3 Tips for All Grain Brewing: What I Wish I Knew
It took me a long time to make the leap to all grain brewing, much longer than for most people. It was 13 years between my first brew and my first all grain brew, and 5 years from when I got serious until I went all grain. Frankly, I thought it sounded like a pain in the ass, and I was already producing award winning beer that, more importantly, I enjoyed drinking. I was reluctant to drop the expense associated with all that added equipment, I didn't want to deal with all the cleaning and maintenance that came along with that, and I didn't want to add an hour (or more) to my brew day.
But, in early 2012 I decided to give it a try. I converted some old (and expired) kegs into a BK, MLT and HLT. We bought a kit from AHS, figuring that creating our own recipe would only add variables that we might screw up. We read up on all grain brewing in How to Brew, and we made the leap.
That first beer was a relative bust; the worst beer I'd made in years (I've often found that any change in my system or process risks some regression until you dial it in). It was stressful, and took forever. It made me wonder whether AG brewing was worthwhile.
So we took a step back, contemplated our process, modified a few things and gave it another shot. The second time was better, as was the third, until soon we were producing beers as good or better than those we'd produced before.
Here are 3 things I wish I'd done differently before making that leap for the first time:
- Batch Sparge: while you may not choose to batch sparge forever, I recommend doing it the first time you brew all grain. There are enough moving parts with all grain already, so remove any of those you don't need, at least for the first go round. Batch sparging is simper, quicker and can produce equal quality beer. Yes, you might drop a few efficiency points over a great fly sparge, but chances are you won't hit your efficiency targets the first time anyways, and you can add a bit more grain to your bill to account for the efficiency drop. We at Pintwell have brewed several beers using both batch and fly sparges, but choose to batch sparge 99% of the time today
- Start with a simple set up: a lot of people switching to all grain will go out and procure all kinds of fancy equipment for their first brew using the new method. I think this is a mistake for two reasons: if you don't like all grain (not everyone does), it makes it harder to go back to the old method if you have a large capital investment; and, your new set up may not be optimal for your brewing style. It's better to test a few things, see what you like and don't like, and tweak as necessary to dial in your set up. Here's how I recommend you start (you probably have most of this at home already):
- Use your existing kettle as your HLT and BK. To use it as both, you'll need a place to hold the first runnings of your mash, while you heat your sparge water. A bucket works well for this. Once you've moved your sparge water to the MLT, transfer the first runnings back to the kettle and start heating that toward a boil
- Use a fermentation bucket as your MLT (it's OK if it has scratches; it does not have to be sanitary). Wrap it in some blankets or insulation to keep it as warm as possible. Stir about 3 times during the mash, but be sure to close the lid and insulate again so as to minimize heat loss. Use a colander to strain the mash into the aforementioned bucket or BK
- You can use the rest of the equipment (chilller, fermenters, etc) just as you would when brewing extract
- Start with a great and proven recipe: if you don't do this and your beer turns out less than perfect, it will be hard to determine whether it was your fault or a faulty recipe. I recommend starting with a recipe from Brewing Classic Styles. And, while you are at it, choose a style that Jamil calls "beginner" rather than shooting for a high gravity IIPA or Russian Imperial Stout for your first go-round
That's it! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Chances are you are not going to brew a NHC best in show on your first attempt, but there's no reason you can't brew an incredibly tasty beer that will motivate you to continue to refine your set up and start you down the path of your next great brewing adventure!