Video/DVD which shows hundreds of detailed shots of every step in the brewing process. Get it here!

I bought my first malt extract, a Muntuns and Fison’s Irish Stout kit in 1987 when I started brewing, and continued brewing exclusively with extracts for the next 10 years. Brewing with extract offers many advantages over all-grain brewing. Less time and equipment is required.

While some purists point out that all-grain brewing gives you more control over certain ingredients in beer, the parade of award winning extract recipes in both local and national competition indicates that extract brewers are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with all grain brewers with regards to beer quality.To design a great beer recipe with malt extract it is important to understand its characteristics and limitations.

Malt extract is made by mashing grains using the traditional process to produce wort, a hot sweet sugary liquid. The wort is then concentrated from its original gravity of perhaps 1.080 to a thick syrup with gravity of between 1.400 and 1.450. The wort is concentrated by evaporation under heat.

To reduce the heat required, the entire process is typically done under vacuum. Heating the wort to concentrate it also produces meanoidins, a color pigment that darkens the extract. This darkening process continues when boiling your extract. That is why wort made with even the palest malt extracts is significantly darker that corresponding all grain wort.

Liquid malt extract also contains water, an element that allows the coloring reaction to continue at a slow rate as the malt extract ages. Thus liquid malt extracts will continue to get darker as they age. Dry malt extract is not susceptible to this effect.

Beers made with malt extract will tend to ferment slower and finish at a higher gravity than corresponding all-grain beers. This is due to a variety of factors including the presence of unfermentable dextrins from the concentrating process, the lack of free nitrogen in extract malt needed for yeasts, and the potential for oxidization of the malt for malts stored for an extended period.

The last point is worth mentioning, as both dry malt and liquid malt are prone to oxidizing when exposed to air or moisture for an extended period of time. All of these factors point to the critical importance of getting fresh malt extract whenever possible, and storing malt extracts in an airtight container in the refrigerator to minimize moisture and slow the effects of aging.

As long as proper care is taken in selecting and storing your extract, brewing with malt extract can be a real pleasure. To enhance your malt extract recipes I recommend the following tips:

  • Use pale malt extract as your base for the beer.
  • To add color to your beer, steep dark grains rather than adding dark extract – this will enhance the body and flavor profile of your beer.
  • Avoid using sugar in proportions larger than 10%. Sugar adds a cider-like flavor to the beer without contributing body.
  • For bitterness, boil with separate fresh hops (pellets, plugs or leaf). Many hop oils and bittering agents break down during storage in pre-hopped malt extracts. Its always better to go with fresh hops.
  • Use steeped grains to enhance the color, body and flavor of your beer. From 2-5 pounds of steeped grains in a 5 gallon batch will produce better beer than extract alone. Remember that some malts (munich, wheats, flaked and terrified malts) require mashing, and can’t be steeped.
  • As you boil malt extract, it will get darker. Consider using a late malt extract addition if you are targeting a light to medium color beer.
  • If you are brewing a wheat beer, use wheat based extract. Similarly if brewing an Octoberfest or Marzen beer, use Munich based extract.
  • Use a spreadsheet or brewing program such as BeerSmith to estimate your color, bitterness and original gravity and match it against your target style. This will avoid many bad batches of beer.
  • Be aware of the effect of the size of your boil pot on the bitterness of your beer. Small boil, high gravity malt extract batches will achieve significantly lower hops utilization than full size boils. Use a good spreadsheet or brewing program to estimate your bitterness before brewing.
  • When converting an all-grain recipe to extract, take into account bitterness and color change as well as the base malt conversion. Extract recipes will generally need more hops and less colored additions than all-grain. See my article on converting all grain recipes to extract for more information.
  • Use high attenuation yeasts with extract brews. Remember that extract beers generally ferment slower and leave a higher final gravity than expected.
  • Store your malt extract in airtight containers, away from light sources, and ideally in a refrigerator to minimize oxidization and aging effects.

Malt extract brewers produce fantastic beer. Every year, even at the national level, malt extract brewers consistently finish in the winner’s circle. I hope this article helps you maximize the potential of malt extract brewing and helps you reach the winner’s circle as well. As always, keep your suggestions, social bookmarks and comments coming.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

ted425 October 7, 2009 at 10:32 am

Try for really inexpensive DME, and free shipping to boot!

Alfredo July 6, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I make 75 gallons of beer using a malt extract system, I buy 5 gls of the extract mix it with 70 galons of lukewarm water 1 oz. of granulated yeast and 30 lbs. of sugar; its fermented for 4 days; on the fifth day is cool by a glycol jacket outside the stainless steel tank and on the sixth day is carbonated with CO2 inside the tank.The beer is drinkable but I want the beer to be more hopier and bitter; does any one have any suggestions of how can I do that?
The manufacturer of the malt extract tells me the only thing I need is to heat up the 5 gl. bucket of malt extract with a heat bracelet for 2 hours, add water @ 80 degrees 3/4 of the way add the yeast,glycol and CO2 on the fifth day and BINGO beer on the seventh day.Any suggestions how to improve the flavor? Al.

Glenn July 4, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Good read and thanks for the advice but if I may, I’d like to just add the following:
I go against just about all advice on most of the blogs regarding hygiene.
I no longer sterilize anything.
Ask yourselves these questions in this order:
1. Would you drink beer out of an unsterilized container……..if NO then carry on
2. Is the container you brew in sterilized……….if Yes then carry on
3. When you empty your container, is it the container still sterile ……….if YES then carry on.
4. Do you brew straight away in the same container……..if YES then carry on
5. Why on earth would you want to re-sterilize a sterile container???

I simply wipe mine out with a clean chuck cloth and the same water (in my case tap water) as I’m going to brew with. I simply rinse my kegs. No soap or chemicals!

I use a brewing pail (similar to a plastic paint tin) and siphon tube (plastic pipe) to empty it. It’s easier to wipe clean (cloth and water only) and seal (no rubber O rings or taps)

I empty my tin of extract into the wet pail, pour my brewing sugars of choice into the empty (apart from the residual extract stuck to the sides and bottom) tin and pour boiling water into it. The boiling water dissolves the sugars so you’re pouring hot (not boiling) syrup into the extract. Repeat depending upon how much sugar you use. Combine the syrup and extract using a spoon.
I then use the tin to fill my six gallon container, filling the tin as fast as possible from the tap to get as much oxygen in as possible, and then pouring it into the pail – this method keeps down the froth but provides oxygen for the yeast.
At about the five gallon mark, I pour yeast into the tin, then some water and pour it into the pail. (this takes the yeast right into mix and makes my final stir easy). After the final stir, I top up to the 6 gallon mark.

With my latest (yet to be tasted) batch, I’ve simply poured my extract into the wet pail, added yeast and water (from the tap as previously described) but no hot water, no sugars and no stirring, to make up the 6 gallons. My logic is that I’ll be bottom brewing (I like lagers) and saving time – the whole process took less than 30 mins including transferring the previously finished beer to the keg.

A 1.7kg (60 ozs) tin of extract with no sugars added, makes 23 ltrs (6 gallons) of very drinkable beer with an abv of approx 3.9%

I should add that I’m neither a brewing buff, beer connoisseur nor a salesman. I simply like beer – especially light lagers.
I’ve been brewing using liquid extract kits from the supermarkets for more than 15 yrs ( 5 using bottles 10 using kegs) and produce beer which is better (imo) than you’d pay for at a bar.
The only ones I’ve produced which were off, were attributed to either soap or sterilizing chemicals after trying to do the right thing, spend loads of time and money, and sterilize – but probably not rinsing properly.
Yeast is quite a tough little cookie and can normally sort out and tidy up the brew process providing there are no cleaning chemicals present.
Obviously though, this applies to keg beer. If you don’t use your equipment between batches and it’s been lying around, you should start over with the cleaning / sterilizing.
I’ve found that the quicker the process, the easier it is, there’s less chance of wild yeasts or other foreign bodies creeping in and ruining the batch.
Also, I threw my hydrometer away years ago. A week to brew and at least a week to clear in the keg will probably give a similar result to working with specific gravity and at the end of the day, if it’s there or thereabout regarding required abv, and tastes how you want it, then why mess about. If it’s not quite right due to seasonal temperature changes or simply “I couldn’t bottle or keg my beer last weekend”, enjoy what you have and then make the slight changes next time. You’ll still have good and not so good batches anyway – using a hydrometer helps, but takes time and doesn’t guarantee success.
Finally, though I’ve never progressed to producing my own malt and probably never will, too much time and money spent cleaning equipment and bottles, forever taking readings and fretting over the slightest thing that didn’t go by the book, nearly put a premature end to my home brewing. The best thing I could have done was invest in kegs. I actually have two fridges with kegs in each which allows me to alternate my brews. After an initial, quite expensive layout, a $12.00 kit (about the cost of two or maybe three bar bought pints) and 30 minutes work provides me with about 50 pints of drinkable 3.9% beer on tap, chosen from a bigger range at the supermarket than you’d find in any bar! And I still have the option of paying a bit more, experimenting with malts and yeasts and buying top quality beer kits at a brew shop – though they’d probably be wasted on me as I tend to guzzle!

adam bailey October 21, 2013 at 11:16 am

Alfredo i don’t know if you still come to the site, BUT…….
I(PERSONALLY) like 1lb malt(+ 1lb) per 1 gallon water.
true 75 gallons would get EXPENSIVE
i make 5 gallons at a time
so i do,
6lb golden malt in 5 gallons water
1lb crushed briess 40l
10g safbrew T-58(try other yeast if you want)
1lb golden candi syrup
3oz gelena hops(wayyyyyyyyyyy overkill)
in 7 to 10 days i have STRONGGGG(7.5% to 8.5%) “super” IPA

you could use darker malt and different grains, other sugar(s) less/different hops but this same “basic” recipe and get different TYPES of beer.
but if you want improved flavor i suggest adding hops or crushed grains or even just more malt.
IPAs normally have stupendous flavor

Bernie October 25, 2013 at 3:00 am

I saw glycol being used in a recipe above. Is that right because it’s toxic?

Brad Smith October 27, 2013 at 11:11 pm

He is referring to glycol being used as a coolant in the cooling jacket of an advanced system. The glycol in this case is a coolant for the system that cools the vessels, and not an ingredient in the beer.

Bernie October 30, 2013 at 7:34 am

The paragraph
“The manufacturer of the malt extract tells me the only thing I need is to heat up the 5 gl. bucket of malt extract with a heat bracelet for 2 hours, add water @ 80 degrees 3/4 of the way add the yeast,glycol and CO2 on the fifth day and BINGO beer on the seventh day.”
is confusing

Marissa Liley November 13, 2016 at 1:21 pm

Great article! I brewed my very first beer with DME for my wedding. The hubby had been brewing all grain for about a year and never tried extract, so he insisted there were problems when it fermented for close to 3 weeks total as he thought I had used “the wrong water”. After raving at the wedding over my lavender honey ale I am currently making it again. Hahaha

Ninon September 27, 2017 at 9:50 am

Thank you for a very interesting article.
Do you know what percentage of the homebrewers/craft brewers use malt extracts to produce their beer?

Brad Smith September 28, 2017 at 3:51 pm

A little under 50% these days.

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