New Upright Freezer: the Solution to Bottling from a Fermentation Chamber

My minimalist philosophy of reducing wasted motion has forced me into this purchase (riiiiiight). After much thought and failed attempts to find a cheaper alternative, I finally scrapped my old craiglist fridge/fermentation chamber and replaced it with a new and improved upright freezer/fermentation chamber. This is by far the most expensive piece of brewing equipment I have, and will, buy. But damn it’s nice.

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How did we get here? When I first started homebrewing, I worried too much about fermentation. For good reason. Temperature does matter, and temperature swings matter. I distinctly remember opening a batch of super fizzy, overcarbonated beer. I had been fermenting in the basement: too cold, too slow, a brewer too impatient, leaving an underfermented, fizzy beer. Learning my lesson, I started fermenting in the kitchen, which was probably still too cold in the winter, but an improvement nonetheless – no more fizz bombs. Yet having a fermenting beer in the kitchen is not ideal, or practical, and involved moving the beer too much in my opinion. My ultimate goal was to never move the beer.

Thus, 50 or so batches latter, I got a 30 dollar fridge, rigged it with an STC-1000, put a heat lamp in, and began experimenting with the convenience of temperature control. This was great. I never worried about temperature, I could make excellent Belgians, and I could use it to cold crash. However, I had three problems. First, because it was old, it took forever to get really cold. In the summer, it took days to get to freezing, and was horribly inefficient. Because I was using it to chill my hot beer, that was an issue. Second, the top freezer was unusable dead space. I could barely fit my pot in it, leaving no room to dry hop or add gelatin. Third, it’s too short for bottling. My bottling wand would be too low for comfort. So, when the beer was ready to bottle, I would have to move it to the freezer part. That stirs up the sediment and it’s God damn heavy. If you’re going to have a fermentation chamber, and if you’re going to bottle directly from it, then an upright freezer makes the most sense. It puts the beer at the perfect height for bottling. Continue reading

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Short boil + No Chill = Best Friends

Many published homebrewing books will tell you to boil for 90 minutes and chill immediately. I say boil for 30 minutes and don’t chill. There is a method to this madness. If you think about it, 30 minute boils and no chill are the lazy man’s dream team. Bitterness, we know, comes from putting hops in the hot wort for an extended period of time.  No chill extends that time. In other words, you are getting bitterness out of your hops while sitting on the couch – because the beer is still hot, very hot, hot enough to extract bitterness while it is slowly cooling down (I’ve heard 145 degrees is the cut-off point but I’m not sure). That’s why I’m trying short boil + no chill. Until proven otherwise, it’s my preferred method.

They get the most out of your bittering hops for the least amount of work.

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Here comes the but. It’s not for everyone, especially the scientific brewer. You have to somehow calculate and adjust for bitterness, which is tricky with no chill. For example, you throw 1 oz. of Warrior in for 30 minutes. After the boil, it stays hot for another hour. What does that mean? How much bitterness does that extract. How do you calculate and adjust your recipe? I don’t really have a clear answer yet. So far, I haven’t really worried about it. For malt forward beers, I wouldn’t worry too much; simply use the same recipe.  The Russian Imperial Stout I recently made – which had 2.5 ounces of Warrior bittering hops – came out very nice, not too bitter. I think you would be fine to keep the same, original recipe, which relies on a 60 minute boil. I think the shorter, 30 minute boil, plus the no chill, is roughly the same as a 60 minute boil. Close enough, right? Continue reading

How to Bottle in under 31 minutes (with pics)

30 minutes 47 seconds, to be exact, including clean-up and taking these silly pictures I’m about to show you. I timed myself from the beginning to the end, just because I was curious how long it actually took.

I start by sanitizing the bottles the easy way. I throw them in the washer on a high temperature ‘sanitize’ setting and let it go. I use 22 oz bottles and use about 26 of them. This does take a little planning. Done:

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Into boxes:

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(You could actually do this on a previous day. I have, although I don’t see a huge benefit. Just make sure to put plastic wrap over the bottles.) Continue reading

The slow, lazy, 24 hour chill method

After a long 2 hour brew day, I’m a big fan of being done brewing. I like to brew frequently, I have a family, and I have other stuff to do. Which means that, after the boil, I’m a big fan of not chilling the beer down to room temperature. Conventional wisdom says you have to chill the unfermented beer really fast, then add yeast. I used to do that. For almost all my 60+ batches, I would chill the unfermented beer in my bathtub, which involves adding ice and cold water (the ice was from my fridge). This was effective but, in my opinion, not very sanitary or fun. Alternatively, most people buy a special ‘immersion wort chiller,’ which is a copper coil that runs cold water through the beer constantly, cooling it down fairly fast. You can hook it up to an outside spigot, garden hose, or kitchen faucet. Of course there are more expensive, complex systems that I won’t get into. More time, more cleaning.

However, is this really necessary to make good beer? There is an entire world of homebrewers who don’t chill at all – they live in Australia and put beer into weird plastic cubes. I like the lazy approach, minus the weird cube. So, after boiling with hops, I simply put the hot unfermented beer into my freezing fermentation chamber, put lid on pot, set the temp to 70 degrees, and wait. In the winter, I’ve noticed it takes about 24 hours or so (last batch was 18 hours). Then I put the yeast in, sit back and relax for 5 days while it makes alcohol. So far, so good.

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Infection is the main reason that people chill fast, no doubt about it.  The most critical period of the beer is after the boil but before the fermentation. It’s a race to produce alcohol. Alcohol helps prevent infection. As for me, I’m not too worried about infection. I do clean the fermentation chamber with Clorox wipes. It’s closed and sealed. I feel like infection is possible but highly unlikely, although I don’t have numbers to back it up. This is something I will experiment with until I get an infection or notice a quality difference.

Another issue is bitterness from hops. If you don’t chill, the hops will continue to impart bitterness on your beer for several hours. Something to think about.

Using Lean Principles to Homebrew

For those who don’t know, Lean is a workplace philosophy that involves reducing waste and increasing “flow” at the system level. It applies to any service (like making cars) or process (you guessed it…making beer). I have slowly become a fan of Lean (I’m actually on a Lean Steering Committee at work and give talks about how to Lean libraries…weird, huh). The goal is to have the best quality beer for the least amount of work.

Reducing Waste

Motion, Transportation
In a perfect Lean system, the product (beer) and the people (you) move as little as possible. Before I got a fermentation chamber, just to take one example, I found myself moving the beer to various places, depending on what I was doing to it (brewing, chilling, fermenting, cold crashing, bottling). That’s a ton of wasted motion. Now I move it three times: to the deck to brew (roughly 10 feet), in the bathtub to chill (20 feet), and into the fermentation chamber for everything else (including bottling, 30 feet). Theoretically, the beer wouldn’t have to move at all. For example, if you have four thousand dollars to “waste,” there exists a BREWHA BIAC All-in-One conical system that virtually does everything in one place (mash, boil, chill, ferment). But I wonder how hard that bitch is to clean.

Other ways to limit motion:

  • Store brewday equipment all in the one spot, close to where you brew. On brewday, you grab and start. No looking for stuff.
  • Chill close to where you brew. Ideally, the chiller and water source would be right next to your heat source.
  • Ferment close to where you chill. Are you seeing a pattern? As for my set up, I’m hoping to improve on this by installing a large utility sink next to my fermentation chamber. But that requires plumbing.
  • Store empty bottles close to where you sanitize them. Empty bottles are kept in my basement, and I sanitize them in the dishwasher about 30 feet away (there’s really no other place for them). Ideally, I would buy an extra dishwasher and place it next to my fermentation chamber, next to the bottles. Are you getting the whole Lean thing by now? Probably.
  • U shape: Ideally, your brewing process and workspace would literally form a U shape. One end of the U would be the beginning of the process (cleaning, milling or mashing, depending on your setup); on the other end, the finished beer ready to drink. For most people like me, this is completely impractical but good to keep in mind.
  • Buy in bulk: less trips to the homebrew shop. The reason I don’t buy in bulk is because my homebrew shop has a barley mill that I like to use, so I don’t have to buy one.

Continue reading

Dunk the Bag: Mash-in, save time, no dough balls

As I was waiting for the mash water to get up to 155 degrees, I sat there looking at the 15 pounds of grains I had just bought, sitting in a large plastic bag. Then I looked at my empty Brew in a Bag bag. I thought: wouldn’t it be nice and convenient to just fill it beforehand and dump it? The internet says it won’t work. Took a sip of whiskey. Fuck it. I’m doing it.

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So I did. And, to my surprise, it worked. I was amazed that, for some reason, there was no dough balls. I simply dunked, stirred, and put the top on. In fact, it worked better than what I was used to.

Normally, I slowly and awkwardly pour the grains in with one arm while stirring with the other. At my homebrew store, they come in a large plastic bag, so it’s a balancing act. Not only have I spilled grains on several occasions, but it takes a while. Plus, I sometimes got dough balls!

I can only guess that the large amount of water in my pot allows this to happen smoothly. For this batch, I was adding about 15 pounds of grain to 8 gallons of water. In other words, with all grain no sparge Brew in a Bag, you have a large water to grain ratio, a thin mash.

Needless to say, I will be using this technique from now on. BIAB wins again!

update: at the 17 or 18 pound mark, I have gotten dough balls. For example, I made a big IPA the other day and got them. Not a big deal.

One Pot Brewing v2.0: bigger, easier, simpler

Just when you thought my process was simple, it got simpler. After much thought, I tweaked my system into a no-sparge, single vessel, Brew in a Bag system. I got a bigger pot and stopped sparging. This new system allows me to (1) get rid of some sparging equipment (2) make brew days easier and (3) make bigger beers and bigger batches (previously I was limited to only 12 pounds of grain). Of course I’m hoping this to be my last and final brewing system (haven’t we all said that?).

What’s different? A larger aluminum pot ($50):

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It’s a 52 quart (13 gallon) aluminum tamale steamer. I wish I had gotten this from the start. Sparging is no fun. Now, with this beast, I don’t have to. I can start with all the water I need (say, 8 gallons). As usual, I will be using this pot to mash, boil, ferment, and bottle. I can do a 5, 6, 7, or 8 gallon batch if I want. I’m excited to use the lid as well. For fermenting, I will simply put the lid on and let ‘er go (no more aluminum foil). This is not technically open fermentation, but it’s in the same ballpark; as you can see, it’s not a super tight seal. I’m not worried.

Next, a better spigot ($16) to bottle from:

new spigot

This will go about 2 inches from the bottom of the pot (above the trub line). My previous spigot was similar, but the advantage here is the possibility to attach a bottle filler, if I so desire (I probably will). Here’s what it looks like put together: Continue reading

What a Brew Day Looks Like

It’s fairly simple, stress free, and fast, although I’m always looking for the easier, faster, and simpler way. Let’s begin. First, if I am using reused yeast, I get it out of the fridge right away to warm up. You don’t want to pitch cold yeast into unfermented beer.

Trappist Yeast

This will wake the yeast, preparing it for action. You’ll notice the jar is filled with half yeast, half beer (how I collect it). For this batch. a Belgian Tripel, I will use about half of what you see.

I grab my pot, fill it with 6 gallons of water, heat to 150F, and add the barley.

mashing (barley soaked in hot water)

Soaking barley in hot water is called mashing. I usually mash at 155F but the lower temperature will make this beer a little more fermentable and dry, which is perfect for this beer. Anyway, put the cover on and wait an hour (actually, I stir occasionally just to make sure all the barley is getting wet…I probably don’t have to do that). Continue reading

Domino Sugar Cubes to Carbonate: effective and very cheap

If you carbonate using bottles, and especially if you bottle directly from the fermenter (like me), then you will be very excited to hear about this. Confusingly, the box calls them “Dots” but they are sugar cubes – pure cane sugar, to be exact – and they fit perfectly into bottles. And they are cheap, and available at the grocery store (no more special trips to the homebrew store). I used two cubes per 22 oz bottle and they came out nicely carbed. They took about two weeks, although one batch only took one week. I have carbed three batches with them: a Red IPA, Brown, and Jalapeno Ale. All were good.

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Price wise, this is a game changer, a major improvement from what I was using. Carb Drops were sort of the Achilles heel of One Pot Brewing; although convenient, too expensive considering the fact they are just….sugar. They were costing me about 4 dollars per batch (50 beers). Domino Sugar Cubes, on the other hand, cost about 50 cents per batch! In other words, one box will make around 100 22oz bottles, about 3.8 batches of beer.

I will continue to use these on all future batches.