Most home brewers start brewing using extract recipes, starter kits, or even systems like Mr. Beer. For those who find that they enjoy the hobby, it is natural to want to explore brewing further. Inevitably, a home brewer will consider trying an all-grain recipe. But the transition from extract brewing to all-grain brewing can be an intimidating step. There is new language, new methods, and new equipment.
But there is no reason to worry. All grain brewing is not as complicated as it may sound, and the equipment can be obtained without spending fortune. This article will look at the basics of all grain brewing, waht you need, and how to brew your first batch of beer – all grain style.
In order to take off the training wheels and move on to the method that serious homebrewers and commercial breweries use, you will need some preliminary equipment, all of which you can build fairly cheap.
A Mash Tun – The most popular method is using a cooler, generally at least 48 qts (approximately 12 US gallons), but the bigger, the better. If you plan on doing large batches down the road, a 54 qt or larger is a good idea. While you can go smaller than 48 qts, it is not recommended. I started with an 8 gallon bucket (34 qts), but once I upgraded to 10 gallon batches, it was barely enough to hold everything.
There are already plenty of good resources online on how to build a mash tun, so I don’t see the need to rehash it. Building these are very easy. I have included three tutorials below, or you can simply search for ‘mash tun’ on Google to find more tutorials:
A Large Stainless Steel Pot – While you are likely to already have one for extract brewing, you will want a minimum of 6 gallons in order to brew all grain, although 7 gallons is better. If you have to use two pots to get the capacity, that is perfectly fine. With extract, you simply boil 1.5 to 2.5 gallons of water then top up the fermenter. Not so with all grain. You are boiling the full amount of wort. Enamel coated aluminum works as well, but stainless steel is much better and will last a lifetime if properly maintained.
An Extra Plastic Bucket (optional) – You might also want an extra plastic bucket or large capacity pot to catch the run off during sparge (explained later). While this is not required, I use this for my setup since I don’t have many brew kettles. I use my kettles for strike, sparge, and boiling (these terms will be explained in detail later), which altogether does not have all the capacity I need to hold water, run off, and boil the wort. Therefore, an extra pot never hurts.
There is no quick and dirty way to brew all-grain, you are in for the long-haul! Brewing all grain will add more hours to your brew day, but you will find you have complete control over the recipe, and it is almost always cheaper than extract.
The main difference between extract brewing and all grain brewing is that rather than using various extract ingredients, we replace the extracts with grain equivalents. For example, an extract recipe might look like this:
– 4 pounds Brand X pale extract
– 3 pounds Brand Y wheat extract
– 1 oz Cascade hops for 60 minutes
– 1 oz Halletauer hops for 5 minutes
Likewise, an all grain recipe might be the following:
– 9 pounds pale 2 row malt (grain)
– 1/2 pound crystal 20L (grain)
– 1/2 pound munich (grain)
– 1 oz Willamette hops for 60 minutes
– 1 oz Mt Hood for 6 minutes
Grain comes in many varieties. Pale 2 and 6 row, munich, victory, vienne, carapils, crystal 10L – 135L (L = lovibond), chocolate, roasted, melnoidin, biscuit, aromatic, and many others. Briess, Great Western, Maris Otter, and Hugh Baird are just some of the manufacturers. Rather than discussing all the differences between the malt, I recommend checking outthe company websites for further detail.
When you buy grain at the homebrew shop, there will be a grain mill there which you use to crack the grain, which exposes the kernel, seperates the husk which will act as a filter, and allows the fermentable sugars to be extracted during the mash. With the all grain recipe given above, you would weigh out and crack all 10 pounds of grain, then put them into bags, spearate or all together.
Your First All Grain Mash
Before you start, you must first decide on what temperature you wish to mash the grain. Without going into detail about step mashing, protein rests, and so forth (that is a bit beyond the scope of this article), the common temperatures tend to be 140° – 150° F, which results in a lighter bodied beer, but also has more fermentable sugars. 150° – 160° F results in a heavier body, but fewer sugars. This is why you commonly see mash temperatures of 150° – 152° F, right about the middle, the best of both worlds. A light body beer is common for summer, whereas heavy body beers are great for winter. These are not hard and fast rules, though. There are ways to mash at a lower temperature, such as 145° F, but use a malt such as dextrin malt which adds body. These are all things that you can learn about over time.
For our first beer, let’s pick 152° F as our strike (also called ‘dough in’ temperature). What we need to do is pre-heat water to “strike in” with. Strike water is used to mix in with the grist at a specific temperature and stays insulated for at least one hour.
But how much water should we use to strike in with? There is a simple way to figure this out. For every pound of grain you have, multiply this by anywhere from 32 oz of water to 40 oz of water. This is the equivalent of 1qt to 1 1/8 qt. For example, if you have 12 punds of grain, and if you use 32 oz of water:
12 pounds of grain x 32 oz of water = 384 oz
So 384 oz of water will be used. Let’s convert that to gallons which is easier to deal with. There are 128 ozs in a gallon. Take 384, divide by 128 (the number of ounces in a gallon), and we end up with 3 gallons of water.
An aside: You can simplify this even more by using quarts rather than ounces. Since a quart is 32 ounces, this means that we need just one quart of water per pound of grain (assuming that we are using 32 ounces per pound of grain). Since in this example we have 12 pounds of grain, that means we need 12 quarts of water.
Although our calculation came out to 3 gallons of water, you will want to heat ( not boil) at least an extra gallon, partially due to evaporation. If you only heat the amount that you need, you will run out. I usually heat 1 – 2 extra gallons. Having some left over is fine.
In this case we need 3 gallons, but to be safe, we’ll heat 4 gallons. Remember the temperature that we want in this session is 152° F. However, when you transfer water into the mash tun, and grain absorbs it, you are going to lose some of that heat. You need to heat the water over the strike temperature. I recommend at least 15 degrees, although 20-22 is probably safer. So start heating your strike water to about 172° F. You need not be exact with the temperatures. If you find it is 170° or 174°, that is fine. A few degrees off is fine, but significant differences are not.
One word of caution: your mash tun vessel will determine how much higher your temperature should be, be it a bucket, cooler, or otherwise. Sometimes 15° over is enough, other times 20° over is barely enough. There is no straight answer. You have to experiement. If in doubt, heat your water to roughly 22° over your target temperature, you can always add cold water if need be. I will explain this trick soon.
Let’s take a quick inventory of where we are:
Your mash tun should be clean, sanitized and ready to go. No grain in it yet.
You should have enough water using the calculation given above (number of pounds of grain x 32 oz – 40 oz of water and an extra gallon to account for evaporation)
Of course you should have your grist.
Your water should be heated to the correct temperature (somewhere between 170° – 174°). If you are way over the limit, add some cold water – we don’t want to be that far away from our target temperature.
Time to Mash!
From the information above, we know that we need 12 quarts of water for our grain. Start by dumping roughly 7 or 8 quarts of water to pre-heat your mash tun. Why only 7 or 8 quarts? Because we may need to adjust the temperature, and if we need to bring the temperature down, we can’t just endlessly add water. So pour in some water as described, and then start pouring in the grain. It is best to dump in all the grain at once. The grains will probably not be entirely covered with water, but that is fine, we aren’t done yet.
Now start stirring! Be very fast and stir vigorously with your long handled spoon! Keep stirring! Put some muscle into it! Remember, the heat from the water is dissipating quickly, so give it a good hard stir for about 15 – 30 seconds, close up the lid, and leave just enough room for a temperature reading. Let it even out, don’t assume it is immediately accurate.
Why is a rigorous stir so important? Because if you don’t mix the grain and the water very well, you will get dough balls. In other words, you won’t get maximum exposure of grist to water. Some fermentable sugars will be lost and your gravity will suffer.
Is the temperature off? If its about 10 degrees or less too cold, remember, we still have 4+ more quarts of water to add. Go ahead and add 2 quarts, stir well, and check it again. Remember, keep the lid closed as best as possible. We still have a few quarts left. If the temperature is still too low go ahead and add the rest of the hot water, stir, and check.Still too hot? Add a little more cold water.
If the temperature we want is 152° and you reach 149° – 155°, that should be fine. Hitting the exact temperature can be challenging, but close enough is usually good enough. The important thing here is to be quick, but don’t throw everything together.
Now that you have hit your temperature (or close enough), its time to wait! Set your timer for 60 minutes and let the mashing begin! As long as your tun is insulated (coolers have good insulation), just walk off and have a homebrew. We will come back later. Some recipes call for a 75 – 90 minute mash, which is acceptable. However, most call for a standard 60 minute mash.
Heating Your Sparge Water
At this point you need to begin heating sparge (rinse) water. To determine how much water we need, we take 64 oz (half gallon) x the number of pounds of grain. In this case, 64 oz x 12 pounds = 768 oz total, which comes out to 6 gallons (remember, 128 oz = 1 gallon). Again, heat an extra 1 or 2 gallons to allow for evaporation.
You should begin heating this water as soon as the mash begins. The purpose of sparge water is to rinse the sweet fermentable sugars from the grain once the mashing is complete.
The temperature needs to be 170° F. While there is some room for leniency, there isn’t much. I aim for 168° – 173°. The reason this temperature is so important is that it stops enzyme activity; it stops the conversion of starches to sugars and allows them to be rinsed. Too low, enzymes are still working. Too high, you will extract tannins which can cause haze and off flavors.
Is the hour up? Good. Is your sparge water heated to 170°? We are ready to sparge!
Note: If the sparge water is taking a little bit longer to heat up, it is acceptable to let your mash run an extra 10-15 minutes while the water gets to the correct temperature.
Rinsing the grain is known as sparging. Open your mash tun – it should smell great! Now we want to slowly rinse the grain with the pre-heated water. You may want to put a strainer or something like it over the grain bed. We must avoid pouring the water directly onto the grain otherwise the grain will create ‘channels’ (think of drilling holes), and the sparge water will fail to extract much sugars. So take a cup, pitcher, or something similar, and start slowly and evenly pouring the water onto the grain bed, preferably through the straining device. You ideally want 1″ – 2″ of water covering the grain, although a little more is fine.
A quick word on straining: You technically don’t need one, but the water must be poured on very softly and avoid direct contact with the grain. I heard of one person filling a plastic butter tub, sealing it, setting it on top of the grain bed, and letting the water hit that and sprinkle off. It worked!
Remember, sparging is not a race! Take your time, you want a nice, gentle but fairly consistent shower of water over the grain bed. Don’t be in a hurry. A sparge may take you anywhere from a half an hour to an hour.
This type of sparging is called fly (or continuous) sparging. There is another type called batch, which is very different and not covered here. Both are good in their own respects, but I prefer the fly method.
Do you have 1-2″ of water over the grain bed? Good. Now start slowly draining the mash tun water into your bucket, or whatever vessel you have. You want the same amount coming out as you have sparging in. Both should be a nice slow rain effect. I cannot stress this enough, we are not in a hurry here, so take your time. I say this over and over because I have watched people sparging like it has to be done in 10 minutes. My fastest sparge ever was 35 minutes.
Important Step: As the runoff is coming out of the spigot, you will want to collect the first half gallon and slowly recycle that back into the mash tun, just like you were adding the water. This contains grain husks and tannins, nothing you want in your beer. So slowly pour this first runoof (called vorlauf) back into the mash tun, then continue your nice, slow sparging as described earlier. If you go over a half gallon, or even forget this step, life will continue, but try to remember it next time.
How much runoff do you want? At least 6 gallons, although I aim for 6.5 to 7 gallons of runoff. When you start draining the mash tun, it is likely that the color will be dark (depending on what grain was used) as this water is full of sugars. As you continue to collect it, the color will get lighter which means more plain water and less fermentable sugars are being drained. It is recommended that you periodically take samples of the runoff and take a gravity test. Once you reach 1.008 to 1.010 with your runoff, stop collecting it. I have gone lower myself. In some cases, I only had 5.5 gallons of mash water and my gravity was around 1.004. As you get better at all grain brewing, you will know how far you can go with your mash water to get the results you want. It just takes practice.
Some additional information about extract and all grain. With extract brewing, typically you boil 1.5 gallons to 2.5 gallons of water, mix in the extract, cool it down, pour into a fermenter, and top it up to 5 gallons. Why not here? Because extract is concentrated, this is not. We need to get 100% of our water from the mash tun. We do not top up the fermenter after the boil like extract brewers do. So why do we need the 6.5 to 7 gallons? The fermember is only 5 gallons! Well, after we collect what we need, the next step is to boil the entire amount for a full boil. You will lose wort. It is not uncommon to lose over a gallon during the boiling process. If you only have 5 gallons to begin with, you will only have about 4 after the boil. This is why we need at least an extra gallon.
Once the sparging is complete, you should have 6 gallons (or more) of mash water. Pour ALL of this into the kettle. If you don’t have a 6+ gallon kettle, substitute two smaller kettles. Now you need to boil the entire amount for a full hour.
The Rest of the Process
At this point, you simply add the hops when the recipe describes once your wort is boiling. If the recipe calls for hops at 60, 30, and 5 minutes, just add the hops at the appropriate times. Once the boil is finished, shut off the boil, cool it down to under 80° F, siphon into the fermenter, and pitch the yeast. Don’t forget to check the original gravity before putting it away!
I have not covered every single detail, but I have covered a great deal of information in this tutorial. The deal is, all grain can be explained in a simple fashion, but that can always bring up dozens of questions. Why this temperature? Why sparge? Do I stir the mash? Can I fluctuate temperatures? I felt it was necessary to give more detail.
Yes there is a large amount of information to remember here, but I promise, the more all grain brews you make, the sooner you will be able to do this in your sleep. When I first began, I was so worried about every little step – don’t be. Do your best and let science do the rest. If the first few batches turn out less than expected, that’s alright, you are learning. Keep practicing, make more beer, and learn from your errors. We were all there once!