Homebrewing: 3-Vessel Brewing


Moving from extract brewing to all grain is a fun process that requires a bit of planning. You have choices on the size of your beer batches, style of brewstand you will have and the type of mash tun to use. Many homebrewers venture into all grain brewing using a cooler-based mash tun, which is an inexpensive option with very good temperature control. Other homebrewers, including myself, use 3 stainless kettles to brew all grain beer. This method offers different challenges from the cooler mash tun, particularly in temperature control, but it offers more flexibility in mash temperature and recipe design. If you chose to go with a 3 vessel system, here is the setup and process you'll go through when you brew.

The Setup

Three vessel systems are set up from left to right with a Hot Liquor Tank, Mash Tun, and Boil Kettle.

The hot liquor tank has the least intuitive name—brewers refer to water as liquor. The only thing you use the Hot Liquor Tank (HLT) for is heating up water to use in various points in the brewing process.

The Mash Tun, or MT, is where you mash your grain. Crushed grain mixes with water at about 150°F to convert starches to sugar. The bottom of the MT has a metal screen at the bottom, which allows you to drain the wort without getting any grain along with it.

The Boil Kettle is exactly what it sounds like. If you've done extract brewing before, then it's likely that the only kettle you have is a boil kettle.

The Process

What I typically do on a brew day is called Batch Sparge and Direct Fire. Direct Fire refers to the fact that I directly heat the mash water and the boil kettle, and Batch Sparge is the method I use to rinse the sugar off the grain.

The first step in my brewday is to heat the mash water (also called strike water) and grind the grain. The strike water needs to be warmer than the mash temperature, so that when you mix in the grain it stabilizes to the correct mash temperature. Typically, the strike water should heat to about 165°F so that the mash stabilizes at around 150°F, but every setup and recipe is different. Once the strike water is at the right temperature, slowly stir in the grain so that there are no clumps or "dough balls". Let this mash rest for about an hour.

As the mash is resting, start heating up the sparge water in the hot liquor tank. This sparge water will be used to rinse the grain after the mash is done. Sparge water should be heated to about 190°F, so that when it's added to the grain mixture it stabilizes around 170°F. Once the sparge water is at the right temperature, turn off the heat and wait for the mash to finish.

When the mash has rested for an hour, drain a quart or two from the mash tun and pour it back into the top of the mash. This is called the Vorlauf, which is a German word meaning "leading", and is done to to eliminate any stray grains that might have passed through the metal screen in the mash tun.

Drain all of the liquid from the grain into the boil kettle. If you have a single tier system, like mine, then you'll use a pump to move the wort from the mash tun to the boil kettle. A two or three tier system will just use gravity to move the wort into the boil kettle.

After the first batch of wort is completely drained, transfer the 190°F sparge water from the hot liquor tank into the mashtun. Stir the second mash, vorlauf one more time, then drain the second batch of wort into the boil kettle. The reason this method is called "batch sparging" is because the grain is sparged in two different batches.

After the second batch of wort is transferred into the boil kettle, the process is exactly like extract brewing. Bring the wort to a boil, add the hops as the recipe calls for, chill and pitch the yeast. Homebrewers who are comfortable with extract brewing will have no problems at this point.

This setup is just one of many different all grain brewing solutions for homebrewers. A common alternative to batch sparging is called fly sparging, which is where you rinse the grain and drain the wort at the same time instead of doing it in two batches. Another option that is becoming more popular every year is to heat your mash and boil your wort using electric heating elements. This eliminates the need for open flame, allows for easier temperature control and is a safer way to brew in an enclosed space.

Tell us: are you an all-grain brewer? What setup do you use?