Serum Vision: Brewing Methods 201

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Serum Visions!

Last week we took a look at some introductory methods of making beer: the can, the kit, and the steep. If anyone has taken a shot at making their own beer—whether through inspiration from this series or as long-time home brewer—leave me a message in the comment section. I’d love to hear what you’ve done so far.

This week, I was planning on going over a few methods of making beer, but I ended up only being able to cover one: the partial mash. This works out well because it covers much of the information I’ll be referring to while talking about all-grain brewing next time. All-grain brewing can be a real spectacle! When you go all the way, you end up with what is called a brew sculpture. It’s a beautiful thing and it deserves its own article. But today we will talk about the beginning of my adventure…


The Partial Mash

The next step up from the steep method we went over last week is the partial mash. This was the first beer I ever made. After I learned the full scope of how disastrous home brewing could be, I took a step back, did a lot of reading, and made a few steep batches before diving back into partial mashing. These days, because I am working in a much smaller space (in an apartment and not my parent’s kitchen), I switch back and forth between steep and partial-mash beers. They both make a very good product. Which method I choose depends on how ambitious I am feeling, or whether I am teaching someone a certain method.

To understand what a partial mash is, you need to understand that all of the grains used to make beer have been mashed at some point.  When you make a partial-mash beer, you are extracting a portion of the total sugar that will be turned into alcohol from malted grains. The other portion comes from malt extract.

A Couple Terms

Mash: the process where your grains soak in hot water to convert their starches to fermentable sugars. The sugars absorb into the water to create wert.

Malt Extract: Wert that comes off of mashed grains and has been boiled down to a very high sugar concentration, thus becoming liquid malt extract (LME). It can be boiled down to the point where it becomes a solid and processed to be a powder. This is called dry malt extract (DME).

Strike Temperature: This is the temperature of the water before you add your grist, or milled grains. It takes into consideration the temperature difference between the grains and the water to ensure that when the grains are added to the water, their temperature equalizes to your exact mash temperature. This temperature needs to be very precise.

Various Ways One Could Skin this Cat

The Stovetop Mash

One way of doing a partial mash is in your boil kettle, most likely a pot. You start by adding the proper amount of water to your pot, around 1 1/3 pints (or 630 ml) per pound of grain, and bring it up to your strike temperature. You then mash in—slowly add your grains to the hot water—and make sure you hit your mash temperature. If it’s too hot, add some ice. Too cold? Turn up the heat for a minute. If you are doing a stovetop mash you would need to keep a very close eye on the temperature with a thermometer, making sure the temperature does not fluctuate more than a couple degrees. If this sounds like a serious pain in the ass, you’re right. If you are doing it this way, which I did for a long time, you’ll need to raise the heat on the element if it dips below your mash temperature and take it off the element if it rises above it.

The Mini-Mashtun

Another option is to get a picnic cooler with a spigot on the bottom. The idea here is that you add your grains and hot water to the cooler and they balance out to their mash temperature. When you put the lid on, the insulation of the cooler keeps the temperature with no fuss.  A few modifications do need to be made to the cooler, however. You need to either add a false bottom and drain with the spigot, or rig up some sort of straining system. I use a brand new stainless steel plumbing braid with the rubber hose removed, clamped to a small copper pipe that fits through a rubber stopper. Place the stopper in the spigot hole from the inside, then add a piece of hose to the external piece of the pipe with a hose clamp to keep the water from spilling everywhere. An example of a ball-valve version of this setup can be found here.  If you like to jimmy rig things to serve unintended purposes, like [card]Keen Sense[/card], guttersnipe and fossil find, you are going to love being a home brewer!

The Hybrid

Quick aside: I’d be curious what images come to your mind when you think of a stovetop picnic cooler method. Leave a comment?

In the spirit of jimmy rigging things, you can come up with any number of ways of getting your mash done. Sometimes my mini-mashtun has been too small for the amount of grains I wanted to mash. In this case, I’ve used a hybrid stovetop-cooler method. Let’s call it the insulated-pot method. I’ve had great success putting my pot in a box that has been lined with towels after achieving mash temp on the stove top. This is as about as hack as you can imagine, but in the end it made beer, and it was good!

The Sparge

After you’ve mashed for the hour, you strain your wert and move into sparging. This is a fancy word that means rinsing off the remaining sugar that has stuck from the grains. It would be a rather unfortunate event if any of the very-fermentable dextrose (VFD), the sugar that comes from corn, were left on the mashed grains. There are many methods available for sparging which we won’t discuss here. Simply stated, you heat your water up to 170 degrees and pass it over your grains to extract the last bits of VFD and other sugars, then add that to your other wert before the boil. From here, you continue on as you would as if you were doing a steep, where you boil until you reach your 15 minute mark. Then take the pot of the stove, add the malt extract, and stir until it’s dissolved. Finally, bring it back up to a boil, boil for another 15 minutes, and cool.

This may seem like a lot of extra work to come to the same result of drinking homemade beer. But as I stated in my previous article, you are able to exact a far greater amount of control over your beer this way. For instance, there are a multitude of different base malts, all of which have distinct characteristics. If you are steeping and using malt extract, you will only get the character of the specialty grains you are using and whatever base malt was used to make the extract. Again, this will make good beer, it just wont be very precise. If you wanted to make a beer with exactly 4% alcohol but you wanted to use some corn to lighten the flavor, you’d need to mash it to get that result. Another reason may have to do with the fact that the temperature at which you mash your grains plays a massive part in how your beer will turn out. If you want a sweeter beer, you need to mash at a slightly higher temperature. A dryer beer requires mashing at a slightly lower temperature. None of these ends can be achieved by steeping and adding malt extract alone. Furthermore, unless you are doing an all-grain batch, where you mash for 100% of the fermentable sugar, you will not get exactly the result you are looking for if it is outside the spectrum of the malt extract’s fermentability.

I don’t want to promise too much for next time because it may turn out that going over the brew-in-a-bag process takes an entire article as well. So instead I’ll say coming soon to a Magic finance website near you: brew in a bag, all grain, and the Tassimo of home brewing!

As always everyone, thanks for hangin’.


P.S. Go make your own beer!

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