If you are a home brewer, you are already a do it yourselfer to a degree. I mean, you are making the beer you drink. But maybe you are still using extracts. Simply said, extracts are primarily made of maltose, which is the byproduct of saturating grains at set temperatures to convert starches (complex sugars) into simple sugars (mostly malt sugar). When you are using extracts, the process of that conversion has already been done for you.
The choices are really pretty scant. You can buy light, amber, dark and wheat malt…which is pretty much it. Any character that you wish to add to your beer must be done through the purchase of specialty grains, sugars, or other adjuncts. Often these can be found via kits or fairly simple recipes. Let me say, without equivocation, that there is nothing wrong with extract brewing. However, you are able to maintain more control, better quality, and more creative spirit in the world of all-grain brewing. How do I know this? I started with extract brewing.
All grain brewing is easier than you might believe. The description of the process sounds harder than the practice, so don’t be discouraged by terminology. Remember that if you do the process right, you don’t need to give a perfectly accurate description of enzymatic activity or VDK production to brew well. Processes will happen independent of your perfect understanding. So, if we use technical jargon at some points, don’t feel trodden by word…we are putting words to what is happening anyway.
What you are about to do is referred to as mashing. You are converting those starches (complex sugars) into simple sugars for yourself. You will have more control, quality, and save money in the long run. How are you going to do this?
Essentially, the process runs like this: you steep your grains in pre-determined amounts of water over a pre-determined amount of time. Then you pour another pre-determined amount of water through those grains to obtain a pre-determined amount of sugars from those grains. Who is the pre-determiner of all this? You are. That sounds like comforting control over the whole process. Let’s not get too much in the process just yet. After all, aren’t you going to need a vessel in which to do this? I think you will.
Since you are trying to hold grains at particular volumes and particular temperatures, you are going to need something that will hold the volume and the temperature. But what can you use? How about a simple gatorade or water cooler? It is insulated and will hold five gallons of water. My cooler will hold (maxed out) 15 pounds of grain, which is more than enough volume to get a beer of 9% ABV, depending on grain type and kettle additions. With sugar additions, I can achieve a balanced 11% ABV beer. Not bad for 15 pounds of grain and a few sugars…that’s a total of abuot 50-54 12-ounce bottles of beer. So, how do you do it?
A simple Gatorade/Igloo cooler is almost all you need for the mashing process. In this case, there is nothing to construct for making a mash tun. After your grains are steeped and starches have become simple sugars, all you have to do is separate those sugars from the mash with water. What do you need to make this happen?
Charlie Papazian uses what he calls the Zapap method. Simply stated, it uses two five gallon buckets to accomplish the separation of wort. He takes one 5 gallon bucket and puts a spigot on the very bottom. The other bucket sits inside the first. Because of how the bucket sits within the other, there is a gap created which can be filled with the liquid that is being separated from the grain. The only thing that you must do is drill a couple hundred 1/8 inch holes into the second bucket (which sits in the first). This allows for the maximum liquid separation while keeping the grain out of the wort. This is an effective and efficient method, although one I don’t actually use.
I designed my sparge setup using the Zapap conceptualization but have tried to have less buckets in the process. I went to the hardware store and bought a piece of 1/4 inch plexiglas. I cut it in half and made two platforms that sit at the top and bottom of cooler, respectively. My bottom portion sits just above the spigot. My top portion sits just above the top of the already mashed grains. The bottom part obviously separates the liquids, while the tops allows me to pour water through the grains with a gentile barrier that causes it to sprinkle rain instead of disturbing the grain bed (the bed forms a natural filter that needs to stay stationary). The separation of these liquids is technically called sparging.
For myself, I end up mashing in my cooler, pouring the grains into my pot, inserting my plexiglass, “floating” my grains (this simply means that I put water to a level just above the platform), pour my grains back in and put my top platform…and just start running the water through.
Okay, I’ve covered a good deal of ground with the mashing, sparging, etc. Here are some visual stimuli that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. I’ll post on how to mash and types of mashing the next time around. For now, I just want to give you some orientation toward thinking about it. Comments? Questions?