Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Moving up to All Grain

My friend Andy wrote:
I am just starting to investigate mashing so don't really know what is involved. ...  I was at a brew store today and they pointed at a large modified tank cooler that they were using for mashing. I guess I would be interested in what the proper equipment would be in doing my own mash and also if the gains over purchasing extracts are worth the additional investments in mashing equipment.

It wasn't that long ago that I was in the same situation as Andy, and I thought I would respond to this in a more permanent way, in hopes it will help others. 

Why change from extract to all-grain?

I made the change because of two things:
  1. All grain was cheaper per batch than extract (after you figure in the cost of some additional equipment).  The cost savings is because you are buying grain and extracting the sugars (mashing) yourself, rather than buying LME or DME. It costs me $10-20 for a 5 gallon batch of all malt beer (adding fruit or other adjuncts might add to the cost).  DME is close to double the cost, LME is a bit more, I think.
  2. Control over the process.  When you mash you can control whether you get more or fewer long chain sugars (controlled by mash temp).  That's really the main thing.  When you use extract you are at the receiving end of someone else's process, and they are  mashing at a specific temp (probably 152 deg F) which is sort of a typical medium bodied beer.  

In making the change I gave up a couple things, too:

  1. Time. On average it takes my 6 hours to brew a batch of beer using the all grain method, where it took 3 when doing straight extract, and maybe 3.5 hours doing a partial mash.  So one question to ask yourself is whether your time is more valuable.
  2. Space.  I now have about 3-4 times the equipment that I did when I did when I was doing extract.  Some of that is stuff I would have gotten do do extract anyway, but mash tun with a false bottom is not one of them, nor is a hot-liquor tank. It takes a lot more space to store that stuff!

So what's the proper equipment?

 Brew in a Bag

The latest "innovation" in home brewing came out of Australia, where it is very popular.  It is called "Brew In A Bag", and if I were starting all-grain again, this is what I would do. I use it now for small batches.  Basically, you use a single pot to mash and boil. You can do this by using a fine-mesh bag (http://www.brewinabag.com/) to hold line the pot and hold your grain during the mashing process, when the mash is over, you simply (but with great effort, if you are making a big batch) remove the bag with all your wet grain and let it drain back into the pot.
  With my 1.5 gallon batches on the stove, this is no big deal.  With a 5 gallon batch and 10 lbs of grain (dry weight), I would need a pulley, which I really can't install in my kitchen.  Why do it? Simplicity!   If you are brewing outside, or in a basement, you just need to have something over the brew pot that you can use to remove the bag.  Your equipment needs are small, and you get the same results as with any all-grain technique. However, you have to have a big enough pot to handle mashing with ALL the liquid you need to brew, and the extraction may be slightly less efficient than when you are fly sparging, so you need a little more grain (negligible cost, however).

3-vessel Setups

 The more traditional method is to use 3 vessels:
  1. Hot Liquor tank - holds your hot water for mashing and sparging (requires a heat source).  I have a 7.5 gallon aluminum turkey fryer pot that I put on top of my gas stove.  When I was doing extract, this was my boil kettle.
  2. Mash/Lauter tun - This holds your grain at mash temp (or temperatures, if you are step-mashing).  You can control mash temperatures in several ways,depending on your approach: direct heat, indirect heat (HERMS or RIMS, which circulate hot water from your hot liquor tank through a coil to heat the mash or circulate your mash water through a coil in the hot liquor tank to heat it), or infusions of hot water.  Yup, it is confusing!  I have a converted 10 gallon Rubbermaid cooler
    with a stainless false bottom, and use the infusion method.  This way I don't need heat.
  3. Boil kettle - this is where you boil your wort, simply enough.  It needs to be big enough to do a full boil, which means roughly 50% -75% larger than your batch size. I have a 9.5 gallon stainless pot that is about 17" in diameter and covers two burners on my stove.
Now, it is not sufficient just to get the 3 vessels, you also need a way to transfer the wort and hot liquor around.    I started with the gravity fed method, which was highly dangerous!   Because you have to get the hot liquor tank higher than everything else, you need to use milk crates or some sort of structure (there are lots of plans for this online) to create a stepped system, the lowest level of which is for the boil kettle and is high enough off the ground that you can just run off the boil kettle (which must be on a burner) into your fermenter.  Everything else goes up from there!  I was using a 7 gallon bottling bucket as my hot liquor tank, and had to climb on a stepladder with 7 gallons of hot water to put it up on its platform--talk about dangerous!

Better still is to use a pump! Not only does this save your back, but it will most likely keep you from getting scalded by falling 170 degree water!  Probably the best $100 I ever spent!  In the picture above, you can see the pump moving the wort from the mash/lauter tun to the brew pot, while the hot liquor tank gravity feeds sparge water into the mash/lauter tun.  This simplifies the process considerably because you can push liquids uphill.

Brewing Structures

Some folks use brewing structures, which seem to me to best fit outdoors, especially if you can keep them in a shed or garage.  These are permanently put together and often have burners and gas lines welded into them, along with pumps and control panels. The Brutus 10 (http://www.alenuts.com/alenuts/brutus.html)
is an example of an "open source" plan for such things, and if you would rather buy one, there are commercial examples like the Ruby Street Brewery (http://www.rubystreetbrewing.com/tp60/page.asp?ID=318741) which comes in a variety of sizes, as well as others made by Blichmann and More Beer, which are all excellent and work well.  The biggest issue is that you need to have the space and good ventilation (hence garages, and outdoor brewing).  My ex-wife kicked me out of the house (for brewing) because she didn't like the smell of wort boiling, so I ended up on the deck with my turkey fryer burner and my gravity fed set up.  I aspired to something like Brutus, for sure!

Electric Brewing

The other option is to go electric!  My friend Mike has an electric brewery he made himself, and it is really fantastic!
We can brew in his basement,as you can see.  He has 2 pumps to circulate wort and transfer from place to place.  Best of all, on a cold winter day, you aren't out in the snow and ice, you can be warm in the basement with no worry about exhaust fumes.  You can buy or make (http://www.theelectricbrewery.com/) these systems, but if you are going to make your own, you need to be really comfortable working with high-voltage systems in wet conditions--not for me!   Next time I have a basement, I'm planning to buy the electric brewery equipment.


So, in the end, what do you need, Andy?  It really depends how you want to do your brewing, and how much you want to spend for your initial investment.  You can buy a lot of this stuff used on Craigslist as people either stop brewing or move up to some other system. Of course you can support your LHBS or buy online.  I bought most of my stuff at Austin Homebrewing or Northern Brewer. 


  1. Wow. Thanks for all the info David! I like the small batches with the Brew In A Bag method. Maybe I will do that for a while and take if from there. BTW my last Black IPA turned out real well and next up is a Dunkelweizen.


    1. I'm glad it is helpful info, Andy. Hope we can get together when I'm in Chicago, next. I'd love to try your beer and catch up.