For the majority of brewers, their first batch started with a bit of malt extract either in dry or liquid form. Using malt extract makes a lot of sense, allowing someone else to do the hard work and convert the malt starches into sugars, perfect the colour and sometimes even add hops to it, makes the brewing process so much easier. The blissful homebrewer need only add water, boil to sterilise, add hops as required, chill to fermentation temperature, and add the yeast. A process which only takes a couple of hours but when done correctly can still produce great beer. Once they’ve got the process down, lots of brewers feel no need to advance past extract brewing.
Unfortunately there are some drawbacks to brewing this way; you lose a lot of control over your brew as much of it has essentially been done by someone else. Luckily, wheat malt extract and rice extract are accessible and of reasonable quality, so it’s feasible to make wheat beers and adjunct Pilsners.
Malt extracts vary considerably in their fermentability, which produces sweeter or drier beers, and this data for specific brands can be hard to find. In addition there is also the problem of freshness, particularly with syrup forms.
Due to malt extract essentially just being highly concentrated combination of water, sugar, and protein, it has all the components required for Maillard browning, sometimes even at room temperature; this can produce beer with a foul lingering taste. The phrase “cidery” is occasionally used in this context. Maillard browning causes the malt extract to blacken as it ages; therefore it’s usually impossible to brew a very pale beer such as a German-style Pilsner, using liquid extracts. Spray-dried extracts do have a better reputation for staying fresh and not darkening, but they are not invulnerable. Freshness is important, so learn which malt extract brands sell the fastest at your supplier, and use those.
Furthermore, extracts have been vacuum-concentrated, massive volumes of liquid have been removed from the wort to condense it ready for packaging. And because of this a substantial amount of the gorgeous malt aroma has been removed too. Consequently, beers made using malt extract can taste particularly lifeless and dull when it comes to the malt profile.
The technique to brewing good beer from extracts is to obtain as much flavour from specialty malts and hops as you can. The malts in this kind of brewing process are not mashed, therefore caramel malt or dark roasted malts are ideal as they provide their flavours and colours fairly easily. Be aware that in extract recipes the malt is crushed, thrown into a mesh bag then steeped in the heating wort up until just before the boiling point when it is then separated and discarded; this process provides the beer with colour, flavour, aroma, and body. While you have a restricted range of malt choices in extract brewing, there is a still plenty of obtainable flavours using caramel or roasted malts. But keep in mind that caramel malts have reasonably strong flavours; these flavours are not suitable for every recipe, their toasted caramel and burnt-sugar flavours can overpower a beer. Use them sparingly, and select ones which will complement your recipe best.
Keep in mind when using extract syrups to make specific types of beer with no added malts; you’re relinquishing a fair bit of control. There is a lot of doubt surrounding the formulas used to make beer-specific extracts, that they are not the same as recipes conventionally used to brew those beers. The companies producing them add other ingredients to add colour, bitterness, and hop aroma. Instead of brewing genuine recipes, it’s easier and cheaper for the manufacturer to just add some caramel sugar or black malt syrup to create amber or a dark extracts, the flavours of these kits can be extremely different from the traditional brew. This is particularly true for double for hopped extracts: throwing in a handful of hops is so basic and rewarding that it would be harder to find a worthwhile shortcut – use real hops.
Using a mini-mash is an improvement in regards to control, but also needs more time, attention, and equipment. To enhance the flavour of the extract, you can do a quick mash with malts such as pale, biscuit, Munich, or melanoidin which don’t yield too much in a simple steeping. Darker malts might not have the enzymes required to transform themselves, so a bit of lager, Pilsner, or pale malt may have to be inserted to them to provide the required enzymes. Once thirty minutes is over, the liquid is drained into the kettle.
Reinforced with a large range of malts, the mini-mash process can do a good job with many beer styles. Grains such as rye or oats can be used in measures of 1 to 2 pounds/1/2 to 1 kg in a mini mash. Beers which require a large amount of very specific malts may prove hard to reproduce using ordinary extract, although specialty extracts can be found. For some styles, flavours will have to be estimated: good beer, just not completely genuine.