Yesterday I finally brewed my first “all-grain” batch of beer. It was a great brew day. Everything went smoothly, my brewing buddy Eric and I had a great excuse to hang out, and we both learned a lot. After much reading prep, I really enjoyed seeing a few things with my own eyes. For example: I had read that brewers used to (and surely still do) use the first drain-off (or “runnings”) from a mash to make stronger beers, then would make lighter beers with the second and third runnings. It was really interesting to watch as the first runnings were a rich, darker color and the third runnings were much, much lighter as the grains were progressively rinsed of their sugars.
The most satisfying part of the day came when it was time to take the specific gravity reading of the collected and boiled wort. Despite our first pass at all these new procedures—the mashing of the grains, two rinses (or “sparges”), and a full-wort boil—we nailed the target reading given in the recipe. Beginner’s luck? Maybe.
I had had the ingredients for an Irish red ale—purchased as an all-grain ingredient kit from Northern Brewer—for months, but had to piece together equipment. I’m going to spend the next few posts recapping my setup and explaining why I chose the items I did. Until yesterday, I had been brewing on an electric stove top in my kitchen, so I needed quite a bit of equipment to go all-grain. There are countless ways to do this but here’s what I did.
Burner and Boil Kettle
I needed a stronger, outdoor heat source and a bigger brew kettle to accommodate the larger boil volumes. (Instead of boiling 2 or 3 gallons of wort in recipes that use malt extract, you boil the full 5 gallons of wort for all-grain recipes.)
Both the burner and the kettle performed great during yesterday’s brew session. I love how quickly the burner heats—a big time saver—and the design of the Boilermaker’s base (with a ridge around the edge and a depression in the middle) makes it a perfect and sturdy fit on the Hurricane burner.
I purchased a Hurricane burner and a Blichmann BoilerMaker 15-gallon kettle. I liked the burner because for the cost of a $7 orifice accessory I can choose to use it with natural gas instead of the standard propane setup. The kettle was a tougher decision. I debated long and hard about whether to go with a converted keg (also sometimes called a “keggle”) or another brand of brew pot. I decided on the BoilerMaker because of the quality fit and finish of Blichmann products, the features that this specific brew pot offered, and the reportedly quicker heat-up time compared to keggles. It was a relatively expensive route to take, but I’m planning on it serving me for many years.
Once I had settled on a Boilermaker, I agonized over the decision between the 10- or 15-gallon versions. The smaller size is perfect for 5-gallon batches, while the 15-gallon would allow me to also do 10-gallon batches if I watch the pot carefully for boilovers. (Ten gallons is a batch size homebrewers typically upgrade to when doing all grain, since you get twice the amount of beer for roughly the same amount of work and just a little more cost.) Another plus for the 15-gallon size was the fact that I could easily transition it into a more advanced brewing system if that day ever came. With the addition of Blichmann’s $75 false bottom, the pot, which I’m now using as a brew kettle, would make a great mash tun (the vessel in which you mash your grains) for a 10-gallon system. The drawback to the larger size: 5-gallon batches are kind of dwarfed in the pot and the great Brewmometer that comes standard on the Boilermaker is rendered useless by its placement midway up the pot. Based on my observations with yesterday’s batch, you need approximately 7 gallons of liquid in the kettle to cover the thermometer’s probe. Since I already have an accurate probe thermometer this was less of a concern for me. In the end, I opted for the larger size to future-proof myself somewhat.
Both the burner and the kettle performed great during yesterday’s brew session. I love how quickly the burner heats—a big time saver—and the design of the Boilermaker’s base (with a ridge around the edge and a depression in the middle) makes it a perfect and sturdy fit on the Hurricane burner. We did have an issue with the burner backfiring when shut down, but it was no big deal and may be a common occurrence with portable burners for all I know. Also, note that much of the nice black paint on your burner will ignite and take to the air as ash the first couple of times you use the burner. I second the recommendation I read to run the burner for a while to clear some of this paint off prior to brewing your first batch on it.
Next time I’ll discuss my setup choices for a mash/lautering tun and a hot liquor tank (including more about what those terms even mean to a fledgling brewer). Thanks for reading.
Update: After several brew sessions with my setup, I posted a follow-up with more thoughts on the Blichmann BoilerMaker on August 4, 2010.
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