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All Grain Equipment for Beginners

If you have been brewing with extracts, then chances are you have been using your general-purpose kitchen cookware to make beer. There�s nothing wrong with that. After all, why buy expensive purpose-built equipment if you can get away with using what you already have?

But now you are considering all-grain brewing, and that means taking things to the next level.

In order to brew from grain, at the very least you�ll need to have four pieces of equipment:

  • Mash Tun
  • Brew Kettle
  • High BTU Capacity burner
  • Wort Chiller

The Mash Tun

Stainless Steel Mash Tun
A Stainless Steel Mash Tun with False Bottom for filtering grains from the beer
It�s a funny name, but a mash tun is basically the vessel that you use to extract simple sugars from the grain. There are three types of Mash Tuns available:

  • Cooler Tuns � This is basically a large beverage cooler that you modify to handle a mash. Basically it needs to have a false bottom and a nozzle that allows you to get the wort out of the cooler while leaving the grains in. The benefit to the cooler style tuns is price � they are a lot cheaper! The downside is that it is much more difficult to precisely control temperature. If your mash is a little cool, there isn�t really anything you can do to raise the temperature other than add more hot water, and that can dilute your product or make it too hot.
  • Kettle Tuns � These are the preferred method because they give you the flexibility to add heat for multi-step mashes. Downside � cost. You�ll easily pay a couple hundred bucks for a nice Stainless Steel model.
  • Converted Keg Tuns - These are in between the Kettle Tun and the Cooler Tun. They are relatively inexpensive (you can usually find a used keg on eBay for cheap). The good news is that lots of companies make the fittings and upgrades it takes to add lots of upgrades later on. Best of all, since you're using a used keg anyway, you probably won't be shy about drilling holes in it if you need to.

It is a good idea to have a spigot on your mash tun. This makes it much easier to get the wort out of the tun. Some simple systems use a siphon, but trust me when I say this doesn�t work very well. Gravity will always pull the wort out of the tun � a stalled siphon won�t.

Cooler Mash Tun
Mash Tuns can also be made from a cooler
Aside from a false bottom and a spigot, some brewers like to also have a lautering/sparge arm on their tuns. These additions are nice, but not necessary. You can generally achieve the same effect of a lautering/sparge system by simply ladling the wort back on top of the grain bed with a small saucepan.

Many brewers also like to have a thermometer mounted on their tuns. These are nice, but they cost extra. You can achieve the same effect by just sticking any old thermometer into the grain bed. Although I do have an expensive dial thermometer mounted on my mash tun, I probably get more use out of the cheap candy thermometer I stick in the grain bed.

The benefit of using the candy thermometer is that you can push it around anywhere in the grain at any time and measure temperatures in different parts of the tun during your mash. This way you know if you are too hot on the bottom, or you have a cold spot in the middle somewhere. I attach a string to my candy thermometer and tie one end to the kettle�s lid so I can retrieve it from the grain bed in case it sinks too far down to reach (the grain is HOT, so you won�t want to stick your whole hand in there to retrieve a lost thermometer).

The Brew Kettle

Your brew kettle doesn�t really need to be fancy in any way � other than size. Yeah, in this particular case, size matters.

Propane Cooker
A Brew Kettle sitting on a propane cooker
If you are accustomed to extract brewing then you probably make concentrated wort in a smaller kettle. After you are finished boiling, you probably add fresh water to the wort to bring it to the proper gravity level before pitching your yeast.

Whereas you can get away with making a concentrated wort with extracts, you have to boil the full batch when you brew from grain.

Therefore, if you are brewing 5-gallon batches, then it is a good idea to have a 10-gallon kettle. If you are making 10-gallon batches, then get a 15-gallon kettle. Always allow an extra 5 gallons of capacity on top of what you intend to make. This allows enough room for the wort to foam up without boiling over. Most people don�t have 10 or 15-gallon kettles lying around the kitchen, so that�s why you�ll probably have to buy one.

Aluminum or Stainless Steel kettles? This question has plagued the online homebrew discussion forums for years. The truth is that you can buy either. The Stainless Steel will cost a lot more. Some people accuse Aluminum of imparting a bad taste to their beer, or causing Alzheimer�s Disease! I wouldn�t put much stock in that.

My kettles are Stainless Steel, but use what you have available that fits your budget.

There is also a question about adding a thermometer to a brew kettle. They cost quite a bit more to have them mounted, and I have never found the need to do so. After all, the beer is either boiling or it isn�t. The actual temperature doesn�t really matter unless you are trying to gauge whether you have enough time to run to the fridge for a beer before the batch starts boiling over.

While it may be true that a watched pot never boils, it has been my experience that the surest way to bring a kettle full of beer to a boil is to run to the kegerator for a fresh beer.

The fact is that the boiling temperature at sea level is 212 degrees. If you live at a higher elevation, then your boiling temperature will be lower. I live at 6,000 feet and the boiling temperature here is just over 200 degrees. You will never get your beer above the boiling point unless you get out a shovel and dig a thousand feet into the ground, or you are using a pressure cooker.

The purpose of boiling your beer isn�t really to achieve some particular temperature anyway. It�s to boil off certain compounds and to break the oils in the hops down so that they meld into the beer. Temperature matters during your mash, but not the boil.

If you need to run to the kegerator, and you want to know the temperature of the beer � well, that�s what you have your $10 candy thermometer for!

High BTU Capacity Burner

While you have probably used your kitchen stove to do extract brews, I would advise you to move your operation outside when you step up to grain brewing.

That�s because your kitchen stove probably only produces about 11,000 btus. Whereas the propane cookers I use are 110,000 btus each. Which one do you think brings my big batches up to a boil faster?

Now, I�ll admit that my big �ol Mamba Jamba 30 gallon kettles probably wouldn�t even fit under the range hood of my kitchen stove. But even if they were smaller, the fact is that most domestic kitchen stoves just aren�t designed to boil 5 or 10 gallons in a reasonable amount of time.

What does that mean to your beer?

It means that if you use your kitchen stove, then you will have a lot more caramelization (darkening) of the beer because it is on the heat for a much longer period of time. Additionally you will lose a lot more liquid to evaporation for the same reason. Plus you�ll have to sit there for hours watching your beer�s temperature slowly creep up to boiling.

Furthermore if your kitchen stove is electric, and you start to get a boil-over, then there isn�t anything you can do about it. You can turn the burner off, but it will continue to be hot and boil the beer over for a minute or so before it cools off. With propane, when you kill the gas, you kill the heat. The boil-overs stop immediately.

Do yourself a favor and buy a higher capacity burner with at least 70,000 btus. If the burner you are looking at doesn�t state it�s btu capacity, then it is probably under-powered. Keep looking until you find one that you know has enough power.

Wort Chiller

Wort Chiller
This is a homemade wort chiller. For a few dollars more you can buy a commercially made chiller. Either way, they do the same thing.
So, you�ve finished your mash, you�ve boiled the wort. Now you have 5 or 10 gallons of really hot liquid that is just entering the bacterial �danger zone�. You have to drop the temperature to 70 degrees fast before you get an infection.

Now, you could heave that hot kettle into the house, up the stairs and into the bathtub full of ice water. But the chances of getting burned or throwing your back out are pretty high.

Think about it this way: 5 Gallons of beer weighs about 42 pounds. 10 gallons weighs about 84 pounds. Sure, you can lift that much weight, but remember � it�s gonna be hot, and it�s sloshing around, and let�s be honest here, you�ve been drinking. What could possibly go wrong?!

You need a way to cool the wort in place � while it�s still sitting on the burner on your driveway. Most importantly, you need to be able to do this without spilling beer. How do you do it? You get a wort chiller.

A wort chiller is nothing more than a coil of copper tubing attached to a hose. You put it into your kettle while the beer is still boiling (this sterilizes it), then pump cool water through it to pull the heat out of the kettle.

If you�re handy, then you can make your own. If you have extra money, or aren�t good at plumbing, then you can buy one for a few extra bucks.

Next Steps

From this point on, the processes of fermentation and bottling or kegging are exactly the same as you�re used to for extract brewing.

We will be adding new articles on grain brewing over the next few weeks. So stay tuned�

A drunken man gets on the bus late one night, staggers up the aisle, and sits next to an elderly woman.

She looks the man up and down and says, "I've got news for you. You're going straight to hell!"

The man jumps up out of his seat and shouts, "Man, I'm on the wrong bus!"
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-Henny Youngman

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