For the most part beer is made from malted barley. The barley is cracked and steeped in hot water which activates enzymes that convert starch to sugar. Base malts such as Canadian 2-row make up the majority of the grain bill. Base malts are usually fairly light and don't contribute a lot of flavour or colour to the beer but they do produce a lot of sugar. Speciality malts such as roasted barley are used to add colour and flavour.
Grains can be used in three ways; all-grain brewing, partial mash brewing, and for flavouring in malt extract brewing. All-grain brewing uses 100% grains while partial mash uses a combination of grains and malt extract syrup. Grains can also be used as an adjunct in extract brewing to impart colour and flavour.
All-grain brewing requires more equipment and a larger boiling pot than extract or partial mash brewing. You will need at least an 8 gallon pot and a mashing tun—most often a modified cooler chest.
To begin you will have to get your grains cracked. You can purchase a mill to do this or if you purchase your grains from us we will do it for you. The grains are then steeped in your mash tun for about an hour at a constant temperature. After that period the sweet liquid it separated from the grains and added to your boiler. More water is added to the grain bed to wash out the remaining sugars. This run-off is also added to your pot. You'll end up with about 7 gallons of liquid or wort. The wort is then boiled vigorously for about an hour and hops are added at intervals. After the boil the wort is then cooled and yeast is added to start the fermentation.
This is an abbreviated description of the process just to give you an idea of what's entailed. If you want to know more you can do a search where you'll find a plethora of all-grain brewing information on the web.
Partial mash is a good introduction to all-grain brewing. You use a combination of malt extract syrup or powder and grains as explained above. Since you are mashing a much smaller amount of grains you can get away with using smaller vessels. Because most of the brewing sugar will come from the malt extract it's not so important that you get maximum extraction from your grains so you can steep your grains in a boiling pot. This takes less time and you don't have to invest in a mash tun.
Partial mash brewing is a great first step. There is less chance of making mistakes and it will give you confidence to move on to all-grain brewing.
Most grains used in extract brewing have been roasted. Roasting kills most enzymes that convert malt starches to sugar. However since the purpose of grains in extract brewing is to add colour and flavour we are not concerned about starch conversion. To use the grains you crack them and put them in your boiling pot. You steep then in hot water for about 30 minutes then remove them. You then proceed to add the malt extract and boil as per instructions. This is a great way to spruce up a beer kit giving it a fresher taste and malty aroma.