Bitter sweet. Or just bitter.

So the thing about home brewing, is that, after a while, and if you’re a reader of the books and especially the forums of home brewing, you will begin to turn your  mind to “all grain brewing.”   That is, brewing where your base wort is not froma  concentrated (either powder or thick liquid) wort to which you add water then boil, but rather based upon converting then extracting the sugars from the grain itself.  It’s a long process, and you can read up about it somewhere else.

The problem with going all grain is that you need more equipment, time and skill.  Being someone curious, cheap and a bit of a contrarian, I have been contemplating all-grain, but trying to figure out how to do some of the basic stuff without buying or modifying the equipment to do it.

All grain requires the following process.  I’ll make it simple (basically because I don’t know all the intricacies myself) so try to keep up.

  1. Soak cracked grain in a specific proportion of hot water long enough for the enzymes in the grain to convert the starches to fermentable sugar.  The amount of fermentable sugar you have depends upon the grain, but mostly upon the temperature of the water.  This is usually somewhere between 148F and 156F.  All the starch should convert, but if you have it too high it will not be fermentable, and you’ll end up with a sweet and less alcoholic beer.  This might be good depending on the style you’re trying to do.  This is called Mashing.
  2. Drain off the liquid, adding hotter water to the top of the “grain bed” (the remaining grain) to stop the conversion process while rinsing off any remaining fermentable sugars.  This draining process is called “Lautering”, separating the now sweet wort from the grain.  The pouring on the water to extract all the remaining good bits is called “sparging.”  I don’t know where these words come from, but they sound like Chaucer.
  3. Boiling the liquid, adding enough water to bring it up to the amount you want to begin boiling.  From then on it’s just like brewing an extract beer.

Now, this sound easy, but when you have to 1) hold a constant temperature for an hour, not letting it get to hot and 2) drain a lot of liquid off a now very heavy pile of grain, it can begin to involve some fancy new equipment.

Some people buy expensive “Mash Tuns” (that’s the word for the vessel in which you Mash), which have false bottoms to hold the grain off the liquid while it pours off.  Some of these have heating elements to allow you to maintain a constant temp.  Others convert big beverage coolers into mash tuns so that, the hot water and grain combined can just sit in the cooler without added heat.  A normal Coleman style cooler will do the job. All you need to do is either add a false bottom or some kind of system for filtering out the wort, leaving the grain behind.

Then there is “brew in a bag”, where you throw all your grain in a big fine meshed bag, soak it for the requisite time, pull out the bag and begin to boil.  This does not require filtering and draining the wort off, since you’re using the same vessel in which you’ll boil the wort.  You don’t have to sparge because you’re soaking it in the full amount of liquid needed for boiling.  this is a controversial process, but many people swear by it.  It’s also a good way to introduce people to all grain, because of the limited equipment outlay.

Considering all of this, I decided there could be an easier way.  Instead of buying a big new cooler, modifying it with some kind of complicated filter or false bottom and spigot system, and then fiddling with sparging and so on, I’d just pour the water and grain into my smaller drink cooler (2.5 Gallon) and do a half batch.  I had enough space in that vessel to easily do 2.5 gallons of beer, as long as the beer is not too strong.  That sounds like the job for an “Ordinary Bitter,” a classic British beer that comes in at around 3.7%ABV or so.  By my calculations, I’d need about 4Lb of grain, and about 6Quarts of water.  this will easily fit into a 2.5G cooler.  then instead of lautering, I’d just pour wort and soaking wet grain through cheesecloth in a big sieve, sparge by pouring hot water through the grain, and then bringing the mess up to a boil.

So I did it. It seemed easy.  Except for a little problem when the grain wanted to stick to the bottom of the cooler, I got about 3.5 Gallons of water boiling, added the right proportion of hops, cooled it at the end, put it in a carboy, added yeast, and waited.

The grain drains through the cheese cloth in the sieve. Beside it (to the right) you can see the cooler that now holds very hot water for the sparging. Easy, right?

The original gravity was about 1.037, final gravity about 1.008, which calculated to about 3.7%ABV.  Perfect.  (Doing a lighter, half batch like this meant I did not need to create a yeast starter to multiply the yeast so that I’d have enough to deal with the amount of sugar in the beer, because it was smaller and lighter and didn’t need as much yeast)

Two weeks later, after the fermentation stopped, I went to bottle it.

Now, when you bottle, you transfer the beer into a bottling bucket, add enough “priming sugar” to get a desired level of carbonation, put it in the bottle and cap it.  A few weeks later, the remaining yeast has gobbled up that priming sugar, farted out CO2 which, since the bottle is sealed has no place to go but back into the beer, and voila, you have carbonation.  It makes a tiny bit more beer, but that is inconsequential.

For this recipe, an Ordinary Bitter needed very little carbonation.  I measured out the sugar, bottled the beer relatively quickly (I had these great Pint bottles that looked like British style bottles, so I ended up with about a dozen bottles, and put them away to condition.

At the same time, because I wanted to put a new beer on  the yeast that was now really pumped for more fermentation, and was currently sitting at the bottom of the OB carboy, I was doing the half batch all grain thing again, to make a stronger Bitter–an Extra Special Bitter–which I’d pour onto the yeast of the OB.  It was a bit of a disaster–I couldn’t use my cooler because the grain and water mixed made just a little too much for 2.5 gallons (it’s a stronger beer) so I had to do a quick modification to my set up, then I ended up holding the mash at too high a temp, so it probably doesn’t have much fermentable sugar, then grain and water splashes, blah blah blah.  Actually,  I don’t want to talk about it right now.  Suffice it to say that I was distracted by the time it came to bottling.

Well, later that night, my brew and bottle day over, I was laying in bed, listening to the thumping bass of the party next door.  Thinking over the day, I contemplated the little amount of sugar I needed to add.  the priming calculator said for that amount of beer, I’d need only about 0.3 oz of sugar.  .   .

I realized I’d added 3 oz.

That is a bit of a disaster.  With that amount of priming sugar, the beer that results will be hyper carbonated.  If it doesn’t cause the bottles to explode (“bottle bombs” is what we call them), it will make the beer gush out of the bottle when opened.  I know. That was my experience with my first home brew.

what to do?  Well, knowing that the CO2 needed to escape, I popped the tops on all the beer, and then covered each bottle with a sanitized piece of tin foil.  These sat on my counter for four days, after which time I capped them again, and put them away.

I can’t say I haven’t already ruined the beer.  In spite of being able to vent out through the edges of the foil, there was already some CO2 in the solution 9since it foamed when I shook it a bit).  I probably won’t ahve bottle bombs, but I can’t guarantee gushers.

Part of me hopes that my all grain plan was miscalculated, so the beer tastes like crap, carbonation notwithstanding.  That will mean that I won’t be so disappointed to have to pour out all the beer if gushers make it undrinkable.  But I really want it to taste good, because it was my first stab at all grain.

Dismayed, but undeterred, I am planning my next way around the problem of being cheap and not having a proper mash tun. It involves bastardizing the Brew in a Bag method and the normal all grain method.  But it seems to me as if it will work.

Stay tuned.


About danmalleck

Medical historian and jack-of-all-trades curmudgeon. I tend to ramble about politics, social incivility, and our self-centred culture more interested in buying the next cool ringtone or LED TV than actively engaging in the sorts of discussions and issues that matter. The more opportunity we have to buy more stuff, the less concern there is, it seems, in politics, social justice and let's face it, basic human decency, unless those things actually can save us money or get us more things to show how awesome we are through displaying our material wealth. And I like to brew beer, make cheese, and put food in jars.
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