The Lazy Brewer’s Guide To Mashing
So, you’ve been brewing for a while. Like most brewers, you’ve started with kits or extract batches, and have lately been adding a pound or two of specialty malt. The beers are tasting pretty swell—at least your entertaining, deadbeat pals are sucking them down like there’s no tomorrow. Life is good, mostly.
But, there are nagging thoughts that the beers could be even better, fresher tasting, more complex. That you’d like to really get in control of your recipes, to know exactly what you’re putting in your beer. That you’d really like to brew the way the big boys do. But something is holding you back.
It’s that M-word: Mashing. The beast in the homebrew closet. A snarling tangle of chemistry, hoses, uncertainty, and chances for things to go terribly, terribly wrong.
Well, a monster can be a pussycat if you just scratch its ears the right way.
I won’t kid you and say that mashing won’t take a little more time and require a little more equipment, but it doesn’t have to be all that complicated. If you’re using adjunct grains in your extract beers, then you’re sort of doing it already. Think of it as just scaling up.
Start with the Basics
If I’m getting ahead of you, here are the basics. Mashing is the heart and soul of the brewing process. Malted grain is crushed and mixed with hot water to arrive at a gruel at about 150 degrees F. At this temperature, enzymes that have been activated during the malting process spring into action and snip the long starch molecules into smaller ones composed of variably fermentable sugars. At higher temperatures (150 to 160 degrees F), the wort produced is less fermentable; at lower temperatures (140 to 150 degrees F) it’s more fermentable.
There are lots of complicated subtleties, but the fact is that if you get within 10 degrees of 150 degrees F, and hold it for a hour, you’ll get a liquid that will ferment into a perfectly lovely beer without any of the tangy, stale, thin flavors the average canned malt extract delivers.
Lazy brewers should take note that the longest portion of mashing is felicitously called a “rest,” during which you can do likewise, or get lunch, or clean bottles or anything but fuss with the mash. It really doesn’t need your help for this, thank you very much.
You will need two things you may not have: a reasonably accurate thermometer, and a modified cooler to mash in. The newer type of cooking thermometer/timer with the probe on a cable is perfect, and you can justify the purchase as a cooking device as well. Radio-linked remote versions are even available.
If you have a large plastic cooler, you simply need to add a sort of drainage manifold to it, which most brewers do by dry-fitting copper plumbing pipe into a trident shaped thingy that roughly fits the bottom of the cooler. Cut the long tubing pieces halfway through their diameter with a series of hacksaw cuts spaced about an inch apart to provide drainage. Force fit the narrow end of the trident into the cooler’s drain spigot, with the aid of a short piece of plastic tubing if needed. You could drive yourself nuts trying to figure out the exact best way to do this, but suffice it to say there’s almost no way to totally screw it up.
If you have a bunch of clean 5-gallon buckets lying around, they’ll make a fine mash tun as well. Add a spigot or a piece of hose with a pinch clip at the bottom of the one that will become the bottom vessel. Then carve out the bottom of the top bucket to resemble a three-armed peace sign. Next, attach a piece of bronze window screen to the inside by stitching it on with a piece of the wire you pulled off the edge of the screen, using small holes drilled in the plastic to stitch into. If you’re really nuts, get a 1/8-inch drill and make a zillion holes, but be warned that by the third hour this gets ridiculously boring.
If you’re planning on making stronger beers with this method, be aware that the 5-gallon size of this unit may be a bit small for your purposes, so you may want to go down to the local restaurant supply store and buy something in the 7- to 10-gallon range.
For more specific directions on building your mash tun, get on the web and poke around; you’ll find a million different ways to solve this problem. You’ll also find companies that sell parts and kits to do this. But do remember, simple works just fine.
The conventional wisdom is that in order to do a mashed beer, you must sparge (rinse the sugars out of the spent grain) and collect more than the full volume of your finished beer, then boil it down to the final amount. This is the most efficient, but not necessarily the laziest way to do it, which is to waste some malt by collecting and boiling a concentrated wort—say 3 gallons—then dilute it with cold water at the end of the boil.
This does three things: 1) Speeds up the brew by eliminating the time-consuming sparging process, which can be like water torture for some impatient brewers; 2) Lets you use a smaller pot on a normal stove; and 3) Speeds the chilling process enough so that a wort chiller is not absolutely necessary.
Like I said, this wastes a bit of malt, so recipes have to be calculated differently. If you collect and boil just 3 gallons instead of 6 and then dilute, you will need to use about 1.4 times as much malt as a particular recipe calls for. Your mileage may vary, so after you do one or two of these, you may find that you need to compensate a bit. Fortunately for the lazy guys among us, the majority of the sugar runs off with the first wort, or the loss would be greater.
I know that this wasting of grain conflicts with that characteristic aspect of homebrewers which may be charitably described as “thrifty.” But you have to choose. You can’t have it both ways.
The procedure described here, called no-sparge brewing, has been much discussed on the “Homebrew Digest” internet forum of late, and many advocates think it makes beer with a cleaner, purer taste, as it leaves behind potentially husky, tannic flavors that can harm a delicate beer if over sparged. Laziness does get rewarded in this case.
Brew Your Own Red Ale
Here’s a recipe and step-by-step directions for a rollicking red ale, kind of an altbier. It’s full of the rich, complex malt flavors that only mashing will give you. Be aware that every setup is different, and that the quantities and temperatures may have to be fine-tuned to your brewery.
Yield: 10 gallons at 1055 OG (original gravity); approximately 45 to 50 IBU (international bitterness units)
8.5 pounds pils malt
6 pounds Munich malt
2 pounds biscuit/amber/victory malt
3/4 pound malted wheat (for head retention)
1 ounce Hallertau hops, 1 hour
1/2 ounce Hallertau hops, 15 minutes
1/2 ounce Tettnang hops, 15 minutes
1 ounce Tettnang hops, at end of boil
If you don’t have a mill, have your brew shop grind the grain for you. Heat 5 gallons of brewing water to 170 degrees F. Add 3/4 of this to your grain in the mash tun, stir well, then see what the temperature is. If you’re at about 140 degrees F or so, add the rest of the water. You’re looking for a rest temperature of about 150 degrees. If it seems too cool, heat the remaining water to 180 degrees or even higher, then add judiciously until you hit the 150-degree mark. If it’s hitting the mark, then let the rest of the water cool a bit before adding. Any temperature between 145 and 155 degrees is acceptable; even as high as 160 degrees is not disastrous.
Once you get the temperature stabilized, cover the container with something to help keep it warm, then go take a nap. After an hour, come back and start to run off the now-converted wort. You’ll probably drain between 3 and 4 gallons of wort. Add as much as will fit into your brew kettle, leaving a couple inches of head space, and start heating it to a boil. If you have a little extra wort, you can use a second pot to boil it down rather than wasting it. The wort will want to boil over, as you probably already know, so be attentive to the heat.
Once a boil has been established, add the first batch of hops, being careful to watch the heat in case of boil over at this stage. Let ’er rip for 45 minutes, then drop in the second batch of hops. After 15 minutes more, turn off the heat and add the third batch, then let it steep for 5 minutes or so, during which much of the hop and coagulated malt proteins will settle to the bottom of the kettle.
The hops must be strained out, either by siphoning the wort into the fermenter through a tube with a stainless steel pot scrubber scrunchie attached to the bottom (pickup) end, or by pouring through a cheesecloth-lined strainer or funnel.
If you’re fermenting in plastic, you can dump hot and cold liquids together with impunity. If you’re fermenting in a glass carboy, you need to be sure that the hot liquid goes gently into the cold liquid; avoid getting a lot of the hot liquid directly on the glass.
Once this has cooled to 75 degrees F or less, pitch a good liquid yeast. If you want to stick with the altbier theme, use a yeast with that pedigree. There are lots of choices, and each yeast will add its unique signature of flavor and aroma to a beer.
But that’s another article. Happy mashing!
Randy Mosher is a freelance art and creative director, lecturer, and author of numerous books and articles on beer and brewing.