This page describes the hardware and (extremely briefly) the basic all-grain procedures I use to brew. To view larger versions of the "thumbnail" images depicted here, just click on them. My description of the brewing process given here is not meant in any way to be a "how to brew" demonstration, as I will be omitting most of the reasons for doing things. The craft of brewing is all about deciding when, how, and in what measure to do the steps portrayed here, after all.
That said, the basic steps in all-grain brewing are as follows:
Mashing: Mixing crushed grains (the "grain bill") with water at a particular temperature or sequence of temperatures to allow the enzymes in the grain to convert the grain's starches to fermentable sugars. The water takes up these sugars, after which it is known as wort.
Sparging: Extraction of the wort from the mashed grain. This process typically involves some initial recirculation to help clarify the wort, and uses the grain-bed itself as a filter. And to paraphrase the great Dave Line, how cool is it that we have a hobby which allows us to say "I'm going to go sparge my wort"?
Boiling: Boiling of the wort with hops, added in quantities and at intervals designed to balance the sweetness of the malt and grain additions. Hops must be boiled to isomerize the alpha-acids that produce bittering, because in their raw form alpha acids are insoluble in wort. The rearranged molecular structure makes the alpha acids much more soluble.
Chilling: After boiling, the wort must be chilled to the appropriate temperature for pitching the brewing yeast. Pitching at too warm a temperature is a very common cause of off-flavors in the finished beer.
Fermentation: Once the yeast are added to the wort, they begin to consume the fermentable sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products. Fermentation is typically done in two stages. Primary fermentation refers to the stage during which the first 75% or so of the fermentable sugars are converted, and secondary fermentation is the remainder. Most brewers transfer the brewing beer to a second vessel for the secondary fermentation, to remove it from contact with the voluminous yeast and trub (proteinaceous gunk that is formed at various stages of the process) and allow it to become more clear.
Packaging: The finished beer is packaged either in bottles or in kegs for eventual consumption. Bottled beer requires at least a couple of weeks' conditioning time, during which carbonation develops in the bottle. With kegs, one can force-carbonate with carbon dioxide, or prime with sugar and allow carbonation to develop naturally (there is no difference in the end result; I always force-carbonate my kegs).
Anything that comes into contact with the wort or beer from the end of the boil onward must be scrupulously cleaned and sanitized to prevent infection with wild yeast or bacteria. The sugar-rich wort is an ideal growth medium! For this reason, it is also crucial to pitch a lot of healthy, active yeast so that those other bugs don't have a chance to take hold in the wort.
With that introduction, it's time to brew...!
Before you brew, you will of course have your source of active yeast, either an active starter made from a liquid strain or slant, or a packet of active dried brewer's yeast. [Sidebar: dried yeasts are MUCH better than they used to be, and I use them quite often nowadays. For many years before, I would use liquid yeasts, or slants I'd grown from them, exclusively.]
I use either reverse-osmosis/dionized water obtained from a supermarket dispenser, or tap water, if yours has a decent composition to start with for your beer styles. Depending on what I'm making, I'll add some mixture of brewing salts for the desired style of beer, in a large stainless steel pot. I then heat this to the desired temperature for mixing with the ground grain.
Meanwhile, I grind up my "grain bill", consisting of base malt plus varieties of specialty malts depending on the desired style. A good-quality crush is a very important factor in getting good results from your mash. I use a Valley Mill, which has a handy attachment to mate up with a power drill, and this makes grinding a snap.
The mash is contained in the converted keg, which sits on the big "jet burner". The keg has a circular copper-tubing manifold installed in the bottom, the underside of which has many hacksaw slits sawed into it to allow wort into it but not the grain. This manifold is connected to a spigot with a ball-valve, from which wort recirculation, sparging, and collection take place. This keg was converted for me by the stalwart, generous, and supremely handy Eric Schoville. You should really click on that link to see his brewing page... the guy is fantastic! A second ring burner sits in front of the mash tun, on which the boiling pot will eventually sit.
Here, the ground grain is combined with the correct amount of water heated to the appropriate temperature to reach the desired temperature of this step of the infusion. I usually do a single-temperature infusion (say, 65 deg. C) followed by a "mashout" at 77 deg. C. This requires two separate infusions, the latter always using boiling water. The length of time and temperature of the mashing steps are what control the malt character of the beer. In general, lower mash temperatures produce a more highly fermentable wort, which in turn leads to a drier beer; higher temperatures have the opposite effect.
It's important to stir well so that you don't get "doughballs" in the mash, to allow the water access to the entire batch of grain. I typically stir again halfway through the main mash period as well. Most mash times range from 60 to 120 minutes depending on style.
To reduce loss of heat from the mash tun, I put a retired lid to one of my old plastic fermenters on top of the opening in the mashtun, and then wrap an old sleeping bag around the works and clip it closed at the top with clothespins. The idea is to prevent the temperature from dropping too much. This arrangement allows the mash to cool only a couple of degrees per hour. For some styles, direct heating of the kettle is necessary, in which case I remove the sleeping bag, fire up the burner while stirring constantly until the new temperature is reached, then put the sleeping bag back on.
Once the mash period is completed, it's time to collect the wort for boiling. My 40-litre aluminum boiling pot, obtained from a restaurant supply store, is placed on the second ring burner in position to collect the wort running from the mash tun.
The first runnings from the spigot will be very cloudy, so one must recirculate a good amount of liquid (I usually do at least 2/3 the volume of water that was added) until it runs as clear as your setup can get it. When doing this, one must take care not to splash the hot wort as much as practical because the oxygen will chemically combine with wort compounds, yielding undesirable flavors. (This is oxidation, not to be confused with oxygenation, which will take place after the wort is cooled and prior to pitching the yeast, in which molecular oxygen dissolves into the wort without chemically combining with the compounds therein.) I collect the wort in a pitcher using a short length of tubing affixed to the spigot, which can be kept submerged while filling, and return it to the top of the mash by gently pouring it on some kind of food-grade plastic disc that floats. Here I use the lid to a tub of sherbet.
Once satisfied with the clarity of the runnings, I then begin collecting the wort in the boiler. The wort needs to run out at a slow rate. During this process, I add the sparge water, which has been heating to about 75 deg. C on the stove since the final infusion was added. Once the wort is a couple inches deep in the boiler, I fire up the lower ring burner so it can be heating up while it's being collected. This step typically saves me 45 minutes on the length of my brew day, and that's worth the extra propane to me. With respect to sparging, most instructions will tell you to add the sparge water gradually, keeping the water a couple inches above the level of the grain bed for the duration of the process. The idea is to prevent compaction of the grain bed by the weight of the overlying water, which would restrict or maybe stop the flow of wort; such a thing might occur if too much sparge water is loaded all at once above the grain bed. No doubt this is a sound basis in theory, but in practice with this setup, I can add all the sparge water at once (a pitcher at a time, poured over the plastic lid as during recirculation, a process that typically takes me 5 to 10 minutes) with never a problem in over 150 batches so far with this rig. I then simply let all the liquid drain into the kettle. That takes about 45 minutes or so.
After lifting the boiler onto the big burner from the lower ring burner, I then heat the wort the rest of the way to boiling. I leave the lid on until it's nearly there, so that it will reach the boiling point more quickly, and then remove it to avoid boilover. Then the wort is kept in a vigorous, rolling boil for the desired length of time.
Hops are weighed out and added in the desired amounts at the desired intervals. I generally let the wort boil for about 20 minutes before adding the first allotment of hops. The idea there is that the "hot break" of coagulated proteins that forms during that time will absorb lots of the hops' bittering compounds, resulting in a lower bitterness than that predicted; so this step is meant to compensate for that. Once the hops are added, the rolling boil keeps the hop particles suspended so that the desired isomerization of alpha acids, and other important reactions, take place.
About fifteen or twenty minutes before the end of boiling, I place my copper-coil immersion chiller into the boiling wort. The boil will sterilize it prior to beginning to chill. Once the boil period is over, I run tap water through the immersion chiller from a garden hose via a pair of lengths of tubing, affixed to the ends of the copper coil with hose clamps. Chilling obviously goes quicker in winter when the temperature of the tap water is lower. In the picture above, you can already see clouds of coagulating proteins in the amber wort, just seconds after the beginning of chilling. I use the outflow water to irrigate a corner of the yard where there is a big sycamore tree.
Once chilling is complete, the wort must be transferred to a cleaned and sanitized fermenter. Using a sanitized spatula, I stir the wort vigorously to get it into a "whirlpool". I then let the boiling kettle sit, covered, for half an hour. The whirlpool action helps concentrate the coagulated proteins, or "break" material, that formed during the brewing process,into a cone-shaped mass at the bottom of the kettle. The wort is then siphoned off into the fermenter, and the whirlpooling usually makes it possible to get most of the wort with only a little of the break materials. I vigorously splash the wort while racking it into the fermenter in order to oxygenate it as much as manually possible (not to be confused with oxidation as mentioned above). With the wort at cool temperatures, the added oxygen does not combine chemically with the wort compounds as it does at high temperature; instead, the oxygen dissolves into the wort so that it's available for the yeast, which require plenty of oxygen to get going.
After decanting most of the liquid from the starter flask, I swirl up the rest to suspend the layer of yeast that has collected there. I then toss it into the fermenter and seal up the lid and affix an airlock.
After measuring the original gravity of the wort using my hydrometer and (chipped) flask, I let the wort ferment in the primary fermenter until it's ready to be transferred to a secondary fermenter. Like everything else, these times depend on the other choices made in getting this far in brewing the beer.
After fermentation is complete, I package the beer in reconditioned stainless steel soda kegs, in which the beer is force-carbonated and dispensed via keg taps. I keep these kegs in a dedicated "brew fridge" out in the garage. I used to bottle my beers but finally gave that up... way too much work!!
And finally, the finished product!