The First All-Grain Brew

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This is an account of my first all-grain brew using my picnic cooler mash tun and full-size electric boiler. I was brewing the Trixibelle Belgian IPA, but there’s so much detail recorded here that I didn’t want to clog up the recipe post it. It definitely warrants a post all of its own.

It’s been a bad few months on the home-brewing front. Ireland’s first heat wave in about 20 years was followed sharply by my moving house. Following this was my realisation that the shitty ceramic hob in my new house was failing to reach a rolling boil of only 16 litres. My old brewing system, archaic as it may be, was just not going to work in the new house. It was time to bite the bullet and put together my all-grain setup.

My boiler, a converted 33 litre fermenting bucket, had been suffering from a slow leak problem and on several occasions I had given up on it in disgust. At times, I was even feeling sorry that I hadn’t splashed out on that Speidel after all. Well, the empty bottles were starting to mount up, the annual National Homebrew Championship is around the corner, and the homebrew stocks were starting to dwindle. Time to get my shit together.

As it turned out, the boiler problem was easily sorted. I had checked out multiple threads about ‘leaky boilers’ on Jim’s Beer Kit and Beoir. A piece of advice I had read a number of times was to put the silicon washer on the outside of the boiler, beside the lock nut. This seemed to make a lot of sense – the nut has a recess on one side for the washer, which prevents the washer from twisting out of the fitting once the ball valve is tightened. I cocooned the fitting in PTFE tape and put the washer on the outside of the bucket as advised. I then tightened the feck out of it with a spanner before putting more PTFE tape on and attaching the ball-valve tap. After so much trouble with both the tap and the elements, I was amazed to see all fittings holding steady against the water contained in the bucket.

In the past I’ve been brewing using a pretty ad-hoc system, but I was now determined to rely on software to do the calculations for me. BeerSmith advised me that I would need to mash-in with 16 litres of water at 75.5°C. I duly brought the required volume up to 75.5°C. My mash tun and stainless steel paddle had been pre-warmed (or so I thought) with a kettle of boiling water. After verifying the temperature using my digital thermometer, I chucked the water out of the mash tun and let the mash liquor out of the boiler into the tun. Before adding the grain, I had the brainwave of checking the temperature of the liquor in the mash tun. Lucky I did, the temperature had dropped to 57.7°C! A drop of nearly 20 degrees!!! I was so close to adding the grain, that a couple of grains had actually fallen into the mash tun. At this point I could have run the mash liquor back into the boiler and re-heated it, but in my haste I decided that the best course of action would be to remove 2 litres of water from the tun and boil it in the kitchen kettle. Probably a bad move – I think I must have boiled the kettle about 8 or 9 times in order to get the liquor back up to strike temperature. Eventually I got the liquor up to 75.5°C.

I’m still slightly at a loss why my temperature dropped so dramatically. It’s possible the liquor in the boiler had stratified and my thermometer was giving an inaccurate reading. It’s also possible that my attempts at pre-heating the mash tun and paddle were just inadequate. I’ll have to research this further. It’s possible that I may have to look at heating my mash liquor to 85-90°C before transferring to the mash tun.

Doughing-in the last kilo of the grain was a bit more a struggle than expected because I’m used to a much lower grain-to-water ratio in my BIAB partial-mash setup. This time I was using the default settings in BeerSmith (which I think uses 2.6 litres of water per kg of grain). The mash was pretty thick, but I took another temperature reading of 68.1°C. I’m not sure what my target was but 68°C is a good temperature to mash at as it gives plenty of mouthfeel. I then checked for dough balls and snapped on the lid. I also put a folded blanket. I was debating whether to open the mash tun up to stir at the 30 minute mark like I usually would. I believe the 30-minute stir helped me improve my efficiency when I was going my BIAB brews, so I opened up the mash tun. I was astounded to see that the mash had not dropped one single bit. It was still at 68.1°C!

After the 60-minute mash had elapsed it was time to get on with the sparge. I had intended heating the required volume of sparge water to 77°C, but with the disaster that surrounded the transfer of my strike water, I figured I’d be better off leaving the sparge water to heat a little further while I got on with draining my first runnings. I opened the tap on the mash tun a tiny bit and recirculated about 4 litres of wort into a plastic jug. The wort was noticeably clearer on the second jug than the first. I got just under 8 litres of first runnings into a fermenting bucket. I then turned my attention back to the sparge water which had reached 83.6°C. I figured it was going to lose several degrees on transfer to the mash tun, so I opened the tap and stirred the grain back in. This mixture was really loose. I’d been so good at taking measurements up to this point, but I forgot to take a reading of this mash out step! I left to settle for 10 minutes while I transferred the first runnings back into the boiler. Once the 10 minutes had elapsed, I did a vorlauf again and slowly transferred the sparge via the plastic jug into the boiler.

I was pretty pleased that my pre-boil volume was absolutely spot-on at around 26 litres. All looking good at this point. I started the boil at 8:53pm and it started a rolling boil at 9:38pm, which means that on a single element it took 45 minutes to come up to the boil. Not bad at all. When I get my electrics sorted I’ll be able to use both elements, but at the moment the circuit breaker to my kitchen sockets would not be able to handle both elements on at the same time.

The boil was pretty straightforward. The single element maintains a decent boil but it’s not overly vigorous. This is probably a good thing, as I would have to deal with a lot of evaporation losses. I was a bit nervous of how the tap and hop blocker would deal with the hops and trub, particularly considering I was using all pellet hops in this batch. The bazooka screen hop blocker is generally used with leaf hops. I attempted to do a whirlpool and left it to settle for 10 minutes, but I got absolutely no cone in the boiler. I’ve been reading that in order for the whirlpool technique to work, you need a pretty big boiler with no obstructions like kettle elments or hop blockers. All of the trub and hop material was still flat as a pancake in the boiler. I was also alarmed at the high level of hops and trub in the boiler which must have been about 5 inches high. I shouldn’t have been worried however, as the bazooka screen did a great job. The first glug or two out of the boiler visibly contained quite a bit of trub but then I was amazed to see it running almost completely clear. I was ready with my sanitised sieve to catch any hop pellet material going into the fermenter, but strangely there was almost none! Great foaming action going on in the fermenter when the wort was being transferred, which makes me think my new aeration regime will be much more successful. It’s also worth mentioning that there was considerably less mess on the floor with this new method of brewing.

I then repitched the WLP550 yeast slurry that I had stored in the fridge and there was visible fermentation going on when I got up the next morning.

I think I’m going to enjoy the new system of brewing. It’s more time-consuming, but in many ways it’s a lot less hassle than my old (rather ad-hoc) BIAB/partial mash system. I don’t have any more hassle with water top-ups, as the recipe design takes care of that. I don’t have to do late additions of sticky malt extract. DME is just a complete pain in the arse to deal with; it’s gets everywhere and clumps with even the tiniest exposure to heat. I don’t have to both with straining hops out of high-gravity wort in order to preserve as much fermentables as possible. Now it doesn’t matter if it’s a particularly hoppy brew as I don’t mind losing an extra litre to hops when I’m brewing 19 litre batches. I don’t have to worry about all that cold break material that was being dumped into the fermenter. Nor do I have to worry about aeration as the boiler tap and gravity take care of that for me. The clean-up is certainly more time consuming, but I have plenty of time to clean the mash tun while the boil is in progress.

All in all, a fantastic success for my first all-grain brew. Let’s hope the beer tastes good!

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