Sheppy Brew just made its first home-made Mash Tun. I based it mostly on the plans posted on homebrewtalk.com: Homemade Mash Tun Design. My Tun is 5 gallons instead of 10, and probably as a result of that, I needed additional washers to take up enough space to tighten the ball value assembly sufficiently to prevent leaks.
Now I can brew "All Grain" batches. Real brewing snobs will tell you that if I was not doing all-grain until now, I have not been a real brewer. I disagree with those people, but that doesn't really matter. Now, I am an "All Grain Brewer". Of course, I am still using Mr. Beer fermenters, there are probably still brewing geeks who will say I am not a real brewer. Those people are just ignorant and wrong, so don't listen to them.
In case you don't know... mashing is the process that converts the starches in malted grains to sugars. When you use extracts to brew, that process has already been done for you. When you do a partial or full mash, you let the enzymes in the malted grain take of it. It is pretty simple. I do a single infusion mash, which means basically I add hot water to the grain and let it sit for an hour (give or take). The reason that my mash tun was made out of a cooler is so that the hot water will stay hot for the right amount of time. Once the mashing is done, you can remove the sugars by doing one or more "sparges", which is basically rinsing the mash with more hot water, collecting the sugars as it passes through. Mashing and sparging can be a complex subject, but those are the basics.
Really all there is to my mash tun is a water cooler with a modified value for easier drainage of the wort. It also has a piece that strains out the grains from the collected wort.
I do not know why I've waited so long to make a mash tun and make the "jump" to All-Grain. Most of my favorite home brews have been partial mashes. A partial mash is basically mashing part of your fermentables and using extract to fill in the rest of the fermentables. So, really a partial mash is the same time / effort as a full mash, but high-level brewing snobs make fun of you because you are not "All Grain". Actually, no one ever makes fun of me directly for not being an All-Grain brewer. The only All-Grain brewers I know are either too nice (and /or not as ignorant as the high-level brewing snobs out there) or are the guys (or girls) who work in the LBHS's and want me to buy things from their shop. There is a much higher margin on extracts, so I bet most of my LBHS buddies would rather I continue to use extracts... especially since I made my mash tun instead of buying it from them. Anyway, whether or not anyone has made fun of me to my face, I do know that there are people who think you are not a "real" brewer unless you do All Grain.
The main advantage of doing All-Grain (other than the fact that you get ridiculed less by other brewers) is that buying enough grain to make a batch of beer is less expensive than buying the extract needed to make the same amount of beer. Some people will tell you that All-Grain gives you better tasting beers. I do not know about that necessarily, but we'll see. Like I mentioned above, my best beers have been partial mash, so maybe a full mash will indeed give me even better beers.
I also recently purchased a Bayou Classic SP10 High-Pressure Outdoor Gas Cooker. With this, I'll be able to do my boils outside rather than in the kitchen. It will keep the inside a bit cooler and keep me out of the way when my wife is trying to make lunch or some other womanly kitchen activity. Theoretically, it will boil faster and will allow me to boil higher volumes of water than the stove. That is not a critical factor right now, but if I ever move up to bigger batches, it will make a world of difference.
Stay tuned ... I'll let you know when I actually get to use my new brewing equipment.