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 Grain Brewing Concepts and Guidelines
Everything you really need to know about Mashing and Sparging but will never find anywhere else without a bunch of excess baggage!

Where to start??? Well, at the beginning of course! Grains are chock full of starches. Starches are the raw material, or more complex form of the structure that sugars come from. Enzymes are things that reduce starches to simpler molecular chains we call sugars. Sugars are an energy source form cellular organisms like yeast and mammals utilize as food. Yes, mammals... yes, you! When you eat starches your body's enzymes attack and simplify them into sugars, which are then absorbed into your blood and muscle tissue to be used as fuel. How 'bout that... every one of us is a grain "mashing" machine. Yeast on the other hand can't take in starches but still needs the sugar as an energy source. And that's where you come in Bunky. You are Yeast's slave, and process the grain starches to make them become simpler sugars, ultimately to then have Yeast become your slave as you watch it ferment sugars into alcohol and CO2... BEER !!

Simple, huh? O.K. then, thank you for your attention. Good night now. Remember to tip your server, and please drive home safely. What? Oh...  Yeah, O.K., I guess you DO need to know how to make that happen. Well, then let's do something radical like attack it systematically... here goes.

First a simple explanation of what happens:
Crushed grains are placed into heated water (similarly to steeping but without the mesh bag), and held at a temperature that allows enzymes to become active. This is called the "Mash" or "Mashing". After a period of time, the active enzymes will have simplified or "converted" all of the available starches into sugars. At that time we will leach or rinse those sugars out of the grains using heated water in the step known as the "Sparge" or "Sparging". Once the sugars have been formed and rinsed out, we simply cook the "wort" (unfermented beer) just like an extract wort, adding hops as desired for bittering and flavor and aroma. Obviously this is a much more time consuming process than just dissolving extract and takes more control and attention, but in a nutshell that's really all there is to it. And there is NO magic involved, which it seems we are led to believe when reading most books.

There are a few prioritization points to keep firmly in mind as you learn the processes and develop a personalized technique: (Hint, hint... print these off and cut them out... have them on the counter beside you as a reminder whether you are on batch #1 or batch #101. Yes, the following are "mojo free" common sense tips.)

  • 1. The grain practically converts by itself in the Mash. Use enough. Give it your attention, but don't sweat it!
  • 2. Mash temperature IS very important but luckily you have a pretty wide range of acceptability, so don't sweat it!
  • 3. Sparging is easy, but actually your biggest challenge. It rarely gets stressed as strongly and critically as it should... So DO Sweat It !!!!

  • I'll first explain each of the above points in an "Explanation", and then give you some longer, but "Simple Guidelines" at the end. The reason for presenting it this way is I think the guidelines will make more sense and be easier to follow after you have seen the reasons for them. Pay more attention to the guidelines than the explanations for your first all grain batches (if not forever), but read and re-read the explanations whenever it may benefit in keeping your priorities straight and your focus on the concepts that the guidelines represent. The information presented here will also allow you to read about all grain methods in books without intimidation because you will understand the basics, and you will be able to discard the "magic" that authors like to inflict on us.

  • Regarding #1 - Modern malted barley is very very rich in enzymes that are responsible for converting starches to sugars. There is such an abundance of enzymes that we see most of the sugar conversion in the early part of a standard 60 minute mash cycle. Unlike brewing grains in previous centuries and even more recent decades, no extra-ordinary multiple temperature processing or "hoop jumping" is necessary to achieve a good sugar yield. If the grain is crushed to break the kernel open or fracture it into a multiple pieces, the mash water will easily get in and the enzymes will do their work. The more efficiently the enzymes reach into each piece of kernel the faster a complete sugar potential can be fully realized. But we need to caution against crushing the grain too finely or "over crushing", which makes a lot of flour-like powder(some is normal). This can cause big problems when you sparge by making the mash very sticky and almost pasty. It becomes difficult to rinse/sparge because the sticky grain porridge acts exactly like a bowl of oatmeal and milk... the milk sits all around the oatmeal, but will not get inside. Commercial brewing equipment and techniques can handle a more finely crushed grain, and even achieve greater sugar yield from each pound of grain, ultimately leading to higher profit. As a home brewer you should not try to achieve commercial brewing efficiencies. You are better off using a little more grain to get the desired gravity rather than over crushing and having sparge water be repelled by, and bypass, little lumps of sticky mashed grain, thereby leaving sugar trapped in the muck. Rule: Be sensible. Help nature do her work. Don't get greedy.

  • Regarding #2 - The temperature range which for our purposes the enzymes will be most productive within is ~150F to 160F. There are two main enzyme players at work... Alpha Amylase and Beta Amylase. Each attacks the bond between glucose molecules that in a chain constitute simple sugars or complex sugars or starch, depending on how many glucose molecules long the chain is. Each enzyme favors different temperatures and pH's to work optimally individually, but for the balance of fermentable and unfermentable sugars we want, we need to keep both actively happy. The mash pH is less likely to be of concern because it will usually be in the ballpark as long as we use reasonably mineralized water (tap or bottled drinking water), not deionized. If you were to measure mash pH with test papers or a meter you would be looking to see something around 5.2 - 5.5, but the temperature is more important. Here is the reason why:

    Lower mash temperature (and incidentally, lower pH) favors the Beta Amylase. It is a very organized anal retentive little beast which within natural limitations predictably munches off 2 molecule chains of starch at specific points in the starch chain, making very predictably fermentable simpler sugars. In a straight starch chain it munches everything into fermentables. In a branched starch chain though, it can only attack the branches and when it gets to the junction of the branch and main trunk it stops. Either way, it is always making fermentables up to that natural limitation. It actually activates at ~140F, but can not function efficiently until the starches are fully gelatinized and sticky at ~149-150F. Rule: Beta works best at the low end of the temp range and is responsible for making the majority of the more simple/fermentable malt sugars, called Maltose.

    Higher mash temperature (and higher pH) favors the Alpha Amylase. It also attacks the straight starch chains and branches but is a rather schizophrenic muncher. It will break off a single molecule (glucose), a chain of two (maltose), or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 making everything from maltotriose to maltotetriose to dextrins, which at some point become insoluble and therefore can't eventually be taken into the yeast cell and be reduced further via fermentation into alcohol and CO2. Those more complex sugars are responsible for making beer body and smoothness. If the Alpha is acting randomly, then by sheer probability it has to break off more 3's, 4's, 5's and 6's combined than 1's and 2's of glucose and maltose chains. Rule: Alpha works best at higher end of the temp range and is responsible for making more of the complex residual sugars we want in beer for body and complexity.
    An additional control factor could enter into the picture, that of mash thickness (water content) and its impact on conversion speed and sugar complexity, where a higher water content (thinner) mash will make more fermentables, and a lower water content (thicker) mash will make more unfermentables. This is a complication I think should be left to later experimentation, if ever, and just stay in some mid water content range. When and if the time comes to factor these multiple variables you will need to think of the Low to High Temperature relationship and Thin to Thick Mash relationship as if being viewed in combination, becoming a sort of matrix. Until then, follow the simple guidelines below for water content.

  • Regarding #3 - Sparging is only a challenge if you fail to understand the principle, which by the way is pretty basic common sense that many brewers never recognize or apply to brewing. It almost seems we want something to be more complex than it really is, and we go looking for magical reasons instead of common sense. The sugars we create within the grain pieces must be leached out. So, the first essential concept about sparging is that since each grain piece has three dimensional depth, water passing by it quickly can only rinse off sugar on its surface... not leach or extract sugar trapped within the piece. And the second essential concept is that sugars and starches and proteins become more viscous as they cool, and then it becomes more difficult to leach the sugars out of each little grain piece. All this means is we have to make sure the sparge water maintains a high enough temperature to maintain good solubility by keeping the grains warm enough to sustain easy sugar leaching from the grain and into the sparge water. Secondly we need to sparge slowly enough to allow contact time for the "pressures" inside the grain (sugar saturated water) and outside the grain (unsaturated water) to equilibrate, ie., leach the sugar out of the grain and into solution. Boom! That's it. Nothing complicated... but needs control. Rule: Don't be in a hurry. Sparge slowly and monitor temperature!

  • The Simple Guidelines:
    If you've gotten this far you must not have been bored to death with this line of thinking. Let's look at a good solid set of steps and procedures that will never fail you. First mash, then sparge.

    Mash - Preheat approximately 1.3 quarts of water to 170 degrees F for each pound of grain being mashed ("x" lbs. X 1.3 quarts = Mash Water). When at 170 F remove pot from heat and "dough-in" or add the grains, mixing gently as you add so they get wetted evenly without vigorous stirring. The mash mixture should be about 153 to 157 F, give or take a degree. If it is warmer than 158 F, add and gently stir a little cool water until the temperature begins to drop. If it is below 152 F, return to low heat and gently warm until the temperature begins to rise. Remember if using anything other than an "instant read" thermometer that there is a lag in between the time you see the temp begin to rise or drop and when it will give a stable reading, so don't over cool or over heat. Then, hold the temperature as close to stable as possible for 60 minutes. That can be done without additional heat by wrapping the kettle to insulate, or placing the kettle of grains into a pre-warmed and turned off oven. The full kettle should stay pretty stable under those conditions. If desired carefully applying low heat while gently stirring during the 60 minute mash is an alternative. This is the least advised method as it is very easy to scorch it. Some brewers use Igloo or Coleman type water coolers instead of a kettle. If you do, it is imperative that you preheat the cooler with heated water before discarding that water and adding more heated water and the grains. If you do not, much heat energy will be lost to heating the air space that acts as insulation in the cooler wall and you will have a very difficult time hitting the target temperature!

    Sparge - For purposes of estimating the amount of sparge water you will need, assume approximately 60% of the water you began the mash with will drain out and the other 40% will remain in saturation of the grains, though we will be exchanging that water continually throughout the sparge. The point is just to recognize how much water will remain trapped. When you calculate the estimated water that will be released you can then calculate the amount of water needed for sparging. The amount of sparge water needed is the difference between the amount of water that will be released from the mash and the amount of beer wort you wish to begin your boil with. You will lose some moisture to evaporation during the boil, so for starters assume you want to begin the boil with a volume of 6.0 gallons of wort in your kettle, which will boil down to 5 gallons. That evaporative loss may need to be adjusted in future batches based on experience. Example: Supposing 10 lbs. (for easy calculations) of grains mashed. Quarts of water used in mash = 10 X 1.3, = 13 quarts. Amount of original mash water volume that will be released/not trapped and exchanged during sparge = .6 X 13 quarts, = 7.8 quarts. Quarts of wort desired to begin boil = 6.0 (gallons) X 4 (quarts), = 24 quarts. Therefore, estimated volume of sparge water needed to hit wort volume target is: 24 quarts - 7.8 quarts = 16.2 quarts. Easy, right? If not, read that again. If when you actually cook the wort you end up with a little more or less than planned for, simply boil a bit more off, or add a little plain water depending on the situation.

    Heat the calculated/estimated sparge water to approximately 165 - 170 degrees F, and maintain the temperature at about 165 F. If using an insulated cooler, preheat as described above. If using a bucket, heat the water in increments and add to the bucket 1 - 2 gallons at a time to avoid significant temperature loss. Good temperature control will maintain the mash body temperature and possibly even raise it slightly during the sparge, thus ensuring good sugar solubility and a good extraction. The rate of sparge flow should be approximately 7 to 9 minutes per gallon. That gives good "leaching" time, and in combination with good temperature maintenance will all but ensure an efficient extraction of the sugars that were created in the mash. Don't sparge too fast and don't sparge to cool! That's what was meant by the notation "DO sweat it". If you miss the mash temperature by a couple of degrees it will probably be just fine. On the other hand, if you don't maintain good sparge temperature and flow rate, well... you're cooked.

    Once you have completed the sparge, things are pretty much a replay of an extract batch, with a couple of qualifications. Those have to do with the volume of material you need to boil, and the now necessary longer boil time. First the volume issue, and then the time:

    Because of needing to use as much water as we do to effectively capture or extract all of the sugars from the grains, we need a lot of heat to get such a big volume to boil. That large volume is a positive thing when viewed as meaning we will cook a less sugar dense wort than with typical extract concentrate batches. The benefit is that now there will be nearly no danger of severely darkening the beer during the boil period. Any darkening from caramelization will likely be almost imperceptible, and that means we do not have to work as hard at making the beer turn out with the intended flavor and color. The price we pay though is the amount of heat energy needed to make this thing boil (needing to use a propane cooker or Turkey Fryer burner and cook outdoors), and having one huge kettle big enough to house all of it! Well, more accurately I should say that is one of two options regarding how to handle 6 gallons of beer wort, which of course means there is another way. That other way is to simply have a second kettle large enough to supplement your current beer kettle volume so that between the two you can handle all 6 gallons and cook each on a separate kitchen stove burner. It's no problem... you just stir two pots instead of one.

    The cooking time with an all grain batch now becomes longer than what we have always maintained is needed for an extract batch. Many of you have heard over and over and over again from us that you don't want to cook extracts longer than needed, because unavoidable darkening from sugar caramelization not only impacts color, but changes the beers flavor. Well, in a fully hydrated boil caramelization is a non-issue. Additionally, the proteins which are substantially reduced in the malt extract concentrating process are still fully intact in our all grain unprocessed wort. And NOW, for the first time we really DO have a need for a longer more vigorous boil. So, sack up and boil for 60 minutes. It's a small price to pay for the adventure of making beer without any pre-processing.

    That's it! Easy peazy. More complicated in words than in practice... if we take out the voodoo and the mojo. Of course there are slight considerations like rethinking hop quantities in a full volume 60 minute boil, but we can easily help you with that.
    ... piece of cake...  takin' candy from a baby...  ...walk in the park...  easy as pie...  robbin' the