Monday, June 29, 2009

Make your own grain mill for $25.00!

Okay, so now that my first "homemalted" brewing attempt was a complete failure, I have assessed my procedures and have come to the conclusion that poorly milled grain was the culprit. I really want to mill these gains properly, so I've been looking online to try and find a cheap alternative to the usual homebrew mills that run between $125 - $200 dollars. I was recently happily surprised to find this blog entry that describes how to make your own grain mill at home for about 20 bucks! So, I proceeded to make a cheap grain mill and will now relate to you my experience.

First, I found the nearest Michaels Craft Store, but you could probably go to any craft store if there isn't a Michaels in your area. I purchased this "pasta machine", which is designed for making thin layers of clay for crafts. It cost about $24. I brought it home and my 15 month-old son Evan tried to steal it from me while I was taking this picture:

Here's a picture after I took it out of the box (it comes with a hand crank and a clamp for attaching it to a table):

Next I turned it over and removed the base:

The "pasta machine" has two sides, one with a knob to adjust the width of the rollers, and one with the entry point for the hand crank. The hand crank side has an exposed screw, so I unscrewed it and removed that side:

Next, I removed the two bolts inside, which turned out to be 10mm in size, and then the end popped off and I was able to remove the top and bottom guides, exposing the rollers:

When this thing is finished, your basically going to pass the grain between these rollers to crush it. The problem is that the rollers are perfectly smooth and designed for dough or clay, so grains will just slide around on top and never pass through. You need to rough them up so the grain is drawn in properly. The blog I mentioned above tells you to take apart the entire apparatus to rough up the rollers, but I decided not to do so, since it looked like a major pain in the ass to remove the spacing knob, and why should I put myself through that? I had already succeeded in removing the guides and easily had enough room to roughen the rollers. I used a hack saw to scratch them, then I beat the crap out of them with the claw side of a hammer. Here's a picture after this process (it didn't come out that clear, but you get the idea):

I put everything back together, but left off the bottom guides. Are they really necessary? I don't think so. I think they are there just to guide the pasta or clay so that it comes out the side instead of straight down, but for our purposes it is better if the grain actually falls straight down. Then I clamped the hand crank to my work bench and used the hack saw to cut off the tip, which I could then place into my variable speed power drill to operate the mill without any effort! (In this picture I've already placed the tip into my drill):

Next I found a scrap piece of plywood and an old "Homer" bucket in my garage and cut the plywood down to fit squarely over the bucket:

I measured the mill and then drew out a rectangle on the plywood that would allow grain to pass into the bucket after being crushed. Then I cut out the hole using a drill and hack saw (the wet spots are from my sweat - I was working in my garage and it was 100 degrees out that day):

I found four screws that were long enough to make it through the plywood and into the mill, and slightly larger in diameter than the existing holes in the mill where the base used to be attached. I figured I could force them into the existing holes for a nice snug fit. So I then pre-drilled holes through the plywood and pushed my screws through just enough so they were peaking out the other side.

After turning over the wood, I placed the mill on top and used the protruding screw tips to locate the base holes. Once everything was lined up, I turned it back over, applied firm pressure with my foot, and powered the screws in. They fit nice and tight so the mill ended up very firmly attached to the wood:

Lastly, I cut a small piece of wood to fit over the top of the mill, and cut the end off of a 2-liter seltzer bottle to form a makeshift hopper. I traced the end of the bottle onto the wood, which turned out to be about 1 inch in diameter. Then I drilled a hole and forced the mouth of the bottle into it. It was so snug that I didn't even bother to use any glue. But I did glue the wood to the top of the mill with this super strong, waterproof cement that I have used in the past to fix up mash tuns. Before I glued it on, I got the idea to scratch up the rollers even more by turning on the drill and then dragging my bit across the rollers. Worked great! One tip though: you have to put the drill in reverse, otherwise the bit will jam in the rollers!

That's it! After that I let the glue dry overnight, and then tested it out the next day. I had to adjust the roller width a few times until I found out that setting # 3 worked best. The only drawback is that it is quite slow. It took me about 30 minutes to completely mill 10 pounds of grain. That is a really long time when you are kneeling down holding a drill. I thought maybe if I cranked the drill up to full speed it would be faster, but it actually worked better at a slow, steady pace. At high speed it feels like the pasta maker is going to literally fall apart, and also less grain gets trapped in the rollers. Here's the first trial of the new "el cheapo" grain mill:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My first brewing failure

If you've had a chance to read my previous entry on malting barley at home, then you already know how much time and energy I recently put into making my own fresh malt. After finally completing the malting process for the first time, I was dying to brew my first "homemalted" batch of beer - a hoppy pale ale. I decided to use a double decoction to really bring out the fresh barley flavor and balance the hops, and I decided to order organic Cascade hops (why not keep this beer 100% organic?) from Seven Bridges Cooperative, along with some Safale US-05 yeast. I always use this yeast for my American Ales since it has a nice clean finish and the perfect moderate attenuation that I desire for this style. I usually end up with a final gravity around 1.010-1.015 so I get nice flavor and body without going too dry or too sweet.

So the first thing I needed to do was crush my freshly malted grains. The only problem is that I don't have a grain mill, nor do I have an extra $150 to blow on one right now. I also have to admit that I felt a little uncomfortable asking my local homebrew store to mill it for me, since I hadn't purchased it there, and wasn't even planning on getting my hops and yeast there. So I got some Zip-Lock freezer bags, put a small amount of grain into one (maybe about 1 pound), and began crushing it repeatedly with a wooden rolling pin.

Okay, so it turns out that this method really sucks. Within the first couple minutes I broke a sweat, and after getting through about 3 or 4 bags I was cursing like a sailor and had developed a really bad pain in my left wrist. Also, I wasn't really getting the quality crush that I've always been accustomed to when I purchase grains at the store or online. I held a few kernels in my hand and analyzed them - they looked cracked, so I assumed all would be well.

So to make a long story short, I spent the next five hours performing the most meticulous, well executed and well documented brew session ever. After chilling the wort I took a small sample to get my first gravity reading - the moment of truth! In hind sight, I should have taken a test before the boil, but I was so excited and it smelled so good I simply didn't even think of it. So I dropped in my hydrometer, hoping for the best, and watched in horror as it sank to 1.010!!! Horrible! Unbelievable! Now I had managed to waste the whole day, all those delicious hops, and, good Lord - all the time spent malting that barley! On top of that I had already pre-boiled water and dumped my yeast in to re-hydrate! I really wanted to do something, anything, to make beer out of all this mess. So I started rummaging through all my brewing supplies. I found a couple pounds of dry malt extract that I keep in the back of the fridge for making yeast starters, about a half a pound of corn sugar for when I do small or gift batches and I need primer, and a three pound container of clover honey. I was desperate, okay? I've never had to throw away a batch before, and I wasn't about to make this my first time!

So I poured all that random crap into a pot, boiled for about 15 minutes, chilled in an ice bath and then dumped it all into my stupid weak wort. I tested the gravity again and came up with 1.045. Whatever, it would have to do. I aerated again just to be sure and pitched my very well hydrated yeast.

When I look back on this experience, I really feel that I wasn't able to get a good crush on my grains, and that was probably the cause of my extremely poor mash efficiency. So I have begun malting my next batch of barley, and I am going to try again, except this time I'm going to crush the grains properly. However, for some reason I now feel even more adamant about doing this myself - as if I have something to prove! So I have to find a cheap grain mill or another reliable method for milling barley.

This is my quest - I will report back when I come up with the solution! Also, I'll post again when I have my first taste of the "swampwater" concoction I brewed. Do you think I can even call it "beer"???

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Decoction Mashing

Now that everyone knows what a malt lover I am, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly mention decoction mashing, since it is a really good way to bring out the malt's full flavor and a lot of people are not that familiar with the process. Basically, it is the same as a step mash, except that instead of using hot water to bring your mash up to the next step you actually remove part of the mash (mostly grain with just enough fluid to give it an "oatmeal" type consistancy) and boil it. Then you add the hot grains back into the mash tun, which causes the desired temperature rise. I love decoction mashing for many reasons. For the amazing flavor it produces, the improved mash efficiency, and also the added benefit of not having to worry about overfilling my relatively small 5-gallon mash tun, since no water needs to be added for step mashes, or at mash-out (this is especially good when using larger amounts of grain for higher gravity beers). Here is an example of a decoction boiling away on my stove, the grain's rich, luscious flavors being extracted and concentrated right before my eyes!

You can perform one decoction to achieve mash-out temperature, or you can perform 2, 3, or even more to step from acid rest to protein rest to sacharification, and so on. The more decoctions you do, the more malt flavor you will produce! However, I have found that doing lots of decoctions makes the beer darker than expected and evaporates much more water, so you must take this into account when preparing your recipe. Personally, I love decoctions so much, that now I basically perform a short one (15 minute boil or less) at mash-out for 90% of the beers I make! It gives me a little bump in flavor, and makes my mashes a tad more efficient (my mashes are all well over 80% efficient using this method).

Now that I have malted my own barley (see my previous post), I will definitely be using a multiple decoction when brewing with those grains - I really want to get the most flavor out of my homemade malt!

So I won't go into all the details of decoction mashing "how-to's" because there's already lots of really good links out there with information. My favorite one so far is Check it out! It is really informative and even includes a graph that will allow you to figure out how much of your mash needs to be boiled to achieve the temperature change you are going for. Great stuff!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Malting Barley At Home

Some homebrewers call themselves "hop-heads" because of their absolute love of hops' flavor, aroma, and bitterness. They search far and wide for the freshest hops and pour ounce after ounce into their beers, constantly pushing the IBU envelope, and dry-hopping every brew. I've even seen brewers who've used 6 or 8 different types of hops in one beer! It may sound kind of crazy, but if you love hops, why not? I can definitely identify with "hop-heads" - I love the aroma and flavor of hops, and I love the unique taste each hop variety can bring to homebrew - whether it's spicy, floral, or otherwise. But the bottom line is that personally, I am much more in love with the flavor of malted barley. Call me a "malt-head" or whatever other moniker you can invent - I simply love the smell, the sweetness, the flavor, and the hundreds of ways barley can be roasted, toasted, caramelized, and smoked. I've always wondered what it would take to malt my own barley and so for the last couple months I have been searching the internet for information on home malting. It seems that there are not a huge amount of people out there malting their own barley, but I was able to get some general information to get started.

The basic process of malting begins with moistening the barley seeds so they start to germinate (sprout). The germination process causes the starchy insides of the seed to be converted into sugar - the stuff beer's made out of! These sugars are designed to feed the baby plant until it can find its own nutrient source. After the seeds have sprouted to a certain point and contain as much sugar as possible, you dry them out to stop the process. Then you "kiln" them to complete the drying process and to give them some flavor, and you can even roast them for more color and flavor.

To make crystal malt, you have to mash the green (freshly sprouted) barley, and then cook it at a high temperature to crystalize the sugars. The fact that crystal malt has already been mashed is why extract and partial mash brewers are able to simply steep these grains for a short time in hot water instead of putting them through an entire mashing process - it's already been done!

So I decided that I wanted to keep the process as simple as possible and attempt to produce a basic pale malt, and a small amount of crystal malt to add body and flavor.

Next I searched for a good online source of barley seed. I have read that you can usually acquire barley seed at any local feed store for very cheap, but I didn't know of any feed stores in my town, and I was also concerned that a feed store would sell me a product more designed for animal use and not for malting. Finally I found This company will ship you a 25 pound bag of premium unhulled barley seed that has been produced completely organically. The fact that it was organic just made me more excited, since I entered into this whole undertaking to eliminate factory processing and to produce the ultimate fresh malt in a hands-on way. So the absence of chemical pesticides on the grain just felt even more natural and earthy. The barley was pretty inexpensive, but due to the weight the shipping was almost as much as the actual grain, and it took about a week to arrive at my home in Florida. I devised the following plan: I would break the malting up into two larger batches (designed to make the usual 5 gallons), and one small batch (approximately 2 gallons). The first large batch would consist of a pale malt and a small amount of crystal malt to make a hoppy American Pale Ale, the second large batch would be more roasted with a larger amount of crystal malt to make a toasted lager, and the leftover small batch I would smoke in my buddy Erin's smoker! (yet another thing I've always wanted to try).

Next I got a cheap digital scale from Walmart. I've always wanted one for making precise hop measurements, and now I had the perfect excuse, as I would need to separate the grain into portions (it would be impossible to malt the whole 25 pounds at once). So I weighed out 10.5 pounds of grain and dumped it into my 4 gallon brewpot. The first thing you have to do is clean the grain by filling the pot with water and running your hands through the grain. All the dead seeds, pieces of plant material, and other useless crap floats to the top and can easily be skimmed off and removed. The water turned slightly brown so I poured it off, then filled the pot up with fresh water to begin the soaking process.

I have read many different opinions about soaking the grains, but most call for some time under water, then some time with the water removed, until the grain begins to sprout. I basically did what I could around my busy work schedule, but it turned out to be approximately 6-8 hours wet followed by 6-8 hours dry and so on. I stirred the grains whenever I could, and within about 24 to 48 hours they started to "chit", which is when the first tiny root begins to protrude from the seed.

At this point I gave the barley one final rinse and then dumped it into three trays. Actually, two trays and one large wooden salad bowl (I have to work with what I've got). I covered the grains with loose plastic wrap, so that dust and bacteria would hopefully not fall into the grain from gravity (you can also use tin-foil). Many people use large clay pots for this stage, since they are porous and can absorb any extra water, but, once again, I just used what I had available.

During this stage of germination it is very important to stir the grains at least a couple times a day, as they actually produce heat during the process. This warm, moist environment is a perfect place for mold to grow, and if that happens you pretty much have to throw everything out and start again. I read online that the inside of a germinating pile of barley can exceed 104 degrees! (About the temperature of a jacuzzi) All I can tell you is that when I stirred up my grains, I scooped barley into my hand and could definitely feel a noticeable warm sensation! So just stir them as often as you can, and if your grain starts to smell like it's rotting, it probably is.

The germination of barley should take anywhere from 3-5 days. If you work full-time, like me, starting the process early in the week (like Monday night) will allow you to perform all your drying and kilning on the weekend, when there's more free time. This is important, since I would not reccomend leaving the oven unattended while at work.

You want to dry the barley and stop it from growing when the leave shoot (acrospire) is 75% to 100% the length of the kernel. But when the acrospire begins to grow, at first it grows inside the kernel! So the only way to find out it's length is to break open a few seeds and gently pull out the shoot. Another good indication is if the roots have developed up to 2 or 3 times the length of the seed - at this point the acrospire is usually at least 75% in length. Also, I noticed that once in a while you will find a kernel that has burst open and the acrospire is actually shooting out the side. It is very rare, like some kind of mutant or something, but it does allow you to easily see the length of the acrospire without breaking open any seeds. You can eat a few seeds at this point - they should have a sweet flavor - this means the starches have begun their conversion and it's time to dry the barley and lock in all that flavor!

But first, I needed to make my crystal malt. Basically, this involves mashing a portion of the sprouted barley (green barley), and then cooking it at a high temperature to dry it and caramelize the sugars. First, I weighed out the amount of barley to be mashed. Remember that at this point the weight of your barley is 40- 50% water, so you need to use practically double the weight that you eventually want to end up with, because after drying you will lose all that water weight.

Next, I put the barley into 4 small ziplock bags, sucked out as much air as possible, and sealed. I then heated up a couple gallons of water to 160 degrees and filled up my small mash tun, placing the bags of barley inside. No matter how hard you try to suck out the air, they will still float, so you have to place some kind of weight on top. I used a small sauce pan with my heavy glass sugar-bowl top inside for weight. When I closed the top the cooler lid sort of pushed the pan down (my mash tuns are made out of round Rubbermaid coolers), so I think my grains were pretty much underwater. After the 160 degree water hits your cool mash tun, and then after adding the grain bags, you should end up with a temperature somewhere in the low 150's - perfect! Now simply wait 1-2 hours - the same as mashing grain to make wort, except the grains never actually touch the water, so the sugars stay locked inside.

After that I removed the bags and dumped out the grains into my small roasting tray. I set my oven at 400 degrees and placed the tray inside (about halfway up). It takes a couple of hours, and you will obviously need to stir the grains every so often so they receive even heat. After a while you may hear some crackling sounds - this is normal, don't freak out! The caramelization has begun! At this point, monitor the grain closely and cook it as long and dark as you desire. If you want to create a "Carapils" style dextrin malt, simply dry the grains but don't darken them (this will add body to beer but not as much color or flavor). I kept mine in the oven as long as possible, and at a certain point the edges of the grain looked like they were getting burnt, so I removed them.

After that, I set the temperature at the lowest possible - 170 on my oven, dumped the rest of my grain into the two large roasting pans, and put them inside. I propped open the door slightly with a large plastic spoon. This keeps the temperature down (170 is actually a bit warm) and allows the air to circulate, aiding in the drying process. Once again, you must stir the grains as much as possible so they dry evenly. This takes 24-48 hours. My oven automatically shut down after 12 hours, and I had to reset the temp to continue.

When the grain is almost completely dry (chew some - it should be crunchy on the outside and slightly softer inside) it is time to "kiln". I set my oven at 250 degrees and kilned for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours. Stir often and, by God, enjoy that amazing smell that will now saturate your entire house!

The next step is to take the grain out of the oven, let it cool, and then remove the dried roots, which will now have turned brown and curled up. I accomplished this by taking small portions of grain and putting them into a wire-mesh strainer, and then circulating them with my hand at moderate pressure. Most of the dried roots fall off and pass through the strainer and the grains remain.

According to some of the internet posts I have read, it is best to then let the grain sit for a week or two before using it to make beer. I don't know why you need to do this, but for me it just simply worked out best since I wasn't ready to brew when my grains had finished the malting process. I left the grains in one of the roasting trays and covered them with tin-foil. I poured my crystal malt on top and it was definitely cool to see the contrast in color between the crystal and the pale malts.

That's it!!! I will blog again on my first "home-malted" brew day!

P.S. - I tried to take more close up pics of the grain chits and roots, but they kept coming out blurry on my camera. However I did manage to find a website with really nice germination close-ups posted by a dude who malts his own barley in the Phillipines. Check it out at

7/29/09: Just wanted to post a quick note after this entry. In case you haven't had a chance to read about all my brewing experiments with homemade malt, I was unable to get my efficiency higher than 35% (!!!) using the "home-malted" barley (very, very poor). I even tried germinating my seeds longer until the acrospires had all achieved about 100% seed length, and also milling the grains very thoroughly, but still had very low efficiency. I believe the only factor left to change would be the temperature at which I dried the grains. My oven will not go below 170 degrees F, and all the literature I read online called for around 50 degrees C (or 122 F). As you can see above, I left the door of the oven open and tried to circulate the grains often, but I am thinking that maybe the heat was still too much and managed to damage the potential of the barley in some way. To remedy this, the only option that I personally would have available would be to dry the grain in the sun. I live in south Florida, so this would work great in the wintertime, but right now in the summer it rains every day and I wouldn't be able to leave anything outside for long. So I can try the sun-drying technique this winter and report back afterwards. Also, I could try a different barley source. I thought I had the coolest barley around, but who knows? I would be interested to see if a different source may be better suited for malting. Good luck to anyone out there trying this, please post a comment if you have anything to add. Thanks.

8/16/09 - I almost forgot, here is another method I tried using a rigged up fan to circulate the heat and try not to damage the grains. The fan blows air into the oven, and then it escapes through the side of a towel I put over the opening. Results were questionable: