Beginner’s Guide to All-Grain Homebrewing

Mash, and sparge and grist, oh my! Mash, and sparge and grist, oh my! Just as Dorothy was overwhelmed when she entered Oz, moving into all-grain homebrewing can seem just as daunting. With a little determination, the right tools, and some helpful friends you will soon be on the yellow brick road to making great beer.

I got into all-grain brewing (AG) about 5 batches ago, and I love how it opens up more of the world of brewing to me.  I feel I have more options in recipes and ingredients, I feel I have more creativity in creating my beers, and I feel I have more control of my final product.  Yes, there is a learning curve, a whole new vocabulary (I’ve italicized some of the key terms) and possibly some more gear to get or re-purpose, but once you make the leap, you and your beer won’t be in Kansas anymore!

The Process

The Mash involves soaking grain in hot water to convert starches to sugar The Mash involves soaking grain in hot water to convert starches to sugar

You are most likely already familiar with the extract brewing process of heating water, then adding ingredients like liquid malt extract and maybe even the practice of steeping some specialty grains to create your wort, or the base of the beer.  All-grain brewing simply starts ‘earlier’ in this process by adding a few steps to extract all of that malt goodness from freshly ground grains.

At a high level, you will heat water to a particular temperature, then add the milled grains to extract the sugars from the grains.  After the grains have soaked for an hour or so, you will drain the resulting liquid from the wet mass of grains into your boil kettle. A rinse of the remaining grains with more hot water will gather enough liquid  in your kettle for you to start the boil, at which point you are back in familiar territory. Of course there are a myriad of details in all of this, but for now you understand how to get to the Emerald City of all-grain brewing.

After you’ve chosen the recipe you are going to brew, you will have several pounds of milled grain, also called grist, to start the process. Once the grains are milled, it’s best to use them as soon as you can, even though they should stay fresh and viable for up to 2 weeks after milling.

We will cover the equipment later, but on brew day, start by employing mise en place, or getting everything organized before firing up the burner.  Ensure you’ve got your recipe, calculations, snacks, ingredients, tools, radio, sanitizer, a bottle or two of homebrew, ruby slippers, and all the other stuff you need for a successful brew ready to go. I can’t tell you how much this concept of mise en place has reduced my stress level on brew day.

Then, based on the calculations, heat up some water to a target temperature.  For an example, one of my last batches had about 10 pounds of grist, so I needed almost 4 gallons of water at 170 degrees F.  It was a cool night, and I had to account for some heat loss so that my grains could soak, or mash, at 150 degrees F, the strike temperature.

MashTun-10p-845-OP

I then move the hot water into my family-sized plastic cooler and stir in the grist.  The cooler acts as my mash tun, where the grains hang out for a while and convert starches into sugars. My grist comes in thin poly bags, which are hard to pour from, so I put it into a couple of small plastic pails.  That way when I add the grains to the hot water, I can pour in a little grain easily  while I stir, so that the grains don’t stick together. The grains mash for an hour or so at 150 degrees F.  With about 20 minutes left to mash, I start heating more water to rinse, or sparge, the grain.  My calculations called for nearly 7 gallons of water at 180 degrees F.  This water is called sparge water or hot liquor.

Sparging is next.  This process rinses the sugars from the grains and there are a couple of ways to do this, called batch and fly sparging. Batch sparging drains the liquid from the grains into the boil kettle, then adds the hot liquor water and basically re-mashes the grain. This is later drained into the boil kettle and added to the initial wort collected.  Fly sparging, in contrast, is a continuous rinsing process. The hot liquor water is slowly added to the grains as they are being slowly drained into the boil kettle. This separation of the sweet, malty liquid, or wort, from the grains is called lautering.

Fly sparging Fly sparging

I do fly sparging, and there is an additional step to this.  I have to ‘set the grain bed’ so that it acts like a filter.  This is called vorlauf.  To vorlauf, I draw 2 pitchers of wort out at a painfully slow pace before I carefully add it back to the grains.  By pulling such a large volume of liquid out, the grains settle and tighten up a little.  I usually do the 2 pitchers twice, or until I no longer get any kernels or chaff in the flow. Now, I can start to slowly lauter the liquid into the boil kettle as a I slowly fly sparge the hot liquor on top of the grist.  (Don’t you just love all of the vocabulary words?!!?!)

The sparging and lautering continues until there is plenty of wort to create a batch of beer. This takes time, but is so worth it, as you are creating fresh wort from freshly milled grains; your beer is already going to be better! In my recent recipe, I needed nearly 8 gallons of wort to collect in my kettle because I was doing a 90 minute boil, and I would lose a lot to the boil off. From here, it should feel familiar to you - Start a boil, add some hops, chill, pitch yeast, etc.  And just like Dorothy and Toto, the all grain process may take a bit more time, but it’s really just one foot after the other.  Heat water, rest, rinse...

The Tools

While there’s no need for the witch’s broom here, there is a basket full of things you need on your path to all-grain brewing.

In case you weren’t doing the math during the Process chapter, I was dealing over 10 gallons of water, so right off the bat most extract to all-grain brewers like myself, realize that we need more space.  Sure, there are some creative ways to get around this, but an easy first step is to go large. And you may have also picked up that there needs to be a vessel to drain into, and one to hold grains and one for hot liquor.

Boil Kettle

2013-03-06_03.02.36One of the biggest improvements in all-grain brewing is to get a bigger kettle.  As the wort is less condensed as it is in extract brewing, there needs to be more wort to be boiled down.  I got a gift card from work that I quickly transformed into a shiny 16 gallon boil kettle; a substantial upgrade from my 7.5 gallon kettle. Tin works great for a robotic lumberman, but you’ll want to stick with stainless steel for your kettle.  Nearly every other common kettle metal (aluminum, copper, etc.)  has some sort of reactive issue with brewing beer. If you can't get SS, aluminum will also work, but be sure to clean properly and look into the oxide layer.

With a bigger vessel on board, moving fluids becomes more complex, not to mention heavy and potentially dangerous.  Try to get a kettle with a ball-valve that you can attach high-temp food grade hoses.  Other key features might include markings for volume levels, mounted thermometers and perhaps a way to add screen tube or a screen false-bottom.  Those last two are other ways to create a filter when lautering your grains, besides what I do in my fly sparging when I set my grain bed.

Mash Tun

The mash tun, sometimes called a mash-lauter tun,This vessel is the heart (get it?) of all-grain brewing. Mash tuns come in a variety of styles and options.  A lot of new all-grain brewers use coolers to hold the temperature during the mash, and they really work quite well.  Some brewers use a second kettle and have access to another burner that can maintain the temperature by firing up when needed. Either way, maintaining a temperature so that the enzymes can do their magic of creating wort is what you are looking for in a mash tun.

Again, ball-valves make for transferring wort easier.  Several brewers like the D-I-Y aspect, and convert 10 gallon, round, drink coolers or even rectangular coolers into mash tuns.  Most mash tuns have some mechanism modification to aid in the lautering.  This is usually some sort of a manifold or a tube shaped screen connected to the ball-valve.  These sit on the bottom of the cooler so that after the mash, the wort can be drawn through them leaving the grain kernels and chaff behind.  These manifolds and tube screens can be made from things like stainless steel hose coverings, copper pipe and even heat resistant PVC pipe.  As mentioned above, some kettles have false bottom screens or screen tubes as options that provides this function.

MashTun-10p-845-OP

Hot Liquor Tank

Yet another vessel is needed to hold or prepare the hot water so that you can sparge. Some brewers use yet another third kettle and burner while some use a second cooler.  And it doesn’t take much more than the Scarecrow’s brain to realize that it’s really super hard to both fill the boil kettle with wort at the same time as you are draining the same boil kettle of hot liquor (yeah, I almost did that…) And one more shout out for the ball-valve on the hot liquor tank.

Thermometer

It might be a stretch to think that you are moving into all-grain without a thermometer, but every brewer needs this “crystal ball” in their arsenal.  How else will you know what your strike temperature, mash, hot liquor, wort and beer is doing without one?  I recommend a quick read digital thermometer because you are going to use it a lot and you will want it to be quick and accurate.

Brewing Resources

The Wizard offered some good advice to get Dorothy started, and you’ll need to seek out your own ‘man behind the curtain’ too.  I have some brewing software on my tablet that helps me figure out what I need to do.  I couldn’t figure out temps or volumes without it. I also have several web pages bookmarked that have other calculators, processes or other reference points that I leverage quite frequently.  Lastly, I belong to a local homebrewing club with some members that are certified beer judges, semi-professional brewers and some who have been homebrewing longer than Aunty Em has been wearing aprons.  Those are folks are my brewing wizards

Really, that’s about all you need to get into all-grain brewing.  But why stop there?  After you have a couple of AG batches under your belt, you realize gravity could be your friend.  Brew stands are devices as simple as tables to as complex at stainless steel trees that stage your vessels at various heights so that they drain into each other. Some brewers use high-temp, food grade electric pumps to transfer hot fluids between vessels to avoid lifting.  And the sky's the limit when it comes to major upgrades where brewers move into all electric brewing or automated systems or more complex approaches to maintaining heat and sparging.

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The Friends

Dorothy couldn’t have made it without some help of her friends she made along the way.  The same is true here. Understanding your all-grain brewing friends will ensure you avoid those flying monkeys of bad or problematic beers.

Time

An all-grain brew day takes more time than an extract brewing day.  Be courageous like the Lion and learn to make your brew day more meaningful and respect the time it will take. You will make better beer because of this investment of time. I would say I’m averaging around 3.5 to 4 hours for AG brewing.  The main culprits are the mash time, the sparging time and some longer boil times. What you may find out is that you can swap some tasks around during your day though and manage your day better.  For example, I now make my sanitizer while my mash is occurring, instead of having it ready before I start, and I can do my mash tun cleaning now that I have a bigger kettle doing longer boils with less risk of a boil-over.

Temperature

The heart of all-grain brewing is the mash tun and the reason is temperature control. A lot of magic (OK, science but it produces magical stuff for beer) occurs at some very specific temperatures.  Most mashes occur between 146 and 156 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s it - a 10 degree range.  At the lower end you’ll create more fermentable sugars and thus a drier, thinner bodied beer.  At the higher range, you’ll create more un-fermentable sugars and thus a sweeter, fuller bodied beer.  Mash too high and you will release bitter tannins; too low and you may not make have enough sugars in the wort or you might introduce other issues with head retention or body.

Temperature also functions with time, too.  A warmer mash should take less time than a cooler mash to convert the starches into sugars.

Volumes

It only took a bucket full of water to defeat the Wicked Witch, but it will take a lot more than that to brew a 5 gallon batch of all-grain beer!  Volumes become much more important now than in extract brewing.  First off, there are more vessels and there are more steps. Grain absorbs water, and longer boils lose more water. Mash tuns with manifolds and kettles with ball-valves both have dead space in them that leaves some liquid behind. This is where you can leverage software and websites to bring some brains to your brewing operation and adjust your volumes. Don’t be surprised if you are regularly crafting 5 gallons of extract brewed beer only to find that you are lucky to get 4 gallons into your fermenter when you first leap to all-grain.  It will take a few batches to dial this in.

Measurements

accurate gravity readings help ensure a finished product accurate gravity readings help ensure a finished product

Lastly, the more you measure, note, check and review all the various steps and processes the faster you’ll return to your home of good beer.  Temperatures at all steps are important.  Measuring gravities take on more importance as you will start to check what’s coming out of your mash tun and before you boil.  All of these and more will add up to how efficiently you brew and get the most from your grains.  These measurement will point out where you can improve, too. The old saying of you can’t manage what you don’t measure becomes crystal clear in AG brewing.  I’ve had to adapt and make some major changes ranging from my volumes to the simple planning of my brew day.

Over the Rainbow

Homebrewing is not the most economical or time saving hobby, and making the leap to all-grain may even contribute more arguments against it.  However, the new Technicolor perspective a homebrewer gains is well more than worth the effort.  More gear and tools means more to manage, but also provides more room to move through your brew day and recipe generation.  The ability to manage temperature to control your beer’s body, or the modest addition of a grain to improve the head retention wields a power that is almost indescribable to non-brewers.  And the depth of knowledge about the beer you brewed and served to your friends and family will have you feeling as positive as Glinda the good witch.

My venture into all-grain has been worth the journey, and I hope you will find this out as well, and that you had the power to brew all-grain with you all along.

written by Vance Brison

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One comment on “Beginner’s Guide to All-Grain Homebrewing”

  • Very good read. All malt, no exception! If you haven't already, or ever get the chance visit New Glarus Brewery! I think you or any beer enthusiast would absolutely love the place! Only in Wisconsin

    Reply
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