All-grain brewing vs extract brewing: Is it really cheaper?

Brewing beer — By on March 28, 2008 at 10:18 pm

There are cost differences between the two methods, but what is the real difference.  I’ve examined the “must have” equipment required and what the difference is in cost.  All-grain takes more time to brew, so you will need to determine if the price difference is worth the cost difference to you.  For price references, I’ve used Northern Brewer.  There are other places to purchase equipment and ingredients, but I wanted to give you a feel for the differences.  The purpose is not to declare one homebrew store better than any other.  You might be able to vary the prices a bit with some bargain shopping.

malt grains

You have more flexibility with all-grain, but is it cheaper?

To make a fair comparison between the brewing styles, I’ve picked a simple recipe from the book Beer Captured by Tess and Mark Szamatulski.  I’m picking a recipe from the book because it gives a complete recipe for both all-grain and extract, and it is a very simple recipe.

You will need more beer equipment

I am assuming you already have a 10 gallon pot.  I was using a 10 gallon pot long before I made the switch to all-grain.  If you do not have a pot capable of a full-wort boil, you will need to add a pot to your list of costs to switch.  A 10 gallon pot will cost anywhere between $100-$200 USD.

mashtun

I use a cooler to batch sparge my all-grain beers

You will also need a mash tun.  The simplest possible mash tun you can construct is a batch sparge mash tun from a cooler.  You can buy a all-grain continuous sparging system made from two rubber maid coolers for $249.99 USD.  A batch sparging system is much cheaper.

To construct a batch sparging mash tun you will need a 5-day cooler, a cooler conversion kit, and some sort of filter.  You can buy the Bazooka screen or construct your own from a bathroom stainless steel braided hose.  I’ve done both, but I prefer buying the bazooka screen.  The price difference is about $5 USD.

5-day cooler 70-quart $37.88 (WalMart)
Cooler Conversion Kit $29.99
Bazooka Screen $20.50

You can buy a smaller cooler (48-quart) for $28.88, but I would highly recommend getting the largest cooler you can.  This allows you to increase capacity or to make some very high gravity brews.

If you do not have a wort chiller, this is also highly recommended.  With extract brews you can brew half of the brew and chill it with cold sanitized water.  When you do all-grain brews, you are brewing the full wort.  It can take a long time to chill 5 gallons of boiling wort.  I would add a wort chiller in the “almost necessary” column.  The cheapest wort chiller will run $57.99 USD.

The last item in the “highly recommended” list is a propane burner.  These cost around $50 USD to $60 USD.  They will make your life much better, because you will be able to boil your wort within a reasonable amount of time.  If your burner on your stove is electric, you need a propane burner.

This is all the “above and beyond” equipment.  The fermenter and other equipment you used for extract brewing is the same for all-grain brewing.  This means if you want to switch to all-grain brewing, you will need to spend at least $88.37 USD.  If you need the wort chiller or brew pot, you should add those too.  Your total out is anywhere between $88.37 USD to $296.36 USD.

Recipe differences

The recipe I selected for comparison is the Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale recipe.  Here’s the extract recipe:

5 oz British 55ºL Crystal Malt
3 oz British Chocolate Malt
6 lbs Extra Light Dry Malt Extract
1 ½ oz East Kent Goldings
½ oz Fuggles
Wyeast 1187 Ringwood Ale

Here is the all-grain recipe

9.25 lbs British 2-row Pale Malt
5 oz British 55ºL Crystal Malt
3 oz British Chocolate Malt
Wyeast 1187 Ringwood Ale
25% less hops

The yeast is the same in both recipes, so I will exclude it from the comparison.  The all-grain method does use fewer hops, but I have never purchased hops in a smaller increment than 1 ounce.  In either recipe we will be buying 2 oz of East Kent Goldings and 1 oz of Fuggles, so I will eliminate the hop comparison as well.  Fewer hops will make a difference if your recipes grow larger than 5 gallon batches.

That leaves the grain bill.  Since the specialty grains are also the same in both recipes, I am going to compare the prices of malt extract to grain.

The malt extract is $13.50 USD for 6 lbs.  The price for grain crushed is $16.18 USD.  For this example, the price for all-grain is $2.58 USD higher.  Maybe I picked a poor example?

All-grain kits are $0.51 cheaper

The extract English Pale Ale kit from Northern Brewer costs $27.50.  The price for the all-grain English Pale Ale kit is $26.99.  At these price differences, you would need to make many all-grain kits to recoup the cost of your extra equipment.

So why do so many people believe all-grain is cheaper?  If you purchase your grain in bulk, the prices drop dramatically.  A 50 lb bag of 2-row will cost about $56.99.  You most likely can get this even cheaper from your local homebrew store.  The cost of your grain for this recipe is now $10.54 USD – a savings of $2.96 USD.  Recipes which use more grain will be even cheaper.  If you only make Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, you will need to make a minimum of 30 batches to recoup your costs.  If you brew triples, the number of brews will most likely decrease (not by much though).

Why switch to all-grain at all then?

The point of all this is to help you make an informed decision.  The real reason you want to switch to all-grain is for the control over your brews and ultimately to make better beer.  According to a Univ. of Saskatchewan study (listed in Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels), here are a few reasons why brewing from grain can be better:

  • You can produce lighter colored beers from grain
  • 93% of the extracts tested fermented slower than all-grain equivalents
  • Some extracts will not ferment to the desired final gravity due to higher amounts of dextrins in the extract
  • Some extracts tested contained high amounts of non-malt syrups (even some labeled 100% malt extract)

With all-grain brewing, you know exactly what is in your beer.  If you want to make better beer, all-grain is the way to go.  If you are happy with your extract beer and you’re not really looking for that extra edge, save yourself the money and stick with extract.  I’ve made great beers for years with extract.

I ultimately switched to all-grain for the control.  I want to make the best beer possible, and I want to know exactly what is in my beer.  All-grain allows me to fine tune recipes, experiment a bit, and give to me experience to become a better brewer.  A better way to look at all of this is, after equipment purchase, it is only a little bit more to go all-grain.  You ultimately have to make the choice for yourself.  Hopefully this will make your decision more informed.

[EDIT]

There was some feedback in the comments expressing concern about the prices and necessary equipment.  Here is Bill Velek’s well thought out criticism

http://home.alltel.net/billvelek/ferm-1.html

and my response

I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer!

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  • memphisbelle

    $.51 cheaper per kit is highly inaccurate. i brew 5.5 gallon batches AG for about 15 bucks. that’s not even buying malt in bulk.

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    I really appreciate your step by step guide.

  • NK

    Thanks for this interesting comparison.  We’re switching to AG for a year of brewing (we’ve previously only done extract) and this was an interesting read.

  • Guest

    Just what I was looking for, thanks for the info! :)

  • Mclerkin5672

    Where are you buying 6 lbs of DME for $13? Haha and I brew a batch of all-grain for $15 for everything (hops, base malt, and sp malt, and dry ale yeast).