No Chillin' Like a Villain.
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- Imagination Land
Thanks for the info, mate. I've been doing partial mashes for a couple of years, and I am going to go AG very soon. Some valuable info.
Advice and Recommendations for those starting out in all grain home brewing
There are lots of people getting into All grain brewing these days. All too often though I see newcomers leaping into the AG side of brewing before they have really grasped the concepts and knowledge and they make a lot of mistakes and spend a lot of unnecessary money (hey, I've been there! Words of experience). It can be very daunting and no one can be expected to know everything before starting out but with the right advice and a bit of thought and planning you can do it in a more efficient way. I thought I might take the time to write an article for the aspiring all grain brewer that highlights a few of the pitfalls experienced by new comers to all grain home brewing, particularly in regards to getting started with equipment for the brewery.
Going back less than 10 years there were few home brewers brewing all grain, mostly due to a lack of available knowledge but also due to the lack of access to ingredients, ideas, equipment etc. The internet has certainly driven this boom in the number of AG brewer as it has allowed people to gain access to the information and communicate with others of similar interests where they can share knowledge and experience. However, it has also done a pretty good job of both confusing and misleading those starting out due to a wealth of conflicting and incorrect statements and advice.
This article aims to just offer a few things to think about if you're interested in AG brewing and are looking to dabble or shift to AG and have been pondering building your own system. Brewers wanting to get into AG brewing but looking for a place to start seem to be looking for guidance to starting their home system so I thought I offer a few recommendations and pieces of advice that I have learnt along the way.
It can be a daunting process getting started because of the myths and misconceptions coupled with the fact there are a broad range of knowledge and experience levels out there participating in forums. We have new brewers coming through looking for hints and advice, experience brewers talking on more technical issues, people offering up advice in an effort to help and then people who don't know much but profess to know all and it can be a pretty confusing place. What I see a lot of though is people coming into building an all grain brewery all guns blazing because they are keen and motivated yet blindly following what others have done. It's great to see that on this forum at least, a lot of people are doing their research, utilizing the information that has been posted previously and then making their own decisions.
However as I alluded to at the start, I see a fair few newcomers coming into the hobby, keen as mustard with their new found hobby and then leaping into building his/her brewery before they have really grasped the concepts and understood how to go about it and wasting a lot of money, time and effort. This is particularly prevalent on many of the other forums (both Australian and US based) so I thought I would write a few comments to help the new brewer, who is keen to build, sift through the maze of info out there and come out with a good functional brewery they have designed and built themselves.
There are a lot of websites based on people's home breweries, but not all of the info posted on them is necessarily the greatest information, nor is it always correct, efficient or sound. People give all sorts of reasons why they did what they did in an attempt to justify their expenditure. The sooner you realize this the better off your brewery will be and the less money and messing around you are going to experience. You're free to spend what you want on your brewery but I'm just hoping that with a bit of thought and planning you can go about it in the most cost effective way.
Now there are good websites out there with good solid information, but what the new comer has to realize is that the trick is to sift over the range of websites and weed out the bad ones and remember the good ones. There are no guidelines or standards to regulate what is posted on the net and unfortunately a lot of these websites are posted by keen, but very inexperienced brewers keen to put back some info that they hope will help others like themselves, as well as justifying to themselves their choices for various things. It's a form of self reassurance. But for those starting out, don't be afraid to back yourself and your ideas if you think you can do it better. Use what others have done, but use your head about it.
However, for the new AG brewer here are some points to remember when you start down the AG brewing road:
1. Keep it simple. All grain brewing can be a very simple process indeed, so don't make it harder on yourself. Anyone can do it and you don't really need to know that much to get started and produce pretty good beer if you already have some sound knowledge of kit based beers and good sanitation/fermentation techniques. Do some reading on the subject and try to get a handle on the basic process, you can refine and expand your knowledge as you get further into it. Have a go, if it doesn't come out great don't be disheartened. Learn from it and try again, you'll get it second go and very likely will brew a good beer first go.
2. Don't be drawn into the race for gadgets and to make things look cool. People are proud of their breweries and rightly so, but at least in the first instance don't let it deter you by thinking that to make good beer you have to spend big dollars and buy all this gear and have all stainless vessels. So many of the home breweries out there are filled to the brim with crazy gadgets, electronics and shiny things. It's a hobby, people get excited, addicted, carried away etc. While that is fine and you are free to add/buy whatever you want, but don't feel intimidated by an apparent need for technical equipment. All you really need is some very basic equipment and some simple techniques all the rest is bling factor.
3. Understand what your needs are and what you want to achieve. Remember that each person has different needs, budget, restrictions, time, interests and skills etc. Therefore, build a brewery to suit yourself. Brewing frames are cool, but you might not have the room for one-but that's ok because you can work around this. If you need to pack up after every brew session design your system to suit. If you can leave it in place then you're a lucky person indeed and have a range of additional options open to you. But if you can't weld or don't have access to a welder your still ok. Use whatever supports you have to make yourself a tier or two and lift if you have to. There are ways and means so find out how you can make your brewery work for you.
4. Start out simple and grow from there. You don't need a big complex rig to make it all work. My best advice is to throw together something cheap and simple that you can get your feet wet on. Experience is the key here. The more hands on brewing experience you can gain before you invest in a major rig the better your system is going to be and the less money and heartache it's going to cost you. By actually getting in there and brewing you will find out if AG brewing is actually for you, you'll get a feel for the techniques and requirements that make things work, and you'll also understand parts of the process you would like to streamline and adapt to your situation.
5. Research what others have done but don't blindly copy their system. Understand what's going in the various stages of brewing, it really is very simple. You should be able to visualize brewing an entire batch of beer on someone else's system just from photos. If you can't work out how to go through the process and how it works then you probably should do a little more reading on the topic until you can understand what's going on and where. Hopefully these people built their system to suit their need, that's what you want to do too. Their needs are not your needs necessarily, so don't just blindly copy their system. If you look close enough and give it enough thought you should be able to pick the mistakes and poorly designed aspects of their brewery. Don't make the same mistakes, learn from their example.
Think about what you want and need, but don't be afraid to adapt or change something so that is suits your purpose better. As I said at the start, AG brewing is essentially a very simple process and only requires very simple equipment. Things such as HERMS and RIMS are in most instances totally unnecessary, so don't think that you're going to have to build a HERMS or RIMS to be able to make good beer. These systems are usually employed because a stainless keg looks cool for a mash tun but sucks from an insulation point of view. If you're looking for a great mash tun and a simple brewery get an esky and be eternally happy with your ability to leave it unattended during the mash. If you want to build a herms or rims system don't build one at the start, add it into you brewery later on once you've got the basics down and know what you are doing and you have decided that you really do need it. I couldn't think of anything worse than trying to learn to AG brew on a HERMS or RIMS system. Remember, keep it simple.
6. Plan your system well before you leap in and build. Visualise what you want to achieve and then draw a plan of how you want to build it and how you want to use it. Then play out a brew day on your diagram, is it going to work, what stuff is unnecessary, what should I change? What problems am I likely to experience? How high is it and can I access the mash tun? How do I empty the mash tun with heavy wet grain and can I drain all the hoses and lines to keep it all clean? If I mount some thermometers here, are they actually going to be covered by the grain or water?
Some extra time spend now in planning will save you time, effort and money down the track and your system will work much better without (or fewer) little niggles or things like "I wish I thought of that".
7. A note on temperature control. When your dealing with 25+ litres of hot water (or hot water plus grain) is doesn't heat very quickly, nor does it cool particularly fast. Thermostats are nice but your not going to keep over shooting your sparge water temps because your vessel heats too quick while you're not looking. It also doesn't cool down that quick either, so don't worry too much about having automatic temp control in your mash or HLT. It doesn't matter if your sparge water is a degree or two cooler than you were hoping for you'll still have a good sparge. It's not that important. Try to have your mash tun correct and insulated and you should make nice consistent beer. Add things like thermostats later on if you decide you need it.
8. Some points on height. If you can, keep your system low. Your mash tun is the most important vessel for access. You need to get to it to measure the temp, add in the grain and stir the mash. If you can avoid it try not to place your mash tun at a height where you need to stand on something (eg. Ladder) to get in there. When you're brewing on your own it can be quite tricky to pour your grain in and stir at the same time, worse if your standing on a ladder. I find it amusing when looking at some of the commercial systems (B3, Sabco) that employ pumps to move liquid yet for your $5000 investment you still have to balance on a ladder to access the most important vessel and mash in. These systems use a pump-so why not actually use it .
9. But which valves do I have open? Wow, look at all those valves, that looks cool. Now which one do I open again? Try to make your plumbing as simple and as idiot proof as you can by minimizing the number of hoses and valves. Not only will it save you money but trust me, the more valves you have on the system the more times you're going to leave the wrong one open-and it will happen. Throw in something like hard copper plumbing and you won't even realize liquid is quietly moving from one vessel to the other under gravity until your HLT is full of wort from the mash tun because you can't see in the lines. Keep it simple again.
10. But I need sanitary welds and fittings on all my vessels. No you don't. Anything that is preboil does not need to be sanitized. As long as you can clean it without too much trouble I wouldn't worry too much about welds or hoses or valves on the preboil side of your brewery. Do worry about what your beer touches and where your beer goes after the boil and after it's chilled. If you have lots of extra plumbing on the output of the kettle it just makes more for you to sanitize and increases the chance of some nasties hiding. If you can run off straight into your fermenter it can't get much better than that.
11. Don't get hung up on the minor things. As I've said before AG brewing is easy so don't get too bogged down on the details. Little things like how you build a rotating sparge arm to sprinkle water onto the grain bed don't make a lot of difference. As long as you can get the sparge water into the mash tun it's going to work, it doesn't have to be carefully sprinkled in a rotating fashion so as not to disturb the grain bed. Experience from actually doing a brew or two beforehand is going to come in handy here and hopefully you will realize that aspects like this are not that important. Get the water into the tun, get the wort out the bottom and then boil it.
12. Don't let a lack of equipment prevent you from having a go. You don't have to brew 25 or 50L batches. If you have a 20L stock pot you're in a position to give this AG thing a go. With an extra bucket or two you can be brewing all grain. Take for example the All in One brewery thread that is currently underway on this forum. If there is a will there's a way. Although, I probably wouldn't bother trying to make the All in One work for me, I think it would just be easier to use an extra bucket or two that can then pack away inside each other if space is tight, but if it works for you then go for it.
What if I want to add or spend more on my equipment? I'm not saying that you shouldn't spend the money on your brewery or do it on the cheap. It's up to you how you tackle it, but many people are on a budget. I think the first piece of equipment one should buy though if they are prepared to invest in AG brewing is a good size kettle and a burner powerful enough to boil it. This gives you the immediate option to brew full volume boils of extract based beers and then easily move into AG brewing as funds or time allow. I have to whole heartedly back the use of a good sized aluminium or stainless pot in the size range of 50-60L. Trust me that the initial outlay is well worth it and it is an item that you will always have. Please resist the temptation to source a 50L stainless keg from the back of a pub or wherever. The number of kegs being put to use in home breweries in Australia is soon going to be an amount significant enough that it will attract the attention of the rightful owners to the point that it will be worthwhile to legally pursue. It's best to avoid this from the first outset for everyone's sake and never worry again. $100-150 for an aluminium boiler is actually one of the cheaper things you'll end up buying for your home brewery.
From here you can fill in the rest of the items as you see fit and can afford the items. Don't rule out the benefits of scrounging an item but if in the end it comes down to buying it, don't sweat it too much. If you're in this hobby for the long haul then your brew gear will last a very long time indeed and pay for itself before long and if it comes to it, brew gear seems to have excellent resale value.
So hopefully this article will help give you some direction from which to approach a move towards all grain brewing. If you approach it in a logical manner, try to contain your enthusiasm (I know it's hard ), read plenty of information and try your best to educate yourself before you invest, hopefully you should be able to build an excellent, well functioning brewery first go that will serve you for many years. Then all that is left to do is start working towards brewing the best beers you have tasted. It's a fun hobby and if you're keen enough AG brewing can also be a heap of fun.
Best of luck with your brewing.