The Mash Tun (Basic Equipment #1)

Now that you know all about the basic ingredients used to make beer at home, you’re ready to dive in and start accumulating your equipment! Homebrewing can be an expensive hobby because of all of the cool toys and gadgets on the market today, but it is my goal to help aspiring homebrewers gather the necessary equipment whether they are on a tight budget or no budget. I personally try to be a very thrifty person, so I will talk a lot about the “cheap way” to get into brewing, but I will also provide you with information on the off-the-shelf options as well.

Today I’d like to start my next series, “Basic Equipment,” by focusing on one of the most important vessels required for brewing: the mash tun. I say this is important because without the mash tun, us brewers would not be able to extract those valuable sugars and flavors from our grain. I provided some details on how this extraction takes place in my article on malted grains, so today I want to talk more about the vessel itself.

To give you a brief introduction, the mash tun is a container where grain is mixed with hot water and then allowed to sit for about an hour. While sitting in the mash tun, a brewer may want the mixture to remain at a single temperature or he/she may want to alter the temperature periodically (I will talk more about the reasons for using various different temperatures in my future article on the mashing process). However, regardless of your mashing schedule you will want to make sure your mash tun is insulated and able to hold a steady temperature. This will allow various enzymes to free up the sugars stored within the kernels, and these sugars will later be drained off and used to make beer.

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Check out that mash tun, located at Krucovice brewery in the Czech Republic

A homebrewers mash tun can be anything from a big shiny tank, to a converted drink cooler, or even a large brew kettle. The last item in this list, the brew kettle, can be used as a mash tun if you are doing the brew in a bag, or BIAB, method. I won’t elaborate on BIAB today, but I recommend you do some research on this method if you want to start brewing without investing in a full-blown mash tun.

You can find a few different types of mash tuns at just about any homebrew store or online homebrewing website. Of the many options available, some might look like nothing but a large drink cooler with some extra added hardware. Well this makes sense, because as I alluded to above, a lot of mash tuns really are just big drink coolers that have been converted to be used for making beer!

Now if you buy a cooler that has already been converted, you will obviously pay a little more for it because the work has already been done. If you want to save some money, you can just get a cooler yourself and buy a conversion kit. Drink coolers are perfect vessels to use for mash tuns because they are well insulated so they are good at maintaining your mash temperature. 

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My old drink cooler that I converted into a mash tun (this is the “before” photo)

Drink coolers also provide a good shape for your grain bed to form. You don’t want a grain bed that is too tall, because the weight of the grains will cause the grain bed to compress and make flow more difficult through the grains. A grain bed that is too shallow will make it more difficult to rinse all of the sugars from the spent grains because there is so much surface area that the sparge water might choose a few paths through the grain and bypass the majority of the grains.

A five gallon drink cooler at Home Depot or Walmart will cost you around $20, and the price goes up if you want to buy something bigger. If you’re lucky, you might already have one sitting around your house somewhere, or you might find one for five dollars at your local thrift store! Once you secure your drink cooler, you need to convert it into a mash tun. This is typically done by installing a false bottom, which is just a fancy name for a strainer screen that sits at the bottom of your cooler and makes sure that no grain particles clog up your spigot. If you were to try to drain the sweet liquid from your mash tun without some sort of strainer, then the grains would quickly plug up your spigot and make your brew day a whole lot more difficult.

A conversion kit can be purchase online for typically less than one hundred dollars, and they will allow you to easily drain the wort form your mash tun and carry on with your brew day (see the example pictured above). Now I went to the next level of being cheap, and I created a homemade “false bottom” to convert my 7 gallon Gatorade cooler into a mash tun! I was able to do this using a bazooka screen (click the picture below to get one for yourself) and some hardware from Lowe’s. I will provide an instructional article in the future with all of the details, so keep an eye out! 

Now you know a little more about the major piece of equipment used to extract sugars from your grain. In my next article we will talk about another type of tank: the hot liquor tank. Just to give a little preview, this tank contains the water that is used to rinse the sugars from your grains during the lautering stage of the process. I know you’re disappointed that there is no actual liquor involved, but remember that you can use it to produce some delicious beer!

Do you have a really cool mash tun, or any tips that you’d like to share about creating your own mash tun? Leave a comment below to let us know all about it! If you have any other questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you. Cheers!

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