Ok. So I ran out of gas talking about my stuck mash problems yesterday. I was in mid-stride, and taking in air for some long-winded explanation, and all of a sudden, it left me. I didn't care. I knew you didn't care. It didn't matter. I was stuck myself.
Life is like that sometimes. Well, for me, it is that way a lot of the time.
The answer to my stuck mash is much the same as my stuck professional career, my stuck life. I don't like the answer, but it is simple, really. (for my non-brewers and those with the queasy feeling that I might not be talking about beer anymore it might again be time to go on to something else....again).
It all comes down to patience. Stuck mash. Stuck life. There is nothing you can do about it once it has happened. You just have to start all over again, and it is never easy to take it slow and think about what to do. In fact, for me, getting stuck makes me feel like I am falling behind and makes me make rush to make hasty decisions even more in an effort to catch up. This is true in my life as well as my brewing, but for now, lets look at the mashing problem.
The mash sticks when the grist is too fine or when the weight of the grains and water compacts the grains so tightly that very little wort comes out. This happened to us because we were running the wort out too quickly and adding too much water on top (in a method called batch sparging). The answer (if I want to do it right, that is): Slow down. Close off the drain valve to a trickle and don't add all the water at once (in a method called fly sparging). This will help prevent a stuck mash from happening. There are other tricks too, but this is the main one. We are always in a hurry to get the sparge done and transfer the wort back into the kettle to get it boiling (and get the whole day done). We are impatient because we use the same vessel for mashing and boiling. We do a transfer to our small (and old friends) 5 gallon kettle and a 5 gallon bucket. We heat the first runnings of wort in the kettle while we are finishing sparging into the bucket. We need to clean out the mash tun to get the wort into it to start our final boil before the wort in the 5 gallon pot boils over. Often, we don't have enough water to sparge, too (so we need to heat some more). It gets hectic and stressful during this transition between sparge and boil. This is an equipment problem that causes the impatience problem which compounds the issue of needing more water and a place to put the wort while we clean and start the next step (see existing set up above).
I have previously recognized the need for three large capacity vessels, but now I fully understand why: One for heating water (a Hot Liquor Tank (HLT) for both the mash in and sparge water, one for actually mashing the grain (Mash/Lauter Tun), and one for boiling the wort (Kettle). Of course, then, we need at least two heating sources (we have one vessel and one heat source) as well. It will simplify the process to heat more water than we need (in the HLT), and allow hot water to be slowly sparging into the mash tun while we are slowly draining wort out while simultaneously heating the wort to start the boil.
Adding a dedicated HLT and a Boil Kettle would allow the process to proceed at the necessary slow pace, but would not delay us or have us rushing to clean out the grains or race to avoid a mess of a boil over. So, our equipment problem and our lack of patience are connected. If we apply our patience (without the expensive equipment additions), we may be able to avoid some of the problems, but it slows our day down a bit more (and who has an infinite amount of time?). But, we are still racing to clean and re-clean the same vessel to be used in successive steps.
It all is clear to me now, but confusing as hell, I am sure to all of you. I always thought that our multipurpose mash tun/kettle was more simple and manageable (and not to mention less expensive and space consuming), but it is causing us delay, stress, and lower yields. The quality of the finished product suffers too(there is hot-side aeration, lack of grain bed filtering, loss of efficiency, loss of wort in boil overs....on and on).
Ok. It is time to add more equipment to the brewery. I don't mind, we were heading this way anyway. But I also need to work on the stuck career. Sadly, in this economy and the situation I find myself in, the only real prescription is patience. Either, I wait it out, or I wait it out by learning to do something else. Either way, I will have to wait. Wait to start something new while I train, wait until the economy picks up to resume what I did, wait for the right company to need the right person with my particular skill set, any or all of the above. This is the definition of stuck.
I am really crappy at waiting.