What’s Better, Extract
or All-grain Brewing?
I have only brewed extract recipes (usually with steeped grains) and I have read a number of reasons why all-grain is supposed to be better. Although most concede that extract brewing can yield a very good beer, all-grain is generally regarded as being superior because the brewer has more control over the fermentability of the wort.
Having said that, an extract brewer can still control fermentability by either adding sugar (or rice syrup, or corn syrup, etc.) to increase fermentability and lighten the finished beer’s body or adding malto-dextrin (or steeping grains such as crystal malt) to decrease fermentability and lead to a more full-bodied, flavorful beer.
My question is two-fold: one, are such fermentability adjustments by an extract brewer equivalent to those of an all-grain brewer (which is achieved through the temperature and time at which base malt is mashed), or is there a difference in flavor or some other important characteristic? And two, are there other advantages to all-grain vs. extract brewing (even with grains)? It seems like each side of the divide vigorously defends its position, but are there objective reasons why all-grain is superior? I’m curious if I could be brewing better beer!
This is a pretty heavy question because it hits to the foundation of homebrewing. The way I see it, homebrewing is about brewing your own beer. Mashing is certainly part of what almost every commercial brewer does, but there are a few commercial breweries that brew with extract. Some of these breweries have even won medals at the GABF. So in a certain sense, one of the reasons to mash at home is to start with the same basic “raw” materials that commercial brewers use to brew beer. (Of course I put “raw” in quotes because malted grains are greatly altered compared to grains sold as seed or feed.)
Aside from the made from scratch argument, there are some key differences between extract and all-grain brews. You mention several ways that extract brewers can affect the fermentability of wort and these all involve adding something to the extract wort to achieve this goal. In all-grain brewing, a single ingredient, Pilsner malt for example, can be used to produce wort with good fermentability as the basis for a pale lager. The same thing is harder to do with extracts because most extracts are darkened during production. Adding corn or rice syrup to dilute the color and increase the fermentability is clearly not the same as using all-malt for this hypothetical pale lager.
When it comes right down to it, much of the argument surrounding all-grain versus extract brewing comes down to snobbery. Just as home bakers who make delicious cakes and pies from scratch turn their noses up at Betty Crocker cake mixes, some all-grain brewers turn up their noses at extract brews. There is no argument strong enough to combat this type of bias. When it comes to brewing technique I select the method that is most likely to help me reach my brewing objective. That means if I want to brew a very light colored, all-malt Pilsner with a nice grainy dryness, my first thought for brewing method would be all-grain. On the other hand, if I wanted to brew a big chewy stout using a combination of crystal and roasted specialty grains, I would consider both methods to be viable.
A friend once related an encounter with a beer snob that I have never forgotten. One day while working in a brewpub in the San Francisco Bay, a German brewer came in. They had a bock beer on tap and the German brewer was very complimentary of the beer. However, once they began discussing the details of the brewery the German realized that the brewhouse was an infusion set up. His opinion of the bock was instantly changed because he declared that bock beers could not be made with infusion mashing. In his opinion, a bock beer had to be brewed using decoction or step mashing, and of course his preference was for the decoction method. My friend attempted to argue with this guy and used the German brewer’s compliments of his beer as fuel for the argument, but as you can guess the debate ended with no meeting of the minds.
Snobs hang their hats on methods and tradition and cannot accept that there is often more than one solution to a problem. I personally do not waste my time arguing with people like that. The most important part of brewing is the finished product — not how you got there. Some beer styles are difficult to replicate using malt extract, while many others — most English ales, for example — can be brewed successfully using either method. If you focus on the merits of the beer in the glass, choose the most appropriate methods to meet your objective and fine tune your own brewing method, I believe you will be happy with your decision, whether all-grain or extract!