Brew Your First All-Grain

You’ve got the gear, you have the desire, you’re going All-Grain! Good lord, man, what were you thinking?! Just kidding. You’re about to find out that brewing all-grain is really just as easy, if not a little easier, than brewing with extract. Let’s quickly look at the differences.

In extract brewing, you steep some grains, remove the grains, add the extract and bring to a boil and add hops.

In all-grain brewing, you steep lots of grains, drain the wort into the kettle, bring to a boil and add hops.

Read that twice. You’re actually removing a step! Well, sort of, but if you think of it that way, you’ll understand how easy this really is. So let’s look at the step by step.

  1. Make a bucket of sanitizer and sanitize your stuff. Clean your kettle and mash tun, et al. Yeah, that never changes
  2. Calculate the amount of water you need for the infusion of your grain. To do this, just use an online calculator, or a program like Pro Mash (which at this point, you should really have since you’re invested this far. Really.) I generally use a 1.3 to 1.5 quarts/pound of grain ratio. This allows me to hit my estimated gravity every time while keeping the grain bed loose enough to easily get rid of doughballs. I use 1.3 when I have nothing but barley and 1.5 if I have anything “sticky” like a bit of oats, wheat or other such high-gluten material. We’ll assume an all-barley based grain bill for this example so 1.3 qt/lbs. Let’s say you have 11 lbs of grain, so that works out to about 14.3 qts or just a bit over 3.5 gallons of water for the infusion.
  3. Now we need to calculate the Strike Temperature for the mash. This is the temperature at which you want the grain to soak for the hour rest they’ll take to convert all the sugars for the wort. The calculators do a very good job of this so long as you feed in the correct numbers. What is the temp of the grain? And How much grain do you have? We’ll assume for this example that your mash tun will not suck away any heat (you can accomplish this by simply bringing a gallon of water up to around the strike temperature and dump it in the empty mash tun for 5 minutes). So for this example, let’s figure you wish to hit a strike temperature of 155F and your grain is currently at 68F (just stick a probe thermometer into the middle of the grain and take a reading). According to the online calculator and get an initial water temperature of 171F which, when mixed with the grain at 68F, will come to a rest at 155F.
  4. Take your 3.5 gallons of 171F water and dump it on your grain bed. Stir with a large spoon to break up any doughballs and make sure the entire grain bed is mixed together well to allow the enzymes to move around and do their job. Close the lid on you mash tun, set your timer for an hour and go enjoy a glass or two of the last homebrew you made.
  5. About 30 minutes or so into the hour, you’ll begin heating the sparge water to 170F. It takes me about 20 minutes to get the cold water to that temperature, but on your first time through, give yourself a little extra time so you can figure out how long it will take for your system. To calculate how much water to use, you need to know how much wort you’ll get out of that initial 3.5 gallons you have in your tun. It has been my observation that I collect a little more than 2 gallons of wort for the 3.5 gallons of strike water. So you can safely figure that the 11 lbs of grain will retain about a gallon and a half of the strike water. To make that up, you’ll need to sparge around 4 gallons to collect the desired 6 gallons of wort to boil. Remember we’re collecting about a gallon more wort than we need, assuming we’ll loose about that much in the boil to end up with 5 gallons of fermentable wort. After your first time through this process you may find you need a little more or a little less. For example, my system takes 6.5 gallons, pre-boil, to end up with 5 gallons of wort at the end. Note: I normally use a clean and sanitized bucket fermenter to collect my wort from the mash tun since it has the volume conveniently marked on the sides.
  6. Ok, so lets talk about how to get the wort out of the mash tun. There are two basic methods homebrewers use for this – Fly Sparging and Batch Sparging. Fly Sparging requires that you set up a kind of sprinkler system above the grain bed and keep about an inch of water over the grains as you drain out the wort. This works well if you have that sort of gear, but for me, Batch Sparging is the preferred method. In Batch Sparging, you run out your initial wort from your strike water. When that’s done, you shut off the valve, dump in the sparge water, mix for 5 minutes of so to get all the rest of the sugars into solution and then drain that out to get the rest of the wort. Some say this is less efficient, but I have found that unless you have a really good sprinkler system for Fly Sparging, I get far better results with Batch Sparging. Do whichever you like.
  7. As you begin to drain the wort from your mash tun, you’ll notice that it has little bits of grain floating around in it. You want to avoid getting this into the wort. To achieve this, as you start to drain the wort from the tun, you’ll catch the first several quarts of runoff in a pitcher, or other small vessel, until the wort runs clear. This will signal that the grain bed is now set up and will drain clear for the rest of the mash out. Take what you’ve collected in the pitcher, and slowly pour it back onto the top of the grain in the tun. When you start to drain the wort from the tun, go slow and then increase as the wort runs clear. You probably wont be able to run the wort more than half open on your valve, but sometimes you’ll be able to get all to about 2/3 open. All in all, whichever method you choose it’s about a 30 – 45 minute process to collect all your wort. For Batch Spargers, remember, you’ll need to collect the beginning of the runoff a second time after you stirred up the wort with the sparge water and recirculate it to keep from getting little bits of grain in your boil.
  8. Ok, so you have your wort. Do yourself a favor and check a sample of the pre-boil wort with your hydrometer. Make sure you are within your estimated gravity numbers after adjusting for the wort temperature (high temperatures give lower gravity readings). Again, this is where ProMash, or the like, comes in very handy, as it has calculators that adjust for temperature. There are also some fancy hydrometers that come with thermometers built in that will give you your adjustment readings. If you’ve missed your numbers and are on the low end, consider adding some DME to offset. Only do this if your over 10 or 15 points off. 1/2 – 3/4 of a pound of DME will kick you back into the range without any ill effect. I always keep about 5 lbs of DME around just for this reason. It’s a very cheap insurance policy.
  9. The rest is exaclty the same as when you were extract brewing. Get the wort to a boil, set your timer and throw in your first charge of hops. Continue the boil and hop additions as specified by your recipe.
  10. About 20 minutes before the end of the boil, take your cleaned, sanitized wort chiller and drop it in the kettle. This may pause the boil for a few moments. If that happens. pause your timer and wait until the wort comes back to a boil before restarting the timer. Oh, and do yourself a favor – hook up any hoses to wort chiller before you sink it in the boiling wort. Copper is a wicked good conductor and you’ll need oven mitts to hook it up after it’s in there.
  11. At the end of the boil, kill the heat turn on the chiller and whirlpool the wort until you get to just over 140 degrees. At that point, put on the lid, or cover the kettle with aluminum foil for the rest of the chill down to 70 degrees or so. This will guard against airborne contamination. At 70 degrees, go ahead and drain the wort into your bucket or carboy fermenter, pitch your yeast, aerate the wort, then cap the fermenter with your airlock and put it in your favorite fermenting area. Congratulations, you’re an all-grain brewer!