Do Not Fear All-Grain Brewing - A Primer
Do not fear all-grain brewing.
There have been lots of threads (recently and historically) about concerns with consistency and accuracy in all-grain brewing. Stuck sparges, missed mash temps, volume control problems (collected too much/not enough, mash wouldn’t fit in tun, etc.), and my favorite, inconsistent efficiency, seem to be commonplace. I suppose those fears/issues are what keep people away from all-grain brewing - nonsense. This may be unusual, but I enjoy the brewing more than the drinking. The feeling of control and craft you get while brewing from grain can not be matched. This will be a bit cumbersome, but I thought it would be nice to put together a “little” all-grain primer. It may have been done before, but I wanted an opportunity to offer my own thoughts and ideas, while passing along some of the best information I have come across. I have learned a lot from this site, and I thought it would be appropriate to contribute something useful to the next group of brewers coming into the hobby. Some thoughts are semi-original, others are simply regurgitated from reliable sources. At this point, it is hard for me to distinguish between the two.
My AG primer will break this process down to four parts; the crush, the mash, the sparge, and a little bonus, “common pitfalls”. Once the wort is in the kettle, you are on your own. I’ll explain what works for me, and why. For full disclosure, I run a continuous (fly) sparge on a 5G system. My mash tun and hot liquor tank are both igloo coolers, which obviously, can not be directly heated. My experiences will obviously be tailored to my system, but the principles can still be helpful for a batch sparger or someone with a direct fired mash tun. Proof-reading this, I believe the principles apply regardless of how complex or simple your brew house is. Tailoring nuances are part of the fun of this hobby – so good luck there.
It will become obvious that I am a bit of a process junkie. This primer leans heavily on a repeatable, well planned process. A brewer who enjoys a more artisanal – no two batches are the same – approach may not see this information as valuable. That’s okay. On the other hand, to a new all-grain brewer, or to someone who wants to be able to repeat a recipe, I hope you find my tips and experiences to be of use.
Please give me a few minutes to get things copied and pasted, and then I would be happy to hear anyone’s thoughts, questions, or additional contributions.
Part 1 – The Crush
Crushing the grain is such a simple throw-away thought, but it is going to dictate the entire flow and repeatability of brew day. Unless you have a reliable vendor that you use every time, who crushes the grain the same way every time, I think you need to invest in a good mill. I use a barley crusher (with the small hopper), and I am thrilled with it. I went with the small hopper a couple years ago because the added capacity didn’t match the added cost, but I am really happy I went that route because it stores a lot easier. My advice here is that less is more when it comes to the crush. Do not over crush your grain! All you need to do is crack the husk open. Just give them a good crack. Some will split, some will kind of hang together, but they will all look like grain. If you can not identify malt kernels after you crushed, your mill may be set too tight.
There is a school of thought that a finer crush will give you better efficiency. It may be true that efficiency can be improved a couple points by turning your grain and starch to powder, but I think the negative tradeoffs offset a couple points of potential efficiency. Namely, the more powder in the mash, the more prone you will be to channeling - and worse – a stuck sparge. The cracked husk is the natural filter that clarifies wort during recirculation. It’s job becomes much harder if it looks more like saw dust than a pile of husks. Visualize what water looks like passing through a bucket of pebbles versus passing through a bucket of sand. That is the difference between a fluffy grain bed and a bed full of powder.
I used to get an efficiency of 85-88%, but going slightly against the grain here, I wanted it lower. I opened my B.C. back up to its factory setting (I tightened it down when I received it), and I conduct my sparge at a faster rate than I used to (usually reaching pre-boil volume levels in less than 30 minutes). I got my efficiency down to 75%, and I could not be happier. Tasting the wort, I find it to be richer, with much less offensive “grainy” character. The cost of richer wort at lower efficiency; about a pound or two of 2-row. More importantly, the fluid dynamics through my grain bed are much improved, and the wort clarity during recirculation has never been better. A stuck sparge used to be my biggest brew day stress – it is a thing of the past.
As an aside, the only thing more ludicrous and misdirected than bragging about efficiency is bragging about lag time (but that is a topic for a “fermentation primer”). High efficiency does not equal high quality wort. Ironically, high efficiency is not really “efficient”. I would not call 2 hour trickle sparges efficient. After In-bev makes an offer to buy you out, then you can start worrying about high efficiency, but at 5G at a time, please value quality, consistency, and ease, over saving a pound of grain.
Finally, every time someone asks if they should buy a mill – the response is always “Yes, because you can buy in bulk and save money!” While true that there is a return by buying in bulk, I feel there is a much bigger return from having the physical control over the crush. The money saved breaks down to pennies on the pint, but the consistency you pick up by crushing your own grain is invaluable. For that reason alone – buy a mill.
Part 2 - Dough in
Part 2 – Dough in and Mash Temperature
Hitting mash temperatures plagued me for a little while. Maybe not “plagued”, but definitely “pained”. I would always be close, but I could never get it exact. I recently dialed in a process that enables me to hit my mash number every time. Have some patience – this is the longest part of the primer.
Before I get into it, I ask you to throw away a couple preconceived notions. First, the quarts of water: pounds of grain ratio is a ball park number. I am sure that there would be some effect of 1:1 vs 3:1, but we all seem to be in the range of 1:1– 1.5: 1, so I will go with that. Again, it is only there as a ball park. The second thing you have to accept is that software calculations are a decent and arguably necessary starting point, but you can not rely solely on them to sort out the brew day for you. This is a hands on hobby, and you – not the software - need to be in control. Finally, accept that the biggest constraint to your mash is the volume that your tun can hold. Pretty obvious, right? Basically, my system starts with tun volume, and works backwards from there. If you have a direct fired tun, you will have a little more flexibility for corrections – but my method will get you where you need to be faster, rather than playing “chase the mash temp” for 15 minutes.
Also, I should add that this process is easiest if you have a way to control the flow of strike water from your kettle to your tun. The best case scenario is a ball valve feeding the tun from your kettle via a pump or gravity. If you have to physically dump water into your tun, that is okay too, but you will need a pyrex pitcher on hand or really enjoy picking up and pouring a pot of 175F water over and over again (I would opt for the pitcher if I was in group “B”).
Before I get started, I want to briefly mention water. All I use is a carbon filter, and a touch of campden on all of my brewing water. If you want to add salts/minerals, then that is up to you, but I really love what I heard from a brewer at Lagunitas. I’ll paraphrase;
“We all have access to the same grains, hops and yeast strains. The only true variable from brewery to brewery is the water and the brewer. Embrace your water, because it is one of the few things that can distinguish your brew house.”
I love that thought, and it is what I prescribe to. I like to leave the chlorine and chloramines behind, but I want all the other stuff in there.
Dough in continued (2 of 2)
On to the mash.
The first thing you need to do, days before brewing, is document volume levels and dead space in your equipment. This is where accuracy and consistency start. This could take an hour, but it is worth it. The other thing to do prior to brew day, is to explore your recipe and find out the “ball park” quarts: pound ratio you will be using.
I love this site (thanks Green Bay Rackers)
I will do an example with a 12 pound grain bill. I start with a target thickness of 1.25 qts: pound, because that is my favorite target. I plug it in, and I find out that thickness requires 4.71 gallons of space. It fits! The catch is that I can not go over 1.25 qts: pound. If I do, I run out of room to infuse more water. This simple concept of space constraint is where my mash process was born.
Brew day arrives and you know a few things. You know the dead space in your kettle (mine is 2.75 qts). You know that you can target 1.25 qts: lb for your 12 lb grain bill, because 4.71 gallons of volume will fit in your 5 gallon tun. You also know that it is 60F today. You can use that same Rackers site to calculate your strike temperature as 171F. With some simple math, you find that 1.25qts: lb or grain with a 12 lb grain bill is 15 qts. So to recap, the software says heat 15 qts to 171F, dough in, and you will settle at 154F. Sounds good, but in practice, it is destined for failure.
That calculator made no assumptions about dead space in your kettle (or tubing, pumps, etc), or heat loss due to ambient during transfer, or to that theme, heat loss due to the thermal mass of your specific tun. Combine all of those variables, and you just set yourself up to fall short of 154F. You also just ran out of room to scramble and infuse boiling water, because this grain bill only allowed about a quart of freedom. Missing a mash temp is not the end of the world, and falling on the low side, it will not ruin your beer (where as tremendous overshooting can ruin your beer by denaturing enzymes prior to conversion), but it will be different than the beer you set out to make – which frustrated me enough to figure out a nearly fool proof solution.
I’ve seen lots of ideas about hitting mash temps. Preheating the mash tun, adding all of the required strike water and allowing it to settle before adding grain, ice cubes or boiling water on hand; they all seem like fixes instead of solid and repeatable directions. Worst of all, they are not controlled. You add the water, add the grain, and hope everything comes together.
Here’s what I do. It has worked for me every time I’ve done it. It is low stress, consistent, easily explained, and fairly original. Naturally, YMMV (but it shouldn’t).
Run your recipe through a calculator as offered on the Rackers site to figure out a ball park for volumes and temps. Keep in mind, your only constraint is mash tun volume, and your main concern is avoiding a terrible overshoot. My example instructed measuring 15 qts, heated to 171F. That is only the jumping off point. The first thing you need to do is add the dead space in your kettle to the volume you were given. For me, that is 2.5 qts, but I round up to 4 quarts of dead space because I use a lot of tubing and a pump. So now, my volume is 19 qts. I should add here that kettle dead space is pretty much a non-issue if you are not using a ported kettle, but since mine is stationary and pumps move things around, I have to account for the dead space in every calculation. Next, I add another 4 qts to that dead space correction – I consider it an insurance policy. It also increased the thermal mass of the strike water, so in theory, it should lose less heat while waiting to be transferred. The next thing to consider is the temp I am heating up to. I am told 171F should get me where I need to be, but I know there is heat loss during transfer, and I also choose not to pre-heat my mash tun. After some trial and error, I found that 4-5 degrees F in the winter, and 3-4 degrees F in the summer (over instructed temp) keeps me where I need to be. So again, for this example, I will heat 23 qts to 175 F. Pretty simple so far.
The next step is the dough in. This is a hands on process. There is nothing I hated more than the anxiety of dumping in the water, dumping in the grain, stirring, crossing my fingers, measuring the temp, then scrambling to fix it. Granted, it would work out every now and then to within a degree or two, but if I designed a recipe for 154, I want the rest to be at 154. “Dump and Pray” as I call it, is a process that can use some improvements.
The dough-in process I want to share goes like this.
Quickly settle on a thick but stir-able mash ratio. I find that .75-1 qt: lb is in that range. Precision is not too important here, just be mindful that the thickness of this step should be about 75% of the thickness you designed the recipe around. This recipe is 1.25:1, so for this case, I’ll work with 1:1. For this grain bill, that is about 12 qts. I move 12 quarts to the empty (non-preheated ) tun. At this point, I all but close off the valve from the kettle, maybe allowing a trickle at most. If you have to dump strike water, just stop dumping when you reach 3 gallons/ 12 quarts. Now add ALL of your grain. The mash will be thick, and in this case, will probably be in a temp area of about 145F – take note that since the cool grain is in a greater proportion than the strike water volume you designed brew day around, the mash temp will be below your goal rest temperature. That should be an easy concept, but I wanted to spell it out. Stir it for 30 seconds or so and make sure the big clumps are broken up and that the first bit (in this case 3 gallons) of strike water is distributed. As a recap, you have added all your grain, 12 qts of the available 23 qts you preheated, and still have almost 3 gallons of 175F water available to you. Now, armed with a thermometer and a mash stirrer, start slowly adding the remaining water to the tun, while gently stirring the mash. This is where a ball valve comes in handy to regulate flow for you, but a pyrex pitcher will work (for the crowd using the pitcher, work in about a quart of strike water at a time, and drop to 1/2 qt as you get really close to rest temp). You will see the temp steadily tick upward. You will see that just before you are at your 1.25:1 mash thickness, the thermometer will be reading 154F. Hit your temp, turn off (or stop pouring) the strike water, give one more good quick stir to double check things are settled, cover, and walk away.
Why does this work?
First, you are over compensating on heat and volume from the start. Odds are, you will have a thicker mash by .1-.15 qt : lb than originally called for, but it will be guaranteed to fit in your tun. So yes, you are heating more water than planned, but could potentially be using less water than planned. That will have a lot to do with variables like grain, equipment, and ambient temperatures, as well as miscalculated dead space. To reemphasize, the tun volume is the biggest constraint – almost everything else is a variable and can be altered to come out with the same net result – but the tun volume is a constant. Also, by adding some water, then all of your grain, then the rest of your water as needed, you have a chance to break up dough balls, get the tun assimilated to the heat, and then work from cool to hot. It is not a yo-yo of hot water/cool grain. It is not a “dump and pray”. It is an anticipated below temp dough in, and then a steady, linear, controlled climb to your target mash temp – with temperature measurements being done along the way. Having all the grain in the tun also gives you one less thing to juggle, which is nice if you brew solo.
Best of all, if there is strike water left in the kettle (there should be) you just got a head start on preheating your sparge water, so no energy was wasted - but that belongs in part 3.
Part 3 - The Sparge
Part 3 – The Sparge
I considered leaving this part out, because I fly sparge and can’t speak about batch sparging from experience, but when you break down what you are trying to accomplish, the processes are really more similar that we make them out to be. At the end of the day, you are adding water above mash temp to rinse sugars from the grain bed to wind up with a predesigned volume or wort. When you look at it in those terms, the results are really the same – the delivery methods are just a bit different.
One of the most disturbing things I have discovered about the sparge is how misinterpreted sparge volumes are. There is no reason to use a volume given by a computer program. It never seems to work out. I can point once again to dead space issues, variable absorption rates, etc. The solution is simple. Heat as much sparge water as your hot liquor tank can hold, and stop sparging when you reach your designed pre-boil volume. If you have hot water left in the HLT but already collected enough wort – great! Save it for cleaning. The following concept is so simple, but people have relied on the software for so long that it seems to get lost.
Let me explain. I have a certain volume of water in my mash tun. I can sort of guess how much is in there, but in truth, I don’t care. I do know that between whatever I put in my tun, and the 5.5 G of sparge water + the 1 gallon I will boil and add for a mashout, I have enough water in the system to collect 26 qts of wort back into my kettle pre boil. And that is the number I use every time – 26 qts preboil. By keeping the wort volume in the kettle the same every time, I can confidently predict my brew house efficiency, which is really helpful in recipe formation. Also, I always use a 75 minute boil, and collect exactly 5G of wort into the carboy (leaving behind a couple qts in the kettle). That helps me be consistent with evaporation rates, pitching rates, finishing volumes, etc.
So what do I do?
As soon as the mash is covered and set, I add the soon-to-be sparge water to my kettle. How much? 6.5 Gallons - every time. After I raise the water to about 175F, I transfer 5.5 gallons to my second cooler which acts as a holding tank/HLT. If I had a second burner for the HLT, that transfer would be unnecessary. Either way, I really suggest having this third vessel in addition to the kettle and a tun, and if it is insulated or can be directly fired; better yet. Back to my system- the last gallon is left in my kettle, and after my 60 minute mash is complete, I boil that gallon. Once boiling (only takes a minute or two) I carefully lift and pour the gallon of boiling water into the mash tun (you wouldn’t be able to do this if you had maxed out the tun’s space during dough in). Don’t get caught up in the mash-out. Sometimes (maybe in this case) I wouldn’t be able to fit a whole gallon of boiling water. I will fit what I can, and thin out the mash as much as possible. The mash-out is not a measurement to get caught up in. I give the mash a quick stir, recirc for 10 minutes, then rearrange some hoses and begin the fly sparge. The sparge lasts about 30 minutes. Once the 26 qt mark is reached, I close the ball valve on the mash tun, confirm the wort’s gravity, and I am on my way to the boil.
Yes, some wort is left behind in the tun. No, I don’t care. Personally, I favor consistent volumes over draining every drop of wort from the tun.
I believe this process can be used equally effectively with a batch/ double batch sparge. Just as I do not collect the last of my runnings, a batch sparger would cut off the tail end of his collection as well. I understand there are some differences because the mash in a batch sparge is a bit more homogenous due to stirring where as the mash from a fly sparge is being constantly diluted, but once you do it a few times, I am sure the efficiency will form a trend and you can adjust from there. Besides, a batch sparger collected the best of the wort during first runnings anyway. That last sparge will be the least rich and most tannic – it probably wouldn’t hurt to leave some of that behind in the tun. If I had to convert my process for a double batch sparger, I would probably drain my first runnings, at that point, I would know how much additional sparge water would be needed to hit 26 qts pre boil. At this point, absorption is practically a non issue, so accounting for dead space only (and maybe adding a couple qts to my calculation for insurance), I would take that calculated sparge volume and split the second two sparges somewhere along the lines of 65:35. The 65% sparge would be drained completely, and the wort will be richer. The 35% sparge may be cut off short, but it is the most diluted and low quality wort anyway. Admittedly, batch sparging is not my forte.
Part 4 - Pitfalls
Part 4 – Pitfalls
Finally, I just wanted to offer a few words about sparge pitfalls; mainly – avoiding a stuck sparge. I see three reasons a sparge gets stuck.
1) Equipment failure – namely; collapsed braid.
2) Too much powder in the crush.
3) Compacting the bed by draining too quickly.
I think the most common equipment failure is a crushed/tweaked/collapsed braid. It is the most common problem simply because the braid is cheap, accessible, and therefore, the most used set-up. There are some good solutions on the boards about how to reinforce your braid. Give them a try before you find out you have a problem. Once the braid gets crushed, you brew day will go from relaxing to ruined. Plan ahead.
I used a braided manifold for a while, and it did its job, but it would fail on me about 10% of the time. I decided to eliminate the problem and buy a SS false bottom designed for my 5G cooler (I only buy from Ed @ Brewmasters Warehouse). It is completely stainless. All fittings in my brewery post filter are stainless, so I wanted to stay consistent. Ed distributes some great quality stuff.
Going for the FB was the best decision I have made in a while. It is just a superior product to my DIY braid, and has completely eliminated my equipment concerns.
Another design I really like is the copper and CPVC manifolds that some people have built. Especially in a rectangular cooler – I think this design is second to none in an oddly shaped tun.
It is also worth mentioning here that whatever medium you choose, braid, false bottom, or manifold, its purpose is to separate the grain and the wort – not to filter the wort. The grain bed is its own filter, which brings me to pitfall #2; the crush.
As I mentioned earlier, the crush dictates brew day. It is the key to consistent efficiency, and it is imperative to a successful sparge. Prior to opening up my rollers a bit, I looked into my drained mash tun and saw about 2 inches of tan powder on top of the grain bed. It looked like a bag of flour. I have no idea how the water was able to rinse through that layer, but I guarantee it was not easy. A nice, fluffy grain bed promotes improved fluid dynamics. I heard there were reports recently at the CBC that despite conventional wisdom, some breweries found improved efficiency with a coarser crush. I suppose it lends to the idea that if it is easier for the fluid to navigate a grain bed, it will do a better job of rinsing the sugars from the grain. Once again, when it comes to the crush, less is more.
Draining too quickly
Finally, I have heard of issues where a brewer fully opens the valve on his mash tun and the pressure of the fluid trying to escape is so great that the grain is pulled downward and the bed compacts. I was guilty of this myself. This is a mistake that you typically only make once, and just requires a little trial and error to figure out a speed your system can handle. I say to stick on the side of caution. Begin draining the tun by just cracking the output valve open enough to see that wort is exiting. You can increase the speed from there. Again, this is really trial and error, and barely requires mentioning, but it could be a pitfall.
Well, that is it. The wort is in the kettle, and you know what to do from there. Please let me know if anything needs clarification or further illustration.
Thanks everyone for all the tips you have given me along the way. I lurk more than I contribute, so hopefully this makes up for that a bit.
What no pics? Hah! Awesome write up tho, thanks.
Here is a pic - shows the connections for a hybrid pump/gravity fly sparge in action. Fingers are tired, so all I will offer is a link if you want a better breakdown of the components of the rig.
I like your dough-in process. I'm always adjusting down rather than gradually bringing the temp up to where it's supposed to be - I think I'll try it your way next brew day.
Thanks for taking the time to explain your methods and write everything up so well!
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