Last year, there was a news story about how President Obama purchased a homebrewing kit so that his kitchen staff could brew beer at the White House, using honey from the beehives he'd had installed there. Needless to say, homebrewers across America were happy to get some national exposure for their hobby, and lots of people emailed me the story.
Naturally, being a curious lot, some of us wanted the White House's recipes, and a couple of months ago at least two people submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to get them. So, brewing at the White House was again in the news at the beginning of September when the recipes were published, and again people sent me the stories to ask what I thought of the recipes, and whether I planned to try them.
At the risk of losing my chance to ever share a beer with the president, let me say that I was not impressed. The recipes, for a honey ale and honey stout, call for using canned malt extract. I didn't know that anyone even sold canned malt extract anymore.
Malt extract is basically a syrup, what you'd get if you took the sweet wort from mashing grain and boiled it down to the consistency of liquid caramel. To be fair, it's how most homebrewers start, because it takes some specialized equipment and a little finesse to mash grain. Most beginning homebrewers do what the White House recipe does, which is called a partial mash. You soak 1-2 pounds of specialty grains, for example the toasted dark malts that give a porter its color and chocolate/coffee/toffee characteristics, in hot water an a cheesecloth bag to extract the flavor from them; and then you add malt extract to the water and boil it.
That's what I did for about the first 2 years and 25 batches of beer I made. After that, I got a mashing rig and did a full mash or all-grain recipes, where all your wort comes from grain. That gives you more control over the grains you use, and thus over the flavor.
In using malt extract and a partial mash, the White House made their recipe very accessible to novice homebrewers, so in that respect it's a good thing. But canned malt extract... that's like a casserole recipe that calls for a can of cream of mushroom soup. You can still buy it, but then you're limited to to the amount in the cans (typically 3.3 pounds; apparently the WH gets around this limitation for using dry malt extract to round out the amount needed; and let me tell you, that stuff is a PITA to work with, it sticks to everything), and I'd be concerned about freshness. I suppose it'd be OK if you didn't have a local homebrew store and had to get your stuff through mail-order, but better mail-order places sell plastic/foil packets of extract that will be much fresher than canned. Although I guess I should be glad they didn't go really old-school and call for hopped extract, which basically (gods only know how) included some sort of hop extract in the malt as well.
So, while I applaud the White House for spotlighting the hobby, and for making their recipes accessible to beginners, I wish they'd used a little more current ingredients.