When I first started homebrewing I started with extract brewing. It’s a great way to get into the hobby without spending a lot of money on equipment. Extract brewing in general is a lot simpler to understand and perfect for amateur homebrewers and beginners. That’s not to say extract brewing can’t produce high-quality award-winning beers. The average person would have a very difficult time discerning between an extract or all-grain brew.
All Grain Vs Extract: The Basic Difference
Beer is made with water, grains, hops, and yeast. Simply put, the main difference between extract and all-grain is how the fermentable sugars are acquired in the brewing process. All grain is the traditional method for brewing beer, and also the process professional breweries adhere to.
In all-grain brewing, the brewer uses crushed malted grains and mashes with very hot water to convert starches into fermentable sugars. In extract brewing, this process has already been done for the brewer and is added in syrup or powdered form. Suppliers produce extracts so homebrewers can choose to skip the conversion process for simplicity’s sake.
All grain brewing offers more control to the brewer and comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Your brew day will be longer and you’ll likely need some additional equipment to account for the extra steps.
As an avid cook, I’d compare all grain vs extract to making brownies from scratch vs from a box. Both methods make delicious brownies, however, one is a just add eggs approach while the other requires the time and patience to start with flour, cocoa powder, sugar, and so on. A more complex understanding of baking is already required.
The below chart is an oversimplified process comparison between all-grain and extract. While they may look similar, it’s worth noting that all-grain brewing will add about 1.5 hours to the brewing process. Extract brewing will bypass about an hour or more of mashing.
|Extract Brew Process||All-Grain Brew Process|
|1. Steep specialty grains in bag at 160°F for 20 minutes in the brew kettle||1. Mash grains in strike water for 1 hour at 145-158°F water in mash tun|
|2. Remove grain and stir in extract||2. Sparge/rinse grains with 168°F water (this step is system dependent)|
|3. 60-minute boil with hop additions||3. Transfer all fermentable wort to boil kettle|
|4. Cool wort, pitch yeast, and ferment||4. 60-minute boil with hop additions|
|5. Cool. pitch yeast, and ferment|
|2-2.5 hour brew day||3-5 hour brew day|
Extract comes in two different forms. Dry malt extract (DME) and liquid malt extract (LME). Both are mixed with strike water and boiled for 60 minutes with your typical hop editions as outlined above.
Liquid Malt Extract vs Dry Malt Extract
LME is made by taking previously mashed wort and dehydrating it until there is about 20% water remaining. LME takes on a molasses-like color and syrupy texture.
DME on the other hand takes the same process as LME even further and dries the extract out until about 2% water remains. The final result is a fine powder.
LME goes through a less rigorous production process so it’s said to be a better alternative to dry. I’ve used both and always have found dry extracts easier to work with and a lot less messy, especially when measuring out specific amounts and variations for my own recipes.
With extract brewing, you need an entry-level homebrewing kit along with a single 7-10 gallon vessel for boiling your wort (assuming you’re making a standard 5-gallon batch).
Pros and Cons of Extract
- Easy to do and perfect or beginners
- Minimal cost and equipment to get started
- Less time consuming
- Less control of recipe/ingredients
- LME/DME is more expensive than grains
All Grain Brewing
All grain brewing is the process of making beer from scratch with crushed grains. Crushed grains are soaked in strike water for 1 hour to extract the grain’s sugars, typically in a range of 145-158°F. This process is known as mashing. Depending on the style and characteristics of the beer will dictate the mash temp. In general, lower temps yield dryer beers, higher temps yield sweeter finished beers. The wort is drained from the mash tun, leaving the spent grains behind, and transferred to the boil kettle. From here the boiling process would start.
All grain brewing can be achieved in single, dual, or even 3 vessel systems. Below are 3 popular configurations. Each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages and range from affordable to very expensive depending on how complex the system is configured.
Single vessel or brew in a bag (BIAB): This process is the most similar to extract brewing where the entire brewing process takes place in a single brew kettle. Grains are mashed in a large, fine mesh grain bag that can be pulled out of the kettle leaving the fermentable wort behind with no trace of grain. If you wanted to jump right into all-grain without the hefty equipment bill, this would be the option for you.
2 vessel systems: One kettle is used strictly for mashing and the other is used for boiling. My 2 vessel system eliminates the need for a grain bag or having to lift it out of the kettle before boiling. Lifting 14 pounds of hot wet grains out of a kettle can be difficult without proper equipment.
3 vessel systems: The most advanced homebrewing system utilizing 3 separate vessels. One for heating strike and sparge water, one for mashing, and one for boiling. There are simple 3 vessel systems and much more complex RIMS and HERMS systems that give the brewer maximum efficiency and the greatest precision and control during the brewing process.
You can read a more in depth overview of popular all grain systems.
Pros and Cons of All Grain
- Less expensive ingredients
- Greater control over the entire brew process
- Brewing like the pros do
- More time consuming
- More complex and greater margin for error
- Start-up costs are usually higher depending on what you do
Both all-grain and extract brewing can produce award-winning beers. An experienced brewer can absolutely blow the doors off a lesser all-grain brewer. My advice would be to start with extract to get a foundational understanding of the brewing process before taking the leap to all-grain.
If you plan your equipment properly it won’t end up costing you any more in the long run. My biggest piece of advice would be to purchase a large enough brew kettle to brew both extract and all-grain recipes. Look for 10 gallons at a minimum. It may be on the larger side for extract batches, but it will be the perfect size for all-grain should you decide to make the switch.