While most homebrewers will advocate for all-grain brewing, it should be pointed out that great beer can be made using either extract or all-grain methods.
Extract vs all-grain brewing
Extract brewing is regarded as a sort of “cake mix” method — where everything is pre-prepared and the brewer follows the instructions that come in the packet. Extract brewing’s advantage is that it allows the brewer to save time, cutting down or even eliminating the mashing process which, when all-grain brewing, requires a minimum of one hour. However, much of a beer’s character begins in the mash.
All-grain brewing is considered the more artisan approach to making beer. It begins with the selection of malts, hops and yeast that will go a long way to determining the beer’s flavour profile and style, and then the mash will further impact your brew, determining fermentability — or making your beer drier or sweeter.
Recipes are a large part of the appeal of all-grain brewing. It is here that the beer’s style and make-up are calculated. Then, as the brewer gets more experienced, there is lots of enjoyment to be had in experimenting with different malts, hops and yeast to change the outcome of the resulting beer. Many a good beer has been the result of a touch of serendipity in this regard.
Homebrew recipes typically give quantities, times and temperatures for all-grain brewing (although they may offer alternative instructions for extract brewing as well) and are for the most part standardised for a 19-litre (5 US gallons) final yield. If that’s too much beer or too little and the brewer wants to scale production down or up, then it’s a matter of doing some maths.
How much malt to use
Roughly speaking, a 19-litre batch will require between 4kg and 5kg of malt (less for a lower ABV beer, more for a higher ABV beer) in what is known as the grain bill or grist and which will largely consist of base malt.
Base malts are, as the name suggests, the foundation of the brew. During mashing, they provide the majority of the brewing starches as well as the enzymes to convert those starches into sugar (which the yeast then converts to alcohol during fermentation).
Base malts may account for anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent of the grain bill and may be either pale, pale ale, pilsner, lager, Vienna or Munich malt (or a combination of any of those or other varieties). Each will lend different malty qualities to the beer, whether lighter or more biscuity.
The remaining percentage of the grain bill may be made up of speciality malts, unmalted grains or adjuncts.
Speciality malts have the ability to turn what might have been a pale ale into a base for a stout, porter, red ale, amber ale, brown ale or any other style of beer you might want to name. They might have names such as black malt, chocolate malt, rye, caramalt or crystal malt and often the name gives you an idea of what properties they will impart.
Unmalted grains may be rolled oats or barley, and adjuncts may be anything from orange peel to coconut flakes, spices or lactose, all of which add their own properties and flavours to the beer.
Whether extract or all-grain brewing, it should be said that learning to brew well at home requires the experience that comes from actually brewing on your own set-up, trying things out and learning from your successes and failures.
Knowledge of the mechanics of brewing — including the idiosyncrasies of your brewing kit — is something that comes with time and practical experience.
And as you gain this experience, you will taste the improvements in your beer.