Upgrade Priority List

All brewers have different priorities with their upgrades. Some go for increased capacity immediately. Others go for temperature control. Some ignore temperature control and just brew specific styles like Belgians and sours that can benefit from higher temps.

The priorities with Goldilocks Homebrewing are particularly pronounced. I recommend a starting kit worth about $200 – $250 for all-grain brewing, and closer to $150 for extract brewing. Once you get a few batches under your belt and make sure that you actually like the hobby and understand the process, it’s natural to want to spend more on it. But as I’ve mentioned before it’s important to resist the temptation to just buy your way to better beer.

A lot of these upgrades aren’t totally necessary but they can be nice. And it’s fun to treat yoself once in a while.

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For example, I recently picked up a digital thermometer on Amazon. I found that the Thermowand sells for about $25, which is a pretty nice discount compared to the Thermapen. I’ve only brewed a single batch with it, so I’m still adjusting my process a bit (turns out my manual thermometer reads a little warmer than the actual temperature), but I think it will save me a little time and allow me to be more accurate.

So I thought I’d put together two different lists. A list of my own upgrade priorities, and a list of what I think the upgrade priorities are for the homebrewing community at large (based on my admittedly limited knowledge). These are only major pieces of equipment, not things like tubing (which you’ll replace regularly) and bigass tubs of PBW and StarSan (which should definitely be on the top of the list before upgrading your equipment).

Goldilocks’ Priorities

1. Immersion Chiller (assuming you have no chiller)
2. Fermentor
3. Fermentation Chamber
4. Thermometer (manual to digital)
5. Refractometer
6. Boil Kettle
7. Gas Burner
8. Mash Tun
9. Pumps (assuming no pumps)
10. Plate Chiller (assuming you have an immersion chiller)

My list prioritizes a chiller, which can save a ton of time on brew day and ensure higher quality beer. Having a nice fermentor comes next. Buckets are great, but I have to say that I’ve loved my Spiedel. Temperature control is next, if you have the space and money, because it’s going to improve your brew and allow you to lager.

Anything that would increase capacity comes toward the bottom because I don’t think I’ll be getting off the stove anytime soon. And I just don’t think increased capacity is a priority. I guess it would be nice to brew slightly larger batches, maybe 8 gallons or so, since that’s the size of my fermentor, but I can’t imagine ever doing 15 or larger. I’m sure it’s not all that much extra work with the right setup, but it seems like a big investment, more stuff to clean, and more that could go wrong. I may eat these words in the future, but not until I’m out of apartment living.

Homebrew Community’s Priorities

1. Immersion Chiller (assuming you have no chiller)
2. Boil Kettle
3. Gas Burner
4. Mash Tun
5. Hot Liquor Tank
6. Pumps (assuming no pumps)
7. Plate Chiller (assuming you have an immersion chiller)
8. Fermentation Chamber
9. Fermentor
10. Refractometer

From what I’ve seen of the homebrewing community, batch size is the biggest immediate priority, which means building a set that can brew at least 10 gallons, more likely 15 to 20. This requires a gas burner (which itself requires a tank of propane) or an electric element, upgrading your kettle and mash tun to those sizes, and adding a hot liquor tank to your setup to save time on the whole process. And if you’re dealing with that much hot liquid, better pump it through a plate chiller into your fermentor.

The one area of similarity that we share is the immersion chiller. This is almost a basic necessity for homebrewing, and I include it in my list of equipment that gets up to $200.

Writing out a list like this might be a good idea for new brewers. It will help give you an idea of what your priorities are and how you might budget for the hobby in the future. Feel free to follow my lead, take the advice of others in the community, or to go your own route.

Hands-on Review of The Brew Bag® for Brew in a Bag (BIAB) Homebrewing

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TL;DR

  • The Brew Bag® works great for full-volume, no-sparge mashes.
  • The Brew Bag® can function as a filter inside an ordinary mash tun for regular-volume mashes.
  • Efficiency doesn’t suffer greatly when usingThe Brew Bag®.
  • Clean-up is incredibly easy.

I’d been curious about the The Brew Bag® and Brew in a Bag (BIAB) brewing techniques (pdf) ever since I first heard about them because it seemed like such an easy way to brew. No trouble with a mash tun, no trouble with sparging. What’s not to like?

For those of you unfamiliar, BIAB is a technique where brewers use a finely meshed bag—often just a bag used to strain paint—to mash their grains in a full volume of water. Once conversion of the starches during the mash is complete, they simply lift the bag from the kettle, give it a few squeezes to extract as much wort as possible, and then continue on with the boil.

BIAB does have its difficulties. The grains can get very heavy, so many brewers using this technique install a pulley system in the ceiling of their garage and use ropes to pull the grains out. This sounded expensive and difficult (and I’m renting, so I can’t just drill into my ceiling), but I still wanted to see if a bag might work in the Goldilocks Homebrewing system.

The folks at brewinabag.com, purveyors of The Brew Bag®, make mesh bags that are designed for specific kettles and mash tuns. You’ll get a great fit no matter what kind of container you use—they’ll make one especially for you. The bags cost $30, so it’s about the same cost as buying plumbing to fit your mash tun. I’ve used one on two batches in my 5-gallon Igloo cooler mash tun over the past month.

One Gallon Batch

First I wanted to try a typical, no-sparge BIAB situation, so I put together a simple one-gallon batch of beer—a 100% Pilsner, Amarillo hop SMaSH (Single Malt Single Hop) beer. I was aiming for 1.25 gallons of 1.050 wort, so a total of 62.5GU (1.25 x 50 = 62.5), and I would leave the quarter gallon in the kettle. I assumed that I would get a slightly lower efficiency than normal and calculated everything with 65% in mind.

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I mashed in my Igloo cooler in 2.5 gallons of water just to maintain the temperatures better, but I easily could have done this in my kettle.

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brewinabag.com provides instructions about how much water you can expect to be absorbed by the grains and recommends mashing at full volume. I had signs of lack of conversion in an iodine test after an hour, so I let it mash longer. Part of this could be that my mash temps dropped into the 146F range by the end—less thermal mass with small batches mean you won’t hold the temperature as well. This probably wouldn’t have been a problem with larger batches and was no fault of The Brew Bag®.

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When I was done, I simply lifted the grain from the cooler.

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And plopped it down into a big pot.

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I ended up with 2 gallons of wort at 1.032, which works out to 64GU total—right on the nose. This suggests that I was slightly more efficient than 65%, which is good: it looks like The Brew Bag® does not affect efficiency. I also managed to squeeze out about two cups of extra wort from the bag itself, which I froze and used to propagate yeast for my next batch.

I just bottled this beer and it’s carbonating at the moment, so I don’t know exactly how it turned out. It seems fine. I used dry yeast for the first time in a while, but after a super slow start I panicked and ended up pitching a small sample of British ale yeast I’d saved from previous batches. So I might have some sort of Franken-beer on my hands. This just goes to show you that equipment isn’t everything, especially mash equipment. Mashing is really just the first step, and yeast treatment is very important. I don’t think I’ll be using dry yeast again in the future.

Four Gallon Batch

As you may be aware, I don’t ever brew 5-gallon batches. I boil on my stovetop, so I’m not sure I could get that much liquid to boil. I’ve been able to get 5-gallons rolling for a 4-gallon batch, so maybe I should man up and try a 5-gallon batch sometime, but in general 3-4 gallons is enough beer for me.

I wanted to test The Brew Bag® as a replacement filtration device during a normal sparge, so I cooked up a recipe for a Belgian Dubbel from Brewing Classic Styles. This time I calculated everything at 70% efficiency. I was aiming for 4 gallons of 1.056 wort, which I planned to bump up to 1.064 using adjuncts during fermentation.

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In the end, I decided to add more base malt to get me up to 1.062, so 248GU total. I wanted to make the beer stronger, and I felt like bumping up the base malt would also compensate for any inefficiency from The Brew Bag® (even though my first test showed no effect on efficiency using the bag).

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I fly sparged as usual, and this is the data I got as I sparged:

1 gallon: 125F 1.074 = 1.084 = 84GU
2 gallons: 124F 1.070 = 1.080 = 160GU
3 gallons: 122F 1.060 = 1.069 = 207GU
4 gallons: 121F 1.046 = 1.055 = 220GU
(An additional test at 4 gallons with the hydrometer just floating in my bucket of wort: 131F 1.043 = 1.054 x 4 = 216)
(At this point the wort was running out at 144F 1.010 = 1.024)
4.5 gallons: 130F 1.040 = 1.051 x 4.5 = 229.5GU
5 gallons: 130F 1.035 = 1.046 x 5 = 230GU

The numbers started to get a little funny toward the end, and I think my final readings at 4 and 5 gallons may have been off, especially if the wort really was running out at 1.024. After boiling and cooling the wort, I had an original gravity of 1.066 and just over 4 gallons, which means about 264GU total…much more than I was going for, and about 75% efficiency. Additional testing will be necessary to see how efficiency fares.

BUT BACK TO THE REAL STORY, The Brew Bag® worked perfectly. The sparge slowed down toward the end. I was getting about 12 mins/gallon in the beginning which slowed to about 15-16 mins/gallon by the end. I got just about all the GU I needed, well within the style limits for Dubbels. I pitched a nice set of healthy yeast and had a vigorous fermentation. It’s been in the primary for about ten days now, and I plan to let it take all the time it needs.

Clean-up

Clean-up was a total breeze with The Brew Bag®. I drained the rest of what I could into a jar to save as starter wort (I managed to get about 6 cups of 1.035 wort), and then I pulled the bag out of the mash tun and set it in the tub.

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When I pulled it out, I heard a soft burping sound, and a bunch of wort rushed out. This makes me think that toward the end I was starting to get a slightly stuck mash. Perhaps I could have tried to jostle The Brew Bag® a bit, recirculate for a quart or so, and then continued to collect wort. At that point, I’d already collected my volume, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but I might’ve been able to save more starter wort.

I ran some cold water through the spent grains to cool them down a little, and then I simply upended The Brew Bag® into a trash bag and threw it all away.

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After dumping the grain, I washed down The Brew Bag® using the soft side of a sponge and dish soap before hanging it to dry.

All in all, I highly recommend using The Brew Bag®. Clean-up alone is worth the cost in my opinion. It saved me about 30 minutes of trouble draining and then tossing the spent grain, not to mention clearing all the plumbing of grain particles.

I’m curious to try it out again and gather more data about the efficiency so I can start to dial it in. If you were considering picking up The Brew Bag®, I’d say go ahead and give it a shot.

In Praise of Small Beer Part 2

I worked all last weekend on a freelance translation job that had me digging deep into Japanese feudal history for names, places, and obscure religious vocabulary. When I came to from the project on Sunday afternoon, the Saints had already lost to the Bengals, the Packers were about to dominate Mark Sanchez, and I was a bit of a zombie. I needed a beer. But I didn’t want some 9% whale that would set me on my ass. I needed a small beer, something that would let me unwind over the course of several bottles.

So I cracked open the Mild I’d just brewed. 1.039 OG, 1.011 FG, which works out to 3.68% ABV. I used an early recipe from Jamil Zainasheff that is a bit heavy with the caramel and dark grains compared with his example in Brewing Classic Styles. But it works.

And I even split a pair of games of Carcassonne:

carcassonne

I did miss the perfect opportunity to immediately score a monastery, but I probably would have missed more than that if I was drinking a big beer.

Small beers aren’t just cheap, they’re great for unwinding and for Eurogaming.

Brewing Best Practices – Add Base Malt to Increase Potency

bcs

I scored some birthday cash back in October and spent part of it on Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, a book I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while. It’s worth the price of admission. John Palmer provides some excellent insight about grain varieties in the introductory section, and throughout the recipes Jamil Zainasheff includes awesome nuggets of wisdom such as this:

Many new brewers mistakenly think it is necessary to increase the level of specialty malts when making a higher-alcohol beer. That is incorrect, and doing so will make an over-the-top version of the beer. The increased base malt will add the additional body, alcohol, and some malty flavors and aromas, so there is no need to change the specialty grain amounts, unless you are making a larger or smaller volume of beer. (125)

This is great to know…not something that I realized. I see this working really well with styles like Dubbel, Porter, Stout, Belgian Strong Ale and of course Scottish Ale, the section where this quote comes from. Basically any style that has a natural range of strengths built into it and that has a defining set of specialty grains that darken the wort.

Pick up this book ASAP. I think reading this alongside Ray Daniels’ Designing Great Beers might be the ideal way to learn how to make your own recipes.

Resist

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Brewing, like many hobbies, invites obsession. There is pleasure in every aspect of the activity—not only in making and drinking the beer, but also in purchasing new equipment, new ingredients, new brewing literature, and new drinking paraphernalia.

If/when you aren’t getting as much satisfaction out of the making of the beer itself—perhaps you’ve produced a bad batch? or you feel like brewing bigger batches? or maybe you’ve run out of new styles to brew?—it can be tempting to try and buy your way either to happiness or to better beer.

Surely that digital thermometer will improve your beer. Or maybe a bigger fermentor. Or maybe you should start barrel-aging your beer. There’s no way your starters are good enough—you need that stir plate.

The problem with brewing is that the price ceiling is distinctly higher than most other hobbies/collections. If you rely on purchasing to get your kicks, it could end up costing a lot. Really the only other hobby that gets more expensive is cars.

Here is a good rule for brewing: Resist the temptation to make purchases in order to improve your beer.

Yes, you need to shell out some cash to get into the game. Goldilocks Homebrewing suggests that you probably need about $200 to get set up for all-grain homebrewing. And you might consider spending up to $300 or so to make certain upgrades if you’re sure that your in the game for the long haul.

But before you go beyond that, get some reps in first. Learn the process. Develop a palate for different grains and hops and their effects on beer. Practice treating your yeast with care.

And then go out and buy that shiny new piece of equipment. You brew the beer, not the equipment. Resist thinking otherwise.

No Excuses – Taking Hydrometer Samples

Do you know what this is?

hydrometer

A hydrometer and a funnel, you might say. And 6oz of beer in a hydrometer sample tube.

And you would be correct.

But this isn’t just any sample. This is 6oz of beer being fermented at near-peak krausen, 48 hours after pitch. I had to swing my ladle like a scimitar to clear away the foam. The sample was rife with suspended yeast…and delicious. I pitched on Sunday night and drew off this sample on Tuesday night. All I needed was the ladle, the funnel, and a sample tube thanks to my Speidel fermentor, which has a wide mouth opening.

This is not something I would’ve done when I first started brewing. I would’ve been hesitant for several reasons:

1. I don’t want to infect the beer!

This you shouldn’t worry about if your techniques are sound. Just make sure to sanitize the ladle, funnel, sample tube, and hydrometer, and you’ll be okay to return the sample to the batch afterward. Or you can drink it, which is what I usually do. Use a spray bottle full of StarSan or your sanitizing solution of choice and you’ll be unlikely to grow anything off your equipment. You should make sure everything is clean and free of organic matter before you sanitize or else it won’t be as effective.

2. I don’t want to waste the beer!

What are you crying about? It’s just 6oz. You’ve lost half a bottle. If you’re that precious about your beer, then you might have some dependency issues. And don’t forget Issue 1 above—you can always return the sample to the batch as long as you’ve sanitized well. Or you could brew a slightly larger batch to account for a few bottles worth of samples during the fermentation process. That way you can enjoy tasting the beer as it develops during the fermentation process.

3. I can’t get to my beer, it’s in a carboy!

Just siphon it out! Or pick up a cheap wine thief (also sanitized) that will reach into your carboy. There’s really no excuse for access, especially when wine thieves cost $10 or less.

And never forget the reason why you draw samples: Measuring gravity is the only reliable way to judge whether fermentation is complete.

My Robust Porter started at 1.059 beer, and after two days at 67F it had already dropped to 1.027, which is 4.2%ABV. Not bad. I’m hoping it will drop another 0.010 or so at least. I’ll be measuring it every few days to see where it ends up, and I’ll know when it’s done and ready for the bottle.

If the glove fits…

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If the glove fits, you must use it.

I picked up these plastic gloves from Walgreens a few months ago and have been using them regularly during brew day and pre-/post-brew day cleaning. They are a lifesaver. Previously I’d just been dipping my hands straight into buckets of PBW and StarSan solutions and then rinsing them clean. As you can imagine, this did a number on my skin–I guess I felt like I should just “man up” and deal with it.

Think again. These solved the problem and cost less than $3. I recommend these over the single use gloves (which comes in packs of 10 or so). I even use these for washing ordinary dishes sometimes.

Whatever you do, just don’t smell the glove.