There are tons of articles and books out there with brew day how-to. It never hurts to have another perspective on brew day. Hopefully I can give you a quick and concise run-down on how I conduct my brew day. I use the standard cheap and easy equipment which consists of two igloo coolers. One is a mash tun and the other is a hot liquor tank. I use a 9-gallon Bayou Classic stainless steel pot as my boil kettle. Keep in mind that this is a living document, so if there’s anything important that I missed, please feel free to let me know in the comments or send me an email at SmallBatchBru@gmail.com. Enjoy!
Recipe Decision and Formulation
The first thing I usually decide on when I’m thinking about brewing a new batch is the style. For me, the style I choose depends on the season, a friend’s request, or if I find something really interesting that I just feel like trying out. I some parts of the country, you may use outside temperature as a consideration, but the temperatures here in Houston fluctuate so much that you can’t rely on a steady lagering temperature, for example for more than a few days.
After I’ve picked a style it’s time to think about the actual recipe. With the tools we have available today, recipe formulation has never been easier. The internet can be both a curse and a blessing. When browsing online for recipes, be sure and pick recipes from reputable sources. Some sites that have a great selection of recipes are the AHA site, BYO, Michael Tonsmire’s site (The Mad Fermentationist), and John Palmer even has a few recipes posted on the free version of HowtoBrew.com. If you’re new to homebrewing try to stay away from recipes posted on forums, and free-for-all recipe databases like BrewGr.com and the BeerSmith cloud. I’m not knocking BrewGr or BeerSmith! I love both products and use them a ton, but unless you know how to pick out “bad” recipes, recipes from these sources won’t always yield what the author claimed. If I am brewing a clone recipe the FIRST place I always visit is the brewery’s website. Most breweries won’t give you the recipe but they usually offer a vague outline of the types of malt, yeast and hops in each type of beer they produce. Then it’s up to you to experiment. Developing clones is all about trial and error.
Leading up to the Brew Day
If I have a fresh vile of commercial yeast, 1 packet is usually sufficient for a three-gallon batch, but if I have some dregs chilling in the fridge, this is how I make my starters.
I like to adhere to the Denny Conn method of brewing – cheap and easy. Therefore, I don’t own a stir plate, nor have I invested in any sort of mad scientist set of Erlenmeyer flasks. I prefer to use the mason jar and intermittent shaking method for my yeast starters.
About 4-5 days before brew day I will sanitize a mason jar and boil a wort of 10 grams of DME for every 1 liter of water. If I’m building a starter from dregs then I will do a .75-liter starter with the dregs from about 3 bottles of beer. This size starter has never given me any issues with my three gallon batches. Feel free to comment and post what works for you if you brew larger batches.
I’ll shake my starter whenever I’m in the kitchen and leave the lid loosely capped. After a few days, you should be able to tighten the lid and store the starter in the fridge until the morning of your brew day.
Shopping for Ingredients
Most of the time I’ll go shopping for my grain a day or two before my brew day. I am a huge proponent of supporting my local homebrew store (LHBS). If you have one near you I highly encourage you to try and get as much of your equipment and ingredients from them as possible. Disclaimer: I’m also a proponent of quality ingredients and good customer service. So, if you’re local homebrew store is lacking in those fields, go online and buy your stuff. Some online retailers that I recommend are MoreBeer and Williams Brewing.
I’ll take a second to plug my LHBS here in Houston: Farmboy Brew Shop. The owner is almost always there and will answer almost any question you have about the brewing process.
The Brew Day
- Heat your strike water to the specified temperature (I use BeerSmith for all of my brew day calculations.
- Transfer your mash water to your mash tun and let it warm up the inside for about a minute. *Be sure your valves are closed
- Pour (dough-in) your grain into your mash tun and stir. Be sure to get all of the grain wet and break up any clumps. Some people like to dough-in a little at a time and then stir. I just pour the full grain bill in. If you stir well enough you shouldn’t get “dough balls”.
- Take a temperature reading of your mash. BeerSmith is very accurate and if you hit your strike water temperature, your mash temperature should have dropped correctly.
- Put the lid on your mash tun and start your timer. I like to throw a couple of towels or blankets on top for a little extra insulation.
- Begin heating your sparge water to about 170 degrees
Vorlauf / Sparge
- Add your heated sparge with to your hot liquor tank (HLT). If you don’t use a HLT, just get your 168-degree water ready to pour into your mash tun straight from your boil kettle.
- Add your first batch of sparge water to you mash tun. BeerSmith will divide your sparges into batches that fit your specific mash tun volume so you will never overfill your tun. Pretty nifty! Allow this water to rise your mash temp slightly
- Open your valve and slowly run off your wort (about 1 quart at a time) into a pitcher (This is called the vorlauf). Pour this “cloudy” wort back into the mash tun. I like to use a plastic colander to “sprinkle” the wort onto the grain bed. The goal here is to not disturb the grain bed while pouring the wort back into the mash tun. When the runnings are clear, it’s time to empty the wort into the boil kettle. SLOWLY! Too fast and your mash will “stick”. If this occurs, just stir the grain and repeat the vorlauf process.
- When the tun is empty, add the remaining sparge water, stir the grain, and vorlauf until the wort is clear.
- Empty the clear second runnings into the kettle with your first runnings until your boil volume is acquired, or until you have a runnings gravity of about 1.008, whichever comes first.
- Collect a sample of wort and take a hydrometer reading. This will be your pre boil gravity. Use this number along with your post boil and starting gravity to determine your brewhouse efficiency.
- Carefully transfer your boil kettle to your boiling area. Electric stovetops can boil up to a three-gallon batch. Any larger and it is more efficient to use a gas burner outdoors.
- Watch your pot! Just before the wort comes to a boil, foam will develop. This is called the hot break and can eventually lead to a boil-over if your boil volume is close to the edge of your pot. If you suspect a boil-over, immediately remove the pot from the element. (Just turning off an electric stovetop will not lower the heat quickly enough to prevent a boil-over
- Start your timer when a nice rolling boil begins. Add your hop additions according to your recipe.
- 10 minutes to go – sanitize your lid and chiller. Prepare your ice bath if you don’t have a chiller.
- Remove from the heating element when you time hits zero.
Chilling *Only sanitized equipment touches the wort from this point forward
- Transfer your boil kettle to your ice bath or start the water flow through your chiller.
- Monitor the temperature of your wort with a sanitized thermometer.
- Your yeast has a fermentation range. Cool your wort to this recommended temperature.
- Sanitize your transfer equipment and carboy during this chilling process.
- I have left wort cooling in an ice/water bath for hour with no contamination issues. Just limit the removal of the lid and you should be able to keep any bad critters out of your wort.
Now clean up!
Notes on Primary Fermentation
Primary fermentation can take as little as four days or can last as long as two weeks. During this process, you will see bubbling coming inside the airlock as well as a foamy material forming on top of the wort. This is called the kreusen. When fermentation is complete, the bubbling will slow and this kreusen will fall back into the beer and a nice layer of trub will settle at the bottom of your fermenter.
Some notes on a “finished” primary fermentation.
- Airlock bubbles alone are not an indication of a finished fermentation.
- The best way to check for a finished beer is to take a gravity reading after about 4 days with sanitized equipment. Take another sample a few days later. If the number hasn’t changed; your beer is finished.
- Don’t pour the samples back in. Just drink them. It won’t kill you, but you could pour some bad bugs back into your beer.