Extracting the Best

BYOB by | May 2011 | Issue #52

Illustration by Ellen Crewnshaw

“You’re doing what?” “Why would you do that?” “What, did someone hit you with the stupid stick?” My favorite was the simplest—“devolution.” All of this and more when I told friends I was getting ingredients together for an extract batch. I would expect a better reaction from my devoutly atheist mom if I told her I was reverting to Catholicism, renouncing modern life and going to live in a monastery (with beer, naturally).

Why commit this heresy and inversion of natural order? I have a lot of beer to serve at festivals and not enough time to make it. Looking at the average time it takes to do my shtick, I’m in and out of the brewery in 6.5 hours for 11 gallons of beer. Not too shabby, but finding a 6.5-hour block where I have the energy and a lack of responsibility toward anything else is a scaling-Everest sort of challenge. A 5-gallon batch of extract costs three hours of time, something I can easily carve out of the evening when the family is abed.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the real world without a couple of tradeoffs. First, there’s the cost. I buy malt in bulk so I can get Maris Otter for ~30 cents/lb. Fresh malt extract syrup (more on this later) costs $2.50/lb. My “grain” costs went from $3.70 to $22.50 for this medium-weight ale. Yikes! Time really does equal money! (~$5.40 an hour) The second tradeoff is control. With extract, I can’t aim my mash temperature for a certain profile, and I’ll have a much harder time getting a pale beer.

But, but … doesn’t extract beer suck? Don’t extract brewers exist as a lower level of “you’re not really a brewer”? I hate that attitude. Of the country’s estimated 750,000 homebrewers, the vast majority are extract brewers. Many of them are brewing vets and produce an excellent tipple. Why does extract beer’s reputation suck so much? Two reasons—old extract and noob brewers.

Here’s the truth. The guys making powders and syrups have their act together. Malt extract is a serious cash money business. They mash just like you, only better, and utilize low temperature evaporation equipment to minimize wort alteration.

“Extract twang,” the scarlet letter character that everyone always talks about, is caused by stale extract. It’s not an innate characteristic. Don’t buy an old dusty can of goo that was tinned while Mamie Eisenhower was making her million dollar fudge. If your supplier isn’t turning out bulk drums of extract syrup and cans aren’t flying off the shelf, stick to dry powdered extracts. What they lack in the dramatic flavor/aroma department, they more than make up for in shelf stability.

Think back to your beginning days: The instructions were a whirling, cacophonous mess. You didn’t know what the hell you were doing. Yeast starters, oxygen, temperature control, ingredient knowledge, etc., were all beyond your scope of knowledge. These days, would you brew without awareness of the choices you were making?

What can you do differently as an experienced brewer? Better cleaning and sanitation, for starters. Use the good stuff—stop using bleach, use iodophor or Star-San. Use a late-extract addition by adding 1/3 of the extract to the boil and the rest with 10 minutes left. Do a full boil with your bigger pots. Force chill instead of using a sink of cold water! Lastly, use your yeast-filled noggin—starters, proper pitching and proper temperatures. Remember, just because you’re using one shortcut is no excuse to use more.

On this month’s recipe: Back in 2009, I wrote about partially severed fingers and taking a garage door to the head in a column called “Danger-Prone Brewing.” This recipe is an update to the missing-finger brewing of “Summer Bloody Summer Ale.” This is a modern, less cloying (and admittedly less red), American Red Ale with a burst of fresh hops, and orange and tangerine zest. All done in three hours!

For 5.5 gallons at 1.068, 10.7 SRM, 35 IBU, 6.7% ABV

Malt / Extract / Grain
9.0 lb. pale liquid malt extract (Alexanders)
0.5 lb. Weyermann Carared
0.25 lb. Aromatic malt
1.25 lb. 2-Row Carapils malt

Steeping Instructions
Steep crushed malts in 3 quarts of 170°F water for 45 minutes. Drain and rinse with an additional 3 quarts of 170°F water. Add 5 gallons of water to pot and bring to a boil. Shut off boil and add extract. Boil for 60 minutes and chill.

1.0 oz Centennial (9.2% AA) – added during boil, boiled 60 min
1.0 oz Cascade (6% AA) – added during boil, boiled 5 min
1.0 oz Citra (13.4% AA) – added during boil, boiled 0.0 min

1.0 tbsp yeast nutrient, 20 minutes
0.5 tablet Whirlfloc, 20 minutes
1 medium orange, zested, knockout
1 small tangerine, zested, knockout

US-05 / Wyeast 1056 / WLP001