With the growth of home brewing, along with the development of peoples’ taste buds, there has been a push towards introducing new flavors into beers. Some of these flavors have come from new techniques, the breeding of different hops, or new ideas in blending malts. Other flavors come from the addition of flavorings, ranging from herbs and spices, to fruits, to coffee and chocolate. There’s no longer just “beer-flavored beer,” you can get beer with hints of lavender, orange, chocolate, and more.

Using whole ingredients such as cacao nibs, coffee beans, and pureed or diced fruits is a good way to add flavor to the beer. Unfortunately, using whole ingredients can get awfully expensive, not to mention messy and difficult to fine tune. Using whole ingredients is something that you should only do after gaining a good amount of experience – it adds new steps and new variables that the beginning homebrewer won’t be able to deal with.

How Can You Get These Flavors Without Using Whole Ingredients?

This is where the idea of extracts come in. A number of companies – Brewer’s Best is chief among them – make artificial flavorings for beer. These artificial flavorings run the gamut from light herbs, to fruits, through to heavier flavors like chocolate and coffee.

Most of these are made through the combination of chemicals and natural flavorings, although some are made the old-fashioned way. This way is simply allowing the fresh ingredients to steep in an alcohol for a while, to draw out the flavors.

How Does This Work?

While whole ingredients are added at various points of the brewing process, flavor extracts are added just before bottling. Extracts are highly-concentrated flavors, with the liquid medium that allows for even distribution through a brew. The extract is then stirred throughout the beer for an even distribution.

The amount of extract that you use is up to you. It’s best to start small and work your way up. Most of the time, the recommendation is to add no more than 4 ounces of extract per 5 gallon batch. Adding any more than this may lead to an overwhelming, even chemical taste. The best idea is to start with less than that, and take a taste. If the taste of the extract hits you for five seconds or so, you’ve hit the sweet spot. If you can’t taste it, or can barely taste it, then you likely need to add more.

This is much better than if you add too much, though. Overdoing it can lead to a lingering taste in your mouth, so if you’re still tasting the flavoring ten seconds after you’ve taken your sip, you’ve overdone it. Unfortunately, once you’ve overdone it, you can’t bring the beer back, unless you brew up another base batch and blend it in. That’s why you start low and work your way up.

What Are Advantages of Using Extracts?

There are a number of advantages to using extracts, even for the advanced brewer who knows how to use whole ingredients:

  • Easy to mix flavorings – Want to make a chocolate raspberry porter? You can fine-tune the extract balance first, then add it to the beer.
  • No muss, no fuss – You can go through the processes with solids and purees, but extracts you simply dump in and toss away the bottle. No prep, no clean-up. Perfect for helping to shorten brew days or avoid having more trash to deal with when cleaning up after brewing.
  • Able to split batches – You can bottle some of your beer, then add an extract to the remainder before bottling, allowing you to compare the base beer to the beer with flavoring added.
  • Flavor on a budget – Flavorings usually run $4-$5 per four ounces bottle, which is enough to flavor 5 gallons of beer. Whole ingredients will run much higher than that. Large quantities can be bought at better prices, but then you’re stuck with a gallon of flavorings. Great if you’re making multiple batches or need heavy doses of extracts, but otherwise not worth it for small brewers.
  • Long shelf life – While fresh ingredients need to be used quickly so they don’t rot or go bad, extracts are shelf stable for years.

So when you are considering adding a flavor to your beer, whether you’re looking for a subtle taste or a flavorful shot to the taste buds, extracts will be your best bet. From apples to watermelon, chocolate to banana, you can build a brew that will amaze you and your beer-drinking friends.