I have been brewing for approximately 12 months. In that time, I have brewed Extract batches almost exclusively, with a couple of exceptions where I "assisted" on all-grain batches and took a share home. When I say assisted, I mean that I poured the beers.

 

It only took me a couple of brewing sessions to realize that I was hooked and I wanted to learn as much as I could to improve my practices and therefore improve my beer. So, I continually bugged the guys at Texas Brewing Inc. with questions and I got the answers I needed to make better beer in between their awful attempts at an English accent. 

 

My Extract batches have improved over the past year and I have slowly been collecting the necessary equipment to move to All-Grain brewing. So, it was time to take the plunge. And to start, I decided that I would brew twice in 48 hours. The first time with someone to direct me and then I would try to brew solo. I figured that doing two brews in quick succession would help solidify the notes and knowledge I gained through the first session.

 

My mentor on the first beer was my TBI colleague Mikey Brown and all it cost me was some beer and Italian food. I asked Mikey to keep it simple, walk me through the processes as we brewed and I would make notes as we went.

 

Mikey also set me up with the BeerSmith brewing software on my laptop. He showed me how to create the recipe, set my equipment, then showed me how to read the results and what to expect from the resulting beer. There are many different software programs out there to be used. I chose BeerSmith because I know other people that use it successfully and so I have more resources for information should I need it.

 

Mikey's assistance was invaluable and he made All-Grain brewing look a pretty simple process. One that I was confident I could recreate a couple of days later....but how wrong I was!!!

 

Yes, this is not a blog where everything went smoothly. This is a blog where I hope others can learn from my mistakes as they move into All-Grain, and if they are experienced brewers, maybe I'll receive some empathy along with some helpful tips.

 

So, it was time for my first solo All-Grain batch. I prepared my equipment thoroughly, cleaning and sanitizing everything, and making sure that everything I needed was going to be at hand for the task.

 

My equipment consists of a three tiered brew-stand (thanks James) and I used two large orange 'Gatorade style' coolers as my Mash Tun and my Hot Liquor Tank.

 

Nigel's Brew Stand and Equipment
Nigel's Brew Stand and Equipment


 

The Hot Liquor Tank will be on the top tier of my system, the Mash Tun on the middle tier, and the brew kettle on the bottom tier. This will also be used to heat the strike and sparge water to the required temperatures.  For my first All Grain brew, I decided that I wouldn't get a pump just yet. Instead, I would use gravity to sparge and mash out. For this brew, I used a 10 gallon kettle as my boil kettle.

 

Over the past year I had brewed the same English Bitter several times and I decided that I would brew this as my first All-Grain beer. The recipe is pretty simple and I thought it would be good to compare the two versions of the same beer.

 

I heated up a little water and put it into each of the two coolers to pre-heat them. This will help preserve the temperature of the mash later on.

 

BeerSmith instructed me to heat 3.53 gallons of water to 165F to be used as 'strike water'. I did this (or so I thought), emptied the pre-heat water out of the mash tun, and then ran the strike water into it. 

I poured the grain into the strike water and stirred it in thoroughly making sure there were no dough balls and that all of the grain had plenty of contact with the water. At this point I checked the temperature.

Note: Grain can stay balled up with a dry center (dough balls), which means you don't pull the sugar from those grains and your efficiency isn't as good. You want all the grain to be well mixed with the water to eliminate this problem.

 

We should expect a drop in temperature of approximately 12 degrees while pouring the grain into the mash tun (based on the temperature of the grain) when mashing in, so I was expecting to see 152F. Instead, I saw 119F... a FORTY FIVE degree drop!  Not good. Now what? MIKEY!!!! HELP!!!!

 

Mikey was at work, but thankfully available via text message. He told me not to panic and that I was about to be introduced to my first step-mash. Over the next couple of hours and about 50 text messages, Mikey walked me through boiling various quantities of water and adding them to the mash tun to bring the temperature up.

 

Eventually, we got the temperature up to 151F (close to my original target temperature) and Mikey asked me to run some wort off to check the gravity using a refractometer If the runnings were of a high enough reading we could go ahead and start sparging. Unfortunately, the reading was very low and a decision had to be made. Do I make a small beer (low alcohol) or do I run up to Texas Brewing Inc, get more grain, and start again?

 

I chose to try again! But, what had gone wrong? Why was my initial temperature so low? Well, it took Mikey and I a while to work it out, but finally Mikey broke the bad news to me. On my 10 gallon kettle, the thermometer is at the 5 gallon level.....and I only heated up 3.5 gallons! The temperature reading I took was not the water temperature. It was the temperature of the air around the thermometer! Yes, I know, what an idiot. A rookie error. So, I spent the next half hour verbally kicking my own arse as I drove up to TBI to get fresh grain.

 

Finally, I returned home and restarted the process. This time it went somewhat smoother. I pre-heated the coolers, and heated the strike water up to 164F. I mashed in and checked the temperature, which was 152F exactly! I let the mash sit for the required 60 minutes and heated up the 5.7 gallons of sparge water to 172F. Again, we are expecting a small temperature drop down to 168F in the cooler. Also, do not sparge with water over 170F as you could possibly extract tannins into the beer.

 

By the way, I mentioned earlier that I decided against buying a pump just yet. Well, after struggling to lift a cooler and 5.5 gallons of hot water up 6 feet to the top tier of my stand, I can now tell you the purchase of a pump will be in my near future.

 

After the mash sat for an hour, I checked the temperature. It was still at 152F, I had lost no heat at all! I ran a Vorlauf, which is the process of clarifying the wort being drawn out of the mash tun. However, I could never get what I thought was a clean enough run. I ran the Vorlauf for about 30 minutes until it was as clean as I thought it would get. A pump would help here also as I would be able to recirculate the wort to help with the Vorlauf.

 

 

Lautering from the Mash Tun
Vorlauf from the Mash Tun


 

I then ran the sparge water through the mash and the wort from the mash into the boil kettle. This process has to be done very slowly so as not to disturb the grain bed.          

 

During the sparge, I took regular gravity readings using the refractometer. The concentration levels of the sugar will decrease as the sparge continues until the correct volume of wort is in the kettle. I was aiming for a pre-boil gravity of 1.039 (10 Brix) at 7.37 gallons of wort.

 

Reading the Refractometer
Reading the Refractometer


 

This was the point that my fears about the unclean Vorlauf may have been justified, as when I looked into the kettle I could see what I considered a lot of grain in the wort. Again, when this is heated above 170F the risk of tannins becomes a concern. 

 

Note: This is a good time to have a strainer available.

 

Grain in the Wort. Not good.
Grain in the Wort. Not good.


 

Once the kettle was filled to the required 7.37 gallons of pre-boil wart, I ran a final refractometer reading. I was 3 points short at 1.036. I consulted with Mikey again and he recommended running a 75 minute boil instead of 60.

 

Note: A longer boil time concentrates the sugar in your wort and can increase the original gravity (OG).

 

At this point, the process of boiling the wort is the same as Extract brewing. Follow your hop profile and any other additions such as Whirlfloc or Yeast Nutrient. I boiled and cooled the wort. I then took a post-boil gravity reading. I was targeting 1.047 and I hit 1.046! I was quite pleased that I got that close.

 

I then oxygenated the wort and added my liquid yeast starter. The beer is now sitting in my fermentation chamber and the yeast are doing their job.

 

I will have to do an update to let you know how the beer turned out. But to me that is almost secondary. The important part was that I went through the process, had some hardship, learned some valuable lessons, and realised that with some practise, repetition, and refining of processes there is no reason I cannot create great beer by using either All-Grain or Extract methods.

 

If you are working your way to All-Grain, make sure you have your Extract practises down to an art and then make the move. Learning more about different methods and practises will only help you improve as a brewer.

 

Also, it helps if you have someone that knows what they're doing on standby. So, thanks Mikey, I would've been lost without your help.

 

-Nigel