Wednesday, June 20, 2012

So You Want to Go All Grain?

I have been brewing for about 5 years now and my process/equipment haven’t changed much from the beginning.  I’m going to give you an overview of my mash tun set up and how I accomplish my sparge.  There are other methods out their but these are the ones that seemed the simplest to me when I started and the ones I continue to use today.  If you are new to homebrewing and /or all grain some of this might seem overly complicated but don’t be discouraged.  If you can make tea, you have all the mechanics down to make beer. 

One of the first decisions you have to make when making the jump to all grain is what kind of mash tun you are going to use.  My Mash Tun of choice is a rectangular Coleman Cooler.  This is what I had in the garage when I decided to make the jump to all grain and have loved it ever since.  Wait WTF is a mash tun?  A mash tun is basically where you are going to mix your cracked grains and your heated water.  Inside the tun the heated water will cause the starches in the grains to “convert” and change into sugar.  There are different variables to change the outcome of the beer profile but the typical values are 1.5 quarts of mash water to 1lb of grain at a temperature of around 152 F.  Once the grain is mixed with the water, you have to let it rest.  This will typically take about 1 hour and then you are ready to start rinsing the sugar out of the grain.  To do this you will be completing a process called sparging. 

Sparging involves taking 170F water and “sprinkling” it over the grain bed to rinse the sugars from the grain.  The methods of sparging generally comes in two flavors, batch sparging and fly sparging.  Briefly peruse the interwebs and you can see the homebrew community is locked into a heated battle over which method is best.  I think only a few people have lost their lives in this debate but be careful, homebrewers are crazy.  I’m sure both methods have their positive attributes but I’ve  personally only used the fly sparging method.  Fly sparging involves dripping your sparge water onto your grain bed from above in a steady amount while at the same time draining your wort (sugar water) from the bottom of the tun at approximately the same ratio.  Both methods accomplish the same goal (rinsing sugars out of the grain) but when I started brewing, the fly sparging method seemed less complicated.   I hold my sparge water in a 10 gallon round cooler (called a hot liquor tank) on top of my refrigerator.  I used a 5 gallon round cooler for years when I was brewing 5 gallon batches.  I just recently bought the 10 gallon cooler to accommodate 10+gallon batches.  When I’m ready to sparge (sparge water already in my hot liquor tank) I run a hose from the hot liquor tank down to the mash tun and let gravity do its work.  As with everything in homebrewing you can make this as elaborate or complicated as you want.  You can add fancy ball valves and plumbing if you like but it is not necessary.  Some vinyl tubing and a cheap plastic valve is all you need.

While sparging you must separate the wort(sugar water) from the grain and drain it into our brew kettle without excess grain/husk material.  To do this you will need to use a “manifold” device to strain the wort out of the grain.  Many people use a stainless steel braid manifold but I chose to go with good old copper.  It was cheap to buy, easy to make, and is easy to clean.  I started off with a 2 leg copper manifold in my previous mash tun and stepped up to a 4 leg copper manifold in my newer mash tun.  The 2 leg was super easy to make and netted me about 70% mash efficiency which isn’t outstanding but gets the job done.  The 4 leg manifold in my larger mash tun gets me about 80% mash efficiency but was a little more complicated to build.  If you are just getting started, I recommend the 2 leg copper manifold for the construction simplicity.  The slits in the copper tubing were cut using a hacksaw blade and some elbow grease.  The copper manifold is not soldered together so it will come apart easily for cleaning.  The only real design consideration is that you don’t want the legs/drains of your manifold too close to the wall of the cooler.  If it is too close the water will run down the cooler walls instead of running through the grain.  According to John Palmer you want the distance of the outside leg/drain to be ½ the distance of the spacing of the legs.  So if you have a manifold with two legs spaced 6 inches apart the closest you want it to the cooler walls is 3 inches.  A lot of photos you see where people are using coolers for mash tuns they have replaced the stock drain hole with a ball valve.  I found that vinyl tubing fits perfectly in the stock drain hole and I can use a plastic valve on the end of the tubing to control flow.  That saves your from having to buy a ball valve and bulkhead assembly.

The next area a lot of people get glossy eyed when I start rambling is about water chemistry.  It seems a ton more difficult than it really is.  John Palmer does an outstanding job explaining how water chemistry effects theoutcome of a mash.  I use his spreadsheet to calculate all my water additions prior to brewing which is simply a matter of typing in the numbers of my local water report and choosing the amount to dilute with distilled water.  The only issue I have found with our local water is it is really high in sulfate which has the potential to make hop bitterness very astringent.  To combat this I typically add some calcium chloride to my water which will even out the effects of having too much sulfate.   Water chemistry is a big hang up for a lot of would-be all grainers but it is not near as complicated as it seems.  Once you get a couple brews under your belt figuring the water will be second nature.

If you’ve made it this far you are on the home stretch.  The other major equipment upgrades you will need for all grain is a turkey fyrer/burner and a wort chiller.  With all grain you will be doing full batch boiling and you will need to heat up a full 7.5 gallons (or whatever batch size) worth of wort and on the flipside cool all that hot wort down.  Cooling could take hours if you are trying to submerge your pot in an ice bath.  The cooling solution is an immersion chiller.  You can make one of these for the cost of copper tubing and the labor of wrapping it around a cylindrical object.  I used 50 feet of 3/8 inch copper tubing to make mine.  One important concept to help cut your cooling time down is to stir the wort with a sanitized spoon as it is cooling.  If you ever go full force into brewing and buy a pump, check out Jamil’s Whirlpool Chiller.

What will I need to go all grain:

Mash Tun – Cooler  $40.00

Hot Liquor Tank – 5 or 10gal round cooler $25.00-$50.00

Copper Manifold - $25.00 for simple 2 leg design

Boil kettle capable of boiling 7.5 gallons of wort - $80.00

Turkey Fryer - $50.00

Immersion chiller – 50’ of 3/8in copper tubing $60.00

Total approximate cost to go all grain - $286.00

Cost of taking grain and making beer out of it – priceless