Brewing: the fundamentals

All grain brewing is a collection of very simple steps. Things can get a bit hectic though when all the steps are put together consecutively. In this post we disect the brewing process and outline the major steps required to turn malt into homebrewed beer.

Step 1: recipe creation

Nearly every style of beer can be purchased as a pre made kit from a homebrew store. These kits are a great way to start because they provide you with all the required ingredients for your brew day and provide a base line recipe that you can then tweak to your liking based on how the batch came out.

Eventually every homebrewer gets the urge to create something totally unique to call their own. Each beer style will have a set list of grains and hops that are generally used during the brewing of the particular style. For example, Pilsner style beers generally use Pilsner malt and aroma hops such as Saaz or Hallertau but there is no reason some caramel malt or a hop such as Simcoe, which is typically used in IPA’s, could not make it into a batch of Pilsner!

During the early stages of the recipe creation process we recommend keeping things super simple and then adding complexity and making adjustments based on the results of a few batches. Something we have tried before is called Single Malt and Single Hop (SMaSH). For this, choose a base malt and hop that you would like to use as the base line for your recipe and brew up a batch. Using his method, you will learn to identify those two ingredients much better and be able to add additional ingredients to adjust the next batch as you see fit!

Step 2: grind it up

Barley malt needs to be crushed before use so that internal starches during the mash are fully converted to sugars. Many homebrew supply stores will offer malts pre crushed. While convienent, pre crushed grains have the draw back that they will not remain fresh past several weeks. For this reason, crushing your grains at home is a great idea. Drill powered grain mills can be bought from most home brew supply shops.

Grain mills can be adjusted for a coarser or finer crush. The key to a great crush is to go as fine as possible to expose the malts internal starches but coarse enough so that the outer husk is split open but still largely intact to allow for improved filtering properties later on in the brewing process.

Step 3: the mash

The mash is the part of the brewing process where malt starches are converted to sugars. It is all about creating food for yeast to consume, producing alcohol and Co2 in the process.

In a nutshell, the mash is a pot of warm water to which crushed malt is added. This mixture then sits for an hour to allow enough time for full conversion of starches to sugars.

Water temperature

The temperature of the mash water will affect the molecular structure of sugars that are created. Warmer mash temperatures create long chain sugar molecules and cooler mash temperatures create short chain sugar molecules. Yeast are able to more easily consume short chain sugar molecules so if you would like some residual sugar left in your pale ale you should increase mash temperature. If you are brewing a crisp Pilsner you should decrease mash temperatures.

So what is considered a cold mash and what is considered a warm mash? The range I use is between 145 and 155 Fahrenheit.

I typically experience a 5 degree drop in mash temperature when I pour my crushed grains in the mash water which means I heat up the mash water to 150 degrees if I am targeting a temperature of 145. Experiment to see what works for you!

After hearing up the mash water to the exact right temperature, pour in your crushed grains and mix well. Let the mash sit for an hour while maintaining a stable temperature (a few degree drop is normal and won’t hurt anything!) You will know the mash is done and all the starches have been converted to sugars by a clear layer of liquid on the top of the mash. If the the thin layer of liquid on the top of the mash. If the top layer is still cloudy the starches have not yet been fully converted to sugars so you will have to wait a bit longer.

To finish the mash, transfer the mash liquid (leaving the grains) into the pot that you will later use for boiling the wort. This is most easily done by using a kettle with a false bottom that allows liquid to drain out the bottom while keeping the grains in place.

Water

I brew 10 gallon batches which means that use 7.5 gallons of water in my mash (and another 7.5 gallons during the sparge). Believe it or not, 15 gallons of water is needed to brew 10 gallons of beer because the grains will absorb water and several gallons will evaporate during the boil.

Home breweries come in many different shapes and sizes so a process that works flawlessly in one setup may fail terribly in another setup. You will need to expirement to fine tune your own process. As a starting point however, if you are brewing 5 gallon batches start with 3.75 gallons in the mash (and 3.75 sparge).

Step 4: the sparge

After draining the mash the remaining grains will still contain a signifiant amount of sugars that will need to be “rinsed off” and included in the boil kettle. The sparge is the what we call the process of rinsing the left over grains. In a homebrew setting the spare is best done by filing the mash tun with an appropriate amount of 170 degree water, letting it sit for 20 minutes with occasional stirring, and draining the liquid into the boil kettle.

For my 10 gallon batches I sparge with 7.5 gallons of water (equal to the amount I used during the mash). I typically end up with 14 gallons of wort in the boil kettle which is then boiled down to 10 gallons. experiment with water amounts to fine-tune the process on your brewing rig!

Step 5: the boil

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