Breaking into All Grain, Brew Day

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Sparge selfie, you can see the hot liquor tank on top of the ladder flowing to the mash tun and then to the boil kettle at the bottom.

Like a kid on Christmas I tore into my new brew setup after getting it home to give all the stainless steel valves, washers, rubber gaskets and miscellaneous fittings a good sanitizing cleaning. After getting everything broken down, I realized I hadn’t paid too close attention to how everything fit back together and then spent several hours sorting through it like building a LEGO model without the directions.

A standard all-grain kit is comprised of three vessels: the “hot liquor” tank, mash tun and boil kettle. I always had been intimidated by all-grain brewing until I figured it’s pretty much just like making oatmeal. Instead of making a paste, you heat and mix the grains with hot water and then drain that water off after letting the grains mix for about a hour. Getting the water to mix with the grains at the right temp and then drain it off is the extra challenge to all-grain brewing.

For my set-up I have two 10-gallon water coolers from Home Depot and a stainless steel 10-gallon brew bot. I use gravity to facilitate the movement of liquid, so I rigged my hot liquor tank to the top of a four-foot step ladder above the mash tun set on a table. I place my boil kettle on a propane burner below the mash tun. The propane burner is my main source of heat leading to the big drawback of a gravity-fed system, one has to move large amounts of very hot water.

Here’s my set up, which I bought from J&M Brewing Supplies in Novato:

Hot liquor (water) tank: 10-gallon cooler equipped with a stainless ball valve and silicone hose.

Mash tun (tank): 10-gallon cooler with a stainless steel “false bottom,” which is a circular screen that prevents the grain from flowing into the brew kettle. The screen is connected to a stainless-steel ball valve with a small bit of silicone hose.

Boil kettle: 10-gallon stainless steel pot that I customized with a thermometer and ball valve. (As you can see when all these fittings were jumbled up together for that initial cleaning, I was faced with quite the brain puzzler to put them all back together.)

The most expensive items are the ball valves, false bottom and thermometer set up for the boil kettle.

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Checking the temperature of the mash regularly is critical to keeping your grains at the conversion sweet spot.

The trickiest part of all-grain brewing with a cooler system like mine is maintaining or hitting your mash temperature. I didn’t realize how pivotal the proper temp was to converting grain starches to fermentable sugars. To adjust the temp you need to constantly check add hot water as needed, while mixing the mash to hit and maintain that temp. More sophisticated systems include mash tuns made of stainless steel kettles set on a burner that provides the heat to hit your mash temp spot-on.

After the mash comes the sparge, which is draining off the sweet wort while adding fresh, hot water to flush more wort off the grain. The hot liquor tank, situated above the mash tun, provides a trickle of hot water through silicone hoses. During this stage, one has to match the flow of water entering the mash tun to the flow of wort leaving the tun to try and ensure the sparge takes about a hour. The added expense of the ball valves pays off here because they make it much easier to adjust the flow of the water and wort.

Once I’ve collected enough wort for the boil and fermentation the brew process is just like extract brewing. I’m very happy I made the switch to all-grain though because it’s far more involved, intricate and exciting brew process. I also have the sense of complete control and of truly making something original. This is making a meal from the raw ingredients, not just adding water to a box. (I kinda understand the all-grain elitism now.)

For future upgrades, I think I’m going to get a digital thermometer to quickly know my mash temp as well as a plate chiller to cool my wort. I’ve heard really good things about the Blichmann Therminator. Much further down the road, I also could add a 15-gallon brew kettle to brew up 10-gallon batches of beer. That would enable me to bottle 5 gallons and keg the other five, oh the wondrous possibilities.

Breaking into All Grain

Many of my old posts concerned my homebrew hobby. I think I was always pretty clear I was practicing the “extract” method in which you use dehydrated or dried malt to create the foundation of flavors and fermentable sugars for your beer. It’s a pretty simple method in which you’re basically making soup (add ingredients to water, boil for a hour, cool and ferment) but you’re limited in what you can make and your base base ingredients have already been processed so your quality is compromised to a certain degree. The advantages to extract, however, is that the brewing process is quicker, requires less equipment and it’s easier to make higher-alcohol beers like double IPAs.

But there’s a snotty attitude in the homebrew world for those limited to just extract. I remember when I worked at Starmont and was talking about homebrewing with my colleagues in the lab when a winemaker, who was a home brewer, came in and someone mentioned I also made homebrew. He asked me about my setup and when I said it’s a five-gallon extract system, he wasn’t too impressed. “That sucks,” was all he said and our homebrew conversation was over.

Undeterred I stuck with extract making regular batches and steadily improving my methods and sanitation until I was pretty locked in to making my own beers that conformed to BJCP standards. People generally said my homebrew tasted like “real beer” and there were a few instances when people tried my beer without knowing I had made it at home and wanted to know what the name of the brewery was.

I’d basically met the challenge of making quality beer with extract and needed to upgrade to making beer in the “all-grain” process. This involves more equipment to make beer from simply malted and milled grain, water and hops. But a few years ago I got distracted with making wine, and didn’t have much cash after buying a new house so the brewing hobby fell to the wayside.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

That changed about two months ago when my mom bought me an “expert brewing” class through the Napa Community College culinary facility in St. Helena. Taught by Matt Noble, a brewer at the excellent Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley. Noble proved to be a relaxed, friendly guy who took us through the all-grain process from start to finish answering detailed questions from folks like me who have fermentation experience and other folks who didn’t seem to know what hops are. The class also featured a delicious lunch of Trumer and Anchor Steam beers served by Alsatian choucroute and sausage cooked by the culinary students.

Based on the class and Noble’s advice on a good start-up kit I visited the guys at J&M Brewing Supplies in Novato, which is just a short trip up 101 from my office in San Rafael. I had learned about these guys by doing a profile on them freelance for a special Marin County publication by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was pretty chill to see the cover of that publication framed on the wall behind their register and one of the owners Marty Wall was real helpful in getting me set up.

I opted for a system based on two 10-gallon insulated water coolers and upgraded my 10-gallon boil kettle with a weld-less thermometer and ball valve. I’ve brewed two IPAs with the set-up so far and am very satisfied. I’ll go into the brewing in more detail in a subsequent post.

I felt a little bad letting my brew kettle gather dust for so long, but it was important for me to invest in new equipment to take on new challenges. When you pursue a hobby to create something, one needs to ensure your tools are balanced with your skill to make the investment in time and money worth it. Everybody knows someone with the means who has dumped a bunch of money into a hobby only to produce something mediocre. In fact, I know a few winery owners whose equipment and tasting rooms are more impressive than their products.