There are many different methods you can choose from when brewing your own beer at home. Most of them involve using crushed grains such as barley, wheat, and rye as a source of starch and enzymes for conversion. In brewing; the mixing of crushed grains with warm water in order to extract starch and enzymes is known as mashing. Mashing is a necessary step unless you intend to get all of your fermentable sugars from pre-processed extracts and adjuncts like honey or beet sugar. There are several different mashing systems that you can choose from when putting together your home brewing system. In this article, we'll explain these different methods so you can choose the system that is right for you.
The basic components of any mashing system are the "vessel" and the "filter". The vessel is the container that will hold the grains and the water together during the mashing process, and the filter allows you to separate the wort (the sugary water that will ultimately be fermented) from the grains once the mashing is complete. You have a range of options to choose from for both of these components. These options will vary in price and complexity and your choices will depend on your budget and on the type of brewing you want to do.
Partial mash brewing is often considered one of the easier forms of home brewing. As a result this is the method most beginners start with. In partial mash brewing the bulk of the fermentable sugar will come from products like dry malt extract (dme) and liquid malt extract (lme), and a relatively small amount of "steeping grains" will be used to help contribute flavor. With this method of home brewing your vessel will be the same brew kettle that you boil your wort in, and your filter will be a steeping bag. Just pour the crushed grains in to the steeping bag, and let them soak in the brewing liquor for up to an hour. (Note that you can use these same kinds of bags for steeping your hops during the boil. In this case your vessel is doing double duty and your filter is very simple and inexpensive.
Brew In A Bag (BIAB)
The next level of mashing system is known as "Brew In A Bag". Here again, only one brew kettle is needed. And as the name implies, BIAB is similar to partial mashing in that it also uses a bag as the filter component. However, with BIAB as much as 100% of the fermentables can come from crushed grain. So in this case, a much larger sparging bag is used to hold all the grains. Line the brew kettle with the sparging bag and pull the opening around the lip of the kettle. Add your water, and heat it to the desired temperature. Then add your grains and let them soak for approximately one hour. To separate the grains from the wort, just lift bag out of the brewing kettle and put it aside. Later, you can discard the grains and rinse the sparging bag for reuse.
All Grain mashing systems are the most complex (and typically the most expensive) option. With all grain brewing, all of the crushed grain is mixed directly with the brewing water in a "mash tun" which is a separate vessel from the brew kettle (boil kettle) where the wort is boiled. The mash tun can be made from an insulated cooler, or a separate brew kettle with a ball valve at the bottom. A good mash tun should hold heat well and be free of any leaks. With all grain systems, the filter is typically a permanent component such as a false bottom which fits inside of, and attaches to the mash tun itself. To separate the wort from the grain, you simply open a valve at the bottom of the mash tun and allow it to drain in to the boil kettle. To recover any volume lost to evaporation or grain absorption, hot water can be sprinkled over the grain bed and allowed to drain in to the boil kettle. This process is called sparging. All Grain brewing is typically considered an "advanced" method of brewing because it requires more time and equipment than other methods, but its very doable on a home brewing level and there are options for building your system affordably.
Don't be afraid to experiment, and switch back and forth between all three of these systems to find the process that works best for you. Rest assured that no matter which system you choose you can make great beer for yourself and have a great time doing it. Cheers, and happy brewing!