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I'm planning on doing some SMaSH beers; mainly so that I can get more used to the characteristics of the various hop varieties; and also maybe keep the cost down a bit while I'm experimenting. Up to this point I've used specialty malts in my (two) extract brews. Obviously the bonefide SMaSH beer recipes don't include speciality malts; but I know I could always do a single hop beer and just use some specialty grains if I wanted to — though I do like the idea of using the SMaSH concept to identify the flavours of the malt extracts too, but I don't want to make a lame beer at the same time. You hear people all the time saying how terrific this and that SMaSH beer taste, but if that's the case why do we use specialty malts at all? I know a lot of it is for colour but is that it? ... or is the flavour imparted by the specialty malts in a typical extract brew not enough to really worry about leaving out, or are we depending more on the flavour hop addition to make up for that?

How necessary are specialty malts in an extract brew?

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To answer this question, let's examine a few things that we know. For the most part, DME or LME (particularly, the light or pale) is made mostly from 2-row barley malt, which is notoriously flavorless (I know that you can buy Maris Otter Malt Extract). Secondly, compared to DME and LME, the steeping grains that are used in extract brewing are very cheap. Thirdly, unless the label specifies that your extract is purely one type of malt, you have no assurances that it is.

Next, what exactly is the extract? It's ONLY the sugars extracted from the grains. You're not getting much of the flavors or proteins from the grain, that's where your steeping grains come into play.

All of that said, you have a few choices to make your SMASH...

  1. Use only Extract (LME or DME), but that would be fairly hollow.
  2. Steep the base malt as well as using a specific extract.
  3. Brew the grain All Grain with a friend who brews All Grain (I would personally recommend this and use something like Golden Promise or MO).
  4. Wait until you're brewing All Grain before attempting this.

I'm not trying to dissuade you from doing a SMASH, but the adjunct grains are important to add body to your beer.

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  • Thanks, that all makes sense to me. I don't know anyone that well who brews all grain and I wanted to do a number of these; so I could learn about ingredients before going all grain. Number 2 seems appealing - would the only drawback with that be that it wouldn't be a bone fide SMaSH beer? I'm not purist about it at all ( still it's nice to learn that extract is not necessarily single malt ) and if the base malts were flavourless then as far as my education is concerned it would be sort of a single malt anyway. I can get (pure) muntons marris otter ext would that be OK without specialty grains – byronyasgur Nov 16 '16 at 18:36
  • ... or I suppose I could just do a partial mash using the same malt as the extract as long as I could get a single malt extract ( which from a bit of googling I think Muntons do and that's what I've been using ) - that should get me the best of all worlds would it? though I know I'd probably be limited in terms of Malt options but this is more of a hop education anyway – byronyasgur Nov 16 '16 at 18:41
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    Why do you say that 2-row barley malt is flavorless? AFAIK almost all malt is made from 2-row (as opposed to 6-row, rye, or wheat); just think Pilsner malt, vienna malt, munich malt. – Robert Nov 16 '16 at 22:41
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    Why do you say that extract is "ONLY the sugars extracted from the grains. You're not getting much of the flavors or proteins from the grain". Malt extract is produced by mashing grain exactly as an all-grain brewer would, and then evaporating water to condense it. – jalynn2 Nov 17 '16 at 13:24
  • DME and LME is a concentrated form of wort made with the grains, just as orange juice concentrate is. At the end of the day, you're getting mostly just the sugars and none of the proteins (you do get some of the non-fermentable sugar, but not as much as you do from the adjunct grains). – CharlieHorse Dec 6 '16 at 19:25
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Different specialty malts affect your beer differently:

  • color malts: color, body
  • roasted malts: toasty, chocolate, roasted, or coffee flavor
  • cara-... malts: caramel flavor, mouthfeel, head retention
  • acid malt: ph level adjustment
  • (not a malt, but for completeness) flaked oaks: for head retention and creamy full body
  • smoke malt: special smoke flavor (only needed for a few styles, but those can't go without)

How necessary are they? Depends on what you want to brew. If you brew a SMaSH American Pale Ale or German Pilsner, you can do without specialty malts. If you want to brew an oatmeal stout, you'll need specialty malts.

As an all-grain brewer, you can get the effects of certain specialty malts by process, i.e., the way you brew. For example, you can roast your own malt for coloring, or you can do a decoction mash to get caramel flavors and mouthfeel you would normally not get from the malt.

See also:

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I assume when you describe "specialty malts" you are talking about the whole grain components of a partial mash recipe. Strictly speaking specialty malts are any grains besides the base malt. To someone who uses extract for their base specialty is probably anything that isn't extract, but to a whole grain brewer specialty malts have a more specific meaning. True specialty malts are unnecessary in many styles, and you should have no concerns if you choose to omit them for a particular recipe.

It depends on your goals. If you use no whole grains and only rely on extracts you will have a seriously sub-par beer, but if you are really trying to explore the hops than this might be passable for your purpose. It will have very little malt character and lack depth of flavor, and that could be fine if you are trying to highlight different characteristics. I doubt it would be seriously bad. Consider making a small batch to see how it turns out.

People make all extract beers all the time, they are still very popular first entries for people who don't have friends already in the hobby.

Or you could make a partial mash beer and only use one variety of hops with it. It's not properly SMaSH, but it is likely to give you better results.

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    A German pilsner only uses Pilsner malt. Hardly a specialty, still many great beers in that category. – Robert Nov 16 '16 at 22:42
  • "a seriously sub-par beer". No, it depends on the style. Some styles only use base malt. – jalynn2 Nov 17 '16 at 13:27
  • You are both right, I misspoke and should have described the choice as extract only, or with any grains. – BBS Nov 17 '16 at 13:30

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