Award Winning Beer w/Home Brew Equipment

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CascadesBrewer

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I wrote this for another purpose, but here is my list of game changing things that made my beer consistently start scoring in the upper 30s, low 40s in competitions.
Good stuff there! I often see posts asking "what is the ONE thing that elevated your beer??" like they are looking for that silver bullet that will transform their bitter vinegar beers to 48 point best-of-show winners. The reality is that there are a ton of minor things that all add up to made a good beer. I agree with Bobby's list, but you can also do everything on his list and still make crap beer.

One thing that helped me make better beer was to actually try to make better beer. There is something fun about mixing together whatever grains you have on hand, or looks good when you are at the store. Maybe your sheet says 1 oz of Centennial, but you decided Citra sounded good on brew day. Do you have any tasting notes on past beers that you can use to improve the recipe? Did you record what temperature you actually mashed at or you fermented at? I have been brewing for many years, but most of the time I just moved from batch to batch, from recipe to recipe, without really building on what I was learning along the way.
 

VikeMan

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Never won a best of show, came very close once. My beer was one of the last 2 standing in the best of show round but the judges were enamoured with the other beer. It was a “Kellerbier” which was the brand new shiny object back then.
Well... that Kellerbier could also have been the best beer on the table. :) I feel for you though. I had a nice little collection of BOS 2nd and 3rds for a BoPils before it finally won a BOS 1st. And it was always getting beat by some humongous RIS or BDSA or the like. And to keep this on topic, those BoPils batches were fermented in glass carboys, before I got a conical.
 

Scott705

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Well i haven't won any awards but i brew my beer prohibition style, in a bath tub with a plywood board on top right after my wife's sweet ass came out of it, it turns out fine and everybody loves dipping out of the tub, working on carbonation, haven't got that far but after the first pint, if you can get past the hair in your beer it's fine and gets you drunk, so no 0ne really cares after that...
🤣🤣🤣
 

GoeHaarden

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Well i haven't won any awards but i brew my beer prohibition style, in a bath tub with a plywood board on top right after my wife's sweet ass came out of it, it turns out fine and everybody loves dipping out of the tub, working on carbonation, haven't got that far but after the first pint, if you can get past the hair in your beer it's fine and gets you drunk, so no 0ne really cares after that...
🤣🤣🤣
Cool story bro
 

CascadesBrewer

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And to keep this on topic....
I have entered a total of one competition in as long as I remember...

It was April 2019. I broke out my old MiniDV camcorder with the idea of launching a YouTube channel. I recorded the details of brewing an American Brown Ale. The goal was to focus on very basic brewing...recipe right out of "Brewing Classic Styles", 2 gal stove top BIAB, 1 pack dry yeast, fermented at room temp, and bottled. The beer turned out better than the quality of the video.

It must have been around the end of 2019. There was competition organized on Reddit for a beer made with Rye so I threw together a Rye Porter (that was so so). I went ahead and submitted an Imperial Stout that I was looking for feedback, and...hey I still have a few bottles of that American Brown Ale so I sent that one in as well.

So today, that is my claim to fame as an "award winning" brewer...a bronze medal for a 35 point scoring American Brown! ;) (I have done okay some years in my local club's competitions, but they are rather informal.)

I had 4 beers ready to go for a local competition in early 2020...then COVID...but hopefully at some point in 2021 some local competitions will spin back up and I can one-up my bronze medal! (I learned that packing and shipping beer is a hassle and expense I would rather avoid.)
 

Bobby_M

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I don't know if Brulosophy started this or just gives people cover, but you know what's really popular in the brewing forums right now? People being proud of how little effort they are able to put in and end up with a drinkable beer. "Look what I got away with! You careful traditional brewers are so stupid for going out of your way to do things that don't affect the beer". OK. Congratulations. You made a thing.
 

Brooothru

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I wrote this for another purpose, but here is my list of game changing things that made my beer consistently start scoring in the upper 30s, low 40s in competitions.

  1. Water. It matters. Chlorine sucks. Salts affect flavor. The combination of water and your malt recipe affects mash pH. High mash pH causes astringency. I build my water from 100% RO water and take a minimalist approach using only CaSO4, CaCL, and MgSO4 to get to 50ppm calcium and tweak the sulfate to chloride ratio. I use tools like EZwatercalculator (many people like Bru’nwater) to get it close. If the predicted mash pH is too high (over 5.4), I use the tool to figure out how much lactic or phosphoric acid I’ll need to add to the mash. I do have a pH meter and I check the mash pH but predictive tools are almost always close enough that I’d feel confident in them even without the meter now.
  2. Fermentability, Dextrines, Attenuation, Balance. These typical brewing buzzwords are all interactive when it comes to recipe design. The problem is that understanding really only comes from experience. Fermentability, or the ratio of simple sugars to dextrines, is determined by specialty malt choice, quantity and mash temps. The attenuation you ultimately achieve is further affected by yeast strain and viability. A good rule of thumb is that the higher the original gravity target, the less dextrines you want to force. Lower your mash temps and back off on crystal malt percentages. If this doesn’t make sense, just follow known good recipes carefully.
  3. Fresh ingredients. It’s no mystery that running a homebrew shop with good grain turnover gives me access to very fresh ingredients. If you don’t brew frequently, skip buying grain in bulk. It may cost you 10% more to buy grain by the batch, but it doesn’t get any fresher than that.
  4. Clean your equipment. Think like bacteria. Dirt protects bacteria from chemical sanitizers. If you can’t clean it, or if you can’t see it (like inside a drain valve), use the heat of your wort to heat sanitize before chilling. This works on plate chillers too. I won’t spend much time on this because you should know better.
  5. Yeast pitch rates. You are not using enough yeast. There I said it. This is another popular topic of debate. Take it seriously and don’t be so proud of yourself for saving five bucks. Beersmith and other software has pitch rate calculators that take OG and yeast viability into account and tell you how much yeast you need or how big of a starter you need to grow. If you like using liquid yeast (you’ll have to for certain styles), you’ll either have to dig into your wallet for several packs of yeast or get yourself a stirplate and flask. If you want to make lagers, go right for the 5000mL flask. The good news is that a lot of the newer yeast labs are putting more cells into each pack and charge less than multiple packs of the same total cell count. For example, it would take 3 Wyeast packs to match two Omega packs. Just use the calculator and don’t cry about the cost.
  6. Fermentation temperature control. This is another major one. It’s not just about keeping the ferment cool enough, which is already important. Temperature stability is just as important. My process specifically is to ferment ales at the middle of their recommended range for 80% of the primary ferment and then raise the temp 3-4F until fermentation is complete, plus another week. This pushes the yeast to the finish line, preventing premature flocculation, and ensuring they deal with any diacetyl before crashing out. Lagers are handled the same way but the temp ramp up is 10F. All of this can be accomplished with a used refrigerator, Inkbird temp controller, and a plug in heat wrap. While we’re on fermentation, I do NOT rack beer to a secondary fermenter unless I plan to reuse the yeast out of the primary (hardly ever).
  7. Avoiding oxygen damage. There are two phases to consider, hot side and cold side. Man do people love to flippantly dismiss “hot side aeration” or HSA as a phenomena that does not play into homebrewing quality control whatsoever. The fair assessment would be more like, “in limited testing, it doesn’t appear that hot side oxidation damage is all that important because several people couldn’t tell the difference in blind tests”. There are just as many brewers that swear by an extremely low oxygen ingress process. For now, let’s just say it’s not a good idea to splash the hell out of your hot wort when you can avoid it. Moving on to the cold side, I’m convinced that avoiding oxygen exposure is extremely important once fermentation is about half way done. One reason I do not rack to secondary is that oxidation is almost guaranteed if you don’t use closed transfers and CO2 purging. Speaking of which, my kegs are filled with starsan, then it is pushed out with CO2. CO2 is then pushed into the primary fermentor to begin the transfer of beer into the keg. There is zero exposure to oxygen at this stage and I feel very strongly that this is the only way to package sensitive beers such as NEIPA and have it last more than a few days.
  8. Avoid the "that's a myth, X doesn't matter" crowd. Maybe that's a bit too harsh. Take what you read online with a grain of salt. First I'll say that I really like Brulosophy as a blog and podcast. Marshall and crew do a great job and I read every article and listen to every podcast. Their work is valuable but a lot of people take their results out of context no matter how hard they work to avoid it with caveats. Consumers of their content want simple yes/no, do this, don't do that kind of output and that's not what it is and it can't be. The reason why people will tell you a certain aspect of brewing technology is a waste of time, money, effort is twofold. First, the expectation of beer quality, as well as the brewer's ability to perceive beer attributes is highly variable. Many brewers pay no mind to any of the things I listed above and think their beer is amazing. They are right, because it's subjective. I think the lesser reason, yet still valid, is that many people want brewing to be easy. It may take 100% more effort and care to make the beer 25% better and that's the very definition of diminishing returns. In the realm of intentionally objective beer judging (I said intentional, not actual), 25% better is pretty significant. Yes, I'd much rather a 37 than a 30.

How you arrive at some or all of those doesn't have to be expensive. I brew on a single vessel system with no sparging. I ferment in Fermonster plastic fermenters with modified lids. The fermentation is done in mini-fridges. The most expensive necessity is a kegging system.
Great write-up, Bobby. Should be offered as required reading for anyone new to brewing to read before starting out on this journey. Likewise, should be mandatory study for anyone offering advice to a new brewer just starting out on this journey.
 

Brooothru

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So if your question is whether you need a Speidel Braumeister or some other fancy piece of equipment....
Shsssh. My wife might be listening! I TOLD her that is was an absolute LIFE or DEATH necessity that I get that Braumeister. And the Unitank. Oh, and the glycol chiller as well. At least the expense got spread out over about 35 years.

Do you think she still believes me?
 

Brooothru

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Well... that Kellerbier could also have been the best beer on the table. :) I feel for you though. I had a nice little collection of BOS 2nd and 3rds for a BoPils before it finally won a BOS 1st. And it was always getting beat by some humongous RIS or BDSA or the like. And to keep this on topic, those BoPils batches were fermented in glass carboys, before I got a conical.
No, NO, I tell you!

It's all those damned NEIPAs and other Johnny-come-lately show horses favored by the chin-bearded hipsters that keep stealing those BOS awards that should be MINE, I tell you, MINE!!!
 

BrewnWKopperKat

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Should be offered as required reading for anyone new to brewing to read before starting out on this journey. Likewise, should be mandatory study for anyone offering advice to a new brewer just starting out on this journey.
homebrewLectures.com doesn't appear to be in use (and may be available for sale) :mug:
 

bkboiler

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I would say great brews can be made with simple equipment.
However, it's like with any large project. Skills help you to get somewhere with some trial and error. Knowledge will help you get there much faster.
If you have a system that can *repeatably* do the things you want it to (as mentioned by others here, process improvements, etc...) then that's good enough...although a system that can tell you things like temp and pH will help you get there much faster (beer was made before the invention of these instruments, but experimentation was much more challenging).
Where I would run into issues was mash temp stability, grain crush consistency, a scale accurate enough to meausure water salt additions, hop additions (water in my $10 scale made it innaccurate I learned).
I sometimes noticed that those were the issues from my own deductive logic. Most often I learned that I was trying to *make due* with an inappropriate piece of equipment to save money (usually by reading others' experience on HBT).
That being said...after figuring out most of my mistakes, my cheapie system made respectable beers for many years. I only upgraded since I was getting kicked to the garage, wanted something that didn't look "garage-y" too...
 
OP
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DaveTF

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Thanks for all the input. And thanks @Bobby_M for the great read. I know I need to keep focusing on my process and the finer points to everything; it's a journey :) I wanted to get an idea that my equipment is not my limiting factor, it's me and my attention to the detail and process.

Some comments made me think in regards to awarded beer ... the award is against the competition at that time. I don't know much about the competitions, is it all home brewers or are they also competing against established breweries?
My real goal is to brew beer at the level of some of the beer I buy. I hope the equipment is not the limiting factor to do that as buying some of the expensive stuff isn't going to get the approval at home here :(
 

VikeMan

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Some comments made me think in regards to awarded beer ... the award is against the competition at that time. I don't know much about the competitions, is it all home brewers or are they also competing against established breweries?
Most real competitions are BJCP sanctioned, and are open only to homebrew.
 

Brooothru

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The best part about beer competitions is that you'll (usually) get very good critiques as well as constructive criticism and suggestions from the judges. From there you can reassess, adjust and eventually succeed in brewing better beer.

Hhmm......, Naw, it's really all about the ribbons and medals. (just kidding!) ;)

Welcome to the fellowship of home brewing. It's a journey rather than a destination.
 

VikeMan

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The best part about beer competitions is that you'll (usually) get very good critiques as well as constructive criticism and suggestions from the judges. From there you can reassess, adjust and eventually succeed in brewing better beer.
I agree with this, but with one caveat. When I was competing, I didn't give much credence to the comments from any one set of judges. But if I saw the same/similar comments from 2 different sets of judges, I paid more attention.
 

Bobby_M

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Some comments made me think in regards to awarded beer ... the award is against the competition at that time. I don't know much about the competitions, is it all home brewers or are they also competing against established breweries?
The comps are all home brew but commercial beer wouldnt be scored any differently if you were to slip them in. In other words, a 45 out of 50 is a world class beer whoever brewed it.

While the surrounding beers can sometimes influence scores, it is not the goal. Most comps award 1st, 2nd, 3rd no matter what their scores are. Some wont award beers under a certain score. Some leave it up to the judges.

Long standing commercial classics like Sierra pale ale, would score in the 40s.
 

Bobby_M

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One note about competitions...they are less about "is this a good beer that I would enjoy drinking" and more about "is this beer a good example of the category that it was entered in?"
I would agree in so far as judges will sometimes subject themselves to judging styles they don't particularly like. If that's the case, the intent would be to compare it against the guidelines and leave your taste out of it. I am sometimes guilty of being extra complimentary when it's a great example of the style, in a style I really enjoy.
 

Qhrumphf

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....yes.

Almost all competitions specify either homebrewers only and ban commercial equipment or are pro-brewer only. Very very few allow both.

I made a LOT of award winning beer with an igloo cooler and false bottom, two kettles, a plastic bucket, and a "swamp cooler" ie a big tote bin my fermenter would sit in surrounded by water. A solid thermometer (Thermapen) and solid pH meter (Milwaukee MW102) were the only non-super-bare-bones needs.

Bare bones can be a problem with cold side O2 exposure (as well as hot side but cold side more critical). But that can be overcome with inventiveness.
 

jerrylotto

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Temperature consistency is not the point, control is what is important. If you want to make something consistent, predictable, and good, you will need to control the fermentation and aging temperatures or else be supremely lucky. At first, when fermentation is really active, you will probably want to be able to remove heat to keep the temp from rising. which can increase production of fusel alcohols (higher molecular weight than ethanol) and fruity esters. Of course this will impact the taste, if you want banana flavored beer, ferment warmer :) Later, you may want to be able to add heat to encourage tired yeast to "finish their job. Then you might want to lager and / or cold crash (but not freeze) your finished beer. All of this takes control and therefore knowledge of what the wort temperature is which is only loosely related to the air temperature where your fermentation vessel is, especially when you want to make changes.
 

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I haven't entered any competitions yet, but I did brew (and ruin) enough batches to figure out what caused the major flaws in my beer. Very similar list to Bobby's post, and most homebrewers have had the same discoveries based on the endless documentation that is available to you in books and online forums.

1. Water (use RO). My city water has ruined several batches of mine and I didn't want to believe it until I started using RO and my off flavors finally started to disappear.
2. Sanitation
3. Temp control
4. Yeast health and pitch rate
5. Reduce oxygen exposure

I brew 4 gallon BIAB batches in a 7.5 gal stainless steel kettle with propane and it's cheap and effective. I ferment in 5 gal corny kegs to allow for closed transfers and serving out of them. They are also cheap used. Realistically, you should be able to find all of the equipment you need to brew excellent beer for under $400-$500. Large quality pots can be found for $50, corny kegs for $40/each used, CO2 tank used on Craigslist for $60 with regulator, propane burner for $50, and all of the accessories will keep you under that mark. You will want upgrade by your third batch anyway, so don't bother with starter set ups.
 
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jerrylotto

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All of the important stuff has been said already but I want to add it one more thing.

From a process standpoint during a boil there are a few addition steps where something is added that needs to dissolve.. Generally speaking

1) remove heat source
2) add and mix/dissolve well
3) return to heat source

Especially true of DME and sugar.
 

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I haven't entered a competition since switching from a home depot cooler and single propane burner to an electric all-in-one system, but my impression is that the beers that I made with the old, cheap system were as good as and possibly better than what I brew with the ebiab system. I won several ribbons, including 1st place in IPA (out of 80+ entries) at the BAM World Cup of beer with my cobbled-together system. I did have fermentation temperature control and made yeast starters at the time. My fermentation vessel was a vittles vault with no airlock.

IMO the homebrew industry and instagram have done a great job convincing hobbyists that they need $2500 worth of equipment to do a $250 job. edit: Expensive equipment can make your hobby more convenient and enjoyable but isn't necessarily superior to basic stuff when used correctly.
 

Bobby_M

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Expensive equipment can make your hobby more convenient and enjoyable but isn't necessarily superior to basic stuff when used correctly.
Definitely true and there is a sweet spot for every brewing style and attitude. I've run quite a few system configurations from single pot and cooler with bucket pouring all the way up to 3 vessel electric HERMS but my long term system is a pretty "overbuilt" eBIAB rig. It's worth about $1200 but given my experience with several systems, this is the price point to convenience mix that I needed to get back to brewing regularly.

On the other hand, I had three Unitanks on a glycol system and determined it was too much cleaning overhead for my taste so I bailed on that. Some of these lessons just have to be learned the hard way. The equipment should serve the task or parameter at hand. If you're trying to brew award winning NEIPA, you best have a fermenter with very low oxygen ingress and closed-transfer it to the kegs. If you want award winning German lagers, that will be easier with good fermentation temp control equipment.
 

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I haven't entered a competition since switching from a home depot cooler and single propane burner to an electric all-in-one system, but my impression is that the beers that I made with the old, cheap system were as good as and possibly better than what I brew with the ebiab system. I won several ribbons, including 1st place in IPA (out of 80+ entries) at the BAM World Cup of beer with my cobbled-together system. I did have fermentation temperature control and made yeast starters at the time. My fermentation vessel was a vittles vault with no airlock.

IMO the homebrew industry and instagram have done a great job convincing hobbyists that they need $2500 worth of equipment to do a $250 job. edit: Expensive equipment can make your hobby more convenient and enjoyable but isn't necessarily superior to basic stuff when used correctly.
I don't disagree, but if it weren't a hobby you wouldn't WANT to spend $2500 instead of $250 for something you can buy at any convenience store for $20.50. Just sayin'.
 

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Very good thread! Thank You to all of the experienced brewers for their insight. I have a few kettles 2 10 gallon propane fired and 1 e-Kettle w/5500w element and a mash tun cooler. I am learning that AFTER you make your wort, the process is just as important. I am still collecting my tools and still brewing in between. In the past couple of months, I have added these items to my brew tools:

Upright Freezer with InkBird Controller for ferm chamber
Yeast starter equipment, flask and stir plate
Jaded Hydra Immersion Chiller (Game Changer!)
small RO system (used with new filters) (Guess I'll need a PH Meter now)
switched to All Rounders and Flat Bottoms for fermenting, too


I have had a keezer and been kegging since I started brewing, but I am hoping that these new items will help me on the way to better beer! Prost!!!
 

Bobby_M

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I am learning that AFTER you make your wort, the process is just as important.
Totally agree. I would say brewing is about 20% recipe, 20% hot side process, and 60% cold side give or take. You can screw up the recipe and the balance is a bit off. You can mash too hot or cold and the balance is off. The mash pH may be high and you're a little tannic. Screw up on the cold side and you can end up with something truly undrinkable.

Don't misunderstand me. "Award Winning" beer requires attention to details across the board but I think many people who struggle often put a disproportionate effort into aspects that matter a lot less.

Since I own a homebrew store, I have many examples of people that just started brewing extract 3 batches ago and they come in specifically to drop $500 on a stainless conical with no plans for temperature control.
 
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jerrylotto

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Totally agree. I would say brewing is about 20% recipe, 20% hot side process, and 60% cold side give or take. You can screw up the recipe and the balance is a bit off. You can mash too hot or cold and the balance is off. The mash pH may be high and you're a little tannic. Screw up on the cold side and you can end up with something truly undrinkable.

Don't misunderstand me. "Award Winning" beer requires attention to details across the board but I think many people who struggle often put a disproportionate effort into aspects that matter a lot less.

Since I own a homebrew store, I have many examples of people that just started brewing extract 3 batches ago and they come in specifically to drop $500 on a stainless conical with no plans for temperature control.
I also concur but would further say that the cold side 60% can be further divided into 25% fermentation, 25% transfer/handling and 10% packaging.
 

seatazzz

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What @Brewbuzzard said. It all comes down to being consistent in your process, and KNOWING what your system can/can't do. I, for one can't do true decoction mashes, because I MIAB; but I CAN make consistently good beers, because I know my system and what it can do. I will also state something else, that has been posted elsewhere; Know Yeast, Know Beer; NO yeast, NO beer! If we don't have yeast, we don't have beer; simple as that. Take care of your yeast and it will take care of your beer. This is true of fresh liquid or dry yeast as well as yeast you have harvested from previous batches.
 

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MIAB is not completely incompatible with decoction if your bag is open on the top. You can still scoop out 1/3 of your grist with a pitcher and decoct into another pot. 20 min saccrification rest at 155 (unless you already reached that step in you mash tun) and then boil while stirring until you hit your desired color/aroma. I got this advice from someone I trust who uses this method to make award winning lagers.
 

seatazzz

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MIAB is not completely incompatible with decoction if your bag is open on the top. You can still scoop out 1/3 of your grist with a pitcher and decoct into another pot. 20 min saccrification rest at 155 (unless you already reached that step in you mash tun) and then boil while stirring until you hit your desired color/aroma. I got this advice from someone I trust who uses this method to make award winning lagers.
Good point. I will counter, however, by stating what I have said before; I am LAZY. Sounds like a bit too much work to me. I like my 4.5 hour or less brewdays too much to change it up now. Hell I still won't use my old IC as a heat exchanger because setting it up is a PITA. Just gonna get me a new mash tun to replace the ghetto one I currently have (but which has also produced some award/medal winning beers; like many others I just want something new and shiny.)
 
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