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Make the Plunge to All Grain; You Will Be Glad You Did

Make the Plunge to All Grain; You Will Be Glad You Did

All grain brewing takes a little more time, some extra attention, and a little more equipment than extract brewing. The rewards outweigh the costs. The plus side is that you will make a fresher tasting brew and a whole new world of malt varieties will be available to you. You will also have complete control over the finished product. The down side is you may need to spend over $100 for additional equipment that includes: a pot big enough to boil 6-7 gallons of liquid, a propane burner, a wort chiller, and a 10 gallon cooler to serve as your mash/lauter tun (instructions to make a mash tun).  Since it’s cheaper to brew all grain than extract, this investment will eventually pay for itself.

When I ask extract brewers why they don’t make the plunge into all grain brewing the answer I usually get is the M word. Mashing. It seems to be thought of as an extremely complex and intimidating process, a riddle wrapped in an enigma. True, there is a complex science going on behind the scenes. At certain temperatures, enzymes in the malt spring into action and chomp away at the starch from the grain and turn it into fermentable sugar. This complex process is Mother Nature’s job, not yours. Your job is to provide an environment so that she can do her thing. This environment consists of a ratio of 1 to 2 quarts of water per pound of crushed grain, mixed well, and held at a stable temperature in the range of 140-160 degrees for an hour. Pretty scary stuff, huh? I too was scared at first, much like when I was a kid taking my first jump off a high dive. Once you get over the initial fear and just do it, you realize how fun it is!

The process I want to talk about is simple. Infusion mash, batch sparge (rinse), boil, cool, ferment.

There are a few different types of mashing methods. The single temperature infusion mash, the step mash, and the decoction mash. I am not going to go into details of the differences, but if you are lazy like me and you want to get the most for the least amount of work, then the infusion mash is right for you and that is what I will discuss.

An infusion mash is by far the easiest of all the methods. All that needs to be done is to mix water and the crushed grain at a ratio of 1-2 quarts of water per pound of crushed grain and hold the temperature at approximately 150 degrees for 1 hour. Its not rocket science.

I have found through personal experience that I get the best results with my setup if I use 1 1/3 quarts of water per pound of crushed grain. Let say I am using 12 lbs of grain. At 1.33 quarts/lb that comes to 4 gallons of water. We want to heat the water approximately 10 degrees higher than what we want our initial mash temperature to be. It needs to be 10 degrees hotter because inevitably heat will be lost as we transfer the water to the mash tun and mix in the grain. Mashing at higher temps 150-160F the wort will be less fermentable and give the beer more body. At lower temps 140-150F the wort will be more fermentable and will have less body. At 150 degrees, the enzymes work equally
well and can be considered the comfort zone. I always shoot for the 150-152 range so that means I need to heat my 4 gallons of water to about 162 degrees. Once that temperature is reached, I dump all the water into my mash tun and close it up for about 5 minutes. This allows the heat to permeate the inside of the mash tun. Then, slowly dump the grain into the mash tun while stirring to break up any clumps. Once it’s mixed well, throw in a thermometer and close it up. I’ll check the temperature after about 10 minutes to make sure I’m +/- a few degrees of where I want to be. If I’m off by more than that I’ll add a little bit of hot or cold water to get it just right. Once your happy with the temperature, close it up, have a homebrew, and don’t bother it for an hour

There are a few tricks to test to make sure all of the starch is converted to sugar. I’m not going to get into these. I have never tested for starch conversion other than sticking my finger in the mash and tasting it. I prefer to put my faith in the beer Gods and they have not let me down yet.

So, after an hour, you slowly start to drain the mash into a small container. The first runnings will be very cloudy. The grain bed will act as a filter. Collect a quart or so in a small container until the wort runs clear then gently pour it back on top of the mash. Then drain all of the liquid into a brew bucket until you are ready for the boil. There should end up being about 2.5 gallons of wort collected from the first runnings of the mash. A gallon or so of liquid will be soaked up by the grains.

During the 30 minutes or so that it takes to drain the mash, heat up another 4 gallons of water to about 170 for the sparge water. Sparging is nothing more than rinsing the grains to get all of the remaining sugar out of it. I always try for a starting boil volume of 6.5 gallons of wort because it will boil down to 5 gallons or less. The simple formula I use to determine how much sparge water I need is X gallons of first runnings + Y gallons of sparge water = 6.5 Gallons.

There are various types of sparging methods. A continuous sparge, fly sparging, batch sparging, or no sparging. Again, I’m not going to go into the pros and cons of each. The laziest thing to do would be to omit sparging altogether, but you will leave alot of tasty sugar behind. The quickest and easiest sparging method is the batch sparge.

Once the mash is drained completely and your sparge water is at 170. Dump all of your sparge water into the mash tun at once and stir well. A temperature of 170 is ideal because it denatures the enzymes and more importantly decreases the viscosity of the wort to make for an easier run off. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then start to drain slowly. Again, recycle the cloudy stuff to the top. Once it clears, start draining directly to the kettle. When all of the sparge water is drained, add your first runnings to the kettle as well. There should be about 6.5 gallons or wort. Crank up the flame and begin the boil like normal.

If you are using extract, all of the stuff I have talked about so far has already been done for you and packaged in a neat little bag or can. But what fun is it to have someone else do all the work for you?

They only thing different from this point on is cooling the wort. Some sort of wort chiller is needed to cool the 5 gallons of wort down to pitching temperature in a reasonable amount of time; an ice bath alone will not cut it. There are a few types of wort chillers available. I use a copper immersion chiller that has garden hose fittings. Simply put the chiller into the boiling wort for the last 10 or so minutes of the boil to sanitize it, then hook to a garden hose and turn the hose on. Stir every few minutes. In 30 minutes time you will be at pitching temperature. Ferment like always.

So there you have it. It seems much more complicated than it really is. But if you’ve done it once you done it a thousand times. It is well worth the extra time, effort, and money to make the switch. I promise!

4 Responses to “Make the Plunge to All Grain; You Will Be Glad You Did”

  1. Mike says:

    Great article!

    I really want to get into all grain. However, my problem isn’t fear. I’ve done much harder things in life, like being born, that was a doozy. Anyway, my problem is space. I just don’t have the space right now. I live in the basement of someone’s house and my bottle cleaning and fermenters all ready creep onto someone else’s living quarters and the garage doesn’t have enough room in it either because my wife and I have been packed up and ready to move for over a year now. So the garage is full of our belongings.

    Upon moving, I’ll be living in an apt for at least 6 months while we find what part of the city we want to live in and look for a house.

    So I find extract brewing still gives me a good product and its easy on the space, time and clean up.

    But you can beat your sweet arse I’ll be going all grain as soon as I’ve got the space. I’m planning on putting a little brewery in my garage!

    Again, great article, I just thought I’d mention space is a big issue and can be the main reason people don’t move to all grain.

    Mike’s Brew Review

  2. I totally relish brewing beer at home! It has been such a enjoyable hobby. My family has been supportive, but most especially once its time to try my latest recipe. I was startled to learn that it is actually the fruitier seasonal brews that I prefer. Just wanted to say thanks for the advice you’ve left along the way, its been helpful.

  3. A. Campbell says:

    Dan’s post was so helpful to me. I’ve made beer from extract before with good results. By mistake I ordered the grain instead. I was able to make the wort with only additional equipment being a cooler and a colander. I used Dan’s technique for the process until the starch was converted. Then I took the grains out of the cooler with a large measuring cup and into the collander perched on the large boiling pot. It drained, then I sparged it in a separate large pot, returned it to the colander to extract more of the sugars. This took five separate drainings. Thank you.

  4. Peter B. says:

    I’ve been all-grain brewing for a few years now after five or six batches of extract brewing. Recently started making wine, enjoy that too.nn1

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