Step Up to All-Grain Brewing

In Extract Brewing, we skipped the mash and lauter steps, and many homebrewers are quite content in this process given the limited equipment needed and shorter brewdays.  But most of us want more control over the ingredients and the processes.  All-Grain brewing means we are making the wort from scratch.  It’s kinda like making biscuits:  you can make good tasting biscuits by adding water to a packaged box of biscuit mix (extract brewing), or you can mix up the flour and other ingredients yourself and make it exactly the way you like your biscuits (all-grain brewing).

Mash & Lauter

I can’t lie, making the jump from extract brew to all-grain was intimidating.  But after our first successful batch, we were kinda left wondering why?  There really isn’t anything more difficult about it, it’s just another 2 very enjoyable steps added to doing something we loved doing!  In clear English, the two additional steps are:

  1. Mash – mix grain and water in a temperature controlled container(s) to make wort
  2. Lauter – drain the wort into the brew pot, leaving the grain behind

Making the jump to all-grain brewing has the advantages of more control over the recipe (choosing the grains we want to use) as well as, giving us  more control over the processes.  You can make these processes extremely simple or get pretty complex, depending on your equipment, skill level, and the beer style you’re brewing.  There are advanced techniques that you may want to experiment with that you simply don’t get to do in extract brewing.

This increased control does come at a price, you will need mash and lautering equipment, you’ll need some additional testing equipment, you’ll need a little more space to work, and your time spent preparing, brewing, and cleaning on brewday will at least double.   But again, once you are geared up, purchasing malted grains is even cheaper than purchasing malt extract, generating even more cost savings to offset that extra initial investment in equipment.  For most of us, the advantages FAR outweigh the extra effort, and the all-grain brewing method is more satisfying in the end.  So let’s mash in! 

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What is a Mash and What Equipment Do I need?

The process of extracting starches from cereal grains, and converting them to fermentable sugars for the yeast to consume is called the mash.  This conversion happens via different enzymes that are coaxed out of the grains while soaking in water at different temperatures.  Traditionally, most styles of beer need a 60 minute mash, but some styles (generally higher ABV styles like double IPA’s, Belgian Quads, or Russian Imperial Stouts) may take 90 minutes.    

To mash, we need equipment that will at a minimum hold the target temperature steady.  The more economical way is to use plastic insulated coolers (i.e. Rubbermaid or Igloo) with either a wire mesh or some slotted tubing, or falso bottom (holes or slots cut into a plate)  to help the grain bed form and it’s a relatively inexpensive upgrade from extract brewing. .  You can build your own, or you can purchase them pre-built.  MoreBeer! has a few options: 

10 gallon Cooler Mash Tun

10 gallon Cooler Mash Tun w/ Built-in Thermometer

10 Gallon Cooler Mash Tun and Hot Liquor Tank 

10 Gallon Cooler Mash Tun and Hot Liquor Tank w/ Built-in Thermometers

We have used plastic coolers converted to mash tuns for decades with great results–Slowpaddle South still uses a cooler mash-tun to this day!  

In the mash, different temperatures will produce different enzymes, which will produce different results in taste, color, clarity, and other attributes of the finished beer.  Because of this, different beer styles are mashed at different (sometimes multiple) temperatures.  Ideally, we would like to be able to increase the temperature to multiple targets–called a step mash. Many Belgian style recipes use a step-mash that raises the temperature at  time intervals (steps).  To use a step-mash method, or other temperature increase techniques, you need to be able to heat your mash.  You can use a brew pot with a  false bottom, or the newer electric kettles have this functionality built in.  Another option is the “brew in a bag” method, where you use a large mesh bag to hold the grains, and then when the mash is complete, you remove the bag (with the grains inside) from the brewpot. 

Let’s Mash In!

Before we mash in, we need to determine the starting temperature of the mash, heat the water to the temperature (called the strike temperature) that will give you that starting mash temperature target once all of the grains are added (mashed in)–don’t worry, there are plenty of easy to use free apps and online tools to calculate the temps and do the math for you.    Once you get the water to the strike temperature, you slowly stir in the grains, making sure to break up any dough balls that form.  And then you wait!  That’s your mash process!  Simple right?

Time to Lauter!

So now that we have completed the mash, we have a vessel full of sugary water and spent grains.  We need to separate them–and this process is called lautering.  There are two ways we can do this, the more traditional way is to drain out the liquid into the brewkettle.  The other is to remove the grains out of the vessel using a strainer or mesh bag (aka brew in a bag).   Before electric brewkettles started to dominate, the traditional drain-out method was by far the more popular, but I think things have swung the other direction now with the popularity of the “all-in-one” electric brewkettles. 

Traditional Lautering

The traditional way relies on the husks of the grain to form a bed that filters out all the smaller particles that will cloud your beer (in a bad way) as they flow through the bed.  The initial runnings will need to be recirculated over the grain bed until the runnings are fairly clear, then you flow them into the brew kettle for the Boil stage.  A mash and lauter tun can be crafted out of a plastic picnic cooler and some slotted pipe or wire mesh, or you can buy them pre-built.  We have had great success with this method Multi-pot brewing systems build on this system by pumping the wort back through the grain bed and false bottom.  

Alternative Methods

Most beginner level homebrew kits will include some mesh bags to steep grains, allowing you to add a bit of grain complexity to your extract batch.  This expanded up to the brew-in-a-bag style, where all-grain batches were brewed in a mesh bag, and the mesh bag is simply removed after the grains are spent.  Lautering using a colander was trendy for a minute and is still used by a lot of brewers.  The advent of the electric brewkettle has revived the popularity of these techniques, and produce exceptionally good results! 

The Boil

By now the enzymes created in the mash have done their jobs and must be destroyed, the grains have given all they have to give and have been discarded.  We are left with sweet smelling and tasting wort!  But we don’t necessarily want sweet tasting and smelling beer, so we need to add hops at different stages of the boil to balance out the sweet taste and smell with some bitterness–as an added benefit, hops naturally add some preservative properties to the beer as well.  We may also add some other fermentables like belgian candy (beet sugar), or other spices such as coriander.  We may want to adjust the water to change the ph or hardness.  And near the end of the boil, we’ll want to add some nutrients to help our yeast do their jobs during fermentation.  WIth a few exceptions, anything not grain or yeast happens in the boil.  Here again, 60 minutes is pretty standard for most beer styles, 90 minutes for more complex styles like say a Belgian Quad.  Some styles may even allow you to get away with 30 minute boils or less if you do your research. 

All-Grain Recipe Kits

All-Grain Recipe Kits are a great way for you to start making great beer at home!  The recipes are already complete, and all the ingredients are pre=measured and ready to brew.  Even better, clone extract kits are made to produce a beer that tastes like their namesake!  This is a great way to start out brewing so you can compare what you made to a known product.  If they taste alike, you’re on the right path; if yours doesn’t taste up to par, you know you need to make some adjustments somewhere.  And some beers you just can’t find in your geographic region, so why not brew your own?  Here is a list of some of our favorite clone beers that MoreBeer! stocks.

Hoppy Times

Heady Topper–Drink it from the can, the standard by which all NEPA’s are judged, and the inspiration behind the hazy IPA craze!  It carries a Beer Advocate score of 100, and has been at or near the top of their rankings for years.  I can’t think of a more influential beer than the Alchemist’s Heady Topper!  Especially a beer that’s only available in a very tiny area.  Even locals have trouble locating it at times.  Now you don’t need to make the trip to Waterbury, Vermont, you can make it right in your own home!  This imperial IPA is hop-crazy, but with a strong malt backbone to keep it balanced and very drinkable.  At $58, you’re getting two cases for the price of one…. if you can find a case!  You want to use the White Labs Burlington Ale WLP095 with this kit.

Hopslam is a seasonal DIPA from Michigan’s Bell’s Brewing.  It comes out shortly after New Year’s, and it’s gone just as quick.  Hopslam was very influential in making Simcoe hops popular, and has that kinda=mango-cat pee thing going, but still exceptional if you’re a hop lover!   A real bargain at $53!  WLP001 California Ale – White Labs Yeast works with this recipe.

Bell’s Two Hearted Ale can be found year round and pretty much everywhere.  It’s a solid IPA style beer and easy access makes this one a great choice if you want to compare your batch to the original.  At $34 for a kit, it’s budget friendly and makes a great choice for your first batch.  You wanna go with the WLP001 California Ale – White Labs Yeast on this as well.

Darker Days

Black Butte Porter had a nice run on the trendy-hype-train a few years ago.  It’s a solid toasty porter with great dark color and outstanding flavor complexity with some hits of cocoa.  I really enjoy porters in the fall, and this is one of the best.  The Black Butte extract clone kit sells for $25.  WLP004 Irish Ale – White Labs Yeast will make a good porter.

Bell’s Breakfast Stout is one of my favorite cold weather beers.  Coffee, chocolate, and beer–do we need to say any more?  Ok, add a shot of whiskey and turn your breakfast stout into Kentucky (KBS)  or Canadien (CBS) breakfast stout!   It tastes great all day and night!  This kit is around $45 and we suggest that you use the WLP004 Irish Ale – White Labs Yeast. 

Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout was one of the few craft beers you could find before the revolution really took off!   Again, this beer is a style definer by which all other RIS stouts are compared.  The Old Rasputin clone extract kit sells for $45. WLP004 Irish Ale – White Labs Yeast will do the job well. 


Brighten Things Up - and Maybe Even Fruit the Beer

When it’s hot, nothing quenches your thirst like an ice cold lager!  Even better, a Mexican Lager!  And MoreBeer! has you covered with their thirst quenching Corona Extra Mexican Lager clone extract kit ($26).  Lime slices not included, lol.  For this recipe you want to go WLP940 Mexican Lager Yeast – White Labs Yeast.

Blue Moon brought Belgian beer creativity to the American masses.  For a mega-brewer produced beer, it has great complexity while keeping the light creamy mouthfeel.  $30, orange slices not included.  Go with WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale – White Labs Yeast for this one.

Fat Tire by New Belgium was uber-hyped back in the prime of the craft beer revolution.  This is probably the first American beer to have major commercial success with the unusual flavors that are common to brews made in Belgium.  At $30, it’s a great beer at a great price.  No fruit needed for this one.  for yeast, there is a lot of disagreement, but I’d suggest either a straight Belgian Ale yeast or use the wit ale yeast Go with WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale – White Labs Yeast for this one.

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