Most homebrewers start by brewing beers in which malt extract supplies the bulk of the fermentable sugars in the wort. For beginning brewers, and for brewers who stay with extract brewing for the convenience or for space reasons, here are five tips to improving your extract beers.
1. Fresh Ingredients
All of your ingredients should be as fresh as possible. Malt extract is a food product and will go stale over time. Liquid malt extract (LME) begins to go stale, and pick up color, in a matter of a few months. Because more water has been removed from it, dried malt extract has a longer shelf life — up to about 8 months if stored in a cool, dry place. If you can get fresh LME, that is your best bet. Dried malt extract is slightly more processed (more water is removed), but is a better choice if you will be storing it for more than a couple months before use.
If you don’t have access to a malt mill, be aware that specialty grains that have been crushed go stale faster than those that haven’t. Avoid baggies of crushed malt that may have been sitting on the shelf for more than a few weeks. Optimally, get the grains crushed at your homebrew shop when you buy them and brew as soon as possible. It is easy to detect stale grain by smell and taste. Get in the habit of chewing a few grains of your specialty malts before brewing to assess their freshness.
2. Increase Your Boil Volume
Extract brewers should boil the largest volume of wort they can manage, up to a full-wort boil. The more volume you boil, the less color pick up you will get. In addition, the corresponding lower specific gravity will increase your hop utilization. You do need to boil the wort vigorously, so don’t try to boil more volume than your stove can handle and end up just simmering the wort. Some extract brewers split their worts into two (or more) pots to increase their boil volume. You can even boil the wort in shifts, if you have the time.
3. Add a Portion of Your Malt Extract Late in the Boil
Brewery grade malt extract has already been boiled. It does not need to be boiled again. As such, you can add a portion of your malt extract near the end of the boil. A good rule of thumb is to boil enough malt extract such that your wort’s specific gravity is roughly the same as your projected original gravity. As such, if you’re boiling 2.5 gallons of wort for a 5-gallon batch (i.e boiling half the volume), add half of your malt extract at the beginning of the boil. If you’re boiling 3.3 gallons for a 5-gallon batch (two-thirds of 5 gallons), add two-thirds of your malt extract initially. When adding extract late in the boil, it pays to dilute it with wort first to avoid scorching.
4. Add Base Malts
Some of the aroma and flavor of malt is lost when it is made into malt extract. Add back this aroma and flavor by adding base malts to your extract brews.
5. Pitch An Adequate Amount of Healthy Yeast
Arguably, the way most homebrewers could improve their beers is to pay more attention to their pitching rate. Pitching a proper amount of yeast ensures that the wort will start fermenting quickly (usually within 8–12 hours) and steadily ferment to a reasonable final gravity. The pitching rate guide at the Mr. Malty website is a great way to determine how much yeast you need, and what size yeast starter to make to raise it. If you don’t want to make a yeast starter, realize that dried yeast is less expensive and buy an extra sachet (or two) as needed.