We may see brewing as a hobby we do every weekend, but sometimes it’s helpful to remember it’s older than civilisation itself, and for the majority of people who’ve lived in history, they made beer at home instead of buying from a brewery. This might seem somewhat profound for an introduction to a homebrew article, but it means every problem we face as homebrewers has probably been solved at some point. Here are some useful hints and tips to help with your brewing.
Fermentation Temperature Control
Fermentation is probably the most important part of brewing. Stressed yeast can throw out all sorts of off flavours due to out of control temperatures. Keeping the ferment at a stable temperature is just as important as keeping it at the right temperature. Not everyone has the space for a fermentation fridge, but it’s still possible to have close control over the fermentation.
Using a builder’s trug, aquarium heater, and sleeping bag it’s possible to make a space saving fermentation chamber. Put your fermentation vessel (FV) in the trug, fill with water and use an aquarium heater to hold the temperature. Wrap the sleeping bag around the whole thing to help insulate. This works really well in colder climates, such as the UK for most of the year.
There’s a reason the majority of all in one systems come with a recirculation pump. Those who’ve put together their own systems will know the difficulty of the vorlauf: once the mash is complete drawing off the wort and pouring it back on top to create a clearer wort. Recirculation does this during the mash, saving you the time and effort of doing it afterwards.
If you don’t have an all in one system like a Grainfather, adding a pump can be a cheap and effective way of improving wort quality. Not only does it create a clearer wort, it creates an even temperature throughout the mash avoiding hot or cold pockets.
Conical fermenters help to condense the yeast into a cone, reducing the surface area in contact with the beer and making it easier to separate the beer from the lees. Most homebrewers are probably using a flat bottom plastic bucket. Adding a brick (or book if not submerged in a trug) to one side of the bucket so it’s slightly tilted will create the same effect.
On bottling day, there will be a clean side to syphon from, and the yeast will be condensed in one corner of the bucket.
Clean Dry Hopping
Many hop forward recipes call for dry hopping – adding hops to the fermenter towards the end of fermentation – which can create problems later down the line. Having hop leafs or pellets float freely around the FV can cause issues for bottling, from blocked taps and syphons, to thick trub layers in the bottle.
Placing the hops in a nylon bag, muslin cloth, or a large stainless steel tea strainer can avoid these issues. To stop it floating, add stainless steel ball bearings or marbles to weigh the bag down. Just make sure everything is sanitised before being placed in the FV.
Use Less Vessels
It’s possible, and highly recommended, to keep the beer in a single vessel where possible. When the wort is transferred to the fermenter, it picks up oxygen which the yeast uses up as it ferments, and creates a blanket of CO2 which can protect the beer from oxidation. Transferring the beer to another bucket runs the risk of picking up oxygen (causing oxidation), and increases the risk of infection.
Adding a tap to a fermenter makes it way easier to bottle via a bottling wand. Sugar dissolved in boiling water can be added to the fermenter and gently stirred so as to not introduce oxygen or stir up trub on the bottom. This created better beer, reduces risk of infection and involved less washing up.
Heat Sterilise your FV
Plastic fermenters are cheap and easy to use, however they may suffer from scratches after a long time which can harbour bacteria, wild yeast and other bugs, which of course can be detrimental to your brew. The only true way to get rid of spoilage bacteria is heat sterilisation.
This can be easily done by draining the wort from the brew kettle before cooling it into the FV. Just be sure to use a hose long enough so the hot wort doesn’t splash. Place the lid on and leave for 10 minutes. It can be left to cool overnight and this method of cooling is used in places where water is quite scarce.
There are a couple of caveats to this: this method can be done on plastic which can take the heat and stainless steel, but not glass or other materials which will melt, warp, or suffer thermal shock; and the prolonged heat will isomerise the alpha acids in the hops more whilst evaporating the essential oils, meaning this cooling method isn’t suited to beers with a big hop character.
Have Two of Everything!
Well, maybe not everything, but two of things which break or go missing. Thermometers, hydrometers, pH meters, syphons, bottling wands, have all failed me at the last minute at least once, but having a backup meant I could continue with my brewday.
We all brew in slightly different ways and we all have our own shortcuts, hacks and tips for improving our brewdays. I’m sure there could be many more tips and tricks to add to this list, so if you have any useful hacks do let us know in the comments!