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).
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Making the jump to all-grain brewing has the advantages of more control over the recipe (choosing the grains and hops and brands that we most want to work with) as well as, more control over the processes–particularly the mash process. 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 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!
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! The process of extracting starches from cereal grains, and converting them to fermentable sugars for the yeast to consume is called the mash. 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. This conversion happens via different enzymes that are coaxed out of the grains while soaking in water at different temperatures. 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–so we want equipment that will at a minimum hold the target temperature steady. But ideally, we would like to be able to increase the temperature to multiple targets–called a step mash.
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?
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 brew kettles 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 brew kettles.
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 and it’s a relatively inexpensive upgrade from extract brewing. Multi-pot brewing systems build on this system by pumping the wort back through the grain bed and false bottom.
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 some have been modified to produce exceptionally good results!
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. We’re now ready for fermentation!
Fermentation is where the rubber meets the road… er, eh, …… the wort turns to beer. Yeast (and sometimes good-bacteria) transform the finished wort into beer and carbon dioxide. We need to keep oxygen and potential contaminants from getting into the fermenter, but we also need to release excess CO2 so your fermenter does not explode from the pressure build up. During the mash, there is not a lot of opportunity for spoilage or contamination from unwanted microbes, and the boil will actively kill the microbes. But once we cool the boiled wort down, sanitation becomes extremely important! We want the yeast we have carefully selected to feast upon the wort we have crafted for them, not bad-bacteria or wild yeast or leftover yeast from a different beer. We can use the plastic buckets from the homebrew kit, we can use a plastic or glass carboy, or for a little more money we can use a stainless steel fermenter. There are even relatively low-cost plastic conical fermenters available that can handle advanced techniques like pressure fermentation. Stainless Steel has natural properties that reduce the risk of spoilage, and that is why we see so much of food and beverage equipment made from stainless steel–and they come in a lot of options that include budget-friendly variations that are within reach for the average homebrewer. For more information on fermentation equipment see our Fermentation post.
When the yeast have fulfilled their destiny, we will have created the glorious nectar of the Gods we call beer!