With the recent explosion of interest in homebrewing we’ve seen, loads of new beginner brewers are asking me the same question: Where do I begin?

A common answer that many newbies receive, mostly from homebrewing shops, is to try extract kits. It makes sense. It’s all in the can (or box) and features recognizable styles like lagers, stouts and so on. But as a beginner, do you need to start with kits?

My answer is: “Nope”.

Disclaimer: I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t sell, link to, or otherwise receive money from anybody in the homebrewing industry. I have nothing against vendors of beer kits. But as a homebrew educator, I have legitimate opinions about them!

Kits: Pros and Cons

When I say that I don’t recommend Kits, that’s not to say they don’t have benefits for the beginning brewer. Kits are easy. That’s sort of their sales proposition. It really is a “just add water” solution. But therein lies the problem. By reducing brewing to a just-add-water process, and by pre-hopping extracts and counseling brewers to only boil part of the brew (and not a full volume), I think kits do more harm than good.

Another issue I have with kits is that the styles offered aren’t always the best ones for beginner brewers to start with. Lagers for instance. These beers are pretty difficult to make, even for experienced brewers. They require cold fermentation temperature and longer periods of maturation (i.e. “lagering”). Lager yeasts are also a bit more temperamental and produce more off-flavors than ale yeasts. Yet, almost every kit brewer I’ve spoken to has tried to make a lager kit.

The results are often far from ideal. Experienced brewers sometimes refer to the “kit taste” of kit-generated beers. This is not necessarily because of the quality of the ingredients (although sometimes it might be: kits are often imported and stored in non-ideal conditions during the journey), but because of the highly truncated methods used in kit brewing.

Again, creating beer through the just-add-water method that requires no prolonged boiling of wort, etc. just is not going to produce high-quality beer.

Here are a few other problems with starting out using kits:

  • Although new styles are brought out all the time by kit manufacturers, you’ll never have the diversity of styles available that other methods afford the brewer.
  • And even if you find the style you are looking for, you can’t alter the recipe. Of course, kits producers will say that this is a benefit. Only tried-and-tested recipes are produced. But what about the fun of creating your own recipe, using someone else’s and modifying recipes based on personal taste? Kits don’t allow for that.
  • Cost. Kits are just about one of the priciest options for homebrewers. You pay for the convenience of just-add-water brewing. Not that I think the convenience is nearly worth the cost!
  • Method. The number one problem with kit brewing is this: you don’t really learn much about the basics of brewing method. For the most part, using the just-add-water brewing method of kit brewing is very, very far away from actual brewing techniques. So even if you brew hundreds of kit brews, you are not necessarily learning anything new or important about brewing (other than the importance of sterilization, which is always important).

So if not kits, what?

At this point, many well-meaning homebrewers will recommend their kit-using friends to switch to all-grain brewing. But there is an easier and gentler intermediate step that has almost all the benefits of all-grain brewing and none of the disadvantages of kit brewing listed above.

It’s called extract with specialty grains brewing. Not to be confused with partial mashing, extract with specialty grains brewing uses a base extract malt, often in dried form, plus some specialty grains, plus actual hops (not the pre-hopped extracts of kits), plus real brewing techniques (i.e. full volume boils, hop additions, etc) to produce some really, really good homebrew.

In fact, when used properly, a homebrewer can brew award-winning beers that are indistinguishable from all-grain beers using this method (I certainly have).

The best part: You are learning the basics of good brewing techniques. All the methods you learn using extract with specialty grains are fully transferable to all-grain brewing as well.

Extract with Specialty Grains Brewing: The Basics

Although I’ve covered the methods used in an extract with specialty grains brew in other posts (I’ll link to the most important ones at the bottom of this article), I’ll revisit the basics here.

Using Extract as a Base Grain

When all-grain brewers brew beer, they first have to complete a process called mashing. This is where fermentable sugars are created and then extracted from malted barley, wheat, rye and other grains usied to brew beer. So-called “base grains” are the grains that are responsible for the lion’s share of fermentable sugars, and these all need to be mashed in order to do so.

The extract brewer can skip the mashing step because the extraction of fermentable sugars has already been done for them. Base grain extracts like Dried Malt Extract (DME) contain the products of mashing base grains like Pale Malt, Pilsner Malt, and others.

What that means is that extract brewers can start their brew day with the next step down the line from mashing: the boil.

But before we get into that, let’s quickly take a look at base grain extracts like DME..

What is DME anyway?

Dried Malt Extract, or DME, is nothing other than wort (the product of mashing base grains like Pale malts and Munich malts, etc) that has been dried in massive machines to a fine powder. That’s it. Inside the DME you’ll find:

  • Fermentable sugars like maltose and glucose. These are going to be converted to alcohol and CO2 by the brewer’s friend: Yeast.
  • Unfermentable sugars (commonly referred to as dextrins). These are generally not fermentable, so yeast cannot break these up into alcohol and CO2. They remain in the beer and provide body and flavor compounds
  • Other stuff: DME, like wort, will contain some proteins, some lipids (fats), and so on. These compounds contribute to flavor, body, head and other elements that make beer, well, beer.

Note that unlike extract syrups found in kit beers, DME does not contain hop extracts or any other ingredients. Just dried wort made from base grains. This is a critical distinction because using DME for brewing means that you, dear beginner brewer, will be adding your own hops and specialty grains to the brew.

Now that’s real brewing!

Because DME is mostly composed of base pale malts, it’s not that flavorsome. You can make a passable, simple ale from just DME though, as long as you add hops with good, solid flavor.

But mostly, you’ll be adding some specialty malts to your brew to augment the flavor profile of DME. Common specialty malts include various crystal malts, chocolate malts, and roasted barley.

Again, adding specialty malts is not possible in kit brewing. These are already added to the extract syrup.

Extract + Specialty Malts: The Method

So now that you know what DME is all about, it’s easier to understand the basic method of brewing with extract and specialty malts.

If you’re used to kit brewing, this method will offer a whole host of new experiences and things to learn. But don’t be afraid! All of it is pretty straightforward and more importantly: A whole heck of a lot of fun!

Here are a few other major differences between kit brewing and using extract with specialty grains:

  • Full volume, rolling boil brews. Using this method, you won’t just be adding boiling water. Instead, you’ll use the full volume of water needed (e.g. 23-26 liters of water for a 19 liter / 5 gal brew), and boil it for 60-90 minutes, just like pro brewers the world over!
  • Creating a specialty grain “tea”. Before this boiling of the wort, you’ll add flavor by steeping cracked specialty grains for around 30 minutes at 70 degrees C (158F). Much like a tea bag, you’ll be using a muslin or voile bag to keep the grains separated from the final wort.
  • Hops, beautiful hops. Perhaps the saddest part of kit brewing is that you don’t get to play with hops. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of different hop varietals with flavor diversity to match. Now that you’re doing full-volume boils, you’ll be adding hops yourself, and learn more about how each addition of hops creates a completely different beer.
  • Working with yeast. Although kits come with packaged dry yeast, using this method will mean that you get to choose which strain of yeast to use for your beer. And yeast strains differ tremendously. In fact, you can brew the same beer, grain, and hops-wize, and just by adding a different yeast strain, you’ll have a completely different beer at the end!

By now, you should be appropriately excited about abandoning the world of kit beer and jumping into extracts and specialty grains brewing! Right away, you’ll start noticing differences in the quality of beer produced. One of many reasons: A full volume, 60-minute boil not only removes various off-flavored compounds from the beer, but allows for full hops utilization, making for a more subtle and layered hop flavor in your beer. In addition, you’ll be brewing beer with greater clarity, because boiling helps with that.

What about equipment?

You’ll be pleased to know that this method does not require a lot of additional equipment.

At a minimum, you need to buy a stockpot that will be able to boil the full volume of beer you want to produce, a voile or muslin bag for steeping the grains, and a thermometer to measure your water temperature.

And that’s it! See below for more reading on this topic, but I encourage you to give this method a shot: You won’t regret it!

Additional Reading

For more on equipment, check out these guides:

A basic guide to equipment needed

More on the method and ingredients needed:

Ingredients and a recipe you can start with.

A step-by-step guide to your first brew day:

Brewing your first extract with specialty grain beer

Now, go brew.

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