Once straight extract brewing has been mastered, you can start branching out. I encourage all new brewers to learn to brew using a very simple extract recipe consisting of extract, one hop with additions at 60 minutes and 10 minutes, a clean yeast and basic fermentation control. By brewing this beer until the results are consistent, you can be certain that your process is solid. You can be sure that changes to recipe will be reflected in the final beer, not variations in your brewing or sanitation processes. At this point, you’re ready to expand your brewing through the addition of steeping grains.
Base malts such as Pilsner, Pale Ale and even to a large extent Munich or Vienna must be mashed to get their benefits. The starches in the malt have not been converted. So-called specialty malts have generally either been converted “in the husk” in the case of Crystals or Caramel Malts, or are so darkened that their sugar contribution to your wort is negligible. These are prime candidates for a process called “extract and steep.” You will be brewing an extract beer but you will also be making a “tea” of warm water, 150 to 170 degrees, and your steeping grains.
The process is simple: Grind and bag your steeping grains in a cheesecloth or muslin bag – you don’t want the grains getting out into your wort. If you don’t have a mill or aren’t comfortable grinding your own grains, your local homebrew supply shop will usually do this for you free of charge. Place your brewing liquor (water) in your kettle, add the grains and begin to heat. Once the temperature reaches 170 degrees F, turn the heat off and let the grains steep in the warm water for a minimum of 15 minutes, up to an hour. Once in a while, dip the bag or swirl it in the warm water to ensure even wetting and to get some of the sweet wort, yes, it’s wort, out of the bag and into the water. At the end of the process, pull the grains out of the water, drain – don’t squeeze or you can get some bitter-astringent tannins out of the husks. Then top off any lost water due to grain absorption and continue the brewing process you’ve already mastered.
Experienced brewers can use the extract-steep process to test the flavors of new malts. I’ll make a very small batch, one or two gallons, and use the extract-steep process as a test of specialty grains. You can make some great beers this way, too. I have a silver medal from the Colorado State Fair for a blonde ale made using extract and steep process. These days it’s more of a test process for me but there’s no reason it can’t be your main process. At worst, it’s another step toward all-grain brewing requiring only the addition of a grain bag to what you already are using.