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Beginning to brew


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At Milwaukee Brewing, grain enters the mash tun on the right from the overhead trough

By: Stephen Beaumont


The first step in creating a beer is to prepare the grain for brewing. (The very first step is malting the grain, of course – see What’s in a Beer: Malted Barley – but that step is typically done outside of the brewery.) Since grain is the base of any beer, this is an essential part of brewing.


Before even beginning the mashing in process, a brewer must decide on the grain composition of the beer they intend to make. For a typical ale or lager, the majority of the grain will be pale malted barley, with portions of darker malts added if an amber, brown or black hue is desired. (Small proportions of dark malts can have great effect on the look, smell and taste of a beer. As little as 8% black malt in the mix, for example, can turn a beer mahogany or darker and give it chocolaty or coffee-ish flavours.) If grains other than barley malt are to be used, which ones and how much of each must be determined well in advance of the brew day.

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The mash tun at Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto

Once the mix has been decided upon, the malted barley and other grains, if applicable, must be milled so that the grain is cracked but not crushed, the ideal being a coarse meal rather than a flour or powder. The resulting mixture, known as the grist, is then sent to a large vessel called a mash tun, where heated water will be added and the grain steeped for up to two or three hours. During this process, the natural starches are leached from the grain and their transformation into fermentable sugars begins.

When most of the sugars are deemed to have been removed from the grain and the sweet, sugar-rich liquid drawn off the grain, mashing in is almost complete, save for one final step. This last process, known as sparging, sees water sprayed over the grain bed in order to remove the last of the grain’s sugar content. When that liquid too has been drained from the mash tun, what is now known as spent grain is shoveled out and disposed of, usually taken as feed by farmers or sometimes used in bakeries to make a nutritious bread.

(In some breweries, the grain and wort together is sent to another vessel called a lauter tun, where the liquid drains through a slotted floor and is pumped to the brew kettle.)

The “sugar water” that has been produced during the mashing process is now sent to the brew kettle. Hereafter and until fermentation is complete, this liquid is known as wort.


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