Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Minimal Sparge: An Easier Way to Brew

For most of my first nine years homebrewing I produced wort with the standard "American" process. I mashed in a five gallon cooler fitted with a homemade copper manifold, recirculated by hand, manually fly/batch sparged, and chilled with an immersion chiller. It is a process (detailed here) that is simple, reliable, hands-on, and which makes good beer. My equipment was starting to show its age and I wanted to move to 10 gallon batches anyway, so about a year ago I began researching the alternative methods and options out there.

There are many aspects you can prioritize when deciding how to brew: cost, efficiency, time, effort, control, quality, quantity, repeatability etc. You can’t pick all of them though! There are $2000 kit that automatically brew a couple gallons at a time with high repeatability. There are $200 system that brew beer that takes a day of manual labor. The system attributes I wanted to focus on were maximizing quality while minimizing effort. I was fine spending a bit of money on the setup, clearly brewing is something I’m hooked on. I was fine sacrificing some system efficiency for reduced effort. I also don’t mind longer brew days, if it’s time I don’t have to do anything!

What I ended up with is a method I’m calling “minimal sparge.” Compared to my old rig, the new system requires less time/effort/equipment, while producing more consistent wort. Compared to Brew in a Bag (BIAB), it produces cleaner wort (thanks to automated recirculation), and avoids the hassle of hoisting the hot grain bag out of the kettle. In exchange it requires more equipment, a separate kettle and mash tun plus a pump. Minimal sparge avoids the monitoring (temperature, pH, and gravity) required for fly sparging and the second/third vorlauf for batch sparging, while improving on the efficiency of traditional no-sparge.

Minimal Sparge Process
Step 1 - Place the false bottom in the mash tun and fill with 85% of the water required for the batch (16-17 gallons for an 11-12 gallon batch). Treat with minerals and acid as desired while heating to the target strike temperature.

Step 2 - Run the pump as the target temperature approaches to evenly distribute the heat. Once the target temperature is achieved, turn off the pump and stir in the entire grain bill (easy thanks to the loose mash). Turn the pump back on for five minutes to thoroughly mix the water under the false bottom into the mash. Adjust the temperature as needed by turning on the burner or adding cold water.

Step 3 - Adjust pH as needed. I aim for ~5.5 for most beers, slightly higher pH than traditional. With so much water diluting the buffering powers of the malt it takes a lot of acid to drop the pH to the "ideal" low end of the range. This can result in an overly acidic tasting finished beer, especially if you have water with high residual alkalinity.

Step 4 - Once the mash converts (I usually wait 30 minutes) turn on the pump for 10-15 more minutes until there aren’t any large chunks of husk in the wort. With the thin mash conversion can take slightly longer than usual, but 60 minutes is still overkill unless you are using a large percentage of unmalted adjuncts.

Step 5 - Move the output from recirculating back into the mash tun over to the boil kettle. Start the burner on the kettle once you have a gallon in there.

Step 6 - When the top of the grain bed is visible, stop the pump and add the remaining 15% of the water (I use untreated directly from the hose/filter or RO/distilled). Continue runoff until you reach your target pre-boil volume.

Wort drained down to the grain bed. 

That's it as far as this method is truly concerned, but here are my last few steps as they stand.

Step 7 - Boil, adding hops, sugars, spices etc. as desired. I bag my hops to make it easier to deal with draining the wort later.

The vigorous boil.

Step 8 - Chill, I’m enjoying the switch to a recirculating immersion chiller. It isn’t quite as quick as the plate chiller I used for the first few months with this system, but it is so much less effort to clean (and makes it easier to use my submersible ice water pump for summertime chilling). I run the recirculation for a few minutes first to sanitize the lines/pump before I turn on the water.

Step 9 - Allow the chilled wort to settle for 15-20 minutes. I don’t think trub causes any issues for the beer (Brulosophy Trub Experiment), but clearer wort means more beer out of the same fermentor and purer yeast to harvest. Draw off the clear wort from the side pickup. I start the boil with the pickup pointing slightly upward, and push it down with a sanitized thermometer tip near the end of the runoff.

So far I’m happy with the the beer and the brew days. If I’m on my game (i.e., brewing solo in the morning) I can go from collecting water to cleaned-up, with 11 gallons of beer in the fermentors in four to five hours. Despite that relatively short time, the ease of the system provides plenty of time for what I think are the important aspects of brewing: evaluating ingredients, monitoring pH, preparing the yeast, sanitizing fermentors etc. Brew day shouldn’t be stressful, especially if the extra running around and monitoring doesn’t improve the quality of the beer!

General Thoughts
I think that the best fly or batch sparging can hope to do is approximate no/minimal sparge with higher efficiency. More aggressive sparging comes with the risk of extracting unwanted tannins/polyphenols. On a homebrew scale that risk/effort isn’t worth the savings a couple pounds of grain! With this system my efficiency is consistently 72-75%, even a little better than what I often got with more intensive sparing methods!

The cold-water sparge was inspired by Kai’s look into the technique. Essentially he found that while it slows runoff, it doesn’t hurt efficiency compared to traditional hot sparging. From a practical standpoint it means that I don’t need a separate hot liquor tank. I’m not in a huge hurry during the sparge because the wort is still coming to a boil anyway. As an added benefit the cold water cools the grain bed as it flows through, making it easier to dispose of the spent grain during the boil.

I’ve found that it helps (on any system) to make slightly oversized batches so you don’t have to get every drop of wort out of the mash tun and kettle. I use enough water to get 14.5 gallons to the kettle when I only need 13.5. That is enough to have 12 gallon at the end of the boil, which allows me to get 11-11.5 gallons of wort into the fermentors which in turn yields two full five gallon kegs without having to tilt the fermentor and risk disturbing the yeast cake. Sure this means using a little extra of everything, but it is worth it for me.

You can construct a similar system with gear from a wide variety of manufacturers, but here is what I use:

2 – 20 gallon Northern Brewer Mega Pot 1.2
2 – Blichmann Burner (with leg extensions)
2 – Bargain Fittings Side Pickup
1 – Northern Brewer False Bottom
1 – March 809HS-PL Pump (I mounted mine in a plastic toolbox)
1 – Imperial Sparge
1 – Apex 7612-50 NeverKink Hose
1 – Camco 40631 EVO Premium Water Filter
1 – MoreBeer Immersion Chiller with Recirculation Arm (50' x 1/2")
Various fittings (ball valves, Blichmann QuickConnectors, Hex Nipples etc.)
Heat resistant tubing

(I get a small kickback on the Amazon links at no extra cost to you, even if you order something I didn't link to - pretty sweet deal for both of us!)


Unknown said...

Very interrsting process. Perhaps you cover this in another article, however, what is your process to adjust the mash pH? Also, do you slowly drain your mash as you pump to your boil kettle, or do you pump quickly?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I adjust the water to get close based on my experienc. Depending on the beer that means diluting with distilled, adding salts, and often a little acid malt. I take a pH reading with my meter after recirculation and add phosphoric acid to hit the target if needed.

I run off pretty quickly because I'm not trying to balance the flows, about a gallon a minute.

James Bird said...

Nice setup and a timely post. I've been looking to do something similar, upgrade to 10 gallon batches but with minimal footprint as I live in an apartment.

I'm thinking of going full volume BIAB but recirculating with a pump during the mash to try and get better efficiency / wort clarity. Would be great to just have the one pot! Any thoughts on this type of set up? And did you consider it?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Recirculation would certainly help your efficiency, but I'm not sure about clarity. Seems like when you pull the bag out you'd likely loose any advantage the recirculation provides by disturbing the grain bed. With a fine enough mesh though, it may not matter.

Pulling a bag that size may be messy/annoying inside. For a big beer you'd be looking at 30 lbs of grain with another 24 lbs of water absorbed

You'd also likely want a 25-30 gallon pot if you brew stronger beers. 20 gallons can cut it pretty close for a big grain bill with enough water. Having a small sparge boosts my efficiency by about 10% in stronger beers (not nearly as important for lower gravity beers). Best of luck!

andrhamm said...

Some very useful ideas here. Would you be concerned about sparging right from the hose with city water that is chlorinated? I've read that I should be using campden tablets with my water.

Unknown said...

Do you notice any significant temperature loss due to the stainless pots vs cooler? How do you calculate strike temp?

Unknown said...

Great article and I've been very interested in the new setup you've been referencing. Similar to the question above, are you letting the temp free fall or using the burner to keep it close? Also, you mention a 30 minute mash is all you really need for full conversion unless there are large amount of adjuncts. Can you elaborate on why and how long have you been doing shorter mashes? Kai's study showed you only pickup a couple % of attenuation for those last 30 minutes but I've been hesitant to change my process. I guess my questions really are how much do you really care about mash temp and time? Thanks!

Joe said...

Why does a thin mash cause the conversion to take slightly longer than usual?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I avoid any chlorinated water in my beer, that little may be below the taste threshold, but I wouldn't risk it.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

There is certainly a greater temperature loss during the mash on this setup (despite the larger volume) than with a cooler. The ProMash calculator is still what I use to figure out the target temperature.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Sometimes I'll give it a bit of heat especially during the winter to boost the temperature back up if it falls a few degrees. We're talking about a biological system though, so I don't worry about a degree or two either way.

Shorter mashes are about saving time without any drawback. Honestly though, between the recirculation and rest, it's close to an hour from the time I start mashing in until runoff starts, and it isn't like conversion stops the second you stay running the wort into the kettle either.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Water dilutes the enzymes and starches, so it increases the time required to achieve conversion.

brucej said...

Hey Mike, this process sounds pretty similar to the automated method used by the Speidel Braumeister: basically a controlled temperature recirculation using a pump and heat where necessary all in one container without any additional sparge liquor.

John said...

Nice setup! I've moved a few times and always sold my brew rig to give me an excuse to build a new, bigger, better one. I've now wound up at an E-HERMS rig and am relatively happy with it, but am also getting a bit worn-out in regards to multiple pumps and cleaning etc. My garage always looks like a hurricane came through after I finish up. I've really been considering selling it and moving to either a 2v setup like you have, or just go back to BIAB and using a winch.

I've had all kinds of setups and the BIAB did have tremendous trub, but I can't say recirculating has played too much of a role for me apart from the heat-exchange purpose. The wort definitely is clearer, but not enough to impact trub layers I don't recall.

Andy said...

What are your thoughts on doing this type of setup with a single burner?

Brent said...

Have you been doing multiple temperature rests with this setup? Turbid or decoctions?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It would work fine, but for me the extra money was worth it for the time savings and not having to lift/move either the full kettle or mash tun.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Step mashes would be easy, turn on the burner and recirculate until the next temperature step is reached. Liquid decoctions would be easy too, send some wort to the kettle, heat, and return. Turbid or true decoction would be more manual (although nice to be able to maintain a rest on the main mash using the burner).

So few modern malts benefit from step mashes though, I don't do then that often.

Unknown said...

Do you find that there is a big advantage in using two burners? Since you aren't boiling until you're draining the mash tun, couldn't you get by with one?

Thank you so much for sharing this. I've been wanting to upgrade my system for some time now and this gives me some great ideas.

Unknown said...

Also, have you found any noticeable difference in the cold sparge in terms of taste or anything else? Like most homebrewers, I don't mind a slight decrease in efficiency if it speeds up my brewing significantly.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Two burners certainly aren't required for this method, but starting the kettle while the mash is draining saves about 20 minutes. If I time things correctly the kettle is practically at a boil when the runoff is finished. You could move the full mash tun off the burner before running off, but I'd just assume not have to lift ~180 pounds during each brew. That's the bigger issue for me, with bigger batches it is nice to leave the mash tun and kettle in place from the start to the end.

No change to flavor as far as I can tell, but honestly I'm not sure how much of the cold water actually makes it into the kettle. More wort ends up trapped in the grains and under the false bottom than I add for the sparge. I assume most of what the small sparge is accomplishing is pushing the wort trapped in the grain out. I haven't done a traditional batch/fly sparge where 50% of the wort is coming from the sparge.

Unknown said...

Thank you. What submersible ice pump are you using?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

The one I bought in 2010 no longer available, but this one looks pretty similar.

christianstrings said...

Is your 72% - 75% efficiency for your brewhouse or the mash?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

My efficiency is for the amount of wort that is in the kettle post-boil. I usually lose a gallon to trub and dead-space, so I set the batch size to be one gallon more than the amount of wort I want in the fermentors. For hop calculations, you want the boil volume, rather than the finished volume.

Unknown said...

Hi Michael, looking for a much more easy and simple way to brew i think that i'll follow our technique. One thing that i don't understand well is the low (cold or hot) amount the sparge. Isn't this eventually a such of "no sparge" tecnique"? What's the improvement of the few liters of the sparge? And do you think it would work equally well with rotating mechanic arm inside the mash tun instead of the rims rube?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I started the small sparge because my 20 gallon kettle isn't quite big enough for all the malt and water for higher-gravity 11-12 gallon batch. I've kept the small sparge because it really helps with efficiency, I usually hit mid-70s, today I broke 80% for the first time on a Pilsner/Saison split batch! If you want to go no-sparge, that would work too.

I'm not a huge fan of the sparge arms (temperature loss), but if it works for you for other beers, no issues for this technique.

CTolson said...

I also brew more than I need to make up for the trub. I typically will make 6 gallon batches for 5 gallons of wort. Produces more clear results.

David Stelting said...

Michael, I realize this is an older post, but I found it re assuring, as this is almost exactly what we do as well. One slight difference we use a 100 quart cooler with a bag as a filter, and we have added a herms coil for controlling mash temperatures, and step mashing. The sparge water comes from the water in the HERMs "kettle". Its nice to have that extra little bit of hot water ready and waiting.

Side note, really enjoying your book right now. I have been brewing sours for about 15 years. But I've not read a book like this before, that puts it all together in one place. Keep up the good work.
PS I just mentioned your book and website on my blog counterbrew.blogspot.com

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Cheers, always interesting to hear how other people brew! Glad you've enjoyed the book!

Unknown said...

With traditional no sparge the mash is drained rapidly. Do you drain slowly in this method and trickle in your cold sparge water? Or do you drain rapidly until you can see the grain bed and then add in your sparge water rapidly before completely draining the wort?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I run down to the grain bed, add the cold sparge and run the rest out. I usually run the wort slower after adding the sparge, just to give it plenty of time to pick up sugars and flow below the false-bottom. I'm not in a hurry usually because the wort is coming to a boil.

Mr. Welsh said...

I always assumed the sparge needed to be warm to prevent stuck flows. This gives me a great reason to get a pump. Some reviews mention magnetic induction pumps as being easier to clean - any experience with those? With one pot system I gravity sparge into two plastic buckets, convert the mash tun by hoisting the grain, pulling up the false bottom and attaching a whirlpool pipe. I'm assuming my winch could lift the entire pot in the same way. Cooler sparging will be easier on the fingers for sure. Total water adjustments go in with the mash right? Is 85% of total water a hard and fast rule or do you fudge it a bit depending on target OG?

Thanks for all your posts. You're helping us all be better brewers.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

As opposed to magnetic centrifugal? I haven't had any complaints about my March Pump, which is still going strong after eight years. Any specific models you're looking at?

I usually put all of the minerals/acid in with the mash, but you can add some to the boil if the calcium would drive the pH too low. You can certainly fudge amounts based on capacity and gravity targets.

Best of luck!

Unknown said...

Hello. Great article. I'm looking to move from extract brewing to all grain soon, and doing it on a budget, and trying to minimise brew day time. My question is how do you think this system would go with electric elements rather than gas fired heating? Would adjusting the mash temp be too difficult?

I have a converted 50L keg already with an element and an old 55L cooler I was about to install a tap and braid in. I also have a pump. If I went with this method using the cooler as my mash tun, would the heat loss in the re-circulation be a big problem? i.e. If the grains are converted by 30 minutes already, is that extra 10-15 minutes of recirculation as important for temperature maintenance in the MT?

Thanks for the help!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

That would be the exact issue unless you had a way to keep the grain away from the element it would scorch. That may not be a big issue if you hit your temperature correctly. I only really turned the heat on during the mash when it was really cold outside.