all grain brewing for beginners

All posts tagged all grain brewing for beginners

With the Garrison Brewing Home Brew-Off announced for this year, I wanted to write a a post about my recent journey into all grain brewing.  With all of one batch under my belt (my second brew day will be over the holidays and third as soon as that one is done) I’m obviously not an expert but hope I can encourage others on the fence, especially those who have done kits or have basic knowledge to get into this incredibly fun hobby.

Making the Plunge

Up until recently, I had been brewing kits (mostly Festa Brew) for several years now.  Of the 20 or so batches I’ve done I’d probably say a few I really enjoyed, most weren’t bad and a couple I don’t think I finished.

As a beer geek, I wanted to better understand beer and brew recipes that I like that are hard to get here.  I’ve waited as long as I have mainly because I can’t get all grain supplies locally (they could be ordered but there is the additional shipping cost) and have been intimidated by the equipment and its price that I thought was required for home brewing:  grain mills, immersion chillers, mash tuns, large pot, outdoor burner (I had heard most stove tops couldn’t deal with large batches), etc.  The thought of McGyvering a Coleman cooler was a scary one…

Last Summer I had the chance to attend a Brewnosers meeting and sample some of the different beers.  Most were excellent and many were unique styles.  While I didn’t make the leap then, that was really the first real push to do so.

A few months ago, I met someone at the Oktoberfest des Acadiens in Northern N.B. that it turned out lived down the street from me and was into home brewing.  I asked him if he made his mash tun he told me he didn’t have one and brewed his beer in a bag.   I thought something was lost in translation (we were speaking in French) or I had made a few too many visits to the Acadie-Broue booth.   The next time I ran into him he told me his brother who was into home brewing was selling a dual tap kegerator (small bar fridge with taps that can hold 2 kegs), 3 kegs and a CO2 tank for a very good price.  The thought of drinking draught and not having to bottle beer?  This I couldn’t pass up.

Keeping it Simple

My goal was to make the transition into all grain as easy as possible.  My plan was to buy a burner, a large pot (I ended up buying an aluminum 10 gallon one), make an immersion chiller and also a mash tun (here’s a link to a great article about start-up home brew equipment).  I made an immersion chiller following a video on You Tube (so easy even I could do it).  As I was doing research I came across the brew in a bag (BIAB) concept.  Turns out you can brew all grain beer without a mash tun by using a large grain bag (it wasn’t too many trips to the Acadie-Broue booth after all).  I asked a couple of experienced brewers about it and they indicated it was easier, faster, didn’t negatively impact quality and many long time home brewers are starting to use this technique.  Based on this feedback, I decided to go the BIAB route.  The other piece of equipment I expected I would need was a grain mill.  Noble Grape locations will mill the grain for you (at least the Burnside location) so instead of buying one I asked them to do it when I picked up my order during a trip to the area.  The burner (70K BTUs), 10 gallon pot, equipment to make the immersion chiller and grain bag ran me about $180.  The cost of supplies for my first batch of beer was $58.26 (due mostly to the large quantities of hops – I had to substitute a couple of types). 

Oversimplified Description of the Brewing Process

Here’s a very high level overview of the major steps to follow in the Brew in a Bag method:

  • Bring the water to the proper mash temperature (in the recipe I linked to it was 151.5F).
  • Once you hit the mark add your grains into the bag and leave it in the pot as per the recipe (in this case 1 hour).
  • Remove the grains in the bag and bring to a boil.
  • Boil as long as called for in the recipe, normally an hour or 90 minutes (in this case 1 hour).
  • Add hops and other ingredients when called for in the recipe (60 means with 60 minutes left in the boil or in this case at the start, 10 means with 10 minutes left, etc.)
  • Cool down your brew using an immersion chiller (you need to add it with 15 minutes left in the boil to sterilize it).  Connect it to a hose and run water through it (it doesn’t need to be blasting through) in order to bring down the temperature of the brew.
  • Transfer the beer to a primary fermenter.
  • Add yeast and let it ferment several days.
  • Move to a secondary fermenter (some leave in a primary until bottling) for several more days.
  • Bottle or keg the beer.
  • Let it age a couple of weeks.

Above is an oversimplified overview but it’ll give you the major steps.  I haven’t identified every step along the way such as gravity and pH readings but want to keep this simple.  For a more in depth description go to this link.  You’ll need to create a free account to download the 8 page “The Commentary” pdf document.  It ends prematurely but will give you information about the vast majority of the process.

Advice for Newbies:

Based on my many minutes of all grain home brewing experience, here are key tips I would have for anyone about to start BIAB all grain brewing:

  • Clean and sanitize everything thoroughly.  Cliches are cliches because they are true.  You don’t want to lose a batch of beer.
  • I’d buy at least a 10 gallon pot, larger if possible.
  • Buy a large grain bag.  The one I bought at Noble Grape probably won’t support some of the bigger brews I want to do.  Here is a link to one of the Brewnosers who sells large grain bags in different styles (with handles or without).
  • Read as much as you can about home brewing.  Check out the local Brewnosers, the BIAB section of their site including this introduction to the topic, New Brunswick Craft Brewers or Brew in a Bag websites.  Better yet go to their meetings to talk to the “Vets”.  Buy  a book or two on home brewing or borrow from the library.  Also look at blogger sites about brewing.  Meek Brewing Co. is an excellent blog with recipes, tasting notes and tips.  More on Shawn in a minute…
  • Plan your brew session.  The website has a great checklist to help you plan out step by step what you need to do.  If you are going down the BIAB road, it also has a calculater you can use to determine how much water to use in your pot based on its dimensions and grains used in your recipe.
  • Try and find a mentor.  As with anything else you are learning, it is so much easier to have someone to bounce questions off in terms of approach / questions you’ll no doubt have.  I have been lucky to get tips and advice from multiple home brewers but have received an unbelievable amount of help from Shawn Meek. Some would say there is a fine line between asking questions to interrogating someone to outright harassment. I don’t know exactly when I crossed those lines with Shawn  but definitely did so a LONG time ago.  He’s a great example of a home brewer who loves the hobby and wants to help others wherever possible.
  • The most important advice?  Get started.  Pick a style (Belgian Blonde Ale anyone?) do some research, ask questions and get going.  I’ve made some mistakes during my first batch but have learned from them and can’t wait to brew again.  In hindsight I wish I would have started brewing much earlier.

Here’s hoping I’ve encouraged some others to start all grain brewing.  After only one batch under my belt (I kegged my first one last night) I am hooked.

I’d invite any Vets to add comments correcting anything in this post or to add additional recommendations for newbies.