Everybody Knows You Never Go Full All-Grain...

Among homebrewers, "have you gone all-grain?" seems like a rough analog to asking if you've lost your virginity.  

"Oh yeah - I went all-grain years ago.  I've been going all-grain so long I don't even know what extract is.  It's just so much better - you've gotta try it..."

Sexual overtones aside, all-grain brewing really does have some distinct advantages over extract brewing, and I'm going to make a case for it (in case some of you readers are on the fence), but I'm also going to make a pitch for holding back just a little.  Don't forget about extract brewing.  Because while all-grain has its advantages, it has its downsides, too - and extract isn't without its virtues.  

Go all-grain - but maybe don't go full all-grain.  

The Case for AG

All-grain (AG, from now on) brewing has at least two clear, indisputable advantages over extract brewing: cost and control.

First, it's plainly cheaper.  A grain bill of 15 pounds (pretty typical for 5-gallon batches) will run you about $30 or so, even less if you buy and store in bulk.  For example, since I get grain by the 55-lb. sack, I'm usually paying well under a dollar a pound even for fairly expensive malts.  An equivalent amount of extract for a 5-gallon batch will run you about $45-50, including any steeped specialty grains.  That means that even the AG equipment costs you'll add ($100 or so will get you a nice cooler-based system) are rapidly recouped.

Second, it gives you a level of control that isn't there with an extract.  Especially if you do your own milling, you can get a much more consistent product, fresher, and make lots of fun recipe/process decisions along the way - crush, mash temp and length, mash and first-wort hopping, and more.  If you're using extracts, you're hoping the guys and gals at the extract factory were having a good day, and that your product wasn't oxidized all to hell and gone in the meantime.  

Does it add time?  Sure.  But even that doesn't have to be a major consideration, as we've discussed before.  

So why would I ever defend extract brewing?

The Worst Beer...

Lots of beer people are fond of saying that the "best beer is the one in your hand right now!"  Now, I consider that to be trite nonsense that creates a kind of unacceptable beer-quality-relativism that I just can't stomach, but we'll have that debate another day.

What I can get behind, though, is the idea that the worst beer is the one you never get to drink, and that probably happened because you never brewed it.

In surveys of homebrewers (my own and the AHA's), the most common roadblock for homebrewers in relation to what limits their brewing isn't cost - it's time.  And, say what you want, but extract brewing is FAST.  Even faster than my efficiency-laden AG process.  I clock in at 3:15 for an AG batch (which you gotta admit is still pretty damned fast!), but I can wrap an extract batch in under two hours, comfortably.  If you can regularly find two hours, you can homebrew.  If you can't ever find four then it doesn't matter how much cheaper or better-designed that beer would be, because you're never going to brew it.

And let's talk about quality.  I believe (though I've never personally tested myself in a structured way) that, generally speaking, AG beers are better than extract beers, on average.  Having said that, I'm not saying that extract beers are bad or undrinkable or that they can't in specific circumstances be as good or better than extract beers.  They undoubtedly can.  

I think the reason that we tend to assume AG beers are so much better is that, around the time we shift to AG brewing, we're better brewers.  Our first batches range from awful to pretty good, and we rapidly improve (hopefully).  We also change our methods around the same time, which could very well mean that we're conflating an increase in quality based on method with what might be an increase based on skill.  When I brew extract, they're not quite as good as my AG batches, but they still do very well in competition and the people who drink them seem to enjoy them just as much.

For that reason, I always brew a couple of extract batches per year.  First, it's easy to do, so why not, especially when I end up needing some extra batches around party season (3-4 Christmas/New Years events in three weeks)?  Second, it lets me see how the product is these days - and extracts are better and more-specialized every year, much like our other ingredients.  Last, it reminds me that there are a lot of paths to the top of the mountain, and so long as we do it right, there's no reason to think you're going to see a massive fall-off in quality.

Doing Extract 

Good brewing practices are generally good brewing practices, no matter the ingredients.  With extract, though, I take just a little more care in two areas: style and mouthfeel.

First, I pick styles that don't require a ton of gravity points.  "Extract flavor" may or may not actually exist, but I'm positive that if it does it's probably a good idea to minimize the amount of extract needed, so I shoot for lower-ABV beer styles. Not only that, but it can be tough to reach the right terminal gravity with extract beers that are swinging for the fences.  Speaking of which...

Second, since extract tends to be slightly less-fermentable, you want to pay particular attention to mouthfeel and body.  I do this two ways, and from both directions: I try to make the beer a bit lighter in body, but also a bit smoother and less "syrupy" in feel.  One pound of a neutral honey (100% fermentable, baby!) will dry out the beer a touch (and feel free to use a non-neutral honey and add a fun flavor), and adding in a bit of flaked barley will soften the mouthfeel.  

Coming Home

Brewing extract now and again is a great way to stay connected to your homebrewing origins.  You might even find that a "new" extract beer becomes a favorite in your recipe book.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Under Pressure (Or Not): Bottle Conditioning Q's from the BS Mailbag

Of all the things I get questions about, none surprise me more than questions about bottle conditioning, and not because it isn't important (it is): because it's not something I've ever struggled with.

I understand why people freak out about it a little, of course.  After all, it comes at the end of the process, you've put a lot of work (and wort) in, you have high hopes.  You add your priming sugar, cap that sumbitch, and wait.  Time passes, you chill a test bottle, prep your favorite beer glass, reach for the bottle opener aaaaaaaaand.......

Nothing.  No puff of escaping air.  Your heart sinks.  Your ego deflates.  You pour, knowing even before you do that it's going to be a flaccid affair, and sure enough there's no carbonation, no fluffy whiteness.  Just a sad little collection of not-quite-foamy bubbles from CO2 being slapped out of suspension as you dump beer aggressively into the center of the glass hoping for anything resembling head.  

But it doesn't have to be that way.  Below is a brief description of my bottle conditioning process (from Beer #1 to today, ten years exactly since that first beer) and a few quick Q&A responses from e-mails I've gotten from readers and homebrew club members.

Weight, weight - Don't Tell Me

First off, my process.  It's pretty simple, really.  

First, I check my beer's finishing temperature; a colder beer will have more CO2 in it already, while a warmer one will have blown more off.  

Second, I head to my favorite Priming Calculator website (this one).  Why that one?  It was the first one I tried, and it worked, so why screw around?  All you need is the volume of beer you're carbonating (which you should know already), the temperature of it (which you just checked), and the volumes of CO2 you want (which you should decide based on your recipe, but somewhere around 2.25, in all likelihood).  The result is a weight.  Don't just use that whole "PRIMING SUGAR" pack from the kit. Always carbonate by weight.

With that info in hand, I head to the kitchen and add the given weight of sugar (dextrose if I have it, table sugar if not, and I've never noticed a difference in the finished product) to a cup or so of water, stir, and bring to a boil for about a minute.  

After that, it goes into the bottling bucket.  I rack onto it, and that's it.  No stir or anything.  

I bottle and cap, and then set them aside for about a week.  Usually seven days is plenty.  The longest I've ever had was about three weeks, but that was very much an outlier (and even she carbonated up for me, eventually).

Your Questions (well, someone's questions...)

Do you ever add yeast at bottling, to help out the existing yeast?

Nope.  Never.  Not once.  Not even for a several-month-old Eisbock that clocked in at about 14% ABV.  Yeast are incredible.  If you're not getting carbonation, it almost certainly doesn't have anything to do with whether there are yeast in there capable of carbonating - if you haven't filtered them out, then they almost certainly are.

I didn't get carbonation.  What should I do?

Step one is put your bottles someplace warmer.  In at least 9/10 cases, that does the trick, and a beer that sits for a month in a kind-of-cool place might not carbonate, but one that sits in a slightly-warmer place might carbonate in just a couple of days.  I find 68F to be the lower limit.  Find a warm spot in your house (near the dryer, in an upstairs bedroom that gets a lot of sun, etc.).  In a real pinch, set your beer on top of a heat register or near a baseboard heating element. 

If that doesn't work, try rousing the bottles and applying heat as above.  

If that doesn't work, check your scale/calculations: maybe you didn't add the right amount of priming sugar.  

Should I try adding more yeast to each bottle? 

It almost certainly can't hurt, but it's probably unnecessary, and you're exposing the beer to oxygen.  I'd let time/temperature take a shot at it first.

Should I add more SUGAR to each bottle?

NO!  There's a real risk of bottle bombs if you do, and that's no joke.  Flying glass is something to be avoided, and even if you don't go THAT far, you might still end up with a bunch of gushers.

Honestly, before you take that step, just consider drinking it flat or using THAT beer for vinegar or cooking applications.  

Have you ever tried the Carbonation Tabs/Pellets? 

Once, and I got pretty uneven results.  It's kind of a pain, but the short-boiled sugar solution option I describe above seems like the best method.

Do I have to use white sugar? 

No, you don't.  You can carbonate with maple syrup, honey, candi sugar - virtually any simple sugar.  You might need to experiment with weights/volumes, though, and keep in mind that some sugars will add flavor in addition to CO2 and a little alcohol.

What about caps?

I recommend them.  Otherwise the beer slops all over the place as you ride your bike to the party.

Seriously, though, any caps are probably fine.  Pick a color you like.  If they're available and you want to be super-careful, go ahead and buy the oxygen-absorbing caps.  But make sure you seat them fully on the bottle - even a slight gap can let air be pushed/pulled in and out as the temperature in the bottle changes, so don't just crimp them until you can hold them upside-down without liquid leaking out (though it's a start).

Why do you bottle at all?  KEGGING, BABY!!!!

I keg, too, but I like bottling, especially for things I'm going to age for a while (Barleywine, Old Ale, etc.) and sometimes my brewing outpaces my keg supply.  If you do it regularly, it doesn't even take all THAT much longer - I bottle a batch in about an hour, two batches in about 90 minutes, three in about two hours.  

Personally, I like that once I put that cap on, it's done.  I don't need to worry about a gas leak, or a contaminated keg wrecking my entire batch, or something in the draft line/faucet screwing up my pour.  Bottle conditioning is reliable as hell, and that's worth a little time once in a while (if not every time).

In Yeast We Trust

I've said it before: yeast are incredible.  They're worthy of your trust.  Give them the right conditions, and they'll probably take care of you!

But I meant what I said back there: dump it before you add more priming sugar.  It's not worth a glass sliver in the eye.  The more you know...

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).