The allure of leaping into all-grain brewing is all too often discouraged by unnecessary trepidation. There is the notion that is it cluttered with calculations and technical expertise, coupled with an air of alchemy and magic. It takes a little of both, but isn’t nearly as unforgiving and complicated as it seems, and in fact, can become rather routine and simple after just a few batches.
It’s definitely for you if you can handle moderate complexity, adapt on the fly, and are resourceful and energetic (all attributes of the average hobbyist). All-grain brew is only inherently better than extract if done well. The advantage to brewing from scratch is entire process control and unlimited flexibility. Cloning favorites and personalizing brews is the pinnacle of reward.
There is a certain rhythm to brewing, and once that is mastered you will be amazed at the amount of down time.
From a procedural standpoint, all-grain brewing does have some potential stumbling blocks, as even the most grizzled veterans will admit, but the key to immediate success is to concentrate on the salient issues, those sequential bullet points that help ensure a triumphant session. The minutiae, experimentation and tweaking can come later.
For the first few batches, you can easily hit the touchstones that will not only offer clear sailing, but offer a solid foundation for future batches. Following is a bucket list of brewing checkpoints, if you will, that will serve to build your skill and knowledge, brick by delectable brick, by helping you avoid the most aggravating, head-banging mistakes of all-grain brewing and help make that first batch a rousing success.
Have a good idea going into all-grain about what it entails by watching an experienced brewer ply his craft and doing some reading. How To Brew by John Palmer and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian are definitive and indispensable reference manuals. There is a certain rhythm to brewing, and once that is mastered you will be amazed at the amount of down time. Make sure you have all of the equipment at hand and functioning properly ahead of time. Get a second thermometer―they break―and use it without restraint: it only takes a few seconds to monitor your containers.
For the first few batches, make something predictable and simple, from a trustworthy source. There is a tendency among brewers to get too complicated too soon. This really doesn’t have much to do with untangling brew day, but a bare-bones formulation will allow you to critique your results more easily. A grist of two malts, one or two hop varieties, and hop additions for bitterness, flavor, and aroma pretty much cover everything. Learn how to calculate IBUs and study malt characteristics: poorly balanced beers won’t impress anybody.
The Mash Tun
Rest assured that a simple insulated cooler with a manifold―a circular or rectangular perforated set of tubing to separate the wort from the grain―and controlled outflow is sufficient for competent mashing. No need to drop significant coin on this item: make it yourself. Concentrate on the manifold, making sure that there are plenty of correctly-sized perforations and that it will not come apart during manual agitation of the grist. The bane of all-grain brewing is the stuck mash (a poorly set grain bed that prevents wort/grain separation) and a well-designed manifold will go a long way towards avoiding them.
An often-overlooked aspect of homebrewing, and one that can either enhance or derail the experience significantly, is the correct coarseness of the crush or mill. It is something over which there is total control. If too coarse, extraction will be poor and, while not devastating, will no doubt grind your attitudinal gears. A crush too fine will leave you mumbling to yourself for the better part of brew day. The problem is compound: pulverized barley passes too easily through both the filtering husk and the manifold. The likelihood of the dreaded stuck mash increases dramatically, and could take a couple of hours to fix. A fine crush also destroys the integrity of the husk, vitally important for proper filtration of the wort via lautering. Roller mills are the best, with spacing around 0.040”, or about 1 mm. Collect a handful of grist straight from the mill and inspect it: the husk should be relatively intact, and the kernels cracked.
Mashing and the Grain Bed
Getting the mash set up is pretty straightforward, with the simple objective of converting the malted barley enzymatically to a fermentable wort. Good conversion creates a highly soluble wort, one that it easy to run off. Tailor your basic recipe around a brew that is neither too thin nor too dense on the palate, and shoot for the midpoint of the conversion range, around 150° to 152° F, using a single step infusion. Heat your strike water (the water you mix with the dry, milled barley) 10° to 15° F above the desired mash temperature, five quarts of water per four pounds of crushed barley, and add the grist to the water-filled tun. This allows you to monitor the temperature of the water prior to strike, and keeps the finer particles from silting to the manifold.
Mix thoroughly for about two minutes, and check the temperature at several spots over a few minutes. Adjust with hot or cold water. Stir every five minutes during the first half hour of the mash and then leave it alone for the next half hour to allow the grain bed to stratify naturally. Check the temperature frequently over the entirety of the mash.
The Vorlauf and Lauter
By now your grain bed should be well-set, and the conversion complete, and the wort is ready to be run into the kettle. The ensuing step is crucial, and one that will, yet again, avoid the horrors of a stuck mash. When you are ready to run off the wort for recirculation, open the valve a little at a time and observe the flow. Work patiently over the next few minutes until you have an even, easy flow. Opening the valve all the way, right away, could send the finer portion of the mash surging into the manifold and clogging it…very bad news.
Once established, keep the flow steady and slow, both during recirculation and during your kettle fill. Take up to an hour or more to fill the kettle: it will pay off with good extraction and no flowage issues. Keep an inch or more of sparge water above the mash during the lauter and don’t be afraid to lightly rake to top of the bed if there is obvious channeling. Devise a sparge water diffuser with foil to keep the bed intact.
As you will be doing a full-wort boil in a full kettle, some precautions are necessary. It is wise to let the wort boil for about 10 or 15 minutes―it will become obviously more sedate at this point―before adding any hops. Boil over will drastically throw off your bittering rates and overall balance, especially with hop pellets. Target gravity isn’t something that should be stressed over at first: ballpark it. Monitor it nonetheless throughout the boil as a way to gauge your proficiency, something that can improve in the future.
Now that you have contemplated the plunge, go ahead and take it. Unfortunately, many homebrewers―this one included―learn some of these more obscure tricks the hard way. A day that you excitedly look forward to and meticulously plan for can turn into a nightmare in a hurry with just one boneheaded oversight. Pitfalls are certainly an effective way to learn, but brewing holds enough surprises and chances to worry and fail as it is. Chill out, fret not, and brew an all-grain beer.