In the first stage of your home beer-brewing process, you will boil extracts and hops together to purify the mixture and release the acrid flavor of the hops. If you are brewing an extract beer with added grains, however, you must either steep or mash the grains even before you begin the boiling process. Steeping grains releases sugars and starches from the grains, boosting the flavor and consistency of the beer, and intensifying its color.
To Steep, or Not to Steep?
Steeping and mashing are similar processes in which grains are heated in water. But mashing involves heating certain grains to the point at which enzymes activate a fermentation process, and grain products are converted into sugars. Steeping is a fairly simple process in comparison. Special kinds of grains are heated until they release starches and sugars, which can be added to the extract base mixture, called the wort, during the brewing process.
Pale malt, oats, some kinds of barley, wheats, munich salt, flaked corn, flaked rye, and some other types of grains must be mashed. Only certain grains, particularly darker malts like caramel malt, chocolate malt, and black patent, or types such as roasted barley, can be steeped rather than mashed.
Saturating the Grains
In order for grains to be steeped, they must first be ground or crushed so that sugars can be easily released. It is better for them to be freshly ground, as crushed grains left exposed to air for weeks at a time may modify the flavor of your home-brewed beer. Refrigerating grains in a sealed container can help keep them fresh and maintain their intended flavor until you are ready to steep them.
Though you can strain the grains out at the end of the steeping process using a mesh colander, you may want to buy a grain bag, which will only set you back a few dollars. Putting the grains into a bag eases the process of steeping them, making it almost as easy as soaking an herbal tea bag in water. If you are not using a grain bag, however, heat an additional pot of water to 170 degrees, as you will use it to strain the grains.
To begin the actual process of steeping the grains, heat one and a half to two gallons of water to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are putting grains directly into the pot, stir the mixture enough so that all of the grains are wet and do not form clumpy balls. Attempt to maintain the temperature of 170 degrees for at least thirty minutes as the grains steep. Do not allow the temperature of the water to rise above 170 degrees, and do not leave the grains to steep for too long. Either of these missteps may cause the grains to release compounds known as tannins, giving the liquid a sour taste.
Straining the Grains
If you used a grain bag, all of the grains and their husks should be collected for you in the bag. Simply remove the bag and throw away its contents. The sweet liquid is now yours to use for brewing.
If you steeped the grains directly in the pot, pour the grain and water mixture through a mesh strainer or a cheesecloth-covered colander into a third pot underneath, so that the liquid collects in the pot, but the grain and husks are caught by the strainer. Then take the second pot of clean boiled water and pour it over the grain remnants to further absorb flavor. Only after you have completed this process should you dispose of the grains.