With the emphasis of many intermediate and advanced home brewers on larger and more complex brewing systems, many of us who have brewed for years (over 24 years in my case) have started turning back to smaller, simpler beer brewing. The trend is far from universal, but I’ve found even friends with brewing systems that cost 10’s of thousands of dollars occasionally enjoy making a simple 5 gallon batch of beer using traditional methods and equipment. [Aside: If you have never made your own beer, you can start with a simple extract based batch here]
Another factor at work here is the realization that pumps, whirlpool chillers, RIMS, and HERMS systems are not necessary to brew great beer. The automation can make some steps easier and more consistent – especially for large batches, but some amazing award winning beers have been made with nothing more than a picnic cooler and large pot.
The other challenge many brewers face is the lack of time. Jobs, kids, longer hours and the diminishing line between work time and play time eat into our brewing time. We are blessed, as beer brewing in itself does not have to take a lot of time – but one is pressured to get the most of the precious hours spent brewing.
There is certainly nothing wrong with taking the entire day to brew 25 gallons of beer on your giant home-built brewhouse, but sometimes it is also fun to go back and brew a simple beer in a small batch. So this week I’ll take you back and share some of the lessons learned in an attempt to simplify my all grain beer brewing and get back to basics:
- Five Gallons is Great – It is fun to play with 10-20+ gallon brewing systems, but time, space and other considerations make dealing with 5 gallons the easiest (you can still lift the fermenter or pot easily) and fastest. The time spent in setup, brewing and particularly cleanup is all less with a small 5 gallon system. The equipment is light, easy to handle and easy to clean. Also a 5 gallon batch is a great test size to perfect a recipe before moving to a larger brewing system.
- Keep the Grain Bill Simple – Many beginners tend to think that adding as many types of grains as possible will somehow enhance the beer. The truth is that many great commercial beers are made with pale malt and perhaps one or two other malts. If you do some research into beer styles, you will find that it is rare that more than 2-3 specialty grains are needed to make even complex beer styles.
- A Single Infusion is Good Enough – Yes, I’ve played with decoction, multi-step infusion, mash-outs and other exotic mash profiles, but for beers that don’t have exotic cereals or adjuncts added (which is about 97% of all beers), a single infusion mash is good enough – so keep it simple.
- Overlap the Tasks to Save Time – Sometimes I have only the evening to brew beer, and have brewed full all grain batches in as little as three hours. The key is to overlap the tasks as much as possible. For example, I will heat my mash water, and while it is heating I’ll crush the grains. Once the infusion mash has been started, I’ll measure and lay out all of the equipment and ingredients for the sparge and boil. When the boil is on, I’ll be cleaning the chiller and getting my fermenter sanitized. In every step, I try to make sure I’m prepping for the next step or cleaning the equipment I’m finished with so I can save time.
- Two Hop Additions Is Enough – For most beer styles, a single bittering hop addition and a single aroma addition is often enough. The fact is that most aromatic hop oils boil off in less than 10 minutes, so if you want to preserve aromatics keep the boil time short for those additions. For example, I will often add a bitterness hop addition at the beginning of the boil and a second addition the last 5 minutes to preserve aroma.
- You Don’t Need Fancy Equipment – More equipment means more setup time and more cleaning after you are done. For all grain infusion mashing, often a 5 gallon water cooler and large pot is sufficient. Extract beers require even less equipment. If you want to keep it even simpler, consider Brew-In-A-Bag (article, podcast) which requires only a single large pot and one large grain bag to brew great all-grain beer. Formulating a good recipe, and following a good process when brewing will affect the quality of your beer more than the latest brewing widget.
Brewing beer on a fancy recirculating mash system is fun, but occasionally its also fun to get back to basics and brew a few gallons the old fashioned way. Even for large systems, simplifying your recipes and processes can save you time and money without sacrificing on quality. So get back to basics!
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