Back to Basics: Mashin' 101

Everyone needs a friend like Cole! So last week, we talked about how to build a good recipe and how integral it is toward making great beer – even more so when you are in R&D mode as a brewery in-planning. This week, we talk all things mashin'. Sound fun? GRASSLANDS’ CLASS IS IN SESSION…AGAIN – You back there! Wake up!

Alrighty, enough of that. I always get carried away at the start of these things. Bad habit really. Anyways - today's lesson is all things Mashing. Mashing is an important component of the brewing process. In the most basic terms, the brewing process looks like this:

  1. Mill your barley/malt grains
  2. Mix milled grains with hot water and hold for an hour
  3. Drain the mixture into the boil kettle
  4. Rinse the milled grains with hot water and hold for 10-15 minutes
  5. Drain into the boil kettle again
  6. Boil the liquid (now called wort) for an hour or so, adding hops here & there
  7. Chill and infuse with your yeast
  8. Ferment at a specific temperature anywhere between 2 weeks to multiple months (depending on the style or desired result)
  9. Keg or bottle
  10. Consume and repeat!

Simple right? Well, not quite, but if you've got the necessary equipment and space, you're golden. Just remember practice makes perfect...as well as good beer in the process. :D

Anyways, what's this mashing thing I'm talking about? Well, just like when the yeast consume the sugars in the wort (pron. wert) during the fermentation process - essentially farting off CO2 and turning the sugar into alcohol; just as cool is the starch-to-sugar conversion process that occurs during the mash. Let's start with the milling of your grain.

Mmmmm....starch

By now you've built your recipe with last week's helpful hints, right? Okay cool - now comes the time to mill (or crush) your grains. Many homebrewers have their local homebrew shop crush their grains for them - most of them do this at no extra charge. Some brewers, like us, use their own milling system. GrassLands' pilot batches use grain that's milled with a barley crusher. We do this because we have a specific width between the milling rollers we set, giving us the type of crush we want. If you don't do this on your own, you threaten your repeatability in recipes. I used to crank this all by hand, but I got smart and hooked up a drill to the crusher, making it faster and a more efficient use of our time.

What you're basically doing is cracking open each grain husk, exposing the starches inside. These starches, when mixed with hot water at a specific temperature (typically 149-160º - higher for a sweeter mouthfeel, lower for a drier mouthfeel) will enzymatically convert to sugars. Usually, this process occurs over the course of 45 minutes to an hour. This process occurs all within your mash tun (or container that's been modified for mashing purposes) - we use a 70 qt Coleman Extreme cooler - properly named Cole Mashmore. This allows us to brew pilot batches at twice the capacity of the average homebrewer. The mash tun typically has some sort of filtration system at the bottom, connected to a port so that you can filter out the wort from the grains into the boil kettle. When the hot water is mixed in with the grains (usually at a 1.25 quart to 1 lb of grain ratio), a solidified grain bed will form over the course of the mash process. The manifold we use filters wort from the very bottom of the cooler into the CPVC tubing, allowing for minimal grain particles to get into your boil kettle (the less the better - grain husk presence in the boil will leach tannins into your beer, ultimately resulting in off-flavors.

Okay, so you've got your mash going and the clock is nearing 60 minutes into your mash. We then begin a process called Vorlaufing (or recirculation). When you begin to drain your mash tun, the first few quarts to a gallon of your newly created wort (or sugar water) will undoubtedly have some grain particles mixed in. To prevent tannins from getting into your beer, you Vorlauf - recirculate those first few quarts back on top of the grain bed. Commercial breweries call this "brite beer" - or clear beer. Once you think your wort is clear of grain particles, go ahead and let it drain into your boil kettle. Our set up is a three-tiered brew stand, where water is heated on the top tier, grain is mashed on the middle tier, and the boil kettle is on the 3rd tier. Other systems are different, but this is how we brew our pilot batches.

Once you've drained all your wort into the kettle (called your "first runnings") you're ready for the sparging process (or rinsing). Those first runnings will be very sweet, but many sugars are still left behind in your mash tun. Sparging (or rinsing) allows the brewer to collect (via 2nd runnings) the remaining sugars from the left over grains. It also halts the enzymatic conversion process with a higher temperature water mixture. We batch sparge (mixing in a certain amount of water all at once) as opposed to fly sparging (mixing in a certain amount of water that equals the flow of the drain into the boil kettle). It's easier for us this way and a better use of our time (hint: it's faster). We Vorlauf again after the mixture of water (usually 175º) flows into the mash tun.

Fun Fact: During your first mash process, your grains will absorb anywhere up to 30% of the water you mix into the mash. So say you mashed with 9 gallons of water. Chances are you're going to have around 6-7 gallons of wort collected in your first runnings. Sparging is more of a rinsing method, so if you collected 6 gallons of wort in your first runnings and you wanted a 12 gallon pre-boil volume, you'd simply sparge with 6 gallons of water.

Mmmmm...compost

After your 2nd Vorlauf, you collect your second runnings. The sugar content in this wort solution will be less than your first runnings, but they're just as integral to your brewing process. Once you collect your desired pre-boil volume, you're done with the mashing process! Congrats! Now it's time to clean up!

Leftover grains can be a PITA or an efficient resource of plant food or dog food. We used to compost our grains, but now we just donate them to others that need the composting material. When GrassLands is up & running, we'll be donating our spent grains to a number of awesome co-op gardens, farms and animal sanctuaries throughout the Panhandle area!

So really, that's all there is to the whole mashing process! Of course, I've simplified it just a hair, but that's basically how you mash before you boil! Now all you need to do is equip yourself with equipment! It's definitely a slippery slope getting into homebrewing...as this commercial brewery to-be can attest, so make sure you stick to your procedures, sanitation and all will be well. Oh, and make sure your significant other is okay with you taking over whole areas of your home with brewing equipment and various zymurgy accoutrements :)

Whew! One more lesson next week and we'll call it a day - how's that sound? We'll get into the boil/fermentation process next week, so come prepared class!

With that in mind, we'll leave you to it for now. Have an awesome weekend, my dear readers, because you most definitely deserve it!

Prost!