Slow Happy Brewing: We’re going all-grain!

The other day CFL and I bottled our 20th batch of beer. Twenty 5-gallon batches in ten months… gosh, that’s something like 900-950 bottles of beer! Good thing we have friends who like to come over for beer tasting parties.

Batch #20 is something we call a “pseudo-lager” — it’s a very light, sessionable pale ale brewed with Saaz hops and ale yeast. Saaz is one of the “noble” hops, meaning it’s an old European variety and more or less the signature pilsner hop. If you remember the old brand “Lucky Lager,” you’ll appreciate the name we gave this batch — Chucky LaGer. We do hope it will have more character than the old Lucky.

Although we have brewed, bottled, and (I confess!) drank a whole lot of beer over the past ten months, some people would say that we aren’t yet real brewers. We’ve been using malt extract, a highly refined powder or syrup made from barley, for the bulk of the fermentables in our recipes. We’ve used actual, recognizable grains only in small quantities to produce desired colors and flavors. As an analogy, think of baking a cake from a mix (and adding a few ingredients here and there just for character) rather than baking completely from scratch.

Extract brewing is faster and requires less equipment than all-grain brewing. It’s an easy way to get started with brewing. But now, twenty batches in, we’ve mastered the basics and we’re ready to get creative with recipes and processes.

The key piece of equipment that we needed was a mash tun. This is a large vessel in which grain is steeped or “mashed” in hot water at a precise temperature for an extended period of time. I may not have all the right words for this, but basically the process works like this: Mashing causes the barley to release its fermentable sugars. After repeated rinses (sparging) you collect a sufficient amount of thick sweet liquid, which is then boiled to produce the wort that will become the beer. In essence, the mashing process creates the equivalent of the extracts that we’ve used since the beginning, but we’ll have control over exactly which varieties of barley we use. An English type of barley (for example Maris Otter) for an English-style beer, a German type for a German-style beer, and so on.

In search of the perfect mash tun, we pored through catalogues and drooled over stainless steel tiered systems with dairy fittings, pumps, digital temperature controllers, and price tags running well into four figures.

Ultimately we decided it would be prudent to start modestly.

This is not an Igloo cooler! This is a mash tun.

Here is a closeup of the spigot, which replaces the default Igloo spigot.

Inside the mash tun there is a false bottom. This screen allows the wort to exit the mash tun through the tubing at the bottom, leaving the spent grain behind in the mash tun.

There are formulas to calculate exactly how much water to add, when, and at what temperature to complete each step of the mashing process. We’re told that the cooler will maintain our desired temperature (usually 152 degrees) without budging for the hour or so that the process will take. 

I had intended that our first all-grain batch would be an IPA, but then our home brew club decided we’d all brew exactly the same recipe and compare everyone’s results at the September meeting. So I’ve juggled the schedule and we’ll begin our all-grain odyssey with an American Stout.

Are we excited? Yes!

It’s another new learning curve, and we’re all about that.

We’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I’m going to relax and have a home brew.

6 responses to “Slow Happy Brewing: We’re going all-grain!

  1. This is such a cool endeavor. I started to call it a hobby, but I think it’s somehow more than that. I can’t help but think of the Paso Robles Vineyard, Opolo, we visited in late spring. The story we were told was of the two good friends, neighbors, who started “dabbling” with winemaking. Their interest grew and they eventually jumped into buying a vineyard. And now, it’s a very successful vineyard. I can’t help but think of you…wonder where these home brews are going to take you. It sounds like a great deal of tasty experimenting, planning and expectation. Great to hear such a successful update. :-) And yes, it is a very good thing you have many friends who can enjoy this with you!

    • Debra,

      I know three or four people in my small town who dream of taking their home brewing to a larger (commercial) scale. For most of us, it will never happen. Still, it’s definitely more than a “hobby” for CFL and me. It seems to answer our respective individual needs to create and to keep learning, as well as our mutual desire to collaborate on something that’s concrete and satisfying. It’s given us new friends and provided a focus for our travel (beyond running, hiking, and biking!).

      I do foresee more elaborate equipment in our future… Pumps will become necessary because a pot filled with 7 or more gallons of water is HEAVY to lift and pour. I can’t do that at all, and I worry about CFL hurting his back. We’ll doubtless get there, one step at a time… :-)

  2. How did it go for you? I just picked up an all grain setup today and am very excited to break it in Saturday with a Chocolate Cherry Stout.

    • Thanks for visiting, and thanks for asking! The mash tun worked great at holding the heat, and the whole process went very smoothly. However, we didn’t hit the expected OG so I guess we didn’t get all the fermentables out of the grain. I’m not sure why, but that gives me something to study and figure out.
      Good luck with your chocolate cherry stout!

  3. I only brew a few times a year, so I’ll be sticking with the cans of malt. Would love to go all grain but as you say, it is a lot more work.

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