Your First All-Grain Beer

I was going to post the last installment of the all-grain brew day walkthrough today, but decided to call an audible. Instead, I’m going to post this article, “Your First All-Grain Beer,” as a prequel to that series. It can fall between the “Should You Go All-Grain?” article, presuming you’ve answered yes, and the “All-Grain Brew Day Walkthrough” series. I’ll wrap up the walkthrough series on Monday. (I will also return to the series on “Enzymes for Brewers” early next week.) 

 

IMG_2935You always remember your first. That’s a statement that applies to a lot of things, but it will certainly apply to your first all-grain brew day. Ask any all-grain brewer about his first time, and you will likely hear a funny story. Lots of things can go wrong on your first brew day. And the way brewers try to fix the problems often make things worse. However, ask the brewer how his beer turned out and you’ll likely hear that it was great. Brewing can be very forgiving. This article is going to be half advice and half pep talk — a letter to all new brewers taking the plunge into all-grain.

What to Brew

One of the first decisions you’ll have to make is what to brew. Ironically, this is one of the easiest decisions to make — brew what you like. Some beers are easier to brew than others, but there’s no reason to brew a beer you don’t enjoy as a warm-up to beers that you do. If what you really want to brew is European-style Pilsners using a triple decoction mash, jump right in and do that. Just realize that this is going to make your first brew day more complicated.

 

Narrowing the Field

If you like a wide variety of beers, however, there are a couple things to consider. Your first time will be easier if you choose a beer that can brewed with a single infusion mash. Given the malts available today, this doesn’t narrow the field very much — which is good, as you’ll still have many beers to choose from. A second consideration would be the strength of the beer. For your first brew, it’s best to pick a beer somewhere in the “normal strength” range. The reason for this is, in this range, you can collect an amount of wort that is reasonable to boil down in 60–90 minutes, and be in the right ballpark with regards to the volume of wort collected vs. grain weight. Put another way, if you brew a 12 to 14° Plato (OG 1.048–1.056) beer, collecting enough wort to boil and 60 to 90 minutes will require you to fully sparge the grain bed, or nearly so. This will give you a reasonable shot at achieving a decent level of extract efficiency. You won’t have to monitor your runoff wort and decide when to stop sparging or, conversely, end up leaving a lot of sugars behind in the grain bed because you didn’t collect enough wort. Just collect enough wort to achieve a reasonable pre-boil wort volume and go.

Of course, if you really want to brew either a low gravity session beer or high gravity strong beer, go ahead and do so. However, brewing a “middle-of-the-road” beer is going to simplify a few things.

For much of the history of modern homebrewing, the two choices you had for lautering were continuous sparging (sometimes called fly sparging) or batch sparging. (For a separate approach to mashing and wort collection, see James Spencer’s article, “Brew In A Bag Basics.”) Of the two approaches, batch sparging is the simplest. And this will work very well if you are brewing any “normal strength” beer. However, continuous sparging need not be exceedingly complex. So don’t think that you can’t try this if you’d like to.

 

Expectations

IMG_2507As I mentioned, many first all-grain brew days are a comedy of errors. As such, when you approach your first brew day, expect it to be a learning experience. Do not stress out over the little things, and know that you will learn from your mistakes.

A few things can help your first brew day go more smoothly. If you can observe another brewer in action, you will have a leg up on those trying to figure things out for themselves. However, even if you do have to figure it out on your own, it’s not that complicated. In one or two brew days, you should be able to iron out all the kinks.

Writing out a plan is a very good idea on your first brew day. Include all the major steps, with any details that may be helpful. Secondly, recording every detail – including liquid volumes, temperatures, times, etc.  – as you brew will allow you to use your initial experiences to tweak later brewing sessions. If you’ve written out a plan, you can just put a checkmark by every step that went as expected. Make a note by those that didn’t.

So, don’t worry that things might go wrong on your first brew day — they will. However, these things will steer you in the direction of being a better brewer. And, if your cleaning and sanitation is sound, the mistakes you make will likely lead to characters that can be tweaked in later brews, not things that result in undrinkable beer.

 

Common Pitfalls

Probably the most common pitfall on a first all grain brew day is mashing in to the wrong temperature. This can set off a chain of events where the brewer tries to heat the mash, only to learn that he has overheated it. This is followed by an attempt to cool the mash, only to find out that he is cooled it too far. And so on. Save yourself this hassle and just accept whatever mash temperature you achieve, as long as it’s within the range of 148–162 °F (64–72 °C). Within this range, you’re making wort. Write down the temperature and volume of your strike water, as well as the temperature your grain and equipment are at. Use this information to get closer to your target mash temperature the next time you brew.

If you are over 162 °F (72 °C), stir in some cool tap water until the temperature drops to about 158 °F (70 °C). Assuming a 5.0-gallon (19-L) batch, stir in about a quart (~ 1 L) of water at a time, let about 30 seconds pass, then take the temperature. Act quickly, but don’t rush. Repeat until the temperature is 158 °F (70 °C) or below.

If you are under 148 °F (64 °C), add boiling water slowly (about a quart at a time, as above) to reach about 150 °F (66 °C). If you are initially low, there is no hurry at all. Take your time. (Another reason to pick a moderate-strength beer is that you’ll have some room in your mash tun for extra water additions, if needed.)

IMG_2960Getting the knack of continuous sparging takes a little practice. In theory, it’s easy to imagine running off the wort at a steady rate (and adding sparge water at that same rate). In reality, it takes some practice to be able do to able so consistently. My advice is not to worry overly much about collecting your wort over a given period of time. Collect your wort and sparge at as steady a rate as you can manage. Don’t worry if the liquid level falls below that of the grain bed, or if there is several inches above the grain bed. Don’t hesitate to simply shut off the flow, if needed, or stop adding sparge water and run some wort off to lower the liquid level. Collect the wort by hook or by crook. As long as you go slow enough that you don’t encounter a stuck sparge (and this is unlikely), you’ll be fine. Use your observations to tweak your practices for the next time you brew.

First time all-grain brewers are frequently surprised at how much water is used. Don’t try to just wing it when it comes to how much strike or sparge water you will need. Calculate the right amount — and then prepare at least 20% more than you think you’ll need. Also, expect it to take longer to heat than you anticipate.

Finally, do not under any circumstances worry about your extract efficiency on your first brewday. You can calculate it after the fact, but don’t get all riled up if it isn’t that great. You’ve had no experience with all-grain brewing, so how could you possible have gotten good at that aspect of it already? (Also, remember that self-reported extract efficiencies are like asking an angler the size of the fish he caught.)

 

Memories

You will always remember your first all-grain brew day. If you go in expecting that there will be some problems, you will hopefully be able to remain calm, correct what you can, and accept what you can’t. Despite the small stuff that will invariably go wrong, you will likely produce a wonderful beer. Brewing can be very forgiving. Most importantly, recording what you do will allow you to use every misstep to hone your brewing chops. Soon, you’ll have it down pat.

For specific, step by step instructions to guide you through your first all-grain brew day, see my All-Grain Brew Day Walkthrough.

 

Related articles

Should You Go All-Grain?

All-Grain Brew Day Walkthrough

Three Tips for Fly Spargers

How Much Wort Should Batch Spargers Collect? 

 

 

Comments

  1. Great article, Chris! My advice to first time bvrewers is “Take good notes so you can correct anything you need to the next time. Undoubtedly, things will screw up. Keep calm. Think. Don’t freak out. Deal with it!”

    • Chris Colby says:

      It really is nice how forgiving brewing can be. If everything is clean and sanitized, and you have a healthy pitch, it’s almost difficult to fatally screw up. (You can sure end up with the beer not being what you expected, but it’s almost always drinkable.)

  2. Herb Meowing says:

    Big fat thumbs down on any suggestion a 1st-time AG brewer should try fly sparging.

    • Chris Colby says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. Fly sparging is not that complicated and the consequences for making mistakes are minimal — a decrease in extract efficiency.
      If you end up draining the lauter tun too quickly, your approach verges on batch sparging. If you drain the lauter tun too slowly, your approach gets similar to no-sparge lautering. Either way, it’s just a learning experience.

      • Herb Meowing says:

        Fly sparging _is_ more complicated.
        Requires more equipment
        Requires more finese
        Makes for a longer brew day
        None of which any 1st-time AG brewer needs

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