This guide has been written with a specific purpose in mind and that is to get people started in all-grain brewing. Our experience at the WORT HOG Brewers club has been that many people would like to make their beer using the full process but that they don’t always have the time, knowledge or money to start something that looks like a heck of a lot more work than what they’ve been doing up to now with kits or extracts.
I think its also fair to say that the South African experience has been that many people do not achieve the results they’re looking for in kits and, having tasted what others are managing to make via the all-grain approach, would like to make the transition. The homebrew tasting sessions at our regular club meetings prove this time and again.
Keep in mind though, that for many people, the relative simplicity and short time required to make a kit beer are reasons enough to stay with that route. However, for those of you looking for total control over your brewing process and the desire to make commercial quality beer, this article is here to help you get over that initial hurdle.
Picture 3.5 : Cracked (milled) grains of ‘Black Malt’
We hope that you enjoy this guide and would like to ask that you please provide us with feedback so we can improve it over time
The aim of this section is to give you an overview of what beer making is all about and, in it, I have tried to balance the need to get the absolute basics across with the risk of providing too much detail. The approach taken here is to explain, in what one might call ‘medium detail’, how the whole process fits together and why we do certain things at each stage in the process. I am not expecting the brewing novice to feel 100% comfortable on their first pass through but I do think the level is such that a few passes will allow you to grasp the basics and to do so in such a way that you can then go straight into brewing your own beer with the all-grain approach.
What’s In A Name?
OK, where to start ? Well, when making any alcoholic beverage you go through two basic steps:
First, you prepare yourself a ‘sugary solution’, meaning ‘sugars’, from whatever source, dissolved in water.
And secondly, you introduce a micro-organism, called ‘yeast’, into the sugary solution. The yeast’s job is to convert the ‘sugars’ into two by-products, namely, carbon dioxide gas and alcohol.
Now, you may not have thought of it this way before but, the source of your ‘sugars’ is what determines the name of the drink that you eventually end up with:
If you derive your ‘sugars’ from grapes, then the end product is called ‘wine’.
If you derive your ‘sugars’ from honey, then the end product is called ‘mead’.
If you derive your ‘sugars’ from rice, then the end product is called ‘sake’.
And, if you derive your ‘sugars’ from a cereal grain such as barley, then the end product is called ‘beer’.
So, when making beer, at some point, you will have to produce yourself a ‘sugary solution’ using barley.
And if you’re wondering why I keep putting quotation marks around the word ‘sugar’, its because most of us assume the word ‘sugar’ to mean the white stuff we throw into coffee. In reality though, nature has provided us with a wide range of ‘sugars’ and our job as a brewer is to control which sugars we get and to control their conversion by yeast into a yummy end product. And if you can learn how to do that, then you’ll be a brewer!
Focussing in on barley grain, it is a cereal product grown widely throughout the world and is obviously the seed of the barley plant. Because its the seed, it needs to store a whole lot of ‘food’ for itself so that when it eventually falls into the earth, it has enough nutrition to grow itself a root and so start to sprout, one day growing back into an enormous barley plant.
The key to the seed keeping its food store though is that the store must not be soluble in water because, the first time it rained, all the goodness would be washed out of the grain. So, nature devised a way of storing the food in the form of something called ‘starch’. And the form of starch it chose isn’t water soluble. Clever.
So what happens in nature, if the barley seed happens to fall to the ground, is that it waits until such time as it thinks the temperature and availability of water is to its liking and then it starts to germinate. What happens inside the grain during germination is that the seed lets loose some enzymes which proceed to convert the insoluble starches into something more useful, namely soluble starches and from there it can further break down the starches into useful food material in order to germinate and grow. In the world of brewing though, if we allowed the barley seed to fully germinate, it would use up its food store and we wouldn’t be able to get anything useful out to use in our beer making. So one of the first steps in brewing is for the barley seed to be harvested and kept dry. By keeping it dry we prevent it from going into spontaneous germination, after which it would be of no use to us.
And this is precisely why we invented people called ‘maltsters’ who have the job of artificially germinating the barley seed and then, just before it looks like its about to go all the way, they cruelly intervene, drying the barley so as to stop its germination process. This then provides a very stable, dry, barley seed with its insides converted into a form suitable for brewing beer, i.e. water soluble!
The process by which the barley is artifically germinated and dried is known as ‘MALTING’ and the barley produced in this way is known as ‘MALTED BARLEY’ or just ‘MALT’.
For the brewer, the ‘soluble starches’ that now remain in the malted barley grain, provide a rich source of ‘sugars’ with which we can brew beer and the first job the brewer has is to go get these ‘sugars’. And we do this in a process called ‘MASHING’, discussed in the next section.
In the meantime though, let’s look at those last few paragraphs in another way:
Mashing simply means mixing barley grain with water at a predetermined temperature and waiting 90 minutes. During this time, the ‘soluble starches’ dissolve in the water, as do the enzymes from within the barley grain. Once dissolved in the water, the enzymes go to work breaking the starches into a range of ‘sugars’. And your job as brewer is to control, at the very least, the temperature of the mixture.
The vessel in which you mix the grain and water needs to be nothing more glorified than a plastic bucket if you so wish but, at the very least, you should make sure its insulated so that the temperature doesn’t vary too much over the 90 minutes. This container is called a MASH TUN and, for most beers you will make, can consist of a bucket with a false bottom in it. The false bottom, essentially a flat plate with loads of small holes in it, seperates the grain-water mixture from where the tap runs the liquid off from and is a key design aspect of any mash tun.
Here’s a basic picture of a mash tun and how it works:
To make a mash you just put heated water into the mash tun and then mix in the grains of malted barley. At the start of the mash, the mixture in the mash tun could be sitting at something like 68°C and as the contents of the barley grains start dissolving in the water, the water tends to become cloudy. So, when I said the starches dissolve in the water, well, they mostly do, they are fairly big in molecular terms though so they tend to scatter light, which in simple terms means the liquid will start to look hazy. If this bamboozles you, forget it, the stuff looks hazy.
As the 90 minutes progresses though, the starches get broken down by the enzymes into a range of sugars and these readily dissolve in the water. Hence the haziness disappears and the liquid takes on a bright appearance. At this stage by the way, our sugary solution has been made and we refer to it as ‘wort’, pronounced to rhyme with ‘hurt’. The bright ones among you will already have made the link to why we spell the word ‘warthog’ wrong in our club name… but I digress…
Now, one of the most amazing things about the mash is that the grain is all squashed up in this load of liquid and yet you are able to open a tap at the bottom of the bucket and run off crystal clear wort. The reason for this miracle is that the grain is able to form its own filter bed that prevents small particles getting out the tap and this filter bed is hugely helped by having that false bottom in place; otherwise the grain would come out the tap too !
So, after leaving the grain-water mixture to sit undisturbed for 90 minutes, we slowly open the tap and run off the sweet wort and that’s the formal end of the mashing step.
Sparging is a great word, like nothing you’ve heard before and really makes you sound all geeky when you tell someone what you’ve been doing. In essence though it is simply a brewer’s way of saying ‘rinsing’.
You see, after 90 minutes, the liquid in the mash tun contains a load of ‘sugars’ all dissolved in it and if you taste it it will be very sweet. However, the grain has absorbed a lot of the liquid and so a lot of the sugars are still sitting in the grain hiding from you.
There are two ways to get at this extra sugar:
In the simplest case you can open the tap, run off the contents over a period of say 25 minutes and the grain bed will then run dry. However, you will only have managed to capture (say) half of the sugars that the grain contains and so the brewer will then refill the mash tun, soaking the grain, getting the sugars to come out of solution so they can be run off again 15 minutes later. This can be thought of as a batch processing approach.
However, a simpler way to do this is, while you slowly run the sweet wort out the tap at the bottom of the mash tun, you slowly run hot water in at the top, thereby matching what flows out with fresh hot water flowing in. This can be thought of as a ‘continuous process’ compared to the ‘batch process’ of the point above.
As a rule, if you open the tap at the bottom, allow the wort to run out and continuously replace it at the top with fresh, hot (75°C) water, then you will get the majority of the sugars out inside of one hour. And this process is called sparging. Straight forward or what?
You’re probably wondering by now where exactly all this sweet liquid goes to ? Well, you have another container, called a ‘boiler’ or ‘kettle’ that is capable of heating the wort. This container is then used to bring the wort up to boiling point, where you should keep it for another 90 minutes. In homebrew terms this is usually a 25 litre bucket with a tap on one side and a kettle element fitted on the other.
The main aims of your 90 minute boil are:
Any enzymes in the wort will be killed (denatured).
The wort itself is sterilised, i.e any bacteria present will die.
You get to throw in hops and boil them to extract various compounds from them.
Other things do happen but this is a beginner’s guide OK!!
The main reason for the hops is that, if we didn’t add them, our final beer would not taste balanced, likely very sweet and not that palatable. So somewhere back in the mists of time people started throwing a variety of plants and roots in to temper the final sweetness of the fermented beer. And of couse the best way to extract the flavours etc is to boil them in the wort.
From around the 15th century, mankind had decided that their preferred additive was the flower of the hop plant and, in beer brewing, we use the hops for three different purposes:
If we throw the hops in at the start of the 90 minute boil they allow us to get a bitter flavour into the final beer. The longer they get boiled for, the more bitterness they impart. After about 90 minutes, any bitterness they have, will have been imparted so we don’t usually boil for longer than 90 minutes.
If we throw some hops in with about 15-20 minutes of the boil still to go then their flavour will remain in the final beer.
If we throw some hops in during the last 2-5 minutes of the boil then their aroma will remain in the final beer.
So, hops can give us aroma, flavour and bitterness in the final beer and by controlling how much we add to the boiling wort and for how long we boil them, we can control their contribution to the final beer. And that’s the boil.
After we have boiled our wort for 90 minutes and we have happily thrown handfuls of hops in, we are essentially finished what we refer to as the ‘hot-side’ of the process. From here on in we need to chill the wort and process it closer to room temperature. We also now need to start sterilising everything that the wort comes into contact with, up to now things need only be kept clean, not sterile.
So, after the 90 minutes boil, we allow the hops to sink to the bottom of the boiler (below the level of the tap so we don’t get them clogging up our tap) and we then run the wort off to the fermentation vessel.
There are three main ways that homebrewers get their wort down to room temperature:
Run the very hot, freshly boiled wort into a fermentation vessel, seal its lid on (to keep bacteria out) and then let it cool down in the fermentation bin. Left alone this can take 3 hours to get right. You can speed this up by dunking the bin in a bath of cold tap water but it’ll still take around one hour to achieve and risks infecting the wort.
The second way is to insert a copper coil into the boiler at the end of the boil and to run cold tap water through the inside of the coil. If you combine this with a gentle stir of the wort you can chill 23 litres of boiling wort to room temperature inside of ten minutes. This cold wort is then run into the fermentation vessel.
The third way is to make what’s called a counter-flow chiller. This is not too difficult to make and you get to run the hot wort through the inside of a copper pipe while passing cold tap water through another pipe (that surrounds the copper pipe), doing so in the opposite direction. The wort then enters at one end at a temperature close to boiling and exits 10-20 seconds later at the other end close to the temperature of the tap water. This process typically takes 10-15 minutes for a 23 litre batch of beer but remember that the wort itself is being chilled down to room temperature inside of 10-15 seconds (i.e. the time it takes to go through the chiller). This has benefits that I won’t go into here but is a nice route to follow.
And when you have your wort at a temperature close to room temeperature you have successfully chilled your wort, well done.
Once you have a 25 litre fermentation bin with some 22-23 litres of room temperature wort its time to ferment it. ‘Fermentation’ means the step in which the ‘sugars’ in your wort get converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas (CO2). The process is thankfully handled for you by a micro organism called yeast.
Some of the points to remember about fermentation include:
Yeast converts the sugars in the wort into two main by-products, namely alcohol and CO2. You won’t notice the alcohol until you eventually drink the beer but you will notice the CO2 gas as it likes to escape in large volumes from your fermentation bin.
Other by-products also get produced and these help form the overall character of your beer. Don’t worry about what they are, just know that they’re there and be thankful for it !
Yeast, being a micro organism, needs proper care and attention. Its preferred lifestyle includes being given (up front) the right nutrients along with plenty of oxygen and being left alone at its preferred operating temperature (typically 18-22°C for an ale yeast, 8-12°C for lager yeast) to get on with the job. (So note, if you’re making a lager, that chilling step needs to get the wort down to 8-12°C before adding the yeast.)
In the simplest sense, once all of the sugars in the wort have been converted, the yeast runs out of work and like everyone else, decides to take a nap and promptly drops to the bottom of the fermentation bin.
Yeast which sits at the bottom of your fermentor is not doing anything really useful and so, once most of the fermentation is over (the rate of escaping gas slows down), you would be wise to transfer the beer into a second fermentation vessel, thereby allowing the yeast to finish the last 5% of its job and for the beer to settle out so it can be bottled. Inherent in this statement is that not all the yeast stops working at the same time, the earlier the yeast stops working, the less likely you are to want it in your beer. Its kind of like employees, the less useful ones fall by the wayside first and need to be pruned out (sorry but its just very difficult to train up dead yeast cells), the more useful ones will stay for the duration.
OK, so the yeast has done its job and you now have ‘beer’ in your fermentor. And please, before you jump up and down shouting about how you have just made ‘beer’, remember you didn’t, you made ‘wort’, the yeast made the ‘beer’. Team work at its best.
Once you have the fully fermented beer in the fermentor, you need to ‘package’ the beer so you can drink it. I mean, after all, its pretty difficult to carry the fermentor to the party, not that people haven’t tried ! Also, you need to recall the fact that beer is traditionally served with some degree of ‘fizziness’, commonly called ‘carbonation’ because of the CO2 dissolved in the beer.
To carbonate the beer you can either put it in a keg and crank up the pressure from a gas bottle or you can ask the yeast for one last favour . . . you add some extra sugar back into the beer (a procedure known as ‘priming’) just before you bottle it and any yeast still in suspension will convert it into yet more alcohol and CO2. But if this happens inside a sealed bottle then the CO2 is forced to dissolve into the beer and this provides the beer’s level of carbonation. Keep in mind that even if your beer appears clear to your eye, there can still be 100,000 yeasts cells per cubic centimetre… think about it ! The traditional homebrew method of carbonating beer employs exactly that, a ‘second fermentation’ in the bottle. Such beer is called ‘bottle conditioned’ beer.
And that’s that, the brewing process in a nutshell ! All that remains is to summarise it.
I always feel the best way to explain anything is to use a picture or graph, so here’s your summary!
The aims of this section, which are very specific and need to be understood before launching yourself into any construction tasks, are as follows :-
- To show you the equipment that you’ll need in order to brew 20 litres of beer via the all-grain approach.
- To show you one straight forward means by which you might achieve this, i.e. not referring to every side avenue or alternative means to achieve a specific function.
- To show you a way that, if you should decide later to revert to extract or kit brewing, will not see you left with loads of equipment that you can’t use.
- To show you a way that, if you should decide later to upgrade to alternative means to achieve things or to a larger brew volume, will not see you left with loads of equipment that you’ll have no use for.
- To show you a way that is simple and has worked for thousands of homebrewers worldwide.
- To show you a way that numerous fellow homebrewers at this club have used to get started in the hobby, which means there’s plenty of help at hand if you ever get stuck !
- To show you a way that you can easily source all the equipment for without having to visit strange dark alleyways or buy odd sounding equipment.
- To give you a chance to try all grain brewing with minimal financial and time related risks.
OK, so some fairly lofty sounding goals there I think you’ll agree ! Basically, here’s a way that many people have started with, its simple, straight forward and suitable for upgrading should you ever so desire.
The essence therefore is that we really just want you to give it a go and see how it works for you.
In the basic brewery design that I am describing here you will need 4 main pieces of equipment and these are described on this page = A Hot Liquor Tank, a Boiler, a Chiller and a Fermentor.
You will also need one additional item for the bottling stage = A Bottle Capper.
So, let’s see what they look like and how they are constructed.
4.2 The hot liquor tank and boiler
In the brewing process, any ‘water’ that makes its way into your beer is known as ‘liquor’. If its used to wash something or rinse something then we refer to it as water.
In any brew session you will need to arrange for a source of hot liquor :-
In the early stages of the process this liquor will be required to start your mash.
Half way through the process this liquor will be required to conduct the sparging step.
The vessel brewers use to obtain their source of hot liquor is known as the ‘HOT LIQUOR TANK’.
Later on in the process you will need to boil your wort for 90 minutes with the hops in and for this brewers use a vessel called a ‘KETTLE’ or ‘BOILER’. You may find references to such a vessel being called a ‘COPPER’ because early vessels were made from copper before stainless steel took over.
In your beginners setup, both the hot liquor tank and the boiler can be of identical design.
The simplest way to get yourself a hot liquor tank or boiler is to add a standard kettle element and a plastic tap to a 25 litre plastic bin. You can cut corners early on by only having one vessel and using it for both a hot liquor tank and a boiler but it does get a tad tricky later on if you want to be running hot liquor out of the hot liquor tank during the sparging step and to be simultaneously collecting wort from the mash tun in your boiler ! So I’d recommend having two vessels. It’ll cost you a litte bit more but you will thank yourself for the time and hassle savings on brew day.
Again, here is a picture to help you along:
Picture 4.1 : Various views of the ‘Hot Liquor Tank’ and ‘Kettle’.
Many people are impressed that you can use a plastic bin for a hot liquor tank and boiler because plastic tends to get soft at these temperatures. Believe me, plastic does get soft at these temperatures but as long as you’re not planning to move the bin around during the process it will more than suffice.
Before buying your bins though you should have a quick think about what volume of liquor you will need. If you follow our advice here on a 25 litre fermentor, then you will require a mash tun of about the same volume and a hot liquor tank and boiler of at least the same volume.
In practise, it is better that your hot liquor tank and boiler are greater in volume than the mash tun and fermentor, a factor of +30% being a good idea. However, because of the lack of availability of different size bins a few years back, many of us started with all bins being the same size. The downside is that after starting the mash you will need to immediately refill the hot liquor tank (in order to ensure enough liquor for the sparge). This is a bit of a hassle if you are adjusting the pH of your liquor as you will have to do it before starting the mash and again before starting the sparge. Your call … but if you can get slightly bigger vessels for your hot liquor tank and boiler you will thank yourself later. In my early days I performed 20 or so brews with all bins the same size and survived.
In constructing yourself these vesels, a couple of useful tips that I have learned:
- Cut the holes for the tap and kettle element as neatly as possible. i.e. the hole you make in the bin’s wall should be ROUND, not all rough and ridgy. If there are ridges then the bin will eventually split at these points. You can use a rounded file to remove any such edges.
- When mounting the tap or kettle element always make sure that the rubber washer you use is mounted on the opposite side of the bin’s wall to the locking nut. If you try to attach the washer on the same side of the bin’s wall as the securing nut you will find a tendency for the washer to get scrunched up as you tigthen the nut. This doesn’t happen if they are on opposite sides of the bin’s wall. I usually have the tap’s washer on the outside of the bin and the kettle element’s washer on the inside.
4.3 The Mash Tun
Whilst there are many ways to do this item, our suggestion is to take two 25 litre plastic bins, drill holes in the base of the one bin and put a tap into the other bin, insert one bin into the other, wrap the whole assembly with some foam insulation (or a blanket) and there you go.
The idea is that the inner bin comes to rest inside the outer bin on the top of the nut of the tap. This positions it a couple of inches above the base of the outer bin and provides the false bottom needed to separate the mash solids from the wort you want to run off.
Here are a couple of pictures to help you along:
Picture 4.2 : The assembled ‘Mash Tun’ – Two 25 litre plastic bins.
Picture 4.3 : A view of the inner bin with its base drilled with 2 – 3 mm diameter holes.
In winter time, outside, properly insulated with 10 mm thick foam or a blanket, such a design does not lose more than 2 to 3°C over a 90 minute period.
4.4 The Chiller
A key part of the brewing process is the chilling stage at the end of the boil. The easiest way to achieve this is to build yourself a copper chilling coil and there are two different types :
IMMERSION chillers and
Both types of chiller reply on you bending a length of copper piping, say 8-10 metres long and 8-12 mm diameter. You can only do this if you buy the ‘soft’ copper that they use for air conditioning installations. So visit a place that sells this specific type of copper tubing ! You cannot bend the rigid copper piping unless you are a plumber in possession of one of those pipe bending things.
An IMMERSION chiller is the simplest to build and consists of a length of copper pipe that has been coiled as per the image of picture 4.4. This coil gets immersed into the boiler for the last 15 minutes of the boil (in order to sterilise it) and, at boil end, cold tap water is run through its inside. If you gently stir the wort while the cold tap water runs through the chiller, an immersion chiller will bring 22 litres of boiling wort down to a couple degrees above the cold tap water temperature within 10 minutes.
A COUNTER-FLOW chiller is shown in pictures 4.5 and 4.6 and consists of a similar length of copper tubing that has been inserted into a hose pipe. During use, the boiled wort is allowed to run through the inside of the copper pipe while cold tap water is passed through the hose pipe (outside of the copper pipe), in the opposite direction.
The trick with a counter flow chiller is to effectively seal off the cold water supply from the wort supply. The two pictures below should give you an idea as to how this is done. I won’t give you an engineering drawing, I’m sure that after half an hour in your local hardware store and you’ll be sorted!
Picture 4.5 : A counter flow chiller : The black pipe is a hose pipe and the copper piping runs inside of it.
Picture 4.6 : Close up view of the counter flow chiller showing how the T-piece section is made.