I'm often asked if brewing a batch of all-grain difficult. The answer is pretty straight forward. "Brewing All-Grain is as difficult as you want to make it." Several years ago, I was really inspired after reading Greg Noonan's book "Brewing Lager Beers" and prepared to brew my first batch of all-grain using the decoction brewing technique. Nine hours later, my enthusiasm dipped a little, as it was 3:00am and I had to go to work at 7. Though the Vienna beer I brewed was spectacular. It even won a "Best of Show" in the Capitol Brewer's Competition, I have not repeated the process. Interestingly, I wanted to find a way to brew GREAT all-grain beers without investing so much time. I built a three-tier brewing system with hot liquor tank, rotating sparger, pumps, and dual burners. It took time to set up and to break down for storage. The brew session lasted six hours, start-to-finish. The beer was good, but I still looked for easier and faster ways to do all-grain brewing. While reading a copy of Zymurgy magazine, I read an article that talked about "Non-Sparge" brewing. I needed the mash-tun, but could skip the hot liquor tank and rotating sparge arm. It was a matter of increasing the grain bill by 10%, and yeah, I did pour a pitcher of 170F water on top of the spent grains while it was draining. The brew came out amazing! Very malty! This process took around 5 hours start-to-finish. There is an all-grain brewing technique that was made popular by Austrailian homebrewers that has taken the simplicity of all-grain brewing even a step further. It's called "Brew-In-A-Bag." You need a 30-40 quart kettle and a big straining bag. You may wish to buy a small and a large stainless steel colander, if you don't already have them hiding in your kitchen. THAT'S ALL!
The Test Run
Early this summer, Hal and I got together and brewed our first batch of all-grain Belgian Saison using the "Brew-In-A-Bag" technique. We filled the kettle to the 7 gallon mark, heated the mash water to 155F (with an anticipated 152F strike temperature), and dropped in the smaller colander (to keep the nylon bag from touching the bottom of the kettle and melting). We placed the straining bag in the kettle and slowly poured in the grains while constantly stirring the mash. We used roughly 2.33 quarts of water to each pound of grain. I normally aim for 1.25-1.33 quarts/# when sparging. I remembered thinking to myself, "what if it doesn't convert?" We stayed the course and after an hour, the top of the mash water was chalky. I tasted the mash water and it was sweet to the taste. We did an iodine test and the grains had converted. We raised the heat of the mash to 170F (mash-out) and pulled the bag of grains out. That was when I wished I had a large colander. We placed the bag in a large bowl and proceeded with the boil. We were about 2 hours into the process at that point. You know the rest of the process from that point. That batch took about 4 1/2 hours.
The Second Try
We brewed a batch of Oktoberfest using the "Brew-In-A-Bag" technique on September 11, 2011. We refined the technique and further reduced the process to 3 hours from start to finish. We started at 2 and had the 75F brew in a fermentor ready for the yeast at 5. The September 2011 issue of "Brew Your Own" had an article entitled "Mash Experiments" Essentially, the 1 hour standard mash time was tested. They found that conversion takes anywhere from 10 to 50 minutes. We did a starch test after 30 minutes at 153F and it came out negative (no starch - full conversion). We fired up the burner and heated the mash to 170F while stirring it thoroughly. After a few minutes, we removed the grain bag and placed it in the large colander, which was inside a large mixing bowl and let the sweet stuff drain while we heated the kettle to a boil. The grain bag drained about 1.5 quarts of 1.052 brew. There was 6 gallons of brew when the boil began. We ended up with 5.25 gallons of brew in the fermentor. Three hours was all the time it took to brew an All Grain batch of beer. Amazing, eh?! I was shooting for a 1.052 OG for this Oktoberfest and hit it. While Oktoberfest Blend Lager yeast was the preferred yeast, we are using the Ringwood Ale yeast. The attenuation and malt-forward character was what I wanted in this beer. It is fermenting at 70F in my wine cellar. It also clears to a near-filtered clarity, making fining a small issue. I plan to use Isinglass because it further clears the beer and aids in head retention.
The next batch of all-grain, brew-in-a-bag will be a belgian Abbey style beer. The non-sparge method really brings out a amazing malt character.