All-Grain vs. Extract Brewing: What’s the Difference?

Understanding how all-grain and extract brewing compare enables you to choose the homebrewing method best matched to your skills, budget, and brewing goals.


Mat Stuckey

8/30/20235 min read

a person holding a glove
a person holding a glove

All-Grain vs. Extract Brewing: What’s the Difference?

Two primary methods exist for converting malt starches into fermentable brewing sugars: all-grain brewing and extract brewing. While both produce delicious finished beers, the processes differ significantly.

Understanding how all-grain and extract brewing compare enables you to choose the homebrewing method best matched to your skills, budget, and brewing goals.

What is All-Grain Brewing?

All-grain brewing entails converting raw malted grains into fermentable wort completely from scratch. The brewer mills, mashes, lauters, and sparges the grains themselves instead of using malt extract as the sugar source.

In all-grain brewing, the malt provides 100% of the fermentable sugars, flavour compounds, mouthfeel, and colour characteristics of the finished beer. This gives the brewer maximum control over the wort profile starting from whole grains.

The all-grain brewing process includes:

  • Milling cracked malted grains using either a commercial mill or home grain mill

  • Mixing the grist and hot water for mashing to convert starches into sugars and extract flavours

  • Lautering by separating sweet wort from grain solids - may use a mash tun false bottom and spigot or dedicated lauter tun

  • Sparging to rinse sugars from grains using hot water before boiling the wort

  • Boiling, chilling, and fermenting the all-grain wort

All-grain brewing gives complete customisation over specialty malt choices. Malts contribute to the colour, flavours, aroma, mouthfeel, head retention, and alcohol content of beers. But the full-volume mashing and lautering process requires special equipment and skills.

What is Extract Brewing?

Extract brewing utilises concentrated malt extracts rather than raw grains as the sugar source for fermentation. These extracts are produced by commercial breweries performing the mashing and lautering steps on the brewer’s behalf.

The extract brewing process typically includes:

  • Selecting the type of malt extract - typically dry or liquid

  • Steeping specialty grains briefly to extract colour and flavours

  • Removing specialty grains before adding malt extract to water and boiling

  • Boiling the wort with hops for bitterness and preserving extract quality

  • Topping up fermenter with water to achieve full volume before pitching yeast

Extract brewing avoids the complex mashing process. Brewers simply purchase wort concentrated down into a syrup or powder form. Many recipes combine malt extract with some specialty grains for all-in-one ingredient kits. Simplified process and equipment makes extract brewing faster.

Overall, all-grain delivers maximum control for advanced brewers willing to invest in equipment and skills. Extract lowers the barrier for delicious homebrew.

Equipment Needed for All-Grain Brewing

All-grain brewing requires key equipment for mashing and lautering grains:

  • Mill - Roller mill for consistent grain crush essential for efficiency and lautering

  • Mash tun - Insulated vessel to soak grains in at 150-160F to convert starches. Needs good seals and filtration.

  • Lauter tun - Slotted vessel for separating sweet wort from grains. Often incorporated in a mashtun.

  • Hot liquor tank - Heats sparge water for rinsing sugars from mashed grains.

  • Sparge arm - Gentle showers hot water over grain bed for optimal rinsing.

  • Pumps - Help move liquids between vessels. Gravity can work for small batches.

The mash tun is the heart of an all-grain setup. Converted coolers, picnic coolers, or stainless steel mash lauter tuns are common choices. Beyond the mashing system, standard brewing kettles, fermenters, and other equipment is still needed.

Equipment for Extract Brewing

Since extract brewing skips mashing grains, the equipment needs are more basic:

  • Steeping vessel - Kettle or pot for steeping specialty grains. Can be as simple as a mesh bag in a pot.

  • Brew kettle - Large enough to boil full wort batches - at least 7-8 gallons for 5 gallon batches.

  • Fermentation vessels - Carboys, buckets, or conical fermenters to hold 5-6 gallon batches.

  • Sanitisation gear - Star San, cleaners, brushes, syphon and other sundries.

  • Fermentation temp control - Methods to regulate fermentation temperatures.

The same basic brewing and fermentation gear used in all-grain systems enables extract brewing. The key exceptions are the absence of mash tuning equipment and sparge systems.

Additional Differences Between All-Grain and Extract

A few other areas where all-grain and extract brewing differ:

  • Efficiency - With optimal processes, all-grain brewers can achieve up to 80-85% mash efficiency getting sugars from grain into wort. Extract is less efficient with more sugars left behind by commercial mashing.

  • Oxygen exposure - All-grain risks more hot side aeration of wort from lautering and sparging. Extract minimises splashing and oxygen.

  • Costs - Purchasing base malt extracts is initially more expensive than base grains. But with sufficient scale, all-grain homebrewing provides long term savings per batch.

  • Learning curve - Extract brewing allows beginners to grasp fundamentals faster. All-grain requires learning more advanced theory and techniques.

Either approach allows brewing terrific homemade beers. All-grain unlocks greater recipe development potential for those willing to invest in methods and equipment. Simpler extract kits enable conveniently starting out.

Which Method is Right For Your Brewery?

Choosing all-grain or extract depends on your:

  • Budget - All-grain demands a higher startup equipment cost. Saving over time offsets this. Extract starts cheaper.

  • Goals - All-grain provides complete creative flexibility. Extract simplifies early success.

  • Process knowledge - All-grain requires researching mashing science and methods. Extract quickly gets to brewing.

  • Time investment - All-grain days run 6+ hours. Extract saves time not mashing and sparging.

  • Consistency - With mastery, all-grain brewers perfect systems maximising efficiency and quality over batches. Unpackaged extract varies slightly.

Many brewers start with extract kits, then add equipment to transition to all-grain techniques for wider style brewing and savings. But both methods produce great homebrew! Choose the path that best matches your current skills and resources.

Sip and Savour: The Nuances of Flavour

The 'extract twang' – a slightly off flavour occasionally detected in extract brews – sparks debate amongst brewers. Some theorise it arises from the Maillard reaction during extract production, whilst others blame stale or subpar extracts.

Fortunately, using fresh, top-notch extracts and introducing some fresh grains can mitigate this twang, producing a beer as palatable as its all-grain counterpart.

Water, often labelled the 'unsung hero' of brewing, plays a pivotal role in both methods. The mineral composition of water can amplify or mute specific flavours in beer. For instance, water with higher sulphate levels can intensify bitterness, making it ideal for brewing hop-led beers. Conversely, water richer in chlorides can bring out malt sweetness.

This is why some brewers either source the perfect water or tweak their water profile with mineral additions.

Water Profile Tips for Brewing

  • Use a water test kit or send a sample to a laboratory to determine your water profile.

  • Invest in a water filter to remove chlorine and other impurities.

  • Use brewing salts to adjust mineral levels.

  • Research traditional water profiles for specific beer styles, such as Burton-on-Trent for IPAs.

  • Store water additives in a cool, dry place.

Freshness and Longevity: Storing Your Core Ingredients

The shelf life of your ingredients can dramatically influence your beer's quality. Malt extracts, especially liquid ones, can degrade, leading to stale flavours. They're best used within six months of purchase, and it's always wise to check for a 'best before' date.

Store extracts in a cool, dark place, and once opened, ensure they're sealed tightly.

Whole grains, conversely, have a longer shelf life when stored correctly. Unmilled grains can last for over a year in a cool, dry environment. However, once milled, their freshness wanes more quickly due to the grain's inner parts being exposed to air.

It's a balancing act between milling in advance for convenience and milling closer to brewing for peak freshness.

Ingredient Storage Tips

  • Store malt extracts in a dark, cool cupboard or cellar.

  • Use vacuum-sealed containers for opened malt extracts.

  • Store unmilled grains in airtight containers to prevent moisture ingress.

  • Consider investing in a grain mill to mill grains just before brewing.

  • Regularly check your stock and rotate to ensure older ingredients are used first.

Key Takeaways

  • All-grain brewing converts raw grains into wort, providing complete recipe control but requiring mashing equipment and skills.

  • Extract brewing uses concentrated wort, avoiding mashing steps but limiting recipe flexibility.

  • For those seeking creative freedom, all-grain unlocks endless recipe potential with practice. Extract offers simpler starting recipe kits.

  • Additional equipment like a mill, mash tun, hot liquor tank and sparge system is needed for all-grain brewing compared to extract.

  • All-grain provides efficiency and cost benefits at scale, but a steeper initial learning curve. Extract simplifies the fundamentals.

Whether you currently mash grains or mix malt extracts with water, understanding the differences between these primary methods helps chart your homebrewing growth. Both produce delicious handcrafted beers! Ultimately choosing the techniques keeping you excited as a homebrewer is key.

For more homebrewing tips, tricks and insights, head over the the Brewpedia blog!