I’ve used four mash methods ranging from letting someone else to it (extract) to full-blown decoction mashing. And I have to say I don’t have a real favorite. All of them are useful in different settings so as a brewer, I try to keep proficient in all of them.
Extract brewing is generally regarded as entry-level. For good reason: It’s the style most of us cut our teeth on and I still recommend it for beginners. That’s why it’s a skill I like to keep. Extract, an industrial product, is very consistent which makes it a great product to use to diagnose problems with your process or to try out new hops or yeast.
Extract reduces the number of variables in a brew. When I’m advising beginners, I advise them to use extract, pick a recipe and brew it until it tastes the same every time. That way they hone their process in readily observable ways. My current use is testing. I can brew a small extract batch with new hops and see exactly how the hops work in a beer. Likewise, I can test yeast, fermentation control, anything that doesn’t deal with mashing and be sure that my treatment, the thing I’m changing, is causing the change I’m observing. And an extract beer can be very good. You lose some control but you gain a consistency I can never get with my 10-gallon Igloo cooler and false bottom.
Not to mention a three-hour brew day even with steeping grains. You can use extract to test any crystal, roast or black malt simply by steeping and adding that malt tea to the boil. As a medium for testing ingredients, a simple extract beer with Magnum hops for bittering, consistently made, is the brewer’s equivalent of a freshly gessoed canvas, a plain white surface that will show any color applied to it.
As a test, try a three-gallon full-boil batch in your five gallon kettle. Use just pale extract and Magnum hops to a medium bitterness, say 25 IBU. Ferment it normally using a neutral yeast such as American Ale. You’ll get a very plain pale ale. Now start layering new flavors on it with late hop additions, steeping grains, different yeasts, spices. This beer will tell you what your addition tastes like and will aid immensely in recipe formulation. You won’t be guessing what pie spice tastes like in beer after testing it on this plain, simple brew.
Let me know how your tests go!