The homebrewing process is a relatively uncomplicated one, but it requires quite a few steps and a bit of equipment. One of the first decisions you’ll have to make as a homebrewer is whether to use all grain vs extract brewing methods. Both have their pros and cons. So the decision is generally left up to what you’re comfortable with, how much space you have, and how much money you’re willing to spend to get set up.
When trying to decide whether to go with all grain brewing or extract brewing, you should first know the differences between each method so you can determine which is the best fit for you. Let’s go over the differences now.
The differences between all grain brewing and extract brewing
The differences between these methods of homebrewing lies in how the sugars are obtained from the grains in the process. Professional brewers use an all grain process of extracting the sugars, while beginner homebrewers typically choose the easier, more streamlined extract brewing process.
All Grain Brewing Process
In all grain brewing, the sugars are extracted from the grains by a process called mashing. The brewer must mash a large amount of crushed malted grains to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. Mashing basically just means soaking the grains in water to release the starches and allow the enzymes in the grains to break it down into sugar. The sugars are then rinsed from the grains in a process called sparging.
Brewers either use a one-vessel setup or a three-vessel set up to achieve this goal. Of course, whether you have a one or three-vessel set up can greatly affect the price of the required equipment. It also has a pretty big impact on the amount of space you need to store and assemble this type of set up.
Pros of all grain brewing:
- Cost of ingredients are lower, because the grains used to extract the sugars are less costly than the already-extracted sugar you need for extract brewing.
- The beer you brew is completely within your control. You can adjust and alter the color, taste, mouthfeel and complexity of the beer.
- All grain brewing is the professional, advanced method of brewing.
Cons of all grain brewing:
- Equipment for all grain brewing can be significantly more than for extract brewing, because of the necessity for additional brew pots and mash tun.
- Takes significantly longer than extract brewing, making your brew day longer.
- You need more space to have an all grain set up, unless you use the brew in a bag method.
Extract Brewing Process
Just to throw you off, I’m going to add an additional possibility into the mix, which is partial-extract brewing. But first, let’s go over what extract brewing actually is. It basically allows you to skip the step of mashing the grains to extract the sugars from the grains, because someone has already done it for you and provided either a liquid or dry malt extract that you can buy. While the cost of the malt extract is quite a bit higher than the cost of the grains you’d need to do it yourself, you will gain the benefit of not having to do this process yourself, thus saving time and effort.
What is partial-extract (aka partial-mash) brewing?
This is my method of choice, because it allows me to gain slightly more control over the color and mouthfeel of the beer without requiring me to convert 100% to all grain brewing, which I don’t have room for. In the process, you would mash a smaller amount of grains and use malt extract for the rest. The process of mashing is the same, but since the grain bill is much less, you don’t need the same amount of space.
One of the main problems brewers face with extract brewing is the limited amount of creativity they can have, because a recipe requires a different type of extract than is readily available or requires the mashing or steeping of specialty grains. With partial-mash brewing, you can add those special grains by mashing only those. The smaller amount of grains can be placed in a brew bag and submerged in the water, which is much easier to deal with and clean up at the end of the process.
Pros of extract brewing:
- Time savings of not having to mash the grains yourself. This can amount to about a 1-2 hour time savings.
- Easy to do and requires no extra equipment. You just pour the extract into the wort and stir.
- Less variables to deal with, leading to consist results and less possible issues with the resulting beer.
Cons of extract brewing:
- Malt extract costs roughly double the cost of the grains you’d need to do it yourself.
- Can limit the amount of creativity you can have with a recipe based on the type of extract you can get ahold of, though if you search online, you’ll likely find what you need.
- Extract may not contribute as much mouthfeel to your finished beer.
- Not seen as the most “purist” way of brewing beer.
Which is the Right Method For You?
The good news here is that you don’t really have to choose between these methods. If you want the flexibility to use either method, you just need to shell out the extra money for the all grain set up, and then you can decide which process to use each time you brew. If you’re in a hurry, you can use extract instead of mashing your own grains.
As you’ve already learned above, the main considerations you need to take into account are:
If you already have the first three and you really want to have the fourth, then you should go with all-grain brewing. If you don’t have the first three and don’t really NEED the fourth, then go with extract brewing. That’s really all it comes down to when deciding to go with all grain vs extract brewing. If you want a more in depth breakdown of the time, money and space, check out this article by Homebrewsupply.com.
Another option for homebrewing all grain recipes is to get a home brewing machine, like a Picobrew Zymatic, that will take care of the mashing, and everything else, for you inside the machine. While it’s an expensive option, it does take the time and space aspect out of the equation. So if you have the money, but not the time or space, you can skip past extract brewing and go straight to all grain brewing with a Zymatic.