The day began in the early hours of a beautiful sunny August morning. the sparrows had already awoken and were busy bringing the trees to life with their cheerful chirping. the tranquil cooing of a nearby mourning dove offered a counterbalance to their liveliness as we sat enjoying our first sips of coffee on the shaded back porch.
The opening task of the brew day would be the grinding of the malt. For the pale ale recipe my partner in crime and ultimately my better half, Andrew, and myself decided on a mixture of buckwheat groats, oats, millet and two different rice malts - amber and crystal. Malts are fascinating and integral part of the brew. Simply put, malts are grains that have been soaked in water to jumpstart the germination process (whereby the hull of the grain is broken and begins to seed). The partially-germinated grain is then dried and subjected to a roasting program that will determine the flavour profile the grain will impart in the beer. Longer roasting times mean deeper flavours - think espresso, cocoa nibs and smoke - while lighter malts exhibit fruit, biscuit and malty characteristics among many others.
Because of the small size of the grain we decided to grind the malts together in order to increase the efficiency of our humble hand-crank grinder, and due to the small nature of the millet we had to run the grain through twice on the smallest setting of the mill. It was a two person job between feeding the grains through, cranking the grinder, and holding the entire contraption together on the mickey-mouse set up we had rigged with a precarious 5 gallon bucket base on which the grain mill sat with the only clamp we could find in the entire house - it was comical to say the least!
The degree of grinding is important to the outcome of the brew. Too fine a grind for your malts into something resembling a powdery flour will impart harsher flavours and unwanted amounts of phenolic compounds that negatively impact the taste and aroma the beer will retain in the end. A good, consistent crack to the grain is all you need to release the starches and enzymes that will convert into fermentable sugars during the mash. The trick is making sure that you have a consistency with the grind - which is easier said than done, I’ll say - especially with a hand-crank grinder whose rollers continuously insist on slipping out of alignment.
The mashing of the malt into what is known as the wort, the sugary liquid that is afterwards boiled at a specific temperature for a certain amount of time, is dependent on the recipe and style of the beer one is striving to achieve. When mashing, timing and temperature are critically important, especially with gluten free malts. Each grain profile has a specific temperature(s) at with enzymes release and starches are able to convert which often results in brewer’s choosing a double- or even a triple-step mash. Another method that can be employed is the decoction mash, whereby a portion of the mash (up to a third) is removed and heated up in a different vessel to a higher point (boiling at some times), then is added back into the mash. This can be performed up to three times, resulting in a triple-decoction mash.
Mmmmm, while brewing on the stove the mash took on aromas of a most delicious combination of freshly cooked oatmeal, caramel and toasted nuts.
Mashing is really the only extra step one takes when making the leap into the territory of all-grain brewing - obviously with concentrates and syrups the necessary sugars are already present and ready to go. But of course, there are also partial-grain methods out there that combine the two. For this first ever attempt, we decided to go mostly all-grain (12 lb.) with an added boost of sugars from Simplicity candied beet sugar syrup, a handful of Dark Belgian Candi sugar, and 1 lb. of rice syrup solids, a product that does indeed resemble confectioner’s sugar. The reason for this was simply to ensure we had enough fermentable sugars to achieve a stable fermentation, should the efficiency of our mash fail to meet the necessary threshold.
Another important factor added to temperature during this phase of the brew day is time. While we milled the grain we already had the water (5 gal.) on the stove with a strike temperature set to 160F. A good lesson to learn early is to plan your brew day and think ahead, considering strike times, the cold break post-boil, the rehydration of the yeast etc., or you could potentially add hours to your day unnecessarily.
The mashtun, the vessel used during the mash, was lined with a painter’s mesh filtering bag - the kind you can easily pick up at your local specialty paint store (don’t bother with Rona, Home Depot and the like - we tried) or just snag one from your next door neighbour caught strolling by the front porch on his way to work that morning like we did! Talk about good timing, hah. This particular vessel contains a false bottom perforated with many tiny holes suitable for catching conventional malts (two-row barley etc), however with small size of the gluten free millet and buckwheat we felt it was necessary to add the extra cautionary element of the painter’s bag to act much as a teabag does: it contains everything while the grains steep.
Technically the Brewha all-in-one system we invested in can do the job of the mashtun as well as the kettle, however the first ever time we attempted a gluten free batch we realized that the submerged element featured in the system was a decided no-go for gluten free brewing. What we encountered was a nearly instantaneous melding and subsequent burning of grains onto the element, causing it to dry-fire and burn itself out. It became evident within the first 15 minutes of the mash, when bits of black began surfacing following by an atrociously horrible smell of toxic burning chemicals - something no one should ever breathe in their entire life.
In fact, we actually could have used the original unit, a Brewha all-in-one 5 gal. system, which is a nifty little system in itself. The only extra benefit to using a separate stovetop mashtun is the rapid nature of the gas-fired stove. Compared with the Brewha’s electric system that incorporates a cooling jacket around the unit, which is hooked up to the sink and runs a program according to high/low strike temperatures one sets on the electronic control switch, our preferred setup combining the stove and the Brewha unit performed much more efficiently than previous batches.
Once we had the malt properly milled, everything was slowly added to Mashtun (shown above on the stove) once the strike temperature (160F) was reached, all the while wielding our trusty grain paddle as we poured to ensure even distribution of the grain within the vessel. While doing this it was very important to remain light-handed when handling the grain. Just like how two fine a mill can impart harshness in the brew, the same problem can occur with rough handling of the mash.
The addition of the grain lowered the temperature to 158F, however this was not an issue as our optimal temperature sat between 158-165F for this stage of the mash. Liquid Endo-Alpha Amylase, used in a very small amount (about 1 teaspoon for a 5 gallon batch), is thrown in at the beginning of the mash. It’s purpose, according to Homebrewsupplies.com is to “hydrolyze 1, 4-alpha glucosidic linkages resulting in soluble dextrins and oligosaccarides”- i.e. to quicken the starch conversions into a fermentable sugar compounds. Homebrewing expert Charlie Papazian offers some interesting insight into how amylase enzymes convert starches into usable sugars:
“Alpha-amylase breaks down the very long chains of glucose molecules (starch) by literally “chopping” them at the middle and reducing them into shorter and shorter chains. Until these secondary chains are reduced to chains of one, two or three molecules of glucose, they are unfermentable and called dextrins. The process of reducing the very large chains of starch molecules is called liquefication or dextrinization.
Beta-amylase breaks down very long chains of glucose molecules (starches or dextrins) by literally '“nibbling” at the ends […] When the beta-amylase has achieved the reduction of long chains of glucose molecuels to chains of one (glucose), two (maltose) or three (maltotriose) glucose molecules, the starch has finally been converted into fermentable sugar. This process is called saccharification.”
-Charlie Papazian, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, 4th Edition
We went with a 180 minute two-step (double-decoction) mash for our pale ale, splitting time equally: 90 minutes at 158-167F, with a quick drop down to 145-150F. At the 30 minute mark, we decided to add the beet sugars while the temperature held at 160-163F for the 90 mintues. For the second stage of the mash the temperature was dropped to 150F, holding at 150F. It was a slow and steady process of churning the grains gently in the Mashtun, breathing in the lovely aromas developing within. At the 155 minute mark toasted nuts, caramel and cocoa became distinctly present, all good signs for the final flavour profile of the ale. We were hoping for lighter flavour characteristics, however the buckwheat groats seemed to dominate the grain profile; next time we would probably eliminate the groats in favour of a different malt style, or perhaps more millet and rice as a complete replacement.
At the 230 minute mark, the Sparge began. Sparging is an integral and fascinating part of the brewing process, and one that sounds completely bizarre when you first encounter it in a book or casually mentioned by your brew buddies. Sparging is the process whereby water (from the mash, and also extra water boiled on the side in order to bring up the volume to 25L or 6.6 gallons in preparation for the boil) is gently sprinkled overtop of the mash itself in a delicate washing process designed to capture some more of those delicious fermentable sugars and other favourable compounds. Be warned though - too heavy on the sparge and you will come up with the same result as over-milling and over-working of the malt: a harsh, phenolic beer with unfavourable aromas and flavour profiles. Ideally, the grain should be washed over once thoroughly.
We used a perforated kitchen spoon as our makeshift ‘sparge-arm’. Well before the 140 minute mark of the boil we had the sparge water on the stove brought up to 170F in preparation for the sparge (another moment where it is nice to think ahead a wee bit). The temperature of the mash held at 150F while we sparged for about 30 minutes, bringing the volume up to the necessary level in our Brewha Kettle. The stovetop Mashtun was equipped with a valve at the bottom of the unit which allowed for the sparge water to run continuously into the kettle positioned below. The resulting sugar water, known as the wort, looked and smelled phenomenal, like a golden nectar of the gods. All I wanted was to fill up a pint glass and call it a day - but good things come to those that wait!
The boil presents another set of variables: the length of the boil, the temperature achieved and the timing of your additions are all crucial components to crafting your end product. In some German styles, the boil can last up to 3-4 hours and results in a dark, hefty beer with deep body and flavour profiles that come from a reincorporation of the compounds that break down on the surface of the wort. The more I read on different styles of brewing and beers it becomes evident that one man’s trash is another’s gold. Such is the case with the Lambic style that actively seeks to create a specific type of bacterial infection that results in a sour characteristic is considered a fault in almost every other beer category.
At this stage of the Brew Day it was time to take a break while the wort reached its operational strike point. Fried egg and avocado sandwiches were on the menu with my favourite gluten-free buckwheat bread, baked locally in Summerland. It was a moment to collect ourself and reflect on what we had (theoretically) accomplished thus far. But not for long, because the boil also exacts from the brewer the utmost attention to time, for we had a few additions to make during those 90 minutes. After 30 minutes, the first round of hops (1 oz. Simcoe pellets) were added to the hop basket (a perforated stainless steel tube that hooks onto the side of the kettle). In all honesty, the hops we used for this batch were left over from previous non-gluten free brew days, but the Simcoe and Chinook varieties worked for an interesting west coast hop profile. At the 60 minute mark, 1 oz of Chinook pellets along with 1lb. rice syrup solids were added to the wort.
This concludes Part One of the Gluten Free Brew Day post. For the conclusion of the brewing process look forward to Part Two, where we get into racking and conditioning, hop profiles, what we would’ve done differently next time, and where we are headed for Batch No. 2! I will also include a complete list of ingredients for this recipe. It was a very successful first batch that I can’t wait to share with you all - until then, happy brewing and cheers to all who brew their own!
ALL ORIGINAL PHOTOGRAPHY © AMBER RAE BOUCHARD