Beer is brewed using water, grains, hops, and yeast. All grain brewing refers to the process of making beer from scratch using crushed malted grains instead of malt extracts. The main difference between extract brewing and all-grain brewing lies in how the fermentable sugars are obtained during the brewing process.
All-grain brewing requires some additional equipment to get started. Depending on the type of all-grain system chosen, this could involve as many as three dedicated vessels or as simple as one. With the popularity of the brew in a bag (BIAB) method, homebrewers can now brew all-grain beer using just a single boil kettle and a fine mesh bag. Although not as efficient as a traditional three-vessel system, this method offers the ultimate simplicity and minimal cost to enter the hobby.
Before simplifying the process down to BIAB, it is helpful to understand the more traditional steps and equipment involved. This foundational knowledge can be invaluable.
A traditional all-grain system consists of three vessels:
1. Hot Liquor Tank (HLT)
2. Mash/Lauter Tun (MLT)
3. Boiling/Whirlpool Tun (BWT)
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Hot Liquor Tank:
Liquor is the term used in the industry for the strike and sparge water used in the all-grain brewing process. The HLT only comes into contact with the brewing water. It is essentially a vessel used to heat water for the mash and sparge stages, which we will discuss later.
The mash tun is the most important vessel in all-grain brewing. It is usually an insulated cooler or direct-fired vessel that holds crushed grains and hot water during the conversion process. A typical mash lasts for one hour at a set temperature ranging from 145°F to 158°F.
Many homebrewers use a cooler with a false bottom because it effectively maintains heat within a degree or two for long durations without requiring an external heat source. More advanced systems use a heat source and a traditional kettle to manually or automatically maintain the mash temperature. A mash tun is equipped with a metal screen, known as a false bottom, which acts as a filter, allowing wort to pass through while retaining the grains.
This vessel is used for boiling the wort with hops. The boiling process is the same for both extract and all-grain brewing.
All-Grain Brew Steps:
1. Hot Water:
The hot water (mash water) is heated in the HLT for use in the mash. The water is typically heated 10-15 degrees higher than the target mash temperature because it will cool during transfer and when it comes into contact with the grains. It is important to take note of temperature losses in the system to account for heat loss going forward. Adjustments, especially with a cooler mash tun, can be a bit of a challenge. If the target mash temperature is too low, additional boiling water should be added to raise the temperature. If the mash is too hot, stirring the grains with the lid off can dissipate some of the heat.
2. Doughing In:
Once the hot water is heated and transferred to the MLT, the grains can be added. Doughing-in is the process of slowly pouring the grains into the MLT while stirring. It should be done gradually and slowly to avoid clumps or dough balls, as they can reduce the efficiency of the conversion process. After fully doughing-in, give the mash a solid stir for about 30 seconds to ensure thorough mixing. Adjust if necessary, cover, and set a timer for 60 minutes. Having two people can make this step easier.
3. Mash (Saccharification Rest):
The mash is the process of using hot water to activate enzymes in the grain that convert the stored starches into fermentable sugars. The duration of the mash is called a saccharification rest, although most brewers simply refer to it as the mash. Mash temperatures vary depending on the beer style and desired characteristics. Lower mash temperatures result in drier beers, while higher mash temperatures yield sweeter beers. A typical mash temperature is 152°F, as it provides a balanced profile. A simple single infusion (single temperature) mash is typically held for 60 minutes, but it can go up to 90 minutes.
After the mash has rested, it is time for lautering. The first part of this process is known as “mashing out.” Although it is not necessary, mashing out helps thin down the wort, making it easier to collect. To achieve this, raise the temperature of the grain bed to 170 degrees Fahrenheit by either heating the container or adding hot water. Wait for five minutes, then proceed with recirculation. Recirculation involves drawing off wort from the bottom of the tun and adding it back in from the top. If you have a pump, it’s a simple task. Otherwise, use the spigot and a pitcher. Repeat this step for 20 minutes or until the wort is relatively clear.
Sparging involves rinsing the grain bed with additional hot water from the HLT. This step extracts any remaining sugars left in the mash after draining. The sparge water should be around 168°F or higher to maintain the grain bed temperature after mashing out. Sparging can take different forms and its effectiveness is measured by brewhouse efficiency.
6. Finishing Up:
The remaining steps of the process are the same as brewing with malt extract. Like other types of homebrewing, all-grain brewing is about experimentation. Take regular measurements throughout the process, such as the volume of strike and sparge water, and the temperature of the grain bed at different stages. Keep a record of this information, as it will help refine recipes and techniques over time.
7. The Boil:
Once the mashing and sparging are complete, proceed with a typical 60-minute boil, following the same procedure as an extract batch. Apart from boiling a larger volume of wort (6-7 gallons), there is no real difference from this point onward. Hop additions, chilling, and pitching should follow the standard brewing practice you are familiar with and love.
Ready To Try All-Grain Brewing?
We hope that our overview of all-grain brewing has inspired you to give it a try! There is a wealth of information available online for each stage of the process. Remember, all-grain brewing is a journey that takes time and experience to master. Enjoy the process!
Good luck with your next all-grain homebrew. Cheers!