Brewing Pale Ale with Colin

Jonathan and I went over to Colin’s to brew a 10 gallon all-grain batch of pale ale yesterday. I’ve never done an all-grain brew before (and neither has Jonathan), so I was pretty excited about it (Jonathan is 1 so he didn’t really express any feelings about it as far as I could tell). I’ve done a number of mini-mashes on my stove, but nothing that approached even 50% of the grain bill and certainly not the 20+ pounds of grain we used for this pale ale. I read about brewing all the time, so I am pretty familiar with all-grain brewing without actually having done it. The internet is bizarre like that. Colin introduced me to extract brewing about two and a half years ago and I watched him brew a hefeweizen before I made my first batch. Now he was about to show me all-grain brewing in action for the first time as well.

Colin had brewed a few 5 gallon all-grain batches in the past using one of those converted round Rubbermaid coolers he got on Craigslist as a mash tun. He said he got a stuck sparge every time he used it and always ended up having to drain the grain through a colander into the brew pot. Definitely not ideal. A couple of weeks ago Colin got a 100 quart Coleman marine cooler to convert into a monster mash tun (thanks Aubrey) so he could do 10 gallon batches and hopefully avoid stuck sparges. He removed the original drain in the cooler and replaced it with a nipple with a ball valve on the outside and a length of stainless steel braided water supply line with the interior tubing removed on the inside. The stainless steel braid acts as a manifold to allow sweet wort to flow out of the mash tun while keeping grain husks out of the boil kettle. It’s an easy and affordable way to make a mash tun invented by Denny Conn that many home brewer’s have used. I plan on making my own cooler mash tun in the future and I’ll post pictures and instructions when I do. In the meantime Denny has a walk-through of making a converted cooler and there are a large number of people out there that have documented their cooler construction. Google it and you’ll find plenty. Thanks to Denny for sharing the idea with everyone and thanks to all those people who documented their conversions. Home brewers really love to help each other out. It’s great.

Colin picked up all the ingredients on Friday. It turned out to be a bit of a task to get the hops we needed for the recipe. The recipe called for 2 ounces each of Horizon, Cascade, and Centennial. All Seasons limits the amount of hops you can buy and has a pretty limited selection due to the hop shortage. They also apparently limit the amount of a single hop variety they will sell in a week in order to stretch out their availability. I was told that they put out the hops for sale for the week on Thursday night so that they are available starting Friday morning. Colin got 2 ounces of Centennial. They didn’t have anything else that was a reasonable substitute for the other hops.

Colin works at the Yazoo Brewing Company, mostly on the bottling line I think. He ended up being able to get 2 ounces each of Simcoe and Cascade from Yazoo, which is awesome. Thanks Yazoo. I’ll buy a couple of extra 6 packs of Pale Ale to make it up to you. We decided to used the Simcoes as our bittering hop in place of the Horizons. I like Simcoe quite a bit. Yazoo has an IPA on tap in their tap room at the moment, Hop Project #6, that uses Simcoe and it’s delicious. There are enough citrusy, Cascade dominated IPAs and pale ales in the world. We need more piney Simcoe aroma beers in my opinion to mix things up a bit.

Before mashed in, we preheated the cooler with some near boiling water (but not so hot that is damaged the cooler, maybe 175 or so) so that we didn’t get a lot of temperature loss into the cooler. We brought 7.5 gallons of water to 168 degrees F and added that to the mash tun as our strike water. I poured the bag of crushed grains into the mash cooler while Colin stirred and Jonathan watched. We were aiming for 152 degrees F and ended up hitting about 149 instead. It was the first time using the cooler, so I think we got pretty close. Next time we should try 170 or so. Colin had some near boiling water on the stove we used to bring the mash temperature up to 150. We stopped at 150 because we didn’t want to think the mash out too much and figured 150 was reasonable. Then we waited an hour while Jonathan fed goldfish crackers to Colin’s dog Sam and we drank beer.

Here’s Colin stirring the mash just after I finished pouring the grains into the mash tun.

After an hour the mash was still at 150 degrees. So it looks like the cooler holds its temperature pretty well. We added a couple of gallons of 170 degree water to the mash, stirred it to get the grain into suspension and began taking the first runnings of sweet wort by just cracking open the valve. The first half gallon or so includes some grain husks and isn’t the clear wort you want in the kettle. We collected this wort in a pitcher and poured in back into the mash. This is called vorlaufing. As the wort drains and the grains compact, they create a filter bed that allows the liquid to drain to the bottom of the cooler and out the drain. You want to be careful when pouring the pitcher of wort back into the cooler. You don’t want to create any channels in the grains as they form a filter bed. Channels in the grains can help cause a stuck sparge, where the grain prevents the wort from properly draining. This is the reason why you want to open the drain slowly at first as well. After you get clear wort flowing, slowly open the valve all the way.

When the mash tun stopped draining, we checked the volume we had collected in the boil kettle. We only had slightly over 5 gallons, which is just over half of the almost 10 gallons we had added to the mash. The grains will absorb some of the water, but they shouldn’t be able to absorb half of the wort. Colin immediately guessed that the braid we were using as a manifold had come loose and was somewhere in the mash. He was right. He hadn’t attached the braid to the nipple in the cooler wall with a clamp thinking it was a tight enough fit without it. Without the braid in place, the grain had compacted around and in the cooler drain preventing any additional wort from draining. We considered draining the grain with a colander like Colin had done in the past, but decided to try to re-attach the manifold without disturbing the mash too much. I’ve read that hot side aeration is less of a problem for home brewers than commercial brewers since we generally drink the beer it has a chance to show the effects of oxidation. But no reason not to get things done the right way (and the easier way). We removed about a quarter of the mash into a spare pot and tilted the cooler enough to expose the inside of the drain. We cleared the clogged drain with a quick blast from the garden hose and Colin attached the manifold and clamped it down. We poured the removed grain back into the cooler and drained the remaining wort into the boil kettle. Disaster averted.

While this was going on, we had heated another 7.5 gallons of sparge water. You add this water to the mash tun to help rinse additional sugars out of the grain bed and into the boil kettle. When the sparging was complete, we had about 13.5 gallons of wort in the kettle (we were aiming for 14 I believe), and a grain bed that looked like this:

I almost forgot to mention that we added 1 ounce of Simcoe hops to the mash just for kicks. The mash smelled great; mashing smells so much better than opening some extract.

And so the 60 minute boil began.

At this point Jonathan was about to collapse. He was about an hour late for his nap, so we headed home with plans to come back when Jonathan woke up to help with clean up at least. Colin kept taking pictures and kept me up to date on how things were proceeding. Here’s where I wish I had that shed built in my backyard so we could be doing this at my house. Then Jonathan could go to sleep whenever he felt like it and I could keep on brewing.

Once the boil starts, brewing all grain is exactly the same as brewing with extract, so I have a lot less to talk about from here on out, but I do have plenty of pictures.

Like I mentioned somewhere at the beginning, we used Centennial and Cascade for the flavor and aroma additions and Simcoe for the bitter addition and in the mash. In go the hops.

Here’s a shot of the wort cooling. We used Colin’s immersion chiller in the kettle and mine in a bucket of ice water. We have both only done 5 gallon batches in the past, we neither of us had a large enough chiller for the amount of wort we needed to cool. Pre-chilling with ice seemed to work reasonably well.

Once everything was cooled, we transfered the wort to two 6.5 gallon carboys for fermentation. we pitched a 2L starter of 1056 in one fermenter and about the same amount of yeast cake Colin got from Yazoo in the other. I believe that Yazoo uses an English yeast. It’ll be interesting to see the differences the yeast contributes. Both carboys are currently fermenting away at about 67 degrees F in Colin’s chest freezer.

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One thought on “Brewing Pale Ale with Colin

  1. Dave says:

    So I assume you did a batch sparge? You didn’t really elaborate. Have you done any more mashes since with this converted cooler???

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