Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How-To: Brewing Better Extract Beers

There isn't a whole lot of info out there on how to make good extract-based gluten-free beers, and let me tell you that just boiling up six pounds of sorghum extract and calling it good will NOT make a great beer.  With over 30 brews under my belt, all of which have been recipes of my own devising, I thought I'd share a bit of my experience in how to make good extract beers (since not everyone wants to fuss with enzymes, decoction mashes, self-malted grains, etc.).  It is perfectly possible to make extract-based gluten-free beers that rival and even exceed the commercially-available stuff!  Check out these tips after the jump.

Tip #1: Maltodextrin

Typically derived from corn, rice, or tapioca (I've yet to find non-gluten-free maltodextrin), this unfermentable carbohydrate is my biggest secret weapon.  I add it at the start of the boil, at a rate of 4 to 8 oz per 3-gallon batch.

What maltodextrin adds is mostly body and head retention--and boy howdy, does it ever help with the latter!  If your gluten-free brews suffer from non-existent or soda-pop-like head, maltodextrin is what you need.  It also really helps in hoppy beers like IPAs by giving the beer a much-needed body to balance the strong hop presence.

Tip #2: Whirlfloc Tablets

There's nothing mysterious about whirlfloc tablets, they're basically concentrated irish moss with a little sodium bicarbonate added to help it dissolve.  They don't seem to contribute anything to the flavor (at least, not that I've noticed!), but what they do is to help clarify the beer.  I've seen lots of new gluten-free brewers complain that their sorghum-based beers come out extremely cloudy or hazy, and whirlfloc tablets are the quickest and easiest solution.  One tablet dissolved in the hot wort during the last 10 minutes of boiling will help coagulate haze-forming proteins and assist in the "hot break", and once primary fermentation finishes up, the beer typically drops clear after a few more days—no secondary fermentation needed!

Tip #3: Candi Syrup

Not to be confused with candi sugar, which is a rock-like crystalline substance that comes in various shades of darkness, candi syrup is absolutely essential in brewing darker gluten-free beers or beers that require a bit of caramel malt character.  D-45 is an excellent addition to amber ales, American-style IPAs, British bitters, and of course Belgian styles.  D-90 is twice as dark and contributes some smooth chocolate and dark fruit notes, and is appropriate in porters and some stouts (or in smaller quantities in brown ales and Belgian dubbels).  D-180 has a roasty coffee-like character that I rely upon heavily in my darker beers, and it pairs well with roasted grains or chestnuts used for steeping.

One word of caution: I've found that candi syrup can thin the body of a beer considerably, and in large amounts it does leave a lingering caramel sweetness.  I've really pushed the envelope with it in some of my beers, but my current view on it is that it's better when used with a little restraint (and a lot of maltodextrin!)

Tip #4: Raw, Varietal, Unfiltered Honey

Yes, it's expensive, but there is no comparison with the bland translucent filtered pasteurized stuff you get at Costco.  Raw honey is an excellent addition to gluten-free beer, as it can add sweetness, improve head retention, and create depth and complexity that sorghum and rice extracts are usually lacking.  Different varieties have wildly different flavors; buckwheat honey adds a malty earthiness, while clover honey can add a light hay-like fragrance and a clean sweetness.  Experiment!  I've gotten great results with blackberry honey, which adds a subtle berry flavor that can almost be mistaken for actual fruit.  Watch out for chestnut honey, though—its flavor can be overpowering, and does not seem to age out, even over a year or more.

Note also that while many brewers insist that honey dries out a beer and adds very little honey flavor, my own experiences are so far at odds with this I have to wonder what everyone else is doing wrong.  I add between 4 and 12 oz of honey to a 3-gallon batch, always after I turn off the flame, and with the more heavy-handed additions, my beers come out tasting almost like mead when young.  Honey flavor has dominated many of my beers, and only after several months of aging has the honey flavor relaxed and blended with the grainy flavors of the extracts.

Another neat trick with honey is that you can "burn" it in your brew kettle to get some nice dark color and roasty flavor.  It's easy to over-do it, though; I don't recommend burning more than a pound of it in a 5-gallon batch.  Lighter honey seems to work better for this, as darker honey can develop some earthy or bitter off-flavors.  It's easy to do, but potentially messy—using a big 5-gallon pot is crucial.  Just crank up the heat, add the honey, and stir with a looong metal spoon.  Cook it just until it darkens for a caramel flavor, or keep going all the way to tarry blackness for a sharp roasted marshmallow flavor that adds TONS of color, and then add boiling water—SLOWLY—after taking of the heat to re-dissolve the honey for the boil.

Tip #5: Exotic Sugars

Take a cue from Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing and hit up some Asian, Indian, Mexican, or Middle Eastern markets for some flavorful alternatives to the usual brown sugar.  Jaggery, piloncillo, coconut palm sugar, date sugar...all of these sugars can add interesting flavors and nuances to a gluten-free beer.  I've personally had some good successes with palm sugar, using a little less than 1/3 of a pound per gallon of wort; the resulting beer had a light toffee-like note to it that was unmistakeably contributed by the sugar.

For added complexity, you can also caramelize these sugars by dissolving them in water and boiling them until they start to darken a little bit (adding a little di-ammonium phosphate helps the darkening by contributing the nitrogen necessary for maillard browning reactions); for basic instructions to make caramel, check out this link, and for info on how to use DAP to enhance browning, see this post on

Tip #6: Teas and Herbal Tisanes

The sky is kinda the limit here, but there's really a lot that tea and herbs can add to a gluten-free beer.  The effects range from subtle to pronounced.  On the subtle side, a malty assam or yunnan black tea, at a rate of about 0.5 oz per gallon of wort, steeped before or after the boil (NOT during!), can enhance the malty character of rice and sorghum extracts.  Puerh tea can enrich the color of dark gluten-free beers and add some mellow earthiness.  Green tea, and especially powdered matcha, can add some subtle floral, grassy, or vegetal notes when added to the secondary fermenter.  Perhaps even better, jasmine tea makes an excellent addition to a spring IPA, and is best soaked in grain-neutral spirits and then added to secondary.

For more noticeable flavor contribution, I've had phenomenal success with chamomile, used in anything from a summer cream ale to a strong and heavily-bittered IPA.  Chamomile can be added directly to the boil, and even if added right at the start, its flavor will be prominent in the finished beer.  However, the contribution it makes is somewhat unlike its flavor when steeped as a tea: in a beer, it has a coconutty/marshmallow quality as well as its characteristic sweet hay-like aroma.

Rose also makes a nice addition; I did a rose blonde last year with palisades hops that was quite delectable (if a little perfumey), and this year I have a rose stout in the works.  Putting an herbal or floral  note very forward in a beer allows the drinker to focus on something other than the lack of a strong barley malt flavor.  For those that really like to feature herbal, floral, or spice flavors, gluten-free beers can actually be a superior platform, particularly because gluten-free extracts have such mild tastes.

Caution is advised, however: bitter or strongly-flavored teas can overpower and ruin a beer if not used judiciously!

Tip #7: Yeast Nutrient

I used to scoff at yeast nutrient, as I never used it during my early brews and found that the yeast had no trouble attenuating the beer fully; in fact, most of my early beers over-attenuated, with attenuation rates as high as 83%!  However, it has recently been brought to my attention by a food scientist that one of the reasons gluten-free beers have a sweet and almost cidery taste is because gluten-free extracts are low in free amino nitrogen (FAN for short), and that causes problems during fermentation.  The yeast attenuate fine, and produce alcohol fine, but without sufficient FAN they don't clean up certain by-products as well, and that leads to a cidery taste.  Many homebrewers have noted that adding a healthy dose of yeast nutrient to the boil can help reduce the sorghum flavor.  One of these days I'm gonna try a side-by-side comparison with a split batch, but until then, I'm going to recommend adding yeast nutrient as recommended by the manufacturers, because the food science seems legitimate.

Some Ingredients to AVOID

I've tried a whole lot of wacky ideas, and while most have been successes, a few have proven to be anywhere from lackluster to terrible.

Avoid #1: Blackstrap Molasses

It might be possible to get good results with light molasses or sorghum molasses, but blackstrap?  Forget about it!  I thought this stuff would be great for adding color and deepening the flavor, and while I was right on about the color, the flavor contribution was a strong minerally-metallic flavor that amplified the familiar sorghum "twang" to unbearable levels.  Even in low doses—4 oz in 3 gallons—it still came through, and even dominated when the beer was young.

Avoid #2: Carob

I thought carob would add both fermentables and a nice chocolate flavor.  What it added instead was an intense diacetyl "buttery" character, replete with slickness in the mouthfeel.  The guys at Harvester Brewing noted the same thing when they tried a version of their Dark Ale brewed with carob.  Stick to raw cacao nibs added at secondary, or chocolate flavor extract or liquer at bottling, if you want a chocolate flavor in your beer.

Avoid #3: White Sugar/Corn Sugar

Barley brewers often utilize this stuff to "dry out" or "thin the body" of high-ABV beers that would be cloyingly sweet and thick otherwise; we gluten-free brewers just do not need to do this, EVER.  Sorghum extract and rice syrup are already very thin, and in fact regular brewers could just as well use rice syrup instead of corn sugar to lighten the body of their brews.  If you brew a big high-alcohol gluten-free beer, DO NOT take a cue from barley brewers and add corn sugar or white sugar, because you will end up with a thin, hot-tasting mess (which probably also tastes over-hopped, too).  Save this stuff for bottling time.


  1. Thanks for the explanation on yeast nutrients. I had not heard this angle before, makes sense!

  2. Thanks for all the tips! I've just done one gluten free brew but am about to attempt your oatmeal stout.

  3. Hi, and thanks for all the wonderful information about gluten free brewing on this blog! I have recently come over a new product from White Labs (as of July 2013) called WLN4000 Clarity-Ferm. Intentionally used to prevent chill haze it also contains enzymes that appears to destroy gluten down to below 20 ppm. I have read other brewers doing all grain brews then add this during fermentation, but I'm not 100% convinced myself. Have you tried anything similar? Cheers from Norway!

    1. Hi Magnus, Clarity-Ferm is a product that has received exactly *zero* testing in terms of whether beer treated with it is safe for those with all forms of gluten intolerance. There are several beers on the market in North America and parts of Europe and Australia that are made with this product and sold as being "gluten free" because they pass the R5 competitive ELISA test at under 20 PPM, but again, no medical tests have been done to substantiate whether or not these beers are safe. I have tried a few of them and seem to get a reaction if I have more than one; one gives me slight nausea, two sends me to the restroom with moderately severe abdominal cramping and loose bowels. As such I do not intend to explore using barley in my beers and then treating with Clarity-Ferm.

    2. Thanks for the reply! I have made a few recipes (but no brews yet). Was thinking about doing a partial mash with a few % special malt to get some colour and falvour, say 5-10%, then using Sorghum and maltodextrine and adding Clarity-Ferm at pitching. Do you think that could work? Or should i leave the barley totally out of the equation and swap it with candi syrup and honey?

  4. It all depends on what you can tolerate! If you find you can tolerate commercially-available beer made with Clarity-Ferm, then go ahead and brew with it. If you can't find any such beer, then try and experiment as you wish, just remember you may end up with gallons of beer that you can't drink.