Here at the UKCBN we like to be fully inclusive and support all brewers no matter where they are on their brewing journey or what method they choose to use to make their brews. For us, the focus is all on the beer. Whilst we find the way beer is produced and packaged to be really interesting as well, we are not only interested in beer in casks, or only beers bottled under a blue moon, but any beer that is brewed with true care and attention.
In some communities you will find there is a definite “us and them” attitude when it comes down to how you make your beer, not so here! Whilst not all members of UKCBN are brewers, of those that are, some are professional brewers at the very top of their game with product available globally, whilst others are just taking the first steps into the hobby and wondering if they should get a starter equipment kit or just try brewing using bits and bobs they have around the house. This gives us a wide perspective on the whole brewing scene and the ability to openly share from our members’ knowledge of all types of brewing.
Let’s get to the point here, What do we mean by saying all grain, extract or kit brewing? To brew any alcoholic beverage, at the very basic level, you need some form of fermentable which is converted into alcohol by the action of yeast. What form your fermentable takes is decided by what you are trying to brew. Mead brewers use honey, wine brewers normally use crushed grapes, cider uses apple juice and beer mainly uses the fermentable sugars from malted barley. The whole all grain vs malt extract vs kit thing is about where you get that fermentable from. Let’s quickly run through them in order of ease of use.
Kit brewing is without a doubt one of the fastest, least complex and most accessible methods of brewing your own beer. You start with a beer kit that you can get from a local home brew shop (LHBS), supermarket or online.
The kit contents may vary depending on what type of kit you buy or where you get it from, but at the most basic level they normally consist of one or more cans of pre hopped malt extract, a packet of yeast and some instructions. These kits can be used to make beer with just the addition of sugar and water, (Normally one can of the kit and a kilo of sugar, hence the common name of Kit and Kilo), and nothing else by way of ingredients.
We are seeing more complex kits coming about where you can add a hop teabag or other ingredients to your brew, but in the main, kits are all about a can of pre hopped malt extract, which does not require you to go through any lengthy boiling or steeping processes to get your finished beer.
In the case of extract brewing, you can still be using a more advanced kit, or making your own recipes from scratch. Your main source of fermentables will be some form of malt extract, which can be in the form of a powder called dried malt extract (DME) or in the form of a very sticky syrup which is surprisingly called Liquid Malt Extract (LME).
The big difference here is that the malt extract used in extract brewing is not usually pre hopped like in the cans supplied for the kits described above.
The brewer will use the extract for their base fermentable but will then take extra steps not required in kit brewing to complete their recipe, this may include steeping some specialty grains, but it will nearly always include the addition of hops or hop extracts, which is what you miss out with the kits as the extract in the can is already hopped for you.
This adds in yet another step to the brewing process as you have to process those grains to convert the starches into fermentable sugars, a process that is already done for you in the other types of brewing. In order to do this you have to soak the grains in hot water in a specific temperature range for varying periods of time depending on what type of recipe you are making. This process can be quite simple or very complex, you can be doing a single infusion mash where the grains are all soaked at a single temperature or you can include extra stages like protein rests and multi stage decoction mashing.
So basically the big difference is just all about where your fermentable sugars come from. You may be wondering, if that is all the difference is, then why is it such a big thing and why make it so complex. This is the question that plagues some communities and leads to them seeing one method as the right way and others as being pretend brewing.
There are pro’s and con’s to each method and each brewer has to weigh up these advantages for themselves then pick a method that suits them best, just because you brew using one method on one day however, does not mean you have to use the same method next time. I personally have brewed using all methods and whilst I mainly brew all grain nowadays, I still put a kit down or do an extract brew from time to time depending on what I fancy at the time and other considerations.
What’s good and bad about them?
I have already mentioned one of the main benefits of kit brewing, and that is the speed and simplicity of this method, As a busy mum, I find it hard to always find the 5 or so hours that it takes me to do an all grain brew so the time saving is amazing. I’ve previously managed to get two batches of beer (one after the other) from kit to fermenter in under 20 minutes using this method, I think I even youtubed it. So if you are pressed for time or indeed for room and or cooker space, this could well be the best method for you.
You do suffer from quite a limited choice of what is available in kit form, and whilst this is improving, it is mainly limited to the more common beer styles.
If you try brewing kits from several different suppliers, you will find that the end product of a seemingly similar kit can be shockingly different, and the quality of the end product does seem to suffer the older the kit is.
It is quite easy to improve the results you get from kits, some of the things you can try are throwing away the kit yeast and using a different brand, adding a hop tea or hop extract, even steeping some grain in a saucepan and adding that.
As with kit brewing, you get the benefits of not needing to do a full mash, and you do not even need to do a full batch volume boil unless you want to. But there can be no doubt that the extract brewing process is more complex and needs more equipment than kit brewing, it is still significantly cheaper to get going and easier than all grain. You get many of the advantages of all grain with regard to flexibility of recipes and what you can brew, but there are not extracts available for the full range of base malts you can use in all grain.
There are still some issues regarding extracts and very pale colours as the extraction and drying / condensing stage does darken it.
You will need some more equipment than with kit brewing, however at the simple end of the scale you can use common kitchen equipment e.g. a saucepan to steep some grains or make a hop tea. You would probably want to progress to a larger pot fairly rapidly though so you can at least boil a significant portion of your batch for your hop additions.
Some people see all grain as the pinnacle of brewing methods and whilst it does give you total flexibility in what you brew as you can mash any grains, not just select from the limited range of extracts that are available, it is not without significant downsides. Some people manage to turn those downsides into another positive by inviting friends round and making the much longer brew day a social event, however many people just cannot find the 5 or 6 hours (some brewers may take an hour less, some may take 8 hours longer) that it takes to brew a batch of beer using this method.
Some people have repeatedly said that they can taste a “twang” in extract beers and brewing all grain is the only way they avoid the extract twang.
The process itself suddenly becomes very critical and you need to be able to do and measure things fairly accurately to end up with a decent product. An extra 10 minutes on your boil is not likely to destroy a batch but 10 degrees off on your mash and you could end up with a very different beer to the one you were hoping for, or indeed next to no alcohol at all if your temps are too low. Again, for some people, this complexity is part of the fun in the hobby and is not necessarily a negative, it does however make for a very steep learning curve for a new all grain brewer.
There is no easy way around it, to brew all grain you need to either beg, borrow or steal, (and we don’t recommend the later), a lot of equipment, which needs to be set up, maintained and stored somewhere between batches. This means that start up costs vary between high and ridiculous depending on the equipment you want and as most all grain brewers end up catching the bug for bigger, better or just plain shinier equipment, you can find your self starting to spend significant amounts of money on things. Whilst that shiny 100 litre conical fermenter is not an all grain specific cost, all grainers do seem to be a lot more partial to the equipment upgrades than other kinds of brewers.
You do get to make some of the most varied beer styles.
So there you go, a look at the main brewing methods used to brew beer, and it needs to be said that award winning beers can and have been made using all these methods, no one method is necessarily any better than any other, however depending on your ability, budget and even on what day of the week it is, one method may be more suitable than another for you.
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