Author: Marshall Schott
“You have your way and I have my way. As for the right way,
the correct way, and the only way… it does not exist.”
Nietzsche’s ideas resonate with me and in many ways have influenced my approach to this great hobby of homebrewing. Viewed as innovative by some and arrogant by others, some of us find great value in rethinking accepted principles of beer making and developing novel methods that simplify the process. I find it curious the attempt by many brewers to model their systems and processes after larger craft brewers who are limited in the methods they can use due to their batch sizes. I’d contend, in fact, that we have huge advantages over larger breweries precisely because of the options we’re able to use that are out of reach for them. And yet, there are those who will inflexibly opine that the only way to produce high quality beer is to use a 3 vessel fly-sparge setup. I even heard someone once say they would be able to tell the difference between the exact same recipes brewed using different methods, suggesting the fly-sparged beer would “taste crisper and cleaner.” Bullshit. It’s this kind of hogwash I find laughably embarrassing. Perhaps some just don’t want to accept that this beer making thing is actually very easy, requiring very little work, and that the money they’ve spent on their miniature version of a professional setup was unnecessary. Thankfully, a paradigm shift does seem to be happening in the homebrew world, likely influenced by the massive numbers of new brewers entering the hobby.
The pinnacle of easy beer making has to be Brew In A Bag (BIAB), a single-vessel method developed by those clever Australians that I believe has vastly changed the way many people view all-grain brewing. With little more than a kettle and a mesh grain bag, one can produce delicious beer without the use of extracts. It truly doesn’t get much simpler than this, so I had to try it out.
A couple things before I share my BIAB experiences. First, I still brew primarily using the batch sparge method, not only because it’s what I’m most familiar with, but because I often make 10+ gallon batches. With BIAB, difficulty appears to be linearly correlated to batch size. Second, I am a huge proponent of new brewers jumping right into all-grain and skipping extract brewing altogether. I know there are those that may take offense to this, I certainly mean none, but I have yet, in my 10+ years of making and consuming homemade beer, had an extract beer that didn’t taste like extract was used. Now, if that’s what you like, more power to you, go for it. Just please don’t use the argument that you don’t have the space or can’t afford to brew all-grain. With BIAB, you absolutely can go all-grain for minimal investment. I often recommend people start by making 1-3 gallon BIAB batches, which usually only requires the purchase of a bag, fermenter, and bottling supplies, as most people have a 4 gallon kettle lying around.
Back to my experience. For my first BIAB batch, I decided to throw together a 5 gallon Märzen recipe. I had previously purchased a large fine mesh grain bag that wasn’t getting much use and would do the trick. After collecting my entire water volume in the MLT/brew kettle, I milled my grain directly into the bag.
Using the BeerSmith software, I was able to precisely calculate the temperature of my strike water and once it was reached, I simply dropped in my bag of grains, gave it a good stir, and secured the bag to the rim of the kettle.
It looked and smelled like a typical mash, I figured something must be going right. Once my mash temp was stable, I covered my kettle and threw an old sleeping bag over the top for added insulation. This was sufficient since I was brewing on a 100°F day, during the winter it might be a good idea to be a little more thoughtful with your insulation. One of the great things about BIAB that I realized quickly is that if my mash temp fell, all I had to do was turn a burner on very low and stir for a few seconds to get it back up to where it should be. I only did this once after dropping 2°F in 40 minutes. Given the large volume in the kettle, it held temperature pretty well. Once my 1 hour mash was complete, I turned the heat on to raise the temp to 170°F for a mash-out step.
The wort looked like… wort. I checked my pre-boil gravity and was spot on with what BeerSmith predicted at 70% efficiency. This surprised me, as that was about the same efficiency I had been getting with my usual batch sparge process. I removed the bag, squeezed it a bit, and began my boil.
Everything proceeded from this point as it would with any other brew– add hops, chill wort, transfer to fermenter, pitch yeast starter, and control ferm temps. The finished beer was no different than any other beer I’d made, except for the fact it took me nearly an hour less to make and clean-up was a cinch. I was convinced.
A few months later I had the bright idea to pitch some wild yeast collected under a bush in my front yard into a small batch of beer. I didn’t want to use all my regular equipment for a 2 gallon batch, so I decided to do a small scale BIAB. My concern was maintaining my mash temp with such a small volume, so I decided to use a small cooler I bought to take on my boat.
I added my full volume of slightly overheated brewing liquor to the cooler, allowed it to preheat for a few minutes, dropped my bag of grains in once strike temp was reached, and closed the lid. An hour later, I returned to discover I’d lost 2°F, not too shabby if you ask me.
I then removed the bag of grains, squeezed it pretty aggressively, then poured the sweet wort from the cooler into a 4 gallon kettle to proceed with the boil.
Again, I hit my predicted numbers and all was well. Unfortunately, the finished beer didn’t fare as well… the yeast (and whatever other shit) I’d harvested from my front yard produced a terribly vegetal and allaround unpleasant beer. But it was a fun experiment!
When my brother-in-law said he wanted to start homebrewing in his small Berkeley apartment, I knew exactly what path to send him down. He has now made numerous beers using this method, even scoring well in a local competition with his Mild Ale, and he’s never touched extract, something he has no regrets about.
Common Misconceptions About BIAB
I’ve heard it said that full volume mashing leads to thin body and mouthfeel. I’m not sure where this idea came from, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Body and mouthfeel are a function of mash temp and ingredients, not water to grist ratios, I’m not even sure what science there is to back this up. In my experience with no-sparge brewing, the beers actually seem to come out with a much more noticeable maltiness and fantastic mouthfeel.
Another misconception is that BIAB is significantly less efficient than fly or batch sparge brewing. While true to some extent, the reality is BIAB actually puts most brewers right where they need to be for the best wort to be produced, in the 70-75% range. One of the huge benefits of this is that the risk of tannin extraction from the grain husks is essentially eliminated. It’s interesting to me when homebrewers pride themselves on getting 90%+ efficiency, as they run a much higher risk of producing a beer with astringent off-flavors, and for what, a savings of a buck or two?
When I was reading up on BIAB prior to my first batch, a very common recommendation was to mill the grain super fine, with folks contending this would increase efficiency without risk because there is no actual sparge step. In listening to a recent interview with Pat Hollingdale, the Australian man who basically invented BIAB, on the great Basic Brewing Radio podcast, I learned this was an unnecessary step that could potentially lead to problems. Pat recommended utilizing a more standard crush size and mashing for 90 minutes as opposed to 60, explaining that the other methods actually extend beyond the 60 minutes due to the added time it takes to sparge. Sounds good to me.
Unfortunately, there remains some haughty homebrewers out there who look down on BIAB, or even batch sparge for that matter, assuming anything other than fly sparge brewing is childs play. It’s pathetic, if you ask me. Please do not let the concern of how others might perceive your brewing setup stop you from using this method, it works just as well as any other all-grain method. To those who do talk shit about methods other than the one you use: just stop it, you’re making a fool of yourself.
Many folks, especially homebrew shop owners it seems, argue that extract brewing is easier than all grain. I have to believe this is motivated at least some by the fact shops profit more off of extract than grain, which is cheap. Maybe I’m wrong. Trust me, brewing all grain, especially when using the BIAB method, is just as easy as brewing with extract. Plus you get full control over the recipe, as you won’t be relying on condensed wort that some company produced.
Pros and Cons of BIAB
The pros are obvious: low start-up costs, not much equipment needed, reduced time to brew, and the beer comes out great.
I’m having a hard time coming up with any real cons of BIAB, perhaps the fact you may have to monitor your mash temps a little closely at first, but even that’s not a big deal. Hmm…
Tips & Tricks for BIAB
– Add grains to strike water, not the other way around.
– If you’re brewing small batches, move your mash to an insulated cooler to help maintain your temp. My brother-in-law uses a large insulated lunch bag, it works great. If you use a regular ice chest, it might be a good idea to pre-heat it with some boiling water before putting your pot in.
– Get yourself some silicone heat-resistant gloves, they’ll allow you to squeeze your bag without burning yourself.
– Peruse BIABrewer.info, it’s a trove of fantastic information for BIAB brewers.
If you’re someone who has been looking to get into homebrewing or you’ve been brewing with extract and want to jump into all-grain, consider giving BIAB a go! It’s a great method that I’m sure will leave you wondering why you waited so long.