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Although there are 4 primary steps to the beer-making process, there are actually three primary ways to make beer using those steps. The The three primary methods used to make beer are as follows:
Making beer using the extract brewing method is generally considered the easiest. Partial mash brewing is often used by intermediate brewer. Making all-grain beer is considered the most difficult and is where the experts generally find themselves. However, there is nothing wrong with beginners attempting all-grain batches and even the experts brew using the extract method from time to time.
Extract brewing is a simplified method of brewing beer. It's considered to be a better option for beginners because it requires a minimal amount of equipment, is faster than partial mash and all-grain brewing, and requires less skill than other types of brewing.
Instead of making a "beer mash" with whole grains, extract brewing takes advantage of malt extract, a concentrated syrup or powder derived from the malting and mashing process, which contains the sugars needed for fermentation. Using malt extract in place of making a beer mash allows for more consistency and less complexity than all-grain brewing, making it a popular choice for those new to homebrewing or for those who want to brew beer without investing in a full suite of brewing equipment.
Partial Mash Brewing
Partial mash brewing is an intermediate method of brewing where part of the sugar (consumed during fermentation) comes from malt extract and the rest of the sugar is created by mashing a small amount of malted grain. It's a middle ground between extract brewing and all-grain brewing. The purpose of partial mash brewing is to expand the styles of beer that are able to be brewed by extract brewers. This method is necessary because some recipes call for grain types that are not available as malt extract.
Because the amount of grain being mashed is relatively small, partial mash brewing can be accomplished without the need for specialty brewing equipment. It's a bit more complicated than extract brewing but is definitely easier than all-grain brewing. This makes it the next logical step for beginning brewers to move on to after they master extract brewing.
All-grain brewing is an advanced method of brewing where beer is made from scratch using raw ingredients such as malted barley. When brewing beer using the all-grain method, starch in malted barley is converted to sugar during a process called "mashing" and additional sugar is not generally added (with the exception of very high alcohol by volume beer styles). This method of brewing differs from extract and partial mash brewing because the latter methods relay on pre-made malt extract as the primary source of sugar.
All-grain brewing offers the most versatility and control when making beer. This method of beer allows brewers to select ingredients from literally hundreds of types of grain, making for unique and complex flavors that aren't possible with extract and partial-mash brewing. Mash temperature can also be adjusted during all-grain brewing in order to modify variables such as residual sweetness and body in the final product.