Mash vs. Wort: The Differences Explained
Homebrewing materials and recipes can be full of confusing terms. You can often see the mixture produced at the beginning of the brewing process referred to as ‘mash’ or ‘wort.’ If you’re wondering what’s the difference, I’m here to clear it up.
The main difference between mash and wort is that mash is a mixture of grains and water, while the wort is the resulting liquid with extracted sugars ready for fermentation.
The mash is the ingredient mix, while the wort is the starting point of your beer.
In this article, I will explain the key differences between these two terms and provide you with all the important facts about wort and mash.
Key Differences Between Mash and Wort
If you’ve read up on homebrewing for a while, it might seem as if these terms are used interchangeably. Yet, mash and wort are not the same. Let’s take a step back to determine the main differences between the two.
Mash and Wort Are the Beginning and End of the Mashing Process
Before we get into more specific features of wort and mash, I would like to emphasize their principal difference. Mashing starts from a mash and ends with the wort. Let’s talk more about how this happens.
Your brewing begins with steeping grains in hot water to hydrate them and activate the enzymes. This process is called mashing, and the initial mixture of water and grain you’re working with is called the mash.
Mashing is complete when the enzymes have converted complex sugars (starches) into fermentable maltose. At this point, grains are taken out, and you end up with a liquid ready to be fermented by the yeast and become beer. This resulting liquid is called wort.
So, the easiest way to understand mash and wort and how they are different is to grasp how the mashing process works.
Rule of thumb: the mixture you start with is mash, and it remains mash until the process is finished, sugars are extracted, and grains are removed. Then, the remaining liquid is what we call wort.
Mash Contains Grains, and Wort Doesn’t
All-grain brewing implies directly using grains, primarily barley, to extract sugars and convert starches into maltose.That is achieved through the process of mashing. Grains are steeped in hot water, allowing enzymes to perform sugar conversion.
As I’ve mentioned, once the process is finished, you remove the grains and work with the remaining liquid.
Here is a good place to draw the line between mash and wort. The term ‘mash’ refers to the mixture we work with during mashing, so you can think of it as reflecting the nature of the process.
You can sometimes see that wort is referred to as something that has to be detached or extracted from the mash.
Here’s a quote from John Palmer that explains this difference almost perfectly:
‘Lautering is the method most brewers use to separate the sweet wort from the mash. A lauter tun consists of a large vessel to hold the mash and a false bottom or manifold to allow the wort to drain out and leave the grain behind.’
Here, you can see that grains, as remains of the initial mixture, are referred to as ‘mash.’ The resulting liquid (for which mashing was performed in the first place), on the other hand, is referred to as ‘wort.’
Therefore, the mash is essentially the mixture that contains grains undergoing the mashing process. On the other hand, the wort is the result of that process, which means it is a liquid with simple sugars extracted and grains removed.
If you’re confused about what lautering is, don’t worry. I will extensively cover it later on in the article.
Rule of thumb: a mixture that contains grains is the mash; once the grains are removed and sugars are extracted, you’re left with the wort.
Mash Contains Starch, Wort Contains Maltose
This difference is vital when we talk about beer brewing. One of the crucial brewing steps is fermentation, which is when yeast converts sugars into alcohol and produces CO2 for your beer.
The degree of success for your fermentation is heavily determined by what sugars you’ve got to offer to yeast. Typically, if you’re brewing all-grain, you use sugars contained in the grains, which are called starches.
However, starch is a complex sugar. Essentially, complex sugars are long chains of simple sugars bound by intermolecular forces in complex chains.
This complexity makes it significantly harder for the yeast to break it down. That is why we need mashing – we stimulate the enzymes, which break complex sugars down to simpler units of maltose, preparing them for fermentation.
Now, it’s easier to see that our initial mashing mixture of grain and water is the mash. Hence, mash contains complex starches, and as the mashing process goes on, these complex sugars turn into simple ones.
Once the mashing is over, the starches are replaced by (mainly) maltose. The liquid, which, unlike mash, has simple sugars ready for fermentation instead of the complex ones, is the wort.
Rule of thumb: if there are grain starches that have to be converted to fermentable sugars, you’re dealing with the mash; the wort contains simple sugars already extracted from the grain.
Brewing From Extract
What about the DME and LME? If you’re using extract instead of the grains and don’t do the mashing, how do you tell if your mixture is a mash or a wort? If you consider the previous points, the situation becomes a little clearer.
Let us apply what we have learned so far to answer this question. Point 1 has to be skipped for obvious reasons, so I will start from the second one.
DME and LME are pre-made extracts designed to substitute whole grains, so, naturally, your mixture won’t have any grain in it. If there is no grain, there are also no starches to extract and convert to simple sugars.
This allows us to conclude that our extract-based mixture is wort and not mash. And we would be right! Wort is essentially an extract prepared for fermentation, and you can either make it yourself through mashing or use a pre-made one, commonly called DME or LME.
Rule of thumb: if you’re brewing from extract, you skip the mashing process and don’t deal with a mash at any point. You start right from the wort and move to fermentation without additional steps.
What Is a Mash in Brewing?
Now that we’ve discussed how to tell whether you’re dealing with a mash or a wort, it would help to learn more about each of them. Let us start with the mash.
Mash is a mixture of malted grain steeped in hot water. The process is called mashing; it aims to hydrate the barley and convert starches into fermentable sugars. The mixture you’re working with throughout the process is called mash.
The grains of which the mash is composed, mash temperature, and pH are the key factors in a beer recipe. They determine the finished beer’s flavor, body fullness, aroma, and alcohol content.
Usually, the base of the mash is malted barley, but other grains are often added to make the beer flavor more rich and complex. Such grains include corn, rye, and wheat.
The most critical aspect of mashing is enzyme activity, as enzymes convert starches into simple sugars and prepare the wort for fermentation. The main factors determining how the process will go are mash pH and temperature.
Both mash pH and temperature must be maintained at optimum levels to ensure comfortable conditions for enzyme activity. The recommended pH value is between 5.2 and 5.6, and the appropriate temperature range is from 145°F to 158°F (63°C to 70°C).
Mash temperature can be adjusted to achieve certain flavor qualities for specific beer styles. For instance, lagers are usually made with temperatures at the lower end of the range to achieve crispness and a dry aftertaste.
On the other hand, mashing at higher temperatures results in rich and complex flavors, as well as a full body needed for stouts and strong ales.
What Is the Wort in Beer?
Unfermented beer is called wort. It is the liquid produced from mashing which contains fermentable sugars, primarily maltose. The wort is fermented through the process of yeast consuming the simple sugars and producing alcohol.
Wort is the very start of your beer. It contains flavors and aromas from grains, sugars that yeast will later turn into alcohol, and hops that balance the wort’s sweetness.
After the wort is separated from the mash, it is boiled in order to sterilize the liquid. This is where hops are usually added, giving additional flavors to the beer and reducing sweetness.
Before adding bittering hops, you have the ‘sweet wort,’. It’s called this because it contains all the sugars extracted from malted grains. After hops that balance out the sweetness are added, the liquid is called a ‘hopped wort.’
Once these final stages of preparing the wort are completed, it is ready for fermentation. It has to be cooled down first to achieve comfortable conditions for the yeast, and after that, the yeast is added to turn all sugars we got from our mash into alcohol and create the beer.
Lautering: Separating Mash From Wort
I would be remiss if I did not discuss in more detail how the mash is separated from the wort. Most brewers achieve this through a process called lautering. It allows the wort to drain out and leave the residual grain behind.
There are three main steps in lautering:
The first step of lautering is the simplest. Once the wort is ready, it needs to be separated from the leftover grains. Now, there are two potential outcomes here.
The first is the most optimal and it involves a situation where the wort simply passes through the leftover grain and drains easily. Of course, this doesn’t always happen and this brings us to the second possibility.
It’s possible that your wort might have trouble draining. There are usually two main reasons for this:
- The mash is too thick
- The grains are too dense
Either way, the outcome is the same. There is very little flow and the wort will have trouble separating itself from the grains.
Regardless of the cause, the solution is easy. Heat is key here and the mash will need to be heated to about 170°F (77°C).
This makes the wort more fluid, allowing it to pass through the leftover grains far more easily.
If your mashing equipment doesn’t allow direct heating, you can also heat the mixture by adding hot water.
Recirculation is the stage where draining is repeated several times to clear the wort as much as possible. You will find your wort initially cloudy from proteins and grain particles, which can all be separated from the liquid through recirculation.
Recirculation is essentially the brewing term for filtering the bottom layer of the wort. Recall that your wort has been sitting in grains for quite some time. As a result, it’s inevitable that some of those grains will make their way into the resulting wort.
However, they are unnecessary once the wort is extracted and will need to be removed. This is where recirculation comes in.
Generally, the most compromised part of the wort is passed again through the grain bed a few times until it’s free of leftover grain.
Sparging is where the separation of wort from mash happens. There are three common sparging methods; they vary in difficulty, but each can achieve great results.
These are the three most common sparging methods:
- Fly sparge
- No sparge
- Batch sparge
Mash and wort are two different stages of the brewing process. Mash is a mixture of crushed grains and hot water from which the brewing process begins.
Once the starches in the mash are converted into simple sugars and the liquid is separated from the grain, that liquid is the wort, also called unfermented beer.
If you’re not using grains and brewing from extract, the mashing is skipped, so you don’t deal with a mash at any stage of your brewing.