Jan 25, 2012

The Research: Part 1

A starter pack for all grain brewing.
Eric and I have about 20 extract batches under our belts.  Some are kits, some are recipes we have found, and some are even our own concoction.  Not all of these have been winners, but we have had more good beer than bad.  Twenty batches of extract is a lot, but getting comfortable with extract plus steeping grains allowed us to focus on some of the other tasks of homebrewing, namely cleanliness and sanitation, creativity, and process in general.  And now, after about a year of homebrewing, we both feel that now is the time to make the transition to all grain.

With any new purchase or adventure, I like to do my research. So below, I am going to talk about the best place I have found to gather basic, overview information: the local homebrew club.

Our biggest asset was our local club, the Berks Homebrew Club.  The group ranges from novices to experienced brewers.  It is that experience we tapped into.  They helped to answer questions about equipment and process - both when we were just starting out and now in our transition to all grain.  One of the best things we have done is visit other club members while they are brewing.  This gave us a good overview of their equipment, especially what is helpful and what may be extraneous.

A couple of weekends ago, Eric and I visited Mike as he was brewing a batch of coffee/chocolate porter.  Mike has a simple setup: big hot water/boil pot, 10 gallon cooler mash tun, and an extra pot to help with lautering/sparging (rinsing the grains after steeping).  Mike did everything by gravity - lifting and draining and pouring.  A little extra time and work, but definitely doable.

It was helpful to see Mike's process as this would be easiest and cheapest for Eric and I to transition to.  The major piece needed on our end would be a mash tun.  Everything else Mike had, we already have.  It is nice to see that the transition could be simple, easy, and inexpensive.

A photo of Matt's setup.
On the other hand...

This past weekend, several people gathered at another member's house where Matt brewed a 10 gallon all grain steam beer on his equipment.  Matt has been brewing for a while and his setup is very nice.  Contrast to Mike, Matt has three old kegs which he uses for a hot liquor tank, mashing, and boiling.  He has a pump which he uses to transfer hot water and wort to and from all the vessels.  He has a Blichmann burner with the extra legs (the right side in the pic) and many extra gadgets which weren't in use for this brew day.  One of the more helpful pieces of his equipment was quick disconnect hoses to help with pumping and changing hoses.

Matt's setup is quite nice.  It is a lot less work since the pump does most of the heavy lifting.  The kegs are great because they are so spacious.  I could tell he put a lot of time and money into his brew system.

With these two homebrew days, Eric and I have a better sense of where we want to take our equipment based on our skill level, available funds, and current equipment.  I am of the philosophy of buying it right the first time.  Why by the cheaper model if you are just going to upgrade or replace it later?  Go ahead and get what will best serve you and you will save money in the long run.

So, with that, some things Eric and I know we will be getting: a pump and quick disconnects.  Man, that was slick and it saved a whole lot of work.  That will involve adding some valves to our brewing vessels, a challenge I hope to take up soon.  As for mash tuns, hot liquor tanks, and a new boil kettle... we're still pounding out the details.  I will be sure to keep you posted.

One thing is for sure: homebrewing can be as easy or difficult, expensive or thrifty, store-bought or do-it-yourself as you want.  I'm shooting for a nice balance of all of the above.