Continuing Refinements to My Brewing Process

21 Feb

I will be bottling, soon. This batch will be the first bottled since I started brewing again after my recent unintended hiatus. Brew days have changed considerably since I restarted, with a focus on making the whole process easier. I have been so successful at streamlining my brewing that my last brew day I undertook single handed. That’s the first time since closer to college I’ve brewed anything entirely on my own.

My goal in improving my process has been to eliminate excuses not to brew. I love brewing and having its fruits always on hand to enjoy and especially to share. I hated the dry spell for robbing me of that simple pleasure. Being able to brew without help means the only scheduling I have to do is entirely optional. Now I arrange to have friends I want to include present rather than struggling to avoid the risk of lacking the labor I needed to brew in the first place. Going further, making each step along the way simpler and less labor intensive makes it far easier to go from inspiration for a recipe to enjoyment of that idea fully realized. I hope to accelerate the improvement of my skills and simply experiment and create more.

Improvements So Far

The heavy lift, literally, on brew day had been sparging. For those unfamiliar with partial or all grain brewing, that’s simply the process of rinsing the grains after mashing. Mashing  is steeping and heating the grain to get the starches to convert to fermentable sugars. Grain can be sparged several different ways. I did what is called batch sparging.

After mashing, the grain and first bit of wort, or unfermented beer, are poured into a plastic bucket. That bucket has holes drilled in the bottom, enough so the liquid will drain but the grain itself gets caught. That bucket sits in another bucket, one with a spigot in the side, towards its bottom. More hot water is poured over the grains in batches. The grains form a self filtering bed, helping the wort produced by rinsing to run through the drilled out bottom and out the spigot.

Batch sparging, at least the way I did it, required a lot of lifting, of a vessel filled with soaked grains and wort then of pots filled with scalding hot water. Using this technique was easiest with at least a couple of people. In addition to the added muscle to lift and pour over the buckets I described, the extra hands helped make sure that the water was sprinkled over the whole grain bed, rinsing more sugars than a simple straight pour.

Now I have pot made specifically for mashing, called a mash tun. It has its own spigot and a false bottom. When the grains have been mashed long enough, the wort can simply be collected by the spigot, without any lifting. To rinse the grains to get the rest of the sugars, I now have an impeller pump. I have a second pot, called a hot liquor tank, also with a spigot, to heat water for sparging. I use the pump to draw off the hot water and send it to a sparge arm. The arm is just an adjustable bracket that sits on top of the mash tun. It holds a steel tube on the end of which is affixed a spray attachment, like what you’d find on an old school ceiling mounted, water based fire extinguisher system. The attachment helps spread the water over all of the grain bed, with little or no manual fussing.

When I mention having a three vessel system, what I just described is what I mean. The advantage is that there is no heavy lifting, literally. Everything runs from one end to the other, with wort collecting in the third vessel, or the brew kettle, which goes back on a heat source for the next step in brew, the one common to all the different approaches, boiling.

Even Less Lifting

Last brew day, I used one more new upgrade. I used to require help to take the brew kettle off the stove and lower it into a big tub of ice water. If you add yeast to water when it is too hot, you can cause the yeast to produce flavors you don’t want or worse you can knock the poor buggers out completely.

I now have an immersion chiller. The chiller is 25 feet of copper tubing all coiled up with a couple of hoses attached. One hose fits onto a faucet, the other goes into a sink or drain. The chiller goes into the water a bit before the end of the boil, to sterilize it. Once the boil is done, running cold water through the tubing acts just like your refrigerator or freezer. What an ice bath would take hours to do, an immersion chiller can accomplish in tens of minutes. This bit of kit not only speeds up one of the longest stages of the process on brew day, it also eliminates still more heavy lifting.

Advantages of Big Mouth Fermenters

Getting a pump and shifting over from batch sparging to continuous sparging with a three vessel system eliminated a lot of work. I eliminated more by getting larger fermenters, ones that specifically are more like a mason jar than a bottle. The largest part of brew day is now cleaning, both to prepare for brewing and as each stage is finished. The large mouth fermenters make clean up a lot easier. The new carboys are also more than twice the size of my old ones, large enough so one can hold a single batch of beer, cutting in half how much glass I have to clean on any given day.

Some beer recipes, like my high alcohol, long fermenting and conditioning barley wine, call for racking. That simply means siphoning the beer from one container to another. The idea is you remove the beer from the wastes the yeasts produce and in the early stage, or primary fermentation, any debris or by products from the brew day itself, like any hops that may have gotten into the fermenter. Racking can help with the clarity of beers and may be used to prevent or address certain off or undesirable flavors making their way into the beer.

Again, the new fermenters make racking, when I do it, much easier. I only have to clean a single fresh fermenter into which the beer will be racked and the one from which the beer was siphoned. With my smaller fermenters, I had to effectively clean four of them.

Speeding Up Bottling

The one other activity brewing requires is putting the beer into the containers from which you’ll serve it, either bottles or kegs. I want to start kegging but for now, I am still bottling. Bottling is a huge hassle. Instead of one, two or four containers to worry about, you have dozens. I am particular about my bottles. I recycle the ones from which I drink my craft beer, week in and week out, but prefer that they be pristine to house my own brew. In additional to simply cleaning them enough to keep the beer fresh and unspoiled, I work hard to remove every shred of evidence the bottles ever held anything other than my beer.

To make bottling day easier, I recently invested in a bit more equipment. I got a bottle washer, an attachment for our kitchen faucet that produces a nice, high pressure jet. The washer is angled so it is easy to lower the bottles down onto it and for the rinse water to pour out and down the drain. The washer also has a nice valve that the bottle’s mouth depresses, releasing the cleansing spray only when you want. Spritz the inside of the bottles with a little bit of no rinse sanitizer and you are good to fill with fresh home brew.

I picked up a nice set of stackable racks. They hold the bottles neck down and sit in a tray that collects any water or sanitizer that drips out of the freshly prepared bottles. I have enough racks to hold more than enough bottles for a single batch of beer. I can simply rinse, sanitize and rack bottles until I have enough to bottle.

I bought some carbonation tablets, too. With bottling, you usually add a little bit more sugar to the beer in order to prime it once it is in the bottles. Any residual yeast eats this last bit of priming sugar, producing more CO2. In a capped bottle, this gas cannot escape and at a certain point its own pressure forces it into solution. I used to dissolve some dry malt extract in water to add to my bottling bucket, simply a plastic bucket with a spigot at the bottom to which a bit of hose and a bottling wand are attached. Preparing the priming sugar this way is a pain, requiring measuring, boiling, cooling and careful handling to keep it sterile.

By comparison, these carbonation tabs are simply sugar pills, already measured out to have the perfect amount of yeast food to prime a single bottle. Drop one into a sanitized bottle, fill it, cap it, and you are good to go.

Spreading the Work

The last labor intensive part of my bottling day is getting the labels and adhesive off of my recycled bottles. I soak the bottles over night in a big galvanized tub to which I add a little oxygen based cleansing solution to help dissolve the label glue. Cleaning up enough bottles for a batch of beer in one sitting takes longer than the rest of bottling day. I end up using quite a bit of water, too, to full submerge the bottles. Hefting that water once the bottles are prepared is a pain.

Short of kegging, I wasn’t sure how to make my bottling day any easier. Then it occurred to me: with the new bottle washing rig, there is no reason to strip labels from all of the needed bottles right before bottling. If I do a half case of bottles or so every odd weekend, I can simply always have sufficient bottles ready for the washer at any time. Overall it is the same amount of work but doing it a little bit at a time, ongoing, just seems easier to manage rather than adding that work on top of everything else that needs doing on bottling day.

All this talk of gear and process has just made me eager for more brewing, even if the next thing I need to do is bottle my last batch.

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