When choosing between beer making methods, quality, surprisingly enough, is not the main concern. I cannot stress this enough. Homebrewing blogs and books get this wrong all the time: normal people do not get into homebrewing with the singular goal of making the best possible beer. That’s just one concern, among several others.
Second thing I want to stress: you can make quality beer with all brewing methods: extract, Brew in a Bag (BIAB), partial mash, and traditional all-grain. Quality has to do with how good of a brewer you are, and how much you know about brewing. A good brewer can use all these systems and make good beer. So, when considering what brewing system to use, the main concerns are (1) how much money you are willing to spend, and (2) how much time you are willing to spend. Other concerns are (3) how much space you have for brewing beer and (4) how mechanically inclined you are; that is, can you build, wire, drill, etc? Of course, the resulting beer has to taste good, but homebrewers have a wide threshold on what they deem quality beer. I, for example, could care less about making beer that could score well in a competition. I don’t have the palate or time to fuss with that.
Considering these real-life variables, how do these brewing systems stack up? Before discussing each one, I’ll cut to the chase: One Pot Brewing, which is a version of BIAB, in my humble opinion of course, gets top marks on money, time, and space: and requires virtually no mechanical abilities (trust me, I can barely drill a hole). And it’s a flexible, mobile system: you could do it outdoors or indoors. Objectively speaking, it blows these other bitches out of the water (that was a joke).
I’ll start with the easy one. Extract Brewing wins because it’s practically designed for indoor stove-top brewing. It’s extremely easy and fast, has very little start-up costs, and makes quality beer (I can speak for IPAs). Some people say that it limits your beer style options, or that it tastes “off” – I’m skeptical of all that. If you want a super light colored beer, extract might give you problems. Moving on, Brew in a Bag also works well indoors (I did for 30 batches or so). Buy a bag, commit to an extra hour mashing, and you are off to the races. With a traditional all-grain system, brewing indoors is almost out of the question, unless you design and build a special brewhouse in the basement or something.
Wait. Let me back up a bit. When brewing indoors, the main consideration is actually batch size. If you are okay brewing 2 or 3 gallon batches, then stove-top brewing is perfect: whether that’s Extract or BIAB. For example, I have a 2.5 gallon plastic conical fermenter (BrewDemon). With such a small batch, I can do an all-grain, Brew in a Bag, full volume batch right on the stove. With Extract, you save time. Now, what about a five gallon batch? Full volume is out of the question. Have you ever tried to boil 6 gallons of water on your stove? Instead – and this applies to Extract and BIAB – you must boil a “concentrated wort” and then add cold water to make 5 gallons.
It’s hard to pick a winner when it comes to financial concerns, but easy to pick the loser. While Extract has very low start up costs, it very quickly becomes very expensive. Money is why I don’t recommend extract brewing for anyone, not even for beginners. It’s simply unaffordable; just go buy beer. Consider this: 12 pounds of 2-row barley costs about $12.00. 12 pounds of similar dried malt extract would cost $42.00! Now, this comparison is slightly unfair because extract is more efficient (in other words, 12 pounds of extract would make more alcohol), but you get my drift. Extract is for lazy brewers who don’t care about money.
Traditional all-grain brewing has enormous start up costs (sorry I don’t have a figure because I’ve never done it), but certainly BIAB and One Pot Brewing are more reasonable ($220 start-up). On the other hand, traditional all-grain brewing typically has a much larger capacity than One Pot Brewing, which means that you never have to supplement with extract, sugar, or anything. For example, my grain capacity is 12 pounds. if I wanted to brew a 5 gallon Barley Wine with 10% ABV, I could not do all-grain. I have two options: smaller batch size, or supplement with extract and/or sugar (I recommend sugar for Double IPAs). In summary, because I have used extract on some of my BIAB recipes (although it’s rare), I must give traditional all-grain brewing the nod on price per batch (however, keep in mind even that has limitations. My friend has a large mash tun, but even he has used extract in some of his big beers). To make it more confusing, I have met some BIAB that have a gigantic vessel and bag, which I imagine could hold up to 20 pounds of grain (if you can lift it).
This is pretty self-explanatory. Extract takes the least amount of time, traditional all-grain the most, and BIAB is in the middle. You could knock out an extract batch in 2 hours. With BIAB, it’s about 4 (although check this out: 1:47). With traditional all-grain, anywhere from 5-8 hours (that is a brew day, my friend). So, are you single? Do you have a family? How often do you want to brew, bra?
From grain to glass, with all these methods you are looking at about 2-3 weeks. However, kegging will save you several days carbonation time. Kegging is usually associated with the traditional, all-grain system; although it works with BIAB too (but not One Pot Brewing).
If you live in an apartment, space is a concern. With extract, at the bare minimum, a pot with a spigot, a stir spoon, carb drops, 50 bottles, a bottle capper and caps would do the job. All that could fit in a small closet. With stove top BIAB, you simply add a bag and a strainer to the mix, which still fits in a small closet. With One Pot Brewing, you add a turkey fryer burner set up. No more closet. With traditional all-grain, you add a mash tun w/false bottom (this could be a hacked igloo cooler), a hot liquor tank, plastic tubing with connections, wort chiller, plastic fermenter, glass carboy (optional), bottling bucket (if bottling), kegging equipment (if kegging), and several other gadgets and trinkets that most traditional brewers use (hydrometer, scale, mash paddle).
It’s no surprise that traditional all-grain brewers tend to be more scientific, mechanically savvy, and nerdy than the rest of us. The more stuff you have, the more you need to fix it, modify it, hack it. If you are this type, go for traditional all-grain. Extract, of course, takes the least amount of skills. One Pot Brewing, I can attest to, takes very little skills.
How do you brew? and why?