Intro to All-Grain Brewing

Many a homebrewer has found him/herself at this crossroad. You’ve been brewing for a while using extract kits, maybe even coming up with some of your own recipes, experimenting with added ingredients, and now you’re interested in moving to all-grain brewing.

Or maybe you’ve heard the tales of how much cheaper it can be if you move to all grain – how you can buy grain in bulk and mill it yourself, or even brew 10-gallons at a time, saving time and money. What’s not to like?!

But…

It’s scary.

You have to purchase new equipment (what if you don’t buy the right thing, and how much will it cost?) and learn new techniques about mashing, lautering, and sparging. And then you’ll have to worry about maintaining the perfect mash temperature, getting the highest efficiency possible, and worrying about the pH and alkalinity of your water.

Is your head spinning yet?

While you certainly *can* worry about every single one of those things, you can make the jump to all-grain brewing without most of those headaches. As long as you follow a few simple guidelines, I can promise that you will end up with good beer (or at least good wort…it’s up to your yeast and fermentation to make good beer) – it will likely be better than your extract brews, and you’ll do it at a lower cost per gallon.

Alright already, what’s the secret?

Tips for Moving to All-Grain Brewing

 

1. Purchase or build the right mash tun

I have a whole series on mash tun design, which could send your head spinning again. But the important things to consider are the average batch size that you brew most often and how you will maintain your mash temperature.

You really can’t go wrong with a cooler mash tun. Coolers insulate well and maintain temperature. They also come in various sizes, so you can find the one that fits the size you need for your most common batch size.

Don’t get a huge one just because you might brew 10-gallons of 12% ABV barleywine once a year if the rest of the time you’ll be brewing 5 gallons of 5% ABV pale ale. Your grain bed won’t be deep enough and you’ll have too much headspace. So get a cooler that is the right size for your normal batch. Here is a good guideline chart to figure out what size will be best for you.

You can also purchase a pre-made mash tun to avoid building one. It’s slightly more expensive, but often a good way to go for an all-grain newbie.

(Here is our new All-Grain Equipment Guide to help you find the right Mash Tun)

2. Stick to a simple infusion mash

You don’t need step or decoction mashes to make good beer. As long as you are hitting your strike temperature between 148 and 154, then you’ll do just fine. Know that the lower temperature mash will result in a more fermentable wort and a higher alcohol, drier finished beer, whereas the higher temperatures result in a less-fermentable wort and a more full-bodied, sweeter finished beer.

That being said, as long as you’re in that range, don’t sweat it too much. A degree here or there is not going to ruin your beer. Just don’t mash over 158 or so, and try to make sure you’re above 145, and you’ll still get the enzymatic conversion in the mash that you need.

3. Invest in brewing software

This will save you many a headache down the road. Good brewing software, such as BeerSmith, will calculate how much water to add to the mash and at what temperature, as well as help you build recipes that can predict IBUs, color, ABV, OG, and calories.

You’ll have to take the time to optimize it for your equipment so that it will be as accurate as possible, but most programs have some pre-set options for the most common all-grain setups pre-loaded for you

4. Give yourself plenty of time

When you add in the time to heat up all of your strike water, a 60-minute mash, time to drain the mash and sparge, and the extra time needed to clean the equipment, then your brew day will likely be extended by a couple of hours. Especially the first few times. You’ll hone in a process to speed things up over time, but at first, don’t set deadlines, just enjoy the process and it will go much more smoothly

5. Numbers to remember

Here are some numbers to remember when moving to all-grain brewing:

  • Mash around 150 F
  • Mash with roughly 1.25 quarts of water per pound of grain, then sparge with however much you need to hit your target boil volume
  • The ideal mash pH is 5.2, but your mash will likely be close to this without adjusting your water, so don’t sweat it at first, but when you’re ready to increase your efficiency, then try taking a measurement and adjusting
  • Aim for an efficiency of 70% or more (that means converting 70% of the starches in the grain to sugar), less than that and you’re having to buy extra grain

For all other numbers such as how much water the grain will absorb, etc., just use brewing software, it will make your life much easier!

6. Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew

While you can easily get distracted with all sorts of minor details, at the end of the day, as long as you get close to your numbers, you’ll end up with great wort. The rest is up to the yeast and your fermentation practices (temperature control, sanitation, etc.) to determine the quality of the finished product. But that is no different than extract brewing.

I hope you feel inspired and confident in your ability to make the jump to the next level of brewing. Next week, I’ll do a run-down of what equipment you need, and what is optional, when moving into all-grain brewing, along with some personal recommendations.

Feel free to reach out if you have questions about making the leap, or leave a comment and tell us about your experience moving to all-grain brewing. What were the unforeseen surprises that you encountered and what do you wish you knew beforehand?

UPDATE: We’ve put together a helpful new All-Grain Equipment Guide to help you find the equipment you need and determine what your cost will be to switch to all-grain brewing.