Basic equipment all grain brewers need/want/should haveCertain basic pieces of equipment are helpful no matter how your brewing system is set up. These components are cheap and often you will have most of these pieces from your extract brewing. A few of these pieces I will suggest are optional but nevertheless worth having on hand. In no particular order, here are some pieces you should acquire for successful all grain brewing:
- Vessel large enough to hold the mash
- Kettle large enough to heat your full wort volume
- Heat source to heat water and boil wort
- Mash paddle/large spoon
- Hydrometer or refractometer
- Quality, calibrated thermometer
- Digital scale measuring at least grams and ounces (for small batches you should obtain one that measures down to tenths of grams)
- Grain mill (optional)
- Ph strips or ph meter (optional, at least starting out)
- Measuring cups (preferably large ones)
- Heat-resistant, food grade tubing -- typically silicone (optional)
- Brewing software (optional)
The traditional homebrewer all grain set upTraditionally, homebrewers have worked with systems that emulated what breweries use. For that reason, the equipment used was small versions of the same equipment, using the same techniques and processes. If you recall back to the first part of this series, I discussed how the mash and sparge processes involved adding and draining water/wort from the grain. That is a practical issue. It's easier to move liquid with pumps (or gravity) and hoses than it is to move grain between vessels of hot water.
The common approach for the modern but traditional approach is a cooler and kettle set up. A large igloo-style water cooler is used as a mash tun (the insulation helps maintain temperatures) with the kettle serving as the hot liquor tank to heat mash and sparge water and then to collect the wort and boil. Many homebrewers use this system with a five or ten gallon cooler and batch sparge (although you could fly sparge). You can use this same approach on a small scale with a one or two gallon cooler (or a similar type of vessel that will retain heat). You want to use a vessel that is not too much larger than the volume of mash because the more contact the mash has with the air and non-heated surfaces the quicker it will lose heat and you will have more variability in your mashes. A two gallon cooler is small enough to get good results on a one gallon batch but will support mashes for two gallon batches except for very high gravity beers with large mash volumes.
The advantage with this system is that you have a mash tun with temperature stability and a fairly easy set up. The downside is that you will have to make a modification of the cooler to replace the water spout with a manifold that filters out the grain, so it does not clog, and safely pours hot liquids. Following the typical homebrewer's set up that could add a little bit of cash to your costs (in the tens of dollars at most) and you couldn't use the cooler for anything else. Another downside is that if you already have a few stock pots in the house you may not want to spend more cash on another piece of equipment or have the space for it. A two gallon cooler is not very large but in an apartment sometimes every square foot counts.
There are some variants used at a larger scale, such as direct-firing the mash on its own heat source in a kettle with a manifold to drain the wort. Very advanced systems use pumps to circulate the mash to maintain temperature stability but at a small batch level neither of these are particularly efficient.
Brew in a bag (BIAB) methodBrew in a bag is exactly what it sounds like. It works in reverse of a traditional mash, where the liquid is removed from the grains. Instead, the grains go in a bag and you move the grain bag between vessels to mash and sparge. For BIAB you need two kettles, one for the mash tun and one for the sparge. You will heat the mash water in the mash tun kettle and then add a strainer bag full of crushed grain to the kettle and let the mash do it's thing. You then heat the sparge water in the other kettle and when it is time to sparge you just move the grain bag from one kettle to the next and dip the bag in and out of the sparge water to rinse the sugars off the grain. Then you dump the grains out of the bag. Then mix all your wort together and boil.
For the small batch brewer this method has a big upside and a big downside. The huge advantage is that your equipment costs are minimal. For a small batch you can usually buy plastic strainer bags at homebrew shops meant for steeping grains (just don't tie it off so you can reuse it). For larger batches many people use paint strainer bags. If you own a set of pots and pans it probably came with a 1.5 gallon stock pot, which is definitely large enough for the mash on a one gallon batch. You already own a kettle from your extract batches, so that is fine for the sparge water. It doesn't matter if the kettle is too big for the sparge volume as long as you can dunk all the grains in the water and get a good rinse.
The huge downside is that it is much harder to maintain a consistent mash temperature. A stock pot will not keep mash temperatures stable on its own so you will need to monitor the temperature and keep it slightly heated on your stove or in your oven, if your oven goes down in temperature to mash temperatures. Most only go down to 170F, which is too hot. Personally I started out BIAB on my smaller batches but gave it up because I was tired of getting inconsistent mash results. I'd have mashes that got too cool then I overshot by adding too much heat. Many mashes went through periods too cool for what I wanted. So I gave it up. That's why I went with my hybrid system.
My hybrid system
My hybrid system takes the best of both worlds. I use a two gallon cooler as a mash tun but I did not modify the spout. Instead, I add heated mash water to the mash tun then use a grain bag to add the grains. The insulated cooler keeps stable temperature and I stick the cooler in my unheated oven to help trap any lost heat in a smaller area. When the mash ends I pull the bag and sparge in my kettle doing the BIAB dunking. Then I pour the wort from the mash tun into the kettle and get boiling. It's practically BIAB but without a kettle as the mash tun. I already had the grain bag from my prior BIAB attempts (but I think they cost like $2 for a 2-3 gallon nylon strainer bag). I also already had the kettle, so my only upgraded purchase was the two gallon cooler.
I use a Coleman two gallon stackable cooler, which runs about $11 on Amazon. It has improved the quality of my small batches a lot so I think it was $11 well spent. It holds up to warm temperatures ok although it is not as well insulated as my larger ten gallon cooler. By not modifying the spout I can use it for non-brewing purposes. It also fits in my ten gallon mash tun so I'm not losing any house space storing it that way. It would probably fit in your kettle so it won't take up extra space. Plus, once it is dry, you can store other brewing equipment inside it.