I first brewed beer in the early ’90s and sporadically since then. I always brewed with extract and always wanted to try all-grain brewing, which seemed more like the real thing. After a long hiatus, I recently started brewing again and was reminded about how difficult the process was given my lack of proper equipment. I also had to relearn a lot of the process because I hadn’t brewed in so long.
I happened across Brewing TV on my Apple TV’s podcasts section. I started staying up late after Gay and the kids went to bed watching old episodes. After a week or so I had watched all 60+ episodes. They made all-grain brewing seem easy and fun. So I decided to try all-grain and to get all the proper equipment this time. And rather than brew and wait several weeks to try another batch, I decided to get plenty of fermenters and brew a bunch of beers in a short amount of time so I could learn about it as quickly as possible.
I bought a bunch of equipment from Northern Brewer: their Deluxe All-Grain Kit (mash tun and hot liquor tank), Blichmann 15 gallon brew kettle, Therminator, Thrumometer, tubing, carboys, a grain mill, etc. I also ordered ingredients for 6 recipes. While I waited for all the equipment to arrive, Gay and I brewed a mini-mash beer to take that half-step between extract brewing and all-grain, an Indian Brown Ale from Brewing Classic Styles.
The plan was to brew a beer a day for 6 days. Gay wanted to do it with me too. I started by making a yeast starter for the first beer. I had never made a starter before, but I wanted to do it right so I decided to make starters for all the beers. And to make starters “right”, you have to use a stir plate. I didn’t have one but discovered how easy they are to make yourself. I could’ve bought one for $80+, but I could make one with stuff I already had. I did buy a better soldering iron to make the electrical connections and, to make it a real pro build, I bought a heat gun to shrink heat-shrink tubing over the connections. While the first yeast starter was going, I built the stir plate to use for the next starter. I used it for all the starters I made and seems to really make a difference in the lag time between pitching the yeast and the start of fermentation — what takes a day or two now happens in hours. The yeast are supposed to be healthier too, which makes for a more complete fermentation and fewer off-flavors.
We brewed a beer each day for the first three days: Jamil’s Evil Twin IPA, Breakfast Stout, and 115th Dream Imperial Stout. They went pretty well, which surprised me given that we’d never done all-grain before. But that third beer ended up with a stuck mash, we think caused by too fine a grind on the grain, and trying to fix it caused the brewing to run into the evening. We decided we should take the next day off. We got started again the day after that with the Imperial Stout, which also had a stuck mash, but this time we discovered that the false bottom on the mash tun had come apart during the mash! I don’t understand, but I think the heat from the mash caused the two nuts holding the elbow to the perforated screen to expand and loosen and maybe the stirring caused one to screw off the threads. Live and learn; we made sure it was very tight for the next brew sessions.
We got back on track with Surly Furious. That process went smoothly and I feel good about how that should turn out. The next day was too busy to fit a 4-5 hour brew session in, so we took another day off. The last beer was a Barley Wine. Up until then I had been using iBrewMaster to guide us through the brewing. It’s a little clunky and not very iPhone-like, but it works pretty well once you get the hang of it. And it has all the Northern Brewer recipes in it already so I don’t have to enter the recipes manually. I was using Sparge Pal to compute sparge water volume and the maker of that app just released an updated Brew Pal app. I gave it a go with this beer and I like it better, although it’s kinda quirky too. Fortunately, I can export recipes from iBrewMaster in Beer XML format, which I can move to DropBox and down to Brew Pal and avoid re-entering the recipes.
After 8 days, we had all 6 beers fermenting plus the Indian Brown we made before these 6 and, as a bonus, we got a second beer from the second runnings of the 115th Dream.
Last night, we also kegged the Indian Brown. It had been 2 weeks and the fermentation finished a week ago with a final gravity of 1.016, so it’s an 8.38% ABV beer. It needs to age 2-3 more weeks in the keg (and get cold), but we couldn’t wait to try it so we force-carbonated it. It’s got all the sediment floating around in it due to the shaking during force-carbonating, but that should settle out soon. We each had a small glass — it’s got flavor (unlike the ESB we brewed a month ago) and a heck of a hop bite on the back end! It’ll be interesting to see how it ages over the next few weeks.
I was never that excited about extract brewing because you had such little control over the beer — it felt like it was making soup more than beer — and I wasn’t happy with the results for most of my beers. All-grain, however, has been fun and I’ve enjoyed soaking up as much info about it as I could. I stayed up late at night reading about it and woke up early to check on the beers every day. We’ll see how long my excitement about it lasts and we’ll see how the beers turn out.
Tips I learned:
Keep Star San in a bucket. I’ve used and tossed a ton of Star San over the years after just one use but it turns out that Star San lasts for months. I have a 5-gallon bucket that I keep it in and I can just dip things I need to sanitize in it. Star San also works in seconds, as in 5!, so you don’t even have to wait for things to soak.
Use a sprayer for Star San. For things that are hard to dunk in a bucket full of Star San, I put Star San in a spray bottle and spray things. I watched a YouTube video about some brewing technique and the guy happened to use a garden sprayer to clean his carboy with Star San. Brilliant! No more filling a carboy with gallons of water! So I bought a 1-gallon garden sprayer from Amazon and it works great.
Food-grade 5-gallon buckets are free! These things, especially HDPE buckets, cost $10 or even $20 to buy but bakeries throw them out constantly. I asked a couple bakeries near the house for some buckets and have started collecting them. I bought Gamma Seal lids to put on them and they’re easy to open and close too.
There’s a ton of info these days on the internet. 20 years ago, all there really was was Charlie Papazian’s classic book. Today, there’s much more info and knowledge out there about home brewing. It’s crazy. Homebrewtalk.com is especially useful.
Formulate my own recipes. One point of home brewing is getting the beer exactly the way you like it. I don’t want to keep making other people’s recipes, I want beers that are exactly the way I like them, i.e., stouts that are more hoppy, IPAs that are more malty, etc.
A higher BTU burner. It takes 45+ minutes to bring 6+ gallons to boil on our (25,000 BTU) kitchen stove. Blichmann’s 72,000 BTU Floor Burner can supposedly do that in half the time. All-grain brewing requires heating even more water, so a significant part of the time is spent waiting for water to get hot. So I ordered a burner and will use it on our next beer. Unfortuantely, that means I’ll be brewing outside.
Move to the basement. So that I don’t have to brew outside in the winter, we plan to get a stove hood and vent installed in the basement so I can use a burner indoors and use natural gas piped from the house rather than using propane tanks. The old laundry room is perfect for a brewery setup too.
Yeast Bank. I’ve learned about yeast during this and find them fascinating. Moreso, I think it’d be cool to make my own yeast bank. It’s easy to reuse yeast from a starter or from a fermented beer and they reproduce with little work, so why not store it and have all the yeast you need?