Like most brewers, I started out making extract beers. I quickly progressed from using simple extract kits to adding complexity with specialty grains. Steeping some crystal malt or a bit of roast was a trivial extra step that yielded great results. I became adept at transforming the lightest, unhopped extract into whatever style caught my fancy: stouts, amber ales, and Scottish ales. Some of my experienced brew pals tried to push me to all-grain brewing, but I didn’t see the point. My beer was good, and it didn’t make sense to invest in a bunch of extra equipment and make my brew day so much longer. As much as I resisted, they finally wore me down. Part of the catalyst for my change of heart was that building a mash tun didn’t seem that hard, but the tipping point was when they appealed to my ego as a chef. Starting with raw ingredients would give me more control over the final product.
It made sense to me. It’s like Rice-a-Roni—anyone who can turn on a stove can use the mix to cook a decent side dish. You can get a bit fancier, though, and customize it: sauté up some chiles and onion to stir in, or augment the flavor packet with some garam masala and cumin seed. That’s effectively where I had gotten with my extract brewing. My friends argued that a rice pilaf made from scratch would be better. It turns out that they’re right, but there’s a catch: ask a kitchen amateur to make a fancy risotto, and odds are that their first attempts may turn out worse than the simple packaged mix.
All-grain brewing is similar. The potential is there, but it takes some experience to get the process under control. Go ahead and dive in. You’ll quickly figure out the basics that you can build upon, and here are some tips to give you a head start.
Line up your equipment
The main thing you’ll need is a container and a way to separate the wort from the grain. You can build yourself a mash tun with a manifold or false bottom, or you can try a brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) setup. For the long term, I think the mash tun is better, but the BIAB approach is the simplest way to give all-grain a try.
Partial mash is not a shortcut
When I started, I thought it would be easier to do a partial mash. With less grain, I could jury-rig the equipment and use extract to make up for any inefficiency. I mashed about 6 lb (2.7 kg) of grain in my oven on low heat. My conversion didn’t go well and sparging was a challenge. My first full mash was actually much smoother.
Get the right crush
If your malt is not correctly crushed, it can destroy your conversion efficiency, lead to stuck sparges, or even make your beer taste astringent. Fortunately, if you use your local homebrew shop’s mill, your crush should be about right to break up the kernels and separate them from the husks. Later, if you end up buying your own mill, take the time to adjust the roller spacing before your next brew day.
Temperature control is important
Beginners should start with a single-step infusion mash, where the grain is held at one temperature for the duration of the mash. The temperature you choose will determine the balance between the dextrins and fermentable sugars. A single step sounds simple, but even that can be a challenge. As you dough in with hot water, you’ll often find that you’re well above or below your temperature target. This can be addressed by adding cold or hot water, but you will need to make slight adjustments and stir often. The mash has a thermal inertia, which means it takes a while for the temperature to settle. Small steps keep you from overcorrecting. Similarly, be careful heating your mash directly; it’s all too easy to scorch the grain.
A couple more points to remember: heat rises, so the top of your mash will be hotter than the bottom, and insulating your mash tun or using a mash tun made from a cooler is a good way to keep it from cooling too quickly.
Sparging can be tough
Rinsing the sugars from the spent grain sounds simple, but this step requires the most attention. The sparge can get clogged in a variety of ways. Avoid this with some preparation: make sure your grain isn’t too finely crushed, mix in rice hulls if you’re using huskless grains such as wheat or rye, don’t let too much sparge water pool up to compress the grain bed, and start draining off the wort slowly.
If your sparge does get stuck, your first step is to cut through the grain bed to give the water a path through. You may need to stir the mash more fully and then recirculate the cloudy results before resuming a normal sparge. Keep your head and you’ll get through it, despite the stress.
Another pitfall is oversparging. As the gravity drops off, the pH rises, which can leach tannins from the grain husks. Check the gravity of the runnings when you near the end of your sparge. Stop collecting wort when it’s down to 1.010 or so.
Once you get through the sparge, you’re back on familiar ground: You have a kettle full of wort, and you’re ready to start the boil and the hops additions.
Welcome to gourmet brewing.