While many people will start out home brewing using a regular beer kit they purchased out of a store using malt extract, as they continue to produce more batches they often want to try something a little bit more in-depth. One way to change the process is by using all grain purchased in bulk instead of a malt extract to serve as food for the yeast. Using all grain has both its benefits and problems, and it really is up to the individual brewer to decide what he or she wants to do. Using an extract brew does not mean that you cannot create great quality beer, and many beginners will use an all grain brew right away.
When following a grain recipe, the grain must be crushed and mashed using specific tools into a large mush, which is then added to the yeast and water to start the fermentation. This can be rewarding for the home brewer that wants to take everything into his own hands, but is time consuming, taking up to four hours.
Malt extracts are made by a factory and make the brewing process a lot simpler. It is made by taking a large quantity of grain, mashing it up like you would when following a grain recipe, and then evaporating the resulting product within a vacuum to take out the water. What comes out is either a syrup or powder which can be easily shipped and stored for long periods without further preservation methods.
One of the benefits of using an all grain recipe is the amount of customization allowed. When using a malt extract to start up a beer, you are able to choose from a large variety of extracts but small personal touches cannot be made on top of that. When using all grain, any one of hundreds of possible ratios can be used, and any ingredient can be added like orange, vanilla, honey, or even chocolate malt.
On the other hand, a malt extract beer will come out a lot more consistently over any number of batches than a grain beer will. This is due to differences in grain used, potential foreign material, differences in the mashing process, and any extra ingredients that may be added. This is great for the experimental type that wants to find the holy grail of beer, but not so great for someone that just wants to make a great-tasting brew every time.
Some brewers do report that their beer tastes better when using an all grain formula, but this is a hotly disputed topic. Many extract brewers claim their beer is just as good if not better, and competitions seem to prove this on occasion. Because of the nature of the dispute, it is best to try both methods at least a few times to see if you can notice any difference in taste and quality.
One final factor in the debate is the cost of manufacture. Using an all grain brewing style will require an initial investment of $75 or more to purchase all of the equipment used in the mashing process. There is also a lot of time that goes into the mashing, which is another added cost. However, the bulk ingredients for making all grain beer will be significantly cheaper than their extract counterparts when purchasing in a large quantity. This make all grain production a better option for those looking to brew significant amounts of beer over a long period of time, but doesn’t make much sense for someone making just a few gallons per year.
Both of these brewing methods have their supporters and detractors, and neither one is the “right” way to do things. Whether you want to take the time and initial cost to set up an all grain system, or just want the simple, consistent results of making an extract brew, the choice lies with you.