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!

The First Big Boil

Are you ready to jump in and start brewing yet? I definitely understand the feeling! But many of you might lose a little bit of enthusiasm as soon as you see the price tag on all that shiny new brewing equipment. But don’t panic, I’ve been there and I want to help you overcome that!

Anyone who knows me really well has come to terms with the fact that I’m a bit of a tightwad when it comes to spending money, especially when I was in college. Naturally as a college senior I was brainstorming ways to have fun without breaking the bank. I came upon the idea that I could begin making my own beer because everything is cheaper to make at home rather than buying it in the store, right? Well in this case, not quite.

Now don’t start punching the back button on your browser as fast as you can, I have some good news! I have been pretty lucky to have acquired quite a bit of cheap homebrewing equipment, and I believe you can do the same! I’ll go into more detail on how I acquired my equipment in a little bit, but if you want some more information on the basic brewing equipment required to make beer, check out the “Basic Equipment” tab at the top of this page.

As I mentioned in my first post, I took the initial homebrewing leap of faith when I bought a Mr. Beer Kit. This was around Christmas-time my senior year of college, and I had received a gift card that allowed me to buy a full blown 2 gallon brewing set worth about $40. This included a fermenter, bottles, sanitizing solution, some malt extract, yeast, and priming sugar tablets.

Mr. Beer is great in that they offer a kit that makes brewing as simple as possible. As some of you may know, there are two main ways to brew beer: extract brewing and all-grain brewing. Extract brewing is by far the easier route, especially if you’re using hopped malt extract (which is what I used for a few Mr. Beer batches). If you want a little more information on the basic ingredients used for brewing, check out the “Basic Ingredients” tab at the top of this page.

My first beer ever was an Irish Stout, and it was ready just in time for St. Patrick’s Day! One thing I’ve realized as a homebrewer is that I tend to be a little biased toward my own beers, but I try to always keep this in mind when I share my beer with others. With that being said, I really enjoyed my first batch! However, some of my friends probably preferred to drink my beer really fast with a shot of Irish cream submerged within the glass. All that meant to me was there was room for improvement, and I was more motivated than ever! With my little brown keg I got a lot of practice, and I made a partial mash pale ale, a partial mash hefeweizen, and a pilsner (just to name a few).

I felt like I got a little better with each brew, and eventually I decided I wanted to start making bigger, more complicated batches. One day I decided to share some of my most recent batch with my father-in-law, and it turned out that he used to be a weekend brewmaster back in the day too! He took a look in the basement, and sure enough he had his old equipment! This included a fermenter, mixing bucket, racking cane (with tubing), and a bench bottle capper.

Some of my borrowed equipment

Now I got lucky that he let me “borrow” his equipment, but maybe you don’t have a family member who is trying to unload some old homebrewing equipment. That is ok! Just the other day I was on Facebook marketplace and I found a guy who was unloading his entire homebrewing setup for $30 just because he was moving and no longer had space! I guarantee that if you are vigilant, you will be able to stumble upon a great deal on one of these types of situations (check out Facebook, Craigslist, garages sales, etc.).

However, if you don’t mind spending $60-$100 or so, Midwestsupplies.com has a great beginners kit too! The only other major equipment you will probably need is a brew kettle. 5 gallon brew kettles are ideal for 5 gallon recipes, but they can get expensive. I got mine as a wedding gift, but I have also seen 5 gallon kettles at thrift stores for $10-$20. For more information on what to look for in a brew kettle, keep an eye out for my future post in the “Basic Equipment” series.

My brew kettle (far left) and a couple other smaller pots that I use for brewing

Ok, now I had my equipment and I was ready for my first big batch. The first 5 gallon batch I had ever made was actually a birthday gift to my father-in-law. I figured it was something we could do together, and who doesn’t like 5 gallons of craft beer for their birthday?! I went to the local homebrew store and bought a kit for a honey wheat beer. The recipe is shown below:

  • 4 lb Wheat Malt Extract (LME)
  • 2 lb jar of honey
  • 1 oz. Spalt Hops
  • 1272 American II Activator Pack (yeast)
  1. Brought three gallons of water to a boil, removed from heat, and stirred in LME
  2. Brought mixture back to a boil, boiled for 10 minutes and then added Spalt hops
  3. After another 50 minutes of boiling removed from heat and stirred in the honey
  4. Brought mixture back to a boil for ten more minutes then removed from heat and cooled as quickly as possible
  5. Aerated wort, brought volume to 5 gallons with tap water, then added contents of yeast packet

Seems easy, right? We thought it went pretty well, and we really enjoyed the finished product! One thing I noticed though was that the beer did not stay fresh for very long, and I think this was because we didn’t pay close enough attention to sanitation. This is step number one under the tab titled “The Process” because this is one of the most important steps of consistent homebrewing.

Along with some lessons learned with the new equipment, I also learned a lot from going through the motions of the first big boil. It’s hard to explain this, but you will definitely understand once you have a handful of brews under your belt. So whatever it is holding you back, I hope you realize that getting started is the hardest part of homebrewing, and it’s something that just about anyone can do.

I would love to hear what got you interested in beer and homebrewing, or some stories from all the beginners out there! Leave a comment below or reach out to me through the questions and comments tab above! My next series of posts will go into further detail on many pieces of common homebrewing equipment, so until then, cheers!

Fruit Flavoring (Basic Ingredients #9)

It’s the middle of summer, and what better way to cool off on a hot day than to grab a nice cold homebrew! You probably aren’t reaching for a heavy IPA or a dark porter style beer in this situation, and if you’re like me you might prefer something with a nice, refreshing, fruity flavor. There are a few different ways to add that fruity twist to your brews, and today I want to let you know how!

The first method that many people use to add hints of fruit to their beers is pretty simple: they add hops! As I discussed in one of my previous blog posts, hops can add many different notes to your beer including fruity and citrus-like flavors. Some of my favorite hop varieties like citra and cascade are perfect for this, but there are many hop options available to you.

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Now if you want to add some real fruit to your beer, this is a great option as well. Adding fresh whole fruit, frozen fruit, or fruit puree are all great options for incorporating real fruit into your next recipe. Many people add these ingredients to the secondary fermenter, and it can be beneficial to put the fruit in a muslin sack so that the fruit particles are more contained and don’t end up in your final product.

If you choose to try the real fruit method, then I highly suggest that you sanitize your fruit before adding to the secondary fermenter. This can be done by putting the fruit in some water and bringing the mixture to approximately 160 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes. If you use this method, it is best to allow the fruit to cool before adding it to the fermenter. Taking this step can also be beneficial because it begins to break down the fruit membranes and allows more of the flavor to be released.

The last method I will discuss for adding fruity flavors to your beer involves the use of fruit extracts. This highly concentrated ingredient can add a lot of flavor to your finished beer with less than five fluid ounces per five gallons of beer! Since fruit extracts are so potent, I highly suggest that you start with a little bit and taste the beer before adding more.

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Natural Raspberry Extract

The best time I’ve found to add fruit extracts to your beer is during packaging. I like to combine the extract with my priming sugar and then place this in my empty and sanitized bottling bucket. Then you simply rack your beer from your fermenter into the bottling bucket, and the swirling motion of the beer will adequately mix the extract and priming sugar into your beer. I have used this method to make a raspberry wheat beer and it turned out great! Keep an eye out for my future post which will review my raspberry wheat and provide you with the recipe.

Do you add fruit to your beer using a method that hasn’t been discussed in this post? Comment below! If you’ve been following my blog up to this point, then you know that we’ve now gone over all of the basic ingredients used to make beer at home. This post on fruit flavoring wraps up my first blog series, “Basic Ingredients,” where I’ve talked about grains, extract, hops, water, and yeast! I hope you enjoyed this first series, and I’d love to see any comments that you may have. If I left out a key ingredient that you’re interested in, or you want to know more about anything I have talked about, reach out through the comments section below or contact me directly using the “Questing/Comments” tab!

Keep an eye out for my next series on “Basic Equipment” as well as some reviews and recipes from my personal experience. Until then, cheers!