Apr 27, 2012

All Grain Equipment

Part of transitioning from extract brewing to all-grain brewing is gaining (read: buying) more equipment.  It is easy to do if you have lots of cash money to throw around, but if you are like me, you tend not to be so extravagant with your spending (no comments from the wife, please).  Eric and I are piecing together our all-grain brew equipment one tank and burner at a time.  Because of this, I have had lots of time to think about what we need.  I thought I would review what I (currently) see as important to have in the three main brewing vessels.

Hot Liquor Tank - The HLT is used for holding hot water for mashing (that's a brewer's word; common parlance would be "soaking" or "steeping") the grains and then for sparging (another brewing term; it's really just rinsing the grains of sugars that are left behind).
  • Ideally, HLTs should hold as much liquid as your mash tun, but a little less is ok.  Grains do take up some volume in your mash tun, so it is feasible not to use all of your stored hot water.  
  • A thermometer is key.  You can install a nice, big thermometer into the side of the kettle or you can just use a standard one which clips to the side.  
  • A ball valve makes things so much easier.  Some people place the HLT higher than the mash tun so gravity can do its thing; others use a pump.  Either way, having a ball valve takes the pressure off your back and makes things much safer.  
Mash Tun - The mash tun is used for holding and/or insulating your grains while they steep in the hot water from your HLT.  
  • A mash tun should be well insulated or be able to be heated - maybe even both.  Temperature is important to mashing.  To be simple about it, the mash tun is where the sugars in the grains are pulled out and regular water becomes wort.  Different temperatures will pull out different types of sugars, some of which will completely ferment away (lower temps) and some of which will stay (higher temps).  
  • A false bottom gives you access to your liquid wort without any grains.  A false bottom is an extra "floor" for your mash tun except it has a bajillion little holes (I may be overestimating it there).  It allows liquid through but keeps grains out and essentially is a big, strong filter.  A false bottom seems like the best of the options to me, even though it is the most expensive.
  • Thermometers tell you the temperature of things.  Temperature is important.  A thermometer is essential to mashing.  It lets you know if you need to turn up the heat or add more hot water - or if you are sitting pretty and can relax a little longer.  Another beer while you wait?
  • A ball valve makes things so much easier.  Sound familiar?  Having a valve makes transferring of hot wort almost effortless.  No real worries about spills or hurting yourself.  
Boil Kettle - The boil kettle is where you will do your boil and hop additions.
  • Size matters.  You should have a pot that is several gallons bigger than the starting volume of your boil - not the size of the batch of beer you are brewing.  You may end with five gallons, but you will probably start with six or seven gallons.  Make sure you have enough space in your pot to hold that plus some.  There needs to be room for foaming.  Boil overs are not your friend.
  • Are sight glasses necessary?  I say not!  Sight glasses are meant for you to tell how much volume is in a brew pot.  It is a clear tube on the outside of a kettle that fills up as the kettle fills up.  You mark it at each gallon level so you know how much is in the pot.  I can do that with a stick.  And I do do that with a stick.  I have a yard stick that I have measured and when I need to know how much liquid is in my pot, I stick it in.  And I don't have to worry about it breaking.
  • Are thermometers necessary?  I say not!  I am trying to boil something, not maintain a temperature.  I am pretty sure my wort will boil at around 212 degrees F.  Cooling is another matter.  Just use the instant read thermometers.  No need to install one in the boil kettle.
  • And last (say it with me), a ball valve!  It does make everything easier.  I never knew until I had one.  Do it.  Install it.  Just do it.  You'll thank me later.  
So, there are some of my thoughts on all-grain brewing equipment from an almost all-grain brewer.  Maybe I'll revisit this in six months and let you know if my opinions have changed at all.