Taking The Next Step: All Grain Homebrewing

There comes a time when most homebrewers ask, is it time to go all-grain?

No can of extract ever looked this pretty.

A little background for those of you that are not homebrewers: most of us start out making beer from something called “malt extract,” a super-convenient tub (or bag) of grain sugars that is consistent, created by professionals under controlled conditions and dehydrated or concentrated for the brewer’s convenience.

The extract is diluted, possibly augmented by some steeped grains for added flavor, boiled with hops for bitterness and more flavor, then finally brewers yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is turned loose on the beer-to-be. The yeast chomps away the malt sugar, makes alcohol and in a few weeks – viola! – beer.

Little beyond sanitation failures can go wrong when you brew from extract, but that reliability comes at a price: the brewer is leaving much in the hands of the extract malt makers. Besides, you know the flavor difference between freshly squeezed orange juice and orange juice rehydrated from concentrate? Yeah…that difference shows up when you make beer from extract, too.

For many of us brewers, there comes a point where we decide we want the fun of fiddling, damnit, and it’s then that we opt to make beer not from malt extract but from whole grain malted barley and, occasionally, other grains. This process, the long soaking (mashing) and rinsing (sparging) is designed to get all the fermentable sugars and desireable flavors out of the grains and into your brew-water.

There’s a lot more to beer making than the mash, but boiling, fermenting, and any lagering or conditioning steps do not change much between extract and all grain brews. The real difference is in the mashing. All grain mashing can be an intimidating leap. After all, going all-grain means you’re committing to more gear, more time and more risk.

The whole process, from mash-in to sparging, can add anywhere from an hour to four, and you’ll be dealing with double or triple the amount of post-brew cleanup. Forget brewing and football on the same Sunday. It’ll be brewing…and brewing…and cleaning up from brewing.

When you’re attempting to orchestrate the complex enzymatic party that is a mash, risks multiply as do opportunities for creativity. Good temperature control can mean improved efficiency, an unctuous mouth feel and a head that lasts forever. Picking your own grains means you can re-create that ancient Sumerian ale you’ve been reading about, revitalize pre-prohibition American ales, or create an unprecedented hybrid like a dry-hopped Belgian Imperial Stout.

But get it wrong and you can end up with a cryptic dough ball that is neither beer nor bread but the worst of both, a low conversion and an accidental batch of 2% alcohol near-beer, or the dreaded stuck sparge. I won’t even go into diacetyl odors, tannin extraction, hot-side oxygenation, and pH control…

By the time you are contemplating all-grain brewing, you probably already know you really like homebrewing and you are probably excited at the idea of a new brew challenge. So if you relish the additional complexity as something that adds another layer to the “I made this” sense of pride when you pour out a pint of your own, then all-grain brewing is for you.

Three Ways To Mash

Three approaches dominate the all-grain scene. I’m not going to tell you which to use – I’ve tried all three in some form or the other and can say they’ve all got advantages and disadvantages. The mash set-up that’s right for you will depend on what your workspace, working style and brewing goals are.

With any of these approaches, the goal is to get the combination of malted grains and water to the right temperature and then keep them there for an hour or so to let the enzymatic alchemy turn unpalatable starch into sugar, and then separate the water and dissolved sugars from the “spent” grains.

Beverage Cooler Mashing

My DIY Mash Tun, made from an Igloo cooler.

This is the classic homebrew all-grain approach. Almost any “how-to” book that you read is going to espouse breaking out a modified Igloo cooler and hacking in some sort of a false bottom (screen to keep grains in and let sweet wort out). You can buy them pre-made from any homebrew shop or have the thrill of going to the local hardware store and buying a ball valve and doing the work yourself.

Pros: Most “how to” books and recipes work with the beverage cooler method, so it is easy to find recipes, suggestions, and troubleshooting advice. The capital outlay isn’t as bad as working in stainless (see below), particularly if you wait for a sale at the local outdoor shop and do the modification work yourself. If you hit your strike temperature, there’s also a great hour-or-so of mashing time when nothing is going on but furious sub-microscopic enzymatic action…this is a great chance to read/watch football/play World of Warcraft while claiming that you are busy brewing.

Cons: Ever try to put a plastic beverage cooler on the stove? Right. So you’ve got one chance to get it right as far as temperature goes – and even if you get it right there’s little opportunity for step-mashing (changing temperature mid-mash) other than invoking the German torture method brewing technique called decoction mashing. Even with modern brewing software to do the calculation for you it’ll take a few tries to dial in time and temp for the peculiarities of your particular system. In the end, struggles with getting this right is why I moved away from the Igloo cooler. Lastly, some people balk at warming plastic coolers to around 150 degrees for an hour, what with the potential leaching of icky chemicals.

How To Do It: Tutorial and video

Stove Top Mashing

The stove top approach isn’t that different from the beverage cooler – it approximates professional approaches to mashing and then leaves your grains suspended above some sort of screen while the sweet wort drains off through a valve at the bottom. The difference is that instead of a plastic beverage cooler you use a stainless steel pot, opening up options of heating the mash directly over a burner of some kind.

Pros: The one-shot criticality of mash-in temperature is cut down compared to the beverage cooler and you retain options for ramping temperature over the course of the mash – another variable in the head/mouth-feel/fermentability/efficiency equation. Some heritage malts require a multi-temperature mash.

Cons: A ten gallon stainless steel pot is going to cost a lot more than a plastic cooler of the same capacity…and there’s fear, uncertainty, and doubt associated with putting a drill to such an investment to install a DIY drain-off valve. If you buy a specialty brewers pot pre-assembled with such a valve we’re talking serious money – $400 for such a kettle is not uncommon. And frankly, while there’s the promise of direct heat to adjust mash temperature, in practice this is fraught with challenge – heating ten or so pounds of grain immersed in an equal volume of water requires constant agitation if you want to avoid unequal heat distribution. Since a metal mash tun will lose heat more quickly than an insulated one, you are also committed to some careful temperature fiddling to keep your mash at temp. These challenges are made more difficult if you attempting to brew on an electric stove.

How To Do It: See above, it’s just like cooler mashing, but on the stove top in metal. The process is the same.

Brew-In-A-Bag (BIAB)

Once BIAB was as Australian as Vegemite. But this Southern Hemisphere import is growing in popularity here in North America. You can even get BIAB starter kits now, just in time for Christmas. In a nutshell, BIAB leaves the wort in place and moves the grains. Instead of draining off liquid through a filter as in the other techniques, you lift out the mesh bag of spent grains. This would be impossible at the commercial level but is do-able in a kitchen, garage, or backyard. The full water volume goes in your one pot (did you hear that…with BIAB you only need one pot!). The grains are in some sort of a heavy duty bag or other strainer/container. When mash-time is over, just hoist out the grains (I’ve seen brewer’s use an engine lift for this) and let drip.

Pros: Simple, simple, simple. One pot, no sparge. Because there is less equipment  this is also a more affordable mash method. The thin mash means that it is surprisingly easy to ramp temperatures (something I highly recommend – take your mash up to 168 or 170 degrees to get the sugars dissolved) and to compensate for a mis-judged mash-in. BIAB was also developed “by homebrewers, for homebrewers,” if you’ll pardon the marketing-speak, and there’s an elegance to working with something suited to our scale.

Cons: There is a loss of mash thickness control that comes with BIAB. The thin mash means a more fermentable wort that will tend to finish drier, and while running higher temperatures will compensate for that to some degree you’ll never make the chewiest of stouts with this mash method. Efficiencies will also run 60-70% for most of us (I’ve hit 80% but that takes luck I cannot conjure reliably), which is 10-20% less than a mash-plus-sparge approach can reach. Lastly, since this is clearly a homebrew-only approach there’s a subtle reminder at work that we aren’t, in fact, managing our own brewpub but are still working in our backyard.

How To Do It: Tutorial and Video

Boil In A Bag, my preferred mashing method, is simpler if you have a giant lobster-boiling pot with insert.

Full of grain and water and on the way to becoming wort.

Just Brew It.

I started all-grain brewing about five years ago and I’ve never looked back. Sure, I’ve flooded my kitchen a time or two, and I’ve made a few weak brews, though I usually just proclaim them session beers and hope no one notices. But I’ve loved the added challenge and control and reward that goes with it. I’ve also had considerably better results since switching to all-grain – I think that with my particular personality the greater intellectual investment in the process brings out more care and attention.

After playing around with all three mashing methods, I’ve become a big fan of BIAB – the simplicity and ingenuity of it appeals to me. The efficiency loss can be covered by adding a pound or so of grain to your recipe. Homebrewers often brag about their efficiency numbers but spend more on their gear than they’d spend on a lifetime of extra grain! For reasons of space, I do a hybridized BIAB-meets-batch-sparge approach, a double-dunk, if you will.

While these are the basics, there are as many subtle mashing variations as there are all-grain brewers. Heat exchangers, circulation pumps, and computer controllers can add complexity and considerable expense if you like it that way. Or you can DIY your perfect system out of leftover parts and junk from the scrap heap.

Whatever mash set-up you choose, remember that we aren’t transplanting kidneys here. We are brewing beer, and we are doing it because we love the process and we love the end product. If you look at every batch as a success or a failure then, well, you are bound to have failures regardless of how well you brew. But if every batch is an experiment, with the chance of a happy accident juxtaposed against the chance of a “learning experience”, then you’ll always end up having a good time.

Happy brewing.

P.S. Don’t Freak Out, But…

…This post is part of the Sustainable Eats Urban Farm Handbook Challenge. These monthly series are designed to expand your Urban Farm skills and education in all different area. This month, the November Grain Challenge encourages the use of more whole, local and organic grains.

Okay- are you ready for this? – I have it on very good authority that Annette at Sustainable Eats is giving away a Country Living Hand Crank Grain Mill at the end of this month. This is the kind of prize (*cough*$400*cough*) that doesn’t come along very often, so please, put it on your calendar to check back with Sustainable Eats on November 30th and enter for your chance to win that grain mill!


  1. Katrina says

    My husband boils the grain in a large stainless steel skillet, does whatever needs to be done, and when it’s time he lines a huge stainless steel stock pot with the strainer and pours the liquid and grains into the new stock pot and proceeds from there. Both the skillet and stockpot I use for cooking, so it’s not like we had to purchase extra just for beer making, and it seems to be working well for us. He’s made some really tasty beers using this method.

    • Homebrew Husband says

      I’ve never heard of Brew-In-A-Skillet, but I love the improvisation! Really the vessels in use get way too much of the attention, it is what’s going on inside that counts, I think that’s part of the “gearhead” nature of most of us brewers.

  2. says

    Great introduction to all grain brewing! And thanks for the mention.

    I’m also a big fan of the simplicity of Brew in a Bag. It’s a good way to easily experiment with different ingredients and recipes, and it makes very good beer.


  3. treatlisa says

    Oh I love the happy accident vs. ‘learning experiment’ – this is how it is with cheese too!! Thanks for the view into home brewing – maybe one day…

  4. says

    Thanks for the excellent side by side comparison. It really made things a lot clearer and encouraged me to try an all grain BIAB, something I hadn’t contemplated before.


  1. […] The Country Living Mill may have a steeper price point, but owning a grain mill is one of those things that will pay for itself. Any cook that buys flour could be grinding their own, just as they do with coffee beans. The wonderful thing about burr grinder mills (vs the impact grinders like Nutramill that pulverize the grains upon impact), is that you have the opportunity to use a coarse first grind, then sift out the bran and germ and re-grind the remaining flour on a finer setting just like commercial mills do. This gives you something more like white flour for those times when you want the perfect birthday cake or airy baguette. You can choose how much bran and germ to remove. You can also crack them coarsely to create a hot breakfast cereal or cracked wheat or barley for homebrewing. […]

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