Making the switch to all-grain

After 2 years of brewing I have finally made the jump.  I am an all-grain brewer…at last.  I’ve suffered from the curse of knowing too much. I’ve read the books and magazines, listened to the podcasts and talked with other homebrewers, and I have desperately wanted to go all-grain.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you can make some award winning beer from extract, but for me, all-grain has always held the power to fully customize my beers, to have the maximum amount of control when it comes to things like flavors, mouthfeel, head retention and more.

The first thing I did in order to make the move was the purchase of a 10 gallon Rubbermaid cooler.  I removed the stock spout and installed a ball valve and bulk head assembly with pipe fittings from Lowes.  I also needed a screen so I wouldn’t clog the spout with grain.  I built my screen out of the steel braiding around water heater hose.  Just cut the ends off and pull out the vinyl interior.  All of the instructions I used came from How To Brew, by John Palmer, a great book every homebrewer should own (in my opinion).  If you’re not in the mood to buy another book, instructions can easily be found all over the Internet.

With my mash tun assembled, I opted to buy a kettle to use on my camp chef burner.  I looked for an old sankey keg that I could buy to turn into a keggle (always make sure you pay for the steel if you go this route, it is considered poor practice to convert a keg you get from a beer distributor.  A deposit is not a purchase.) After a lot of looking I finally just decided to buy myself a new kettle.  I ended up with a 10 gallon Blichmann Boilermaker Kettle.  Go ahead, say I threw my money away, but I’ll tell you this much, it works, and it was easy…and that’s good enough for me.  The great part of homebrewing is you can grow and expand how ever you want to, and how ever much you want to.

With the necessary pieces in place, my ability to brew all-grain was complete.  All I had to do now was actually brew on the system.  The first beer I brewed was a Mild recipe I got from Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer’s, Brewing Classic Styles.  Two main factors went into choosing the recipe.  The first was my love of session beers.  I love a low alcohol beer that is full of flavor and that I can have a lot of.  The second factor was the simple grain bill.  Although there were five different grains involved, the total weight was just over 8 pounds and I felt this might make things like mashing and run off easier and less susceptible to producing a stuck mash.  Its also completely possible that my theory is wrong, but hey, that was my rationale.

I won’t bore you with the details of mashing and brewing as I’m willing to bet you are already at least vaguely familiar with these processes and if not, they are easy to look up.  I will tell you, the only hang up I ran into was during the 60 minutes of mashing.  Ideally, for a single infusion mash you want to keep the mash temperature at a specific temperature for the entire 60 minutes.  My system lost approximately 10 degrees F during the hour.  I’ve attributed this loss to the fact I didn’t preheat the cooler with boiling hot water before mashing in.  The cooler absorbed much of the heat from strike water.  Fortunately, I still achieved enough conversion to hit my target O.G.  No problems running off either, just pulled off the first gallon until it ran clear, added the sparge water, and collected the sweet wort.

Boil, cool, ferment, blah, blah.  We’ve all done that song and dance, and if you’ve even just brewed extract, you know what I’m talking about.  The important thing for me was how it turned out.  Fast forward two weeks, and I was drinking a caramel, bready, English Mild.  Now, I may just be sensitive to it, or listen too close to the podcasts, but I always did detect a cloying sweetness in my extract beers, despite what I did to mitigate it.  This Mild, however, didn’t have that flavor and I was ecstatic.

So, in the end, I learned that all-grain is not some incomprehensible mess of coolers and hoses, temperatures and volumes.  It is in fact, pretty simple.  Like anything in this hobby, it can be agonized over and analyzed; to maximize this, and minimize that, and yield some desired number of some specific variable.  The truth of it is, is that you just need to do it.  Just get the cooler, build the manifold and go for it.  You don’t need to have it all nailed down, just right, before you get into all-grain.  You’ll learn so much more by actually working through it than by assuming you need x, y, and z in order to all-grain brew like a champion.  In the end, its just beer, and the fact you made it all yourself is the real achievement.

– Mike Kuhns

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