Thursday, April 10, 2014

Methods to My Madness (Part 1)

One of the things I enjoy most about the homebrewing hobby is that there are so many different paths to getting tasty beer. Once you understand the basic brewing process, it's really easy to tweak your process to get the results you're looking for within your own particular set of constraints.

I brew indoors on my stovetop in a 5-gallon kettle. According to conventional homebrewing wisdom, this would seem to relegate me to partial-boil extract brewing land. Almost everything in homebrewing seems to be geared toward producing 5-gallon batches. And all-grain brewing requires a full-volume boil, so you can't brew 5 gallons unless you can comfortably bring 6 or 7 gallons (or more) to a boil.

Personally, I drink about 5-6 beers a week, or roughly a case a month. I also like to brew at least once or twice a month. The obvious solution is to brew smaller batches. Brewing 3-gallon batches solves pretty much all my problems. I can manage full-volume boils, which allows me to brew all-grain. I also net about a case at a time, which is perfect for me. If I brew 2 batches a month I get some extra to share, and every 3rd or 4th batch is a big beer to age in the cellar.

Once you break out of the mindset of "1 batch = 5 gallons", then a lot of doors become open. You can brew batches of any size, allowing you to test new ingredients and recipes at a smaller scale. You can also make the move to all-grain brewing while staying within the confines of a small kitchen. The one downfall is that the vast majority of kits are designed for a 5-gallon batch. So, for smaller batches you will need to be working off a recipe rather than a kit, and you'll need to be able to scale it to your particular batch size.

I realize that it may seem a bit daunting to work from a recipe rather than purchasing a pre-built kit, especially if you need to make modifications to the recipe. But it's really quite simple, especially if you're using brewing software that supports scaling recipes. I use Brewer's Friend, but most of the brewing calculators have some function that will allow you to scale a recipe up or down simply.

One thing to keep in mind when scaling a recipe is that everything will change in equal proportions except for one thing - your boiloff rate. You will end up boiling off the same amount of liquid (or a little more) for a smaller batch than you would for a larger one. For example, if you boil off 1 gallon in an hour, you will start with 6 gallons for a 5-gallon batch, and you will start with 4 gallons for a 3-gallon batch. Why do I mention that? Because, depending on how much you scale the recipe down, it could have an impact on your IBU's. The gravity of your boil affects hop utilization. Since a smaller batch starts at a lower gravity than a larger one (i.e., it is more dilute), you may find that your scaled recipe has more IBU's than the original recipe. In most cases the difference will be negligible, but in hoppier beers it may be enough where you might want to decrease your bittering addition a bit.

My specific process is a sort of a hybrid BIAB (Brew-In-A-Bag) process. I wanted to avoid the need to monitor and adjust the temperature during the mash, so I could just walk away once I mashed-in and return at the end of the mash. My solution is to mash in a 5-gallon beverage cooler that I have lined with my BIAB bag. When the mash is done, I pull the bag and run off into my kettle. While this isn't as simple (or as cheap) as the usual 1-vessel BIAB setup, having a separate mash tun is worth my while.

In part two I will go into a bit more specifics. I will also walk you through a typical all-grain brewday so that those of you who want to follow along at home can get the feel of things.

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