For about four years now I’ve been doing a partial-mash one kettle setup on the stove. That’s where you use malt-extract (liquid in my case) for most of the sugars and use specialty grains in a mesh bag to soak as the water heats up for added color and flavor. You get some sugars from the specialty grains, but it’s far less involved that going for an all-grain production. This is a really good place to start learning the brewing arts and you can make some really great beers this way.
In many respects, there is no reason a homebrewer would even have to change their process to all-grain. Partial-mash requires less equipment, less expense, less prep, and less time in general than all-grain. It is also significantly less complex a procedure and easier to get right the first time around. The beer you make with a partial-mash can be just as awesome and varied as anything else out there. There’s no discernible difference in the end products that each process makes. But doing a partial-mash is just that, a partial process.
With all-grain brewing, you are controlling precisely the entire grain bill and in control (in theory) of how to convert those grains into the various sugars which will then get fermented (or not) into tasty, tasty beer. By altering the way the starches in the grains break down into different kinds of sugar chains, you determine the mix of sugars in the mash. Some sugars the yeast can eat and make into alcohol (and CO 2), while others will remain as unfermentable sugars giving a sweetness and fuller body to the finished product.
All-grain sure has a lot of the cool toys going for it. And sure that takes up more space and it takes more time and a potential boat-load of money (if you are not plumbing/welding inclined), but it’s multiple kettles and computer controls and an opportunity to get even more anal-retentive with your brew recipes.
Yup, after four years of partial-mash brewing I keep thinking to myself, “If you ever want to make the jump from amateur to pro, you’d better learn to go all-grain.” Would I ever make that jump? It could happen. I could also win the lottery (which would absolutely facilitate that day-dream).
Are there all-grain brewing methods that can be accomplished in the home with little or no extra equipment over the big kettle partial-mash? I think I’ll have to poke around and find out.
Alcohol content: Enough that I wrote this. (A few micro-brews down, so many more to go)