Brewing Your First All Grain Batch

copper valves

All Grain beer tastes better than extract. There I said it.  Together we can get you making better beer but you’ll need some equipment first (see below). Got the equipment? Good let’s put the pieces together and brew some beer. I want to note again that all-grain brewing is not all that difficult. It’s a lot of sitting around and waiting (and drinking).

The Mash

Let me take a quick moment to sum up what will happen. You will be soaking grains in hot water which will convert the starches in the grains to simple sugars for the yeast to eat. This is different from extract brewing in that extract is already converted to sugar and ready to be eaten by yeast.

  1. Fill up your boiling kettle with about 5 gallons of water and then heat it up to 165-168 degrees. Don’t go hotter than 170 degrees, going over that temperature will extract unwanted flavors from the grain husks, possibly kill the good enzymes we want.
  2. Mix your crushed grain and hot water together in your Mash Tun until you have what I would describe as a ‘Wet but not Soupy” consistency. What you want is for all the grain to be steeping in the water but to not have it too diluted. If too much water is in the mash it can prevent the enzymes from converting the starches to simple sugars.
  3. Check that the temperature is between 155 and 160 degrees. If it’s too low you might not get a good starch to sugar conversion
  4. Put the cover on the Mash Tun and walk away.
  5. The mashing process usually takes about 1 to 1.5 hours. Best to wait 1.5 so you know that conversion is complete. If you want to cut down on your time you can do an Iodine Test to see if conversion is complete but it’s not necessary.
  6. During this time you can start heating up another 5 gallons of water to 170 degrees. Find a safe and careful way to pour the hot water into your Hot Liquor Tank and put the lid on for later.

The Sparge

During the sparge we rinse the grain of all the newly created sugars. Do this by opening the valve at the bottom of the Mash Tun while sprinkling water on top of the grain inside. The result is the wort we are going to boil.

  1. First we need to make sure all the little grain chunks at the bottom of the mash tun don’t get into our brewing kettle. Open the valve at the bottom of the mash tun enough that it lets out a slow stream of wort. Collect this in a glass bowl or stein . When the bow fills up a bit close the valve. You’ll see lots of little chunks of grain. We don’t want those in the boil so carefully and slowly pour that back on top of the grain in the Mash Tun. Repeat this several times until you get it as clear as you think it will get.
  2. This next part depends on what is available to you so I can’t give you specifics. You will need to get your Hot Liquor Tank up high so that it sits above your Mash Tun. Your Mash Tun needs to be high enough that it sits above your boil kettle. My first setup had the kettle sitting on the floor, the Mash Tun sitting on a chair, and the Hot Liquor Tank sitting on a chair that was sitting on a table. My second setup used a combination of chairs and front porch steps. The main concern is that you do this in a safe manner because you don’t want 5 gallons of 170 degree water tipping on your head.
  3. Connect your sparge arm to your Hot Liquor Tank valve and set it up over the grain in the Mash Tun. Connect a silicone hose from the Mash Tun valve and put it in your boil kettle. Open the valve on the HLT to start sprinkling water on the grain. Open the valve on the Mash Tun to let out a slow stream of wort into the kettle.
  4. During the sparge I like to keep about an inch of water over the grain. This keeps the grain loose for rinsing and prevents it from being compacted and blocking flow.
  5. At about 3 gallons in the boil kettle you’ll want to start taste testing the wort coming out of the hose with a shot glass. If it still tastes sweet then you’re still getting sugars out and can continue sparging. Start tasting for a ‘tea like’ astringency (drying taste on the tongue). If you get to that point close all the valves and put your kettle on the propane burner. I usually add tap water to my kettle at this point to bring it up to 6 gallons (which will get boiled off in the next hour).

The Boil

Now we’re back in familiar territory. You will boil the wort for at least an hour, adding in hops according to their schedule, chill the wort, put it in your fermenter, and pitch in the yeast. Close it all up with an airlock and wait 3-4 weeks. Bottle and profit.

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The Leap To All Grain Homebrewing

old brewery
You wont need this much. Just some coolers.

Whenever I would read about all-grain homebrewing in the various books, it seemed ridiculously complicated. I couldn’t imagine going from the simplicity of extract/grain recipes to what appeared to be an equipment and space nightmare. Strange terminology such as ‘mash tuns’, ‘lauter tuns’ and ‘sparging’ did not sound like fun to me.

It’s true. Going from extract brewing to all-grain is a leap. Both in procedures as well as equipment. But i assure you the taste of all-grain beer is a million times better than extract.

I’m going to simplify and break down the equipment for you now. This is intended for a brewer that already owns the basics such as a fermenter and wants to know what they need to upgrade to all-grain. I’m going to put them in the order I think you should purchase them. This way you can continue extract brewing with the new equipment until your ready for the final pieces.

  1. Propane Burner – You should buy one of these regardless if you are moving to all-grain. Extract brewing with a propane burner  (rather than on the stove) is just the bees knees. Imaging getting your boil started in 5 minutes rather than 30. Seriously worth every cent.¬† It also sounds cool when you turn it up all the way. Fire = good.
  2. Wort chiller – This is also an item you’ll want with all-grain but can benefit you while you are still doing extract brewing. Instead of sticking your boil kettle in a stupid ice bath for 30 minutes, you can simply chill the wort directly. It usually takes about 10 minutes to get your wort to yeast pitching temperature.
  3. Boiling pot – You will want at least a 7.5 gallon pot for boiling.
  4. Hot Liquor Tank – this is a fancy/old term for a hot water tank. Get a 10 gallon picnic cooler (the kind with a spout at the bottom for serving cups of water) from Home Depot.
  5. Mash Tun – This is just a second 10 gallon cooler from Home Depot. This will hold your crushed grain and hot water (the Mash).
  6. Cooler conversion parts (2) – We need to take the existing spouts off of the coolers and outfit them with fancy metal jobs.
  7. Mash screen – This will go at the bottom of your mash tun to allow your wort to come out and keep the grain where it belongs.
  8. Sparge Arm – This is just a device that sprinkles water on top of your mash. You can buy one or make one.
  9. Grain Mill – You can most like get all your grain crushed at the homebrewing store, but my store made you do it yourself. By hand. So I bought my own.
  10. Iodine – Did you know you have to sign for this at the pharmacy now? Anyway iodine is not totally necessary but it’s used to test your mash.
  11. Silicone tubing – Silicone tubing handles extreme heat and wont flatten on you. It’s expensive but totally necessary.

You can slowly buy all the parts up the brewing kettle and continue brewing extract batches. Everything after that though you might want to splurge and get all at once because you’ll need all of it to start your first all-grain batch. Once you have all the parts, it’s time to brew your first all-grain batch.