How to Homebrew: All Grain Beer  cover

How to Homebrew: All Grain Beer

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Over the years I've gotten numerous emails asking me to do a post detailing how I brew. This is the answer to those requests. What follows is not the only way, or necessarily the best way, but it is how I brew. The pictures were taken during the brew day for my Citra Pale Ale, a relatively simple, moderate gravity batch.


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How to Homebrew: All Grain Beer

Step by Step

Over the years I've gotten numerous emails asking me to do a post detailing how I brew.

This is the answer to those requests. What follows is not the only way, or necessarily the best way, but it is how I brew. The pictures were taken during the brew day for my Citra Pale Ale, a relatively simple, moderate gravity batch. This is not intended to be a complete guide on homebrewing (How to Brew is what you should read for that), but hopefully it will provide some insight by elaborating on why I've decide to do things in specific ways.

If it seems like I've left something out let me know, and I'll add it.

Homebrew 101

Homebrew 101

©iStock

Filter Strike Water

I filter my DC tap water because it has chlorine or chloramine (depending on the month).

Big carbon block water filters are much cheaper per gallon filtered compared to the small Brita/PUR faucet mounted models that need to be replaced every few hundred gallons (the $35 filter I have is rated for 5,000 gallons or 2 years). This model also has enough height that I can get my pot under it. I had bad luck (no fermentation) on the two batches where I used campden tablets to de-chlorinate my water, but that method seems to work for a lot of people.

Heat Strike Water

I like heating on the stove to conserve propane, I'm not in much of a rush at this stage anyway because I leave it heating while I go deal with the malt (or go back to bed if I'm doing an early morning brew).

I always heat up a bit of extra water over the Promash software estimate so I can add it if the mash temp is lower than expected.

Heating Water Strike

Heating Water Strike

This is my 7.5 gallon aluminum turkey fryer pot. It has served me well for 5 years. I don't regret going aluminum because it is lighter, cheaper, and has better heat conductivity than stainless steel. Your hot liquor tank (HLT) needs to be at least as big as your finished batch size, but bigger is always better.

Image by The Mad Fermentationist

Weigh Out the Malt

Sadly my scale only holds up to 5 lbs, so I weigh the grain out piecemeal in a bowl and then dump it into the hopper on my mill.

Just make sure to tare out the weight of the bowl. Eventually I'll invest in a scale with a higher capacity so I can weigh out the entire grain bill in one go, but this one has served me well for a couple years and I'm in no hurry to get rid of a loyal appliance.

Extra Specialty Malts

Extra Specialty Malts

I keep extra specialty malts in vacuum-sealed Foodsaver bags. This keeps the grain away from oxygen and moisture, so I can hang onto it for a couple years without issue. It also ensures that the mice that may or may not live in my basement don't get any free meals at my expense.

Image by The Mad Fermentationist

Extra Supplies

On top I keep boxes of supplies.

One contains all my liquids and powders (water salts, yeast nutrient, Whirlfloc, acids etc...) and the other contains small equipment (airlocks, stoppers, caps, bottling wax, oak cubes etc...). Sanitizers and cleaners go in the middle. Eventually I'd like to get some nice shelves to put everything out on, but for the time being this keeps everything together. I keep extra base malts in their original sacks inside lidded plastic bins (again to keep real bugs and critters out).

Having a couple different base malts on hand allows me to be ready to brew whenever I want. Buying in bulk is also cheaper than buying by the pound, most grains are about half price by the sack. I don't worry too much about a little bit of oxygen/moisture getting into my base malt as its rare that they sit around for more than a couple months (and I have a dehumidifier in the basement). I try to keep on hand sacks of European pilsner (lagers, Belgian beers), Maris Otter (malty English and American ales), and American 2-row pale (anything that I want a subdued malt character).

Crush the Malt

This should be done as close to mashing as possible to reduce the amount of oxidation that occurs (not a huge issue, but it can lead to premature staling according to several professional brewers I've talked to).

I often crush while the strike water is heating, but sometimes I'll do it the night before if I want to brew early in the morning. I ran my mill by hand for years, but I recently got a drill (which attaches directly to the drive shaft of my mill) beefy enough to handle grinding the grain.

I've been very happy with my Barley Crusher (4 years old at this point). Although once in awhile the grain doesn't feed into the rollers well, but a quick reverse of the drill usually fixes the problem. I probably should have gone with the larger hopper (I assumed I'd build a larger one myself, but I haven't...).

A Good Crush

A Good Crush

A good crush should look something like this, pretty intact husks with the endosperm (inner starchy part) well broken up. I have the mill set just slightly tighter than the factory setting (.039). Depending on your lautering system you may want a finer or coarser crush, but this is what works for my system. A finer crush will help your mash efficiency to a point, but too fine and you can end up with a stuck sparge.

Image by The Mad Fermentationist

Options

I use a 5 gallon round cooler mash tun with a copper manifold I build myself for most batches.

I leave the slots facing down while I mash/sparge. It is the same manifold I've been using since my first all-grain batch about five years back. I tried to make another one out of CPVC, but it floated and I had trouble keeping the connections together. Less complex systems like a Bazooka Screen or hose braid seem to work well for batch sparging, but I like having the option of doing fly sparges as well.

Tight Fit

The manifold fits snugly into the bulkhead pass through I bought from Northern Brewer.

I tried to build my own at first, but I was never able to get it leak-proof. It is a good idea to use Teflon tape on any threaded connections (like the one I have between the bulkhead and ball valve) to ensure they don't start leaking while you are in the middle of a mash/sparge. The 5 gallon mash tun is fine for 5 gallon batches up to about 1.080 (without sugar or extract), above that I need to use my larger 70 qrt rectangular mash tun (which doesn't happen very often).

If I need to do a direct fired multi-step mash I'll usually do it in my boil kettle and then scoop the mash into the mash tun when it is time to sparge. I'm surprised that the cooler has held up as well/long as it has, but the sides are starting to look a bit scratched, bumpy, and warped from the ~100 batches I've run through it.

Dough In

I start with about 75% of my expected water in the mash tun.

Adding the malt slowly, stirring as I go to prevent lumps (dough balls) from forming with dry grain in the center. Having these dry spots will reduce your efficiency since the water will not be able to penetrate into the center of the clumps. I take temperature readings, adding more water and stirring as necessary until the mash hits 1-2 degrees higher that my target (the mash tun will suck up a bit of heat over the first few minutes).

I only preheat the mash tun in the rare case that I am mashing outside during the winter. I find that adding water before the grain makes the dough in a bit easier to deal with. It also prevents grain from being compacted down around the manifold, which makes sparging slower.

Important Tools

A thermometer that you trust is one of the most important pieces of equipment.

I have a Thermapen, which is quick and accurate, but at nearly $100 probably more than most people are willing to spend on a thermometer. Digital in general is nice because it is quick and easy to read, but any "meat" thermometer will get the job done in a pinch.

pH Test

After waiting 5 minutes for the mash reactions do their thing, I pull a small sample of wort for a pH test. Remember that the pH will read a few tenths higher if you are taking it at room temp.

While ~5.2 is ideal at mash temps, at room temp you are looking for ~5.4. Most beers don't need adjustment (I usually only check especially light or dark beers because DC water is fine for anything amber-brown). At this point I also recheck the temp to make sure it is holding steady (since I didn't pre-heat my mash tun).

Stir

I like the pH strips because they don't need calibration and they don't break (unlike pH meters).

Having the right pH ensures that the enzymes will do what they are supposed to do, and that tannins will not be extracted. I stir the mash with my big spoon a couple times during the mash just to make sure the heat and enzymes are evenly distributed. I doubt it does much, but it gives me something to do during the mash.

Recirculate/Vorlauf

I drain a pint of wort through the manifold, pour it back into the mash, and repeat.

Starting off pretty slowly to make sure that the grainbed doesn't compact. I generally cycle 1-2 gallons through the mash depending on how long it takes for the bits of grain/husk to disappear. This steps helps make clear beer, and also is supposed to help your beer taste fresher longer. This is a shot of the first runnings, very cloudy with big chunks of husk/grain.

Recirculating Mash

Recirculating Mash

I use a piece of aluminum foil on top of the mash to prevent the grainbed from being disturbed when I pour the wort back. It is much easier to poke to holes after the aluminum foil is on top of the mash (I just use a clean steak knife). This is the best/easiest way I've found to accomplish diffusion for the recirculation and for adding sparge water.

Image by The Mad Fermentationist

More Options

Once the wort is relatively clear I do either a fly sparge or a batch sparge.

I do fly sparges for bigger beers since it gives better efficiency (on my system) and allows me to mash more grain (since I don't have enough room for all the sparge water to be added at once). I do a batch sparge for lighter beers since it removes the worry about tannin extraction from letting the sparge run too long, it is also less labor intensive (you can walk away and let the tun drain completely). For completeness I'll cover both methods.

Batch Sparge

Drain all of the liquid from the mash into the brew kettle, I do this slower than some other people because it helps prevent grain from being sucked into the kettle.

Once I have collected all of the first runnings I measure the volume in the kettle and subtract it from my target volume, the difference is the amount of sparge water that needs to be added. I use 180-185 degree water for the sparge infusion, aiming to get the mash up just below 170.

The closer to 170 you get the better the extraction you will have, hotter than that though and you risk tannin extraction. Once the water is added I stir the mash for about five minutes to make sure I extract as much of the sugars as possible. There is no need for any additional rest in my experience. Once I am done stirring I recirculate again until relatively clear, and drain the second runnings.

Fly Sparge

I let the wort drain to within an inch of the top of the grainbed, then pour in a pint or two of the sparge water.

I keep adding water when the level gets close to the top of the grainbed until the wort in the boil kettle is about half a gallon short of the target volume, then I stop adding water and let it drain. Ideally you would monitor the gravity and pH of the runnings and stop it once the pH starts to rise or the gravity drops below 1.010 or so (in practice I never do this).

Add Water Salts

I wait to add water salts to the runoff for flavor if I don't need them to adjust the mash pH.

For more details on my thoughts on water treatment check out the Water Treatment overview post.

For the most part, I try to keep my adjustments pretty minimal. I've gone through stages where I built waters from RO/distilled, but these days I use DC tap water with small adjustments for mash pH (carbonate for dark beers, calcium for pale beers) and flavor (sulfate for hoppy beer, sodium/chloride for malty beers). It is rare I go over 200 ppm for any individual ion.

Add Water Salts Continued…

My boil kettle is a relatively thick 10 gallon aluminum stock pot I bought at a restaurant supply store in Boston.

I've been happy with it so far (again close to 5 years), although it would be nice to have gone stainless in this case so I could give it a more aggressive scrub from time to time. I use my mash spoon to figure out how much volume I've collected. I calibrated the notches using cold water, so they are a bit lower than they should be (by ~4%).

On my system in addition to the volume I want in the fermenter I need 1 gallon for every hour of the boil plus .5 gallon for losses to hops, cooling shrinkage, and transfers. I collect extra for really hoppy beers, less if I am adding honey/liquid malt extract/molasses.

Add Water Salts Continued…

Add Water Salts Continued…

After the sprage is complete and you have collected all your wort take a gravity reading to determine if you are on target (after mixing the wort to ensure an accurate reading). If I am under gravity I'll either add malt extract or boil longer and reduce my batch size. If I am over gravity I'll either up my hopping, or add water and use the extra beer for an experiment of some sort. It is a good idea to cool this sample quickly so you know where you stand before you start adding anything to the boil.

Image by The Mad Fermentationist

Sanitize

I try to get my sanitation started during the boil.

Star-San and Iodophor only need a couple minutes to work, but longer contact time makes them even more effective (a necessity when I brew so many beers with various strains of wild yeast and bacteria.) You can make a small amount of sanitizing solution and swish it around, but I feel better soaking my equipment. I always make sure my post-boil equipment is clean of dirt, grime, residue, gunk, and schmutz before storing.

I do this by giving it a long soak in hot water and OxiClean Free, TSP, or PBW (followed by several rinses with hot water to remove any residue from the cleaner). The sanitizers won't work well if there are spots of organic or inorganic material on the surface for microorganisms to hide in. As a last resort I'll use a carboy brush, but I don't like to since the bristles are supposedly hard enough to leave tiny scratches in the Better Bottle plastic (luckily it is rarely necessary after an overnight soak).

Boil

Time to cook.

I get a good strong boil on a turkey-fryer (Banjo Cooker) in my garage (with plenty of ventilation), but if you have a wide enough pot you can get a pretty good boil going on your stove by placing the pot over 2 burners (which is what I did for years when I lived in apartments).

I generally start heating with the lid on, but once it gets close to a boil I take it off and stay nearby to watch for boil overs.

Skim

I like to skim off the foam (coagulated protein) that accumulates on top of the wort as it approaches a boil using a small sieve.

This ensures that I get any small particles of grain that might have slipped by the manifold. Skimming also helps to prevent boil overs by removing some of the protein and nucleation sites. It doesn't have much effect on the finished beer, but it gives me a reason to stick around the pot while it is coming up to a boil.

Once the wort hits a boil I leave the lid off to prevent volatilized DMS from dripping back into the pot (especially important when brewing with pilsner malt). Speaking of which I do a 90 min boil for most of my batches to help drive off DMS, give the wort some time to boil before the hops are added, and allow me to collect more wort pre-boil to increase my mash efficiency.

Hop

Hop

While the wort is heating I get my mise en place laid out for anything I'll be adding during the boil (hop additions, yeast nutrient, sugars, kettle finings, spices, herbs etc..).

Image by The Mad Fermentationist

Hops Continued…

A scale is the only reliable way to measure hops, especially when a small difference with high alpha acid hops can have a huge difference in your results.

My scale is more accurate in grams, so I'll often use them and convert back to ounces. I generally adjust the hop alpha acid content down based on how old the hops are. Once the hops are measured out I seal any left over back up and put them back in the freezer. Hops stored away from heat and oxygen will retain more bitterness and aromatics than poorly stored hops. Just like grain, buying hops in bulk makes Hops Direct and Freshops depending on what varieties I'm looking for and how much I want to buy.

Hops Continued…

I use both pellets and whole hops depending on what I can get.

In general I like pellets in the boil and whole hops for dry hopping. Whole hops take up more space, oxidize easier, and suck up more wort, but I like them for dry hopping because it is easier to prevent little bits of them from making it into your glass and they don't give as much of the grassy (chlorophyll) flavor that pellets can with long exposure times. I set a timer to make sure I add the hops at the scheduled times.

If you are just starting to homebrew it is a good idea to write out all of your additions and check them off as you go to make sure you don't miss anything (especially for something with a complex schedule like an IPA). You can stir the hops in if you want, but they seem to hydrate and sink on their own.

Add Kettle Finings and Yeast Nutrient

I often use Whirlfloc because you can just toss it in, but when I use Irish Moss I rehydrate it in water (although generally not for as long as I you are supposed to).

Removing protein not only helps make a clear beer but also helps the beer to remain "stable" (tasty) for a longer period of time. Yeast nutrient is always a good idea, but especially if you are adding sugars or are worried about your yeast health. I like the Wyeast blend, but there are lots of good options available.

Chill

A quick disconnect makes hooking up my homemade immersion chiller to the faucet much easier.

I like the convenience of chilling in the kitchen (boil kettle sitting on a metal folding chair), but outside connected to a garden hose works to. I give the wort a stir/swirl every few minutes with the wort chiller to speed up the chilling process. In the winter my tap water is really cold, but in the summer chilling takes much longer as the water creeps up towards 80.

Chill Continued…

I always try to chill to at or below my target fermentation temperature.

I think far too many people get off-flavors because they are pitching warm and then trying to cool as fermentation (an exothermic process) starts. Don't rely on feeling the side of the pot for the temperature of the wort, sanitize your thermometer and take a reading (you may be surprised). In the summer when my water is warmer than my pitching temp I'll place the wort in my fermentation fridge for a few hours before aerating and pitching to get the temperature down.

Strain

I generally pour the chilled beer through a sanitized metal strainer into my bottling bucket to remove as much of the hops as I can before the beer enters the fermenter.

I'm not worried about an off-flavors from leaving he hops in the wort, they just get in the way of racking (poor suction during racking can lead to oxidation as the siphon struggles and pulls air into the beer). This shot is of the strainer after it was taken off the bottling bucket. I then use the spigot to transfer the wort into a carboy or Better Bottle.

This is the easiest way I've found to do this, a big funnel is faster, but this is a lot less stress/effort. If there is a lot of trub in the wort I'll wait 10-15 minutes to transfer the beer to the fermenter to allow time for the excess hot/cold break to settle below the level of the spigot.

Aerate

For low gravity beers I shake for a minute or two before pitching and then repeat a couple more times over the first few hours of fermentation.

For higher gravity beers I pump in pure oxygen (using a mini-regulator, stone, and one of those red bottles of oxygen from Home Depot) because the yeast cells need more O2 and it has a lower solubility in the denser wort. I set the regulator to as low as it will go with oxygen still coming out and gently rock the carboy.

Pitch

I try to pitch plenty of healthy cells, either with a starter from liquid yeast, slurry from a previous batch, or dry yeast.

Jamil's pitching rate calculator is a very handy tool for figuring out exactly how much to pitch. The only time I pitch right out of a smack-pack or vial is when I'm doing a small batch of low gravity beer (essentially a glorified starter I'm planning on drinking).

Ferment

Keep the ambient temperature a few degrees below your target fermentation temperature.

The fermenting yeast will produce some heat and will cause the wort to be a few degrees warmer than the surrounding air. As the fermentation slows I'll generally increase the ambient temperature to make sure the wort doesn't chill (which could shock the yeast and lead to a stuck fermentation).

I usually crimp a piece of aluminum foil over the neck of the carboy for beers that have plenty of head space (with the amount of CO2 being produced you don't need to worry too much about wild microbes getting into the beer), or a blow-off tube for beer that don't have a safe amount of head space. Once fermentation slows down I'll switch either to an airlock to make sure no oxygen gets into the fermenter.

Rack

A pump action auto-siphon is the single greatest homebrewing gadget in my opinion.

Mine tend to only last about 12-18 months before the gasket loses suction, but the $10 is well worth it for the effort, oxidation, and infection risk they reduce.

Flushing the carboy with CO2 is a great idea if you are worried about oxidation, but I really only do it for pale hoppy beers. I don't rack beers I am going to keg to secondary, since the keg takes its place, but I do for most bottled beers to ensure they don't have much yeast/trub in the bottle. If you have the ability to cold crash/stabilize your beers for a few weeks it will help improve the clarity and shelf stability of your beer by dropping out excess yeast and protein.

Bottle or Keg

An in depth look at packaging will have to wait for another time.

That said, I wish it didn't because I think carbonation is an often marginalized topic. Figuring out the proper amount of priming sugar should be done with a priming calculator that takes into account the volume (not your intended batch size, but the actual amount in the bottling bucket) and temperature of the beer (which is a proxy for the amount of carbonation in solution), and target amount of CO2. Like most things in brewing, priming sugar should be measured by weight, not volume for the most accuracy.

Some fresh yeast is a great idea for long aged, strong, or cold crashed beers, but it is generally not needed.

Fill It Up

Fill It Up

As Pete Docter the director of Monsters, Inc. and Up said, "Pixar films don't get finished, they just get released."

I've been working on and off on this post since I brewed my Citra Pale Ale in late April, I'm still not completely happy with it, but it was time to post.

The Mad Fermentationist

(CC BY-NC 4.0)