Is Step Mashing Worth Doing? How To Decide
While many homebrewers go for single infusion nowadays, there is a lot of discussion about the benefits of step mashing. However, it is also known to be much more complicated. So is it really worth the effort?
Step mashing is worth doing if you’re a relatively experienced brewer and want more control over the brewing process and your finished beer. It allows for stimulating different enzymes and addressing the unique qualities of the grains so that you can adjust the flavors and body fullness.
Step mashing is all about getting full control over the finished product and approaching brewing as a master artist. In this article, I will explain what you can achieve with step mashing and how to decide whether it is worth trying.
Determine if Step Mashing Is Essential for Your Brew
While for most beer styles, single infusion mash will work just fine, in some instances, step mashing can be required. Historically, step mashing was used by our ancestors to maximize enzyme activity, as back then, malts were low in enzyme content.
On the other hand, modern modified malts do not require resting at a range of temperatures, which is why single infusion mash is enough for 95% of beer styles.
So, if you’re using traditional base malts, you don’t have to worry about step mashing.
Yet, some beer styles require using less modified malts, unmalted grains such as wheat, and uncooked cereals. Step mashing would be essential to extract the sugars and enhance enzyme activity.
Lagers and various German and Bavarian styles are among those that often require step mashing.
If you’re considering making one of these, you should also be committed to the more complicated mashing process.
So, if you find that the beer you would like to make requires step mashing, you should determine if it is worth it based on other factors I will discuss throughout this article – and if you find that it is, then go for it! While it can be challenging, the result will not disappoint.
On the other hand, if your brew doesn’t require step mashing (which is usually the case), you can rest assured that single infusion mash will work great and result in excellent beer.
Still, most brews can significantly benefit from step mashing (if done right). I recommend considering other factors, too, before making your mind up.
Consider Your Skills and Knowledge About the Mashing Process
As mentioned, some experience is essential to use the potential of step mashing to its fullest. It is also crucial to know how mashing works and how its parameters influence the finished beer.
The reason for it is simple. The best part of step mashing is taking complete control over the process and, consequently, the finished beer. You can use different temperatures to manipulate enzyme activity and thus achieve desired results for beer qualities.
Think of it as playing the guitar. You can get the note you need from the same six strings by holding the right ones and mastering the necessary chords.
Similarly, you can get significantly different beers to your preference by understanding how mashing works and learning how to influence the process.
However, while step mashing is trickier and more time-consuming than single infusion mash, it’s no rocket science.
I will first address what you need to know before attempting step mashing to ensure your success and then provide you with all the necessary information to help you easier grasp how it works.
Relevance of Experience
As step mashing is more challenging than single infusion mash, you won’t benefit from it as much as a beginner, primarily because single infusion does work very well with modern modified malts.
There’s a reason why step mashing is less popular today. Many brewers don’t see the point of putting extra effort when the outcome is somewhat the same.
What I mean here is you can ensure desired enzyme activity with single infusion because modified malts are high in enzyme content. You can make great beer without going the extra mile and dealing with additional complications.
For a beginner, this is definitely a plus.
Using a more straightforward method as you’re learning increases your chances of succeeding, and your beer will be just as good.
Where step mashing can really make a difference is when you are more confident in your skills and would like to experiment with your brews, create more complex beers, and try stepping a bit away from the recipes to develop beer qualities to your taste.
If that’s the case, trying step mashing is definitely worth it for you. If anything, it gives you the sense of control that means a lot when you create something from scratch.
As a beginner, I would recommend doing a single infusion for your first brew to grasp the basics of the process, get the experience, and feel more confident with your skills. Then (if you’re interested, of course), step mashing would be worth trying.
Things Worth Knowing
Let’s now move to the info about processes that happen during mash which will help you benefit from step mashing. You can find other articles in my blog that can help you study each subject in more detail.
The recommended optimum mash pH is in the range between 5.2 and 5.6. If it is drastically off, you can use various finings to adjust it. However, it can most of the time be lowered to the appropriate level during step mashing.
If your mash pH is too high, you can expect more tannins in your beer, which adds a dry and puckering sensation. It also gives your beer excessive bitterness due to hop extraction. On the other hand, if pH is too low, your beer will likely lack in body and flavor.
The optimum range for mash temperature is between 145°F and 158°F (63°C and 70°C). The medium of 150°F to 154°F (66°C and 68°C) results in neutral beers with pronounced but less complex flavors and a medium body.
Adjusting the temperature allows for manipulating flavor qualities. Mashing at temperatures at the lower end of the range will result in less body, dryness, and crispiness, which is very suitable for lagers.
Mashing at temperatures at the higher end of the range allows for more complex flavors with various undertones, rich aromas, and enhanced mouthfeel. This approach is great for stouts.
Read also: How Warm Should You Keep Your Mash? Facts and Info [the link would go great here if that article is published before this one]
Your main goal is stimulating enzyme activity to convert starches from the grains into simple fermentable sugars. The two most important enzymes are alpha and beta amylase, which work somewhat differently.
Alpha amylase breaks the starches faster but leaves longer sugar chains that are not as fermentable (meaning it is harder for yeast to consume them).
Beta amylase takes longer as it has to start from the end of the chain and make its way through it, but it breaks starches into highly fermentable single maltose units.
These enzymes can collaborate, with alpha amylase breaking up the starches and beta amylase working in the resulting chains. This way, work goes quicker and more efficiently, resulting in moderately fermentable wort.
However, you can also stimulate one enzyme type over the other. Alpha amylase enjoys higher temperatures and pH than those comfortable for beta amylase, and by manipulating these values, you can enhance the preferred enzyme activity.
As alpha amylase produces less fermentable sugars, prioritizing its activity will result in full-bodied beers with rich flavors. On the other hand, enhancing beta amylase will get you a dry and clear beer with higher alcohol content.
Consider if Step Mashing Will Benefit Your Brew
So, how do you know if step mashing can improve your beer? Well, if you’re making a more complex beer and/or would like to achieve specific flavors, aromas, mouthfeel, and alcohol content, step mashing can be of great help.
Allowing mash to rest at a range of temperatures lets you achieve an incredible variety of beer qualities from the same initial mash. Sometimes it feels like using magic. Let’s explore the possibilities of step mashing in more detail.
I’ll go over the traditional stages of step mashing, explaining their purpose, recommended temperatures, and what you can accomplish with each.
The Acid Rest
This step allows you to achieve two important things. First, it breaks down beta-glucans, and secondly, it can lower the mash pH. The recommended temperature is between 95-113°F (35-45°C).
It is required to activate the phytase enzyme, which degrades the phytin molecule and releases phytic acid, lowering the pH of the mash.
However, with many finings available nowadays that can decrease mash pH much faster, this step is usually done to break down beta-glucans, also called gums.
Beta-glucanase is the enzyme that breaks down gums effectively. It is most comfortable at temperatures of 95-113°F (35-45°C), which is why this stage is often performed to enhance its activity and degrade gums in unmalted grains and less modified malts.
The need to break down beta-glucans is one of the main reasons step mashing is essential for some grains. They can cause multiple problems, from reduced wort to prominent haziness if not broken down properly.
The Protein Rest
The protein rest is usually performed at temperatures of 113-131°F (44-55°C). This temperature range stimulates the activity of protease and peptidase, two essential enzymes that together break down proteins, reducing haze in the finished beer.
They work similarly to the alpha and beta amylase. Protease breaks proteins into shorter chains, while peptidase degrades those chains, producing Free Amino Nitrogen (FAN).
While breaking down the proteins reduces haze, it can also reduce the mouthfeel and beer flavor if done excessively. Moreover, FAN, the result of peptidase activity, is good for yeast health but can also negatively impact the beer flavor if present in excess.
The recommended time for this rest is 15 to 30 minutes, allowing the brewer to adjust the mashing conditions and ensure desired qualities for the finished beer.
This step is crucial for determining the finished beer’s mouthfeel, flavor, and alcohol content. All these beer qualities can be adjusted by manipulating temperatures and thus stimulating one enzyme over the other.
I have already explained alpha and beta amylase and how their activity affects the finished beer.
At the starch conversion stage, you should optimize the resting time at temperatures comfortable for each enzyme so that the result matches the goal for the beer you’re making.
Alpha amylase works best at 154-162°F (68-72°C), while beta amylase is denatured at that temperature, being most comfortable at 131-150°F (55-65.6°C).
So, for instance, letting the mash rest at 140°F (60°C) for 20 minutes, followed by a 40 minutes rest at 158°F (70°C), will result in a heavier and sweeter beer with more mouthfeel.
On the other hand, switching the resting times at the same temperatures will produce a lighter and drier beer with increased alcohol content.
Consider Other Options
Finally, before deciding whether step mashing is worth doing, you should compare it to other options, bearing in mind the discussed complications and possible benefits.
Here, I will briefly discuss the advantages and downsides of other mashing methods, so you can determine whether any of them might work better for you.
Unlike step mashing, single infusion implies maintaining the same temperature over 30 to 90 minutes rather than heating the mash to a range of temperatures with various resting periods.
- The most straightforward method.
- Faster than step mashing.
- Works for most beers.
- Adjusting the mashing temperature allows for achieving outstanding results for various brews.
- Doesn’t work for brews from unmalted grains and under modified malts.
- Gives you less control over the brew and limits the possibilities for adjustments.
Decoction mashing resembles step mashing but is even more laborious and time-consuming. Instead of heating the mash to a series of temperatures, this method suggests boiling about ⅓ of the mash and adding it back to the tun to increase the overall temperature.
- Achieves fuller mouthfeel.
- Improves beer clarity.
- Enhances sugar extraction for less modified malts.
- Great for producing crisp and dry German-style lagers.
- Very time-consuming.
- Doesn’t work well with modern modified malts.
- Gives you less control over the result than step mashing does.
Before deciding whether step mashing is worth doing for you, you should consider several factors.
- your experience in homebrewing
- the type of brew you’re making
- whether step mashing can benefit you more than other methods.
In most cases, step mashing is not essential, so you should decide if it’s worth it to put in the extra effort with step mashing based on whether it can make any significant difference.