Thursday, April 8, 2010

Extract v's All Grain

I recently watched this video by Canadian extract brewer Craig, the topic of the video is the debate about which brewing method is better, extract or all grain (Craig comes from the extract camp), I also came across a question posed on IrishCraftBrewer from an extract brewer asking if the uplift in quality achieved by going all grain was worth the investment in time and money. As I have only recently switched to all grain and I am eagerly awaiting the taste test of my first brew using this method, this debate is one in which I have a keen interest.

When I started brewing the first method I used was to produce beer based on a can of malt extract (see pic), you simply added water and sugar and let it ferment, before bottling. I found the two brews I made using this method dreadful and ended up pouring most of these bottles down the sink. However I do understand that if you use a good quality kit and substitute the sugar for spraymalt that you can get a really nice beer. However having been unimpressed with my first two brews I decided to go the route of trying extract (with steeping grains) to see if I would get a lift in quality that would make it all worthwhile. The results, from my very first extract batch, were a revelation. I made an American Pale Ale and I really enjoyed it, so much so that I made three different versions of the same recipe, refining it as I went. In total I made six extract brews before deciding that I wanted to make the jump to trying all grain. All of the extract brews I made were really good quality and so my thinking was that if I could get even a small increase in quality by going all grain then the resulting brews would be worth the additional time and effort that all grain requires. However from reading different opinions on the subject I have come to realise that there are a number of ways in which the quality of your brew can be improved and it is not just about making a bee-line for all grain.

Firstly, it is the yeast that makes the beer, not the brewer. What is meant by this phrase is that a lot of experienced brewers will tell you that if you treat the yeast right and have a good fermentation process then this will give you the biggest leap forward in beer quality, regardless of whether you are brewing with a kit, using extract or all grain. So how do you make sure the yeast and fermentation are right.

1) Use liquid yeasts and make a starter
2) Use a fermentation fridge so that you can accurately set your fermentation temperature
3) If possible do a full wort boil

In my case I could have gone the liquid yeast route, however due to the fact that my main area of interest at the moment is american amber and pale ales I do not feel that the addition of liquid yeasts will make a huge difference, at the moment I use dried yeast (Safale US-04 and US-05) and I am very happy with them. If I am going to look at different styles such as Weizen, Bock, Wit etc, then I think that liquid yeasts would certainly add to the quality. In terms of the fermentation fridge, at this moment this is simply not an option for me due to space constraints. I have managed to negotiate a brew closet in the house and at the moment that is filled with all of my brew equipment plus a kegerator  (see pic below) and so there is no room for a second fridge. In terms of carring out a full wort boil (i.e. boiling the full volume of wort and not topping up the fermentor with water), I now have the capability to do this after building a boiler. Due to the fact that I now have the boiler I may try a full wort boil extract brew to compare the results with all grain, as previously when I did extract brews I would typically be topping up with 5-7 litres to make a 20 litre brew.

I have to say in reflection that my decision to move to all grain is probably more to do with my new found love of brewing as opposed to a simple desire to improve the quality of my brews. As mentioned I was pretty happy with my extract brews and I expect that my first few all grain brews will probably no stack up against these in terms of quality, however it is the process for me that is the most interesting part.

Extract brewing is pretty straightforward and if this is what appeals to you then stick with it and if you want to improve the quality of your beer then see points 1, 2 and 3 above. However if you are interested in getting a deeper understanding of the brewing process, in mash temperatures and complex sugars, in complex recipes and processes then look into all grain brewing, as in doing this you will, like me, turn a casual hobby into an obsessive one.


Eoin Magrath said...

It's definitely pretty obsessive alright. I have upped my grain bill to about half of my partial mash fermentables. It's producing pretty good beer I have to say.
As soon as I get the equipment I will go all grain though, that's for sure, I amn't in a huge hurry though as I have to wait on funds.

Mark (Halite) said...

Eoin, I know you do large brews (60l), what sort of Mash tun are you looking at to be able to cope with that volume?, is it just a matter of getting the biggest cooler that you can?

Eoin Magrath said...

I'm thinking I'll go with a 70l stock Pot from the company that was selling the Nordic Optical on ebay. It should be easy enough then to get a false bottom and a sparge arm made for it.
I still have to do some research into the actual details of what I'll need.
For a Second boiler I'll be looking at another one the same as what I have now.