Where to start? Well, let’s start at the beginning….
Beer is the product of fermented malt sugar. Traditionally brewers only had one option when it came to making beer, they had to malt the grain and then mash out the available sugars into wort. This wort could then be condensed (boiled) and have different flavors added to it to make the un-fermented base for beer. Once done they would introduce the yeast, wait for fermentation to finish, and then enjoy.
These days we can buy grain already malted which saves a great deal of time by allowing us to forego the whole malting process; this is the route that most breweries take today. You can even go one step further and buy the grain already malted and mashed. This product is known as Malt Extract and it comes in both liquid form (a thick syrup) and as a dry powder. Each is essentially condensed wort.
So which is the best, all grain or extract? This is a topic of much debate on the homebrew front, but at the brewery level it is a no-brainer. Malted grain is the most cost effective way to produce beer, and it gives you a wide range of variables which you can manipulate. For home brewers the cost is less of an issue (being such a small amount) and the choice, in most cases, is decided by the available equipment and personal preference. As you can see, there are pros and cons to each.
Dollars: Are you a brewer on a budget and, if so, are you handy? All-Grain brewing uses about twice the equipment as extract depending on how creative you are. The equipment can be pricey but the raw goods in extract brewing also cost more that malted grain. This decision will boil down to initial cost vs cost over time, and will involve the individual’s commitment to long-term brewing.
Smarts: Too what degree do you wish to learn the particulars of brewing science? Most home brewers do not know that there is a lot to do with your water profile in the brewing process. If your water is off in alkalinity and/or pH you could end up making something that tastes more like band-aid tea or extremely bitter coffee than beer. One of the neat, and comforting, things about malt extract is that it already has the correct water profile “cooked” right in.
Time: Anyone who has brewed a batch of their own beer understands that it takes time to finish. There is no way around that, not even for the major players. The good news, however, is that most of the time is spent in waiting for fermentation, lagering, or conditioning. In all-grain brewing you almost double the brewing time due to the need for a mashing step. This process alone takes about 1.5 hrs then you have to lauder and sparge the mash, and sometimes additionally boil the wort to hit your target OG.
What it all, really, boils down to, and this is the major consideration at even the production brewery level, is how close do you want to get to your craft? How much of the end product do you want to have under your control? Some brewers like to malt and kiln-dry their own grain so that they can produce the exact profile that they are looking for. Others use the most readily available malt sugars and hop essences which are extracted in a lab somewhere. The bottom line is that you can make beer by mixing partially finished ingredients together; it is a great place for everyone to start (we did, but only for our first 2 brews). However, to truly appreciate everything that brewing has to offer, the jump to all grain brewing must be made. We feel that is where the true understanding and enjoyment of brewing is hidden, and the great thing about it is that anyone can find it.