Here’s the backstory: I travel to New York City once or twice a year, and I’m lucky to have a friend there whose parents’ basement is my home-away-from-home when I’m in town. I’ve always been deeply grateful for this travel subsidy. So, after my first lengthy stay in their basement, I started wondering whether there weren’t some way I could repay them for their kindness. Naturally, brewing came to mind. It certainly didn’t hurt that I’ve been brewing tiny batches—from shot glass to gallon-sized—for years.
Still, the constraints were profound. I didn’t want to be seen in the kitchen brewing, so I needed to work out a way to brew without boiling wort. I also didn’t have much more than a week, so the beer needed to ferment and carbonate in short order. As a result—and since lightning-quick kveiks were still relatively scarce at the time—I never actually pulled off a “travel beer” in their basement. However, the proliferation of multiple kveiks and clean Lactobacillus strains in recent years has allowed me to test some techniques for brewing these travel beers.
After a bit of experimentation, I’ve landed on some equipment setups and recipe-design principles that yield tasty results. So, if you’d like to play around with brewing on the go—to make a gift for your hosts, to enjoy your hobby while on vacation, or even to brew with a fruit that you can’t legally take home—here’s how you might go about it.
If your goal is to brew the best beer possible while on vacation, the solution is obvious yet impractical: Book a two- or three-week vacation and take your entire setup. Thus, we need to establish some ground rules to this “game,” to exclude cumbersome solutions from the road-brewing problem.
The constraints, to my mind, are threefold:
- Any planned brews should take no more than seven days to ferment and consume.
- Any equipment, with few exceptions, should be packed with your luggage, and it should be compact enough to fit unobtrusively into your suitcase. Let’s say, broadly, that you should allot no more than a third of a suitcase to brewing equipment.
- For greater flexibility, we’ll exclude setups that involve boiling wort. Imagine you are in a hotel room (or your friend’s parents’ basement) rather than a swish vacation rental. While traveling, access to a saucepan is hardly guaranteed.
One massive exception to the boiling rule is the use of an electric kettle or microwave to boil water, which is likely to be an option in anything from a house to a hostel.
With those parameters out of the way, let’s cover the various techniques you can use to brew, and how they might impact recipe decisions.
The simplest approach would be to make something like a hard seltzer: Buy a bottle of water (because, usefully, bottled water is sterilized), toss in some sugar and yeast, and wait. Technically, you don’t even need to carbonate or chill the “beer”—note that above I said “consume” and not “package” the beer. That’ll come into play shortly.
To do better than this, we’ll want to incorporate the classic elements of beer to some degree: malt and either hops or acidity, or possibly some gruit-like bittering mixture. So, without further ado, here are some wort-production methods and packaging options, ordered roughly by increasing complexity and time commitment.
Most homebrewers will know most of the principles involved here, but many may not realize this useful nugget: You don’t actually need to boil wort to isomerize hops. By holding wort at 180°F (82°C), you’ll get about 17 percent—or about one-sixth—of the bitterness that you would get if you were to boil the wort. That means we can consider some sous vide and sous vide–adjacent methods.
No-Hop Extract Beer
By far the most rudimentary method is to combine water with malt extract, add yeast, and wait. Because bottled water is sterile, my preferred method is to combine bottled water and some quantity of malt extract (probably DME) and pitch yeast. Bottled water has the advantage of starting at room temperature, so this is quick, but you can also boil water and let it chill to about room temperature before pitching.
Hopped or No-Hop Partial-Mash Beer: The Tea Method
A slightly more involved option requires heating water to about 170–180°F (77–82°C) and brewing a “tea,” potentially with milled character malts such as crystals and chocolates and/or with hops. (For more on brewing a hop tea, see “Use Hops Tea to Enhance Flavors in Your Beer,” beerandbrewing.com.) A rate of about one ounce of hops per quart of water (or about 29 grams per liter) has yielded good results for me.
One quart is my favorite size for these batches, and at that scale, this method amounts to simply brewing a quart of hop and/or malt tea, waiting until it cools, and pitching yeast. However, your isomerization with this method will be fairly negligible.
Hopped or No-Hop Partial-Mash Beer: The Sous Vide Method
Finally, you can pack a sous vide immersion cooker and a sturdy Ziploc bag. You’ll also want a small pot or other container for the hot water—though a cooler, ice bucket, or even a bathroom sink could work. Ziploc bags should be able to take baths as hot as 176°F (80°C), and I’ve never had one burst in testing. (Of course, you can also use proper sous vide bags if you’re at all concerned about this cheaper method.) The strategy is the same as with the tea: Get it hot, hold at temperature, then chill.
If you have a bit of time on your hands—and this is slightly insane—you could use this method to try an all-grain, no-boil beer. You could even step mash to your heart’s content if you want. Essentially: Heat water, use the plastic bag for mash-in, immerse the bag in a container of water, and employ the sous vide wand. Note that it can be preposterously hard to get wort you want out of a puck of malt—rinse the grains with more brewing water, if possible. Skip flaked grains altogether.
- You’ll want to mash in close to your bath temperature, to avoid waiting around for the temperature to ramp up.
- Since the bag comes out of the sous vide cooker as hot as it went in, you’ll want to set up a small ice bath in which to chill your “tea.” That could mean simply draining your sous vide container and adding ice. If that’s not possible, you can obviously toss it in the fridge or just wait.
In fairness—depending on your choice of fermentation and packaging methods—taking a sous vide heater may violate our packing-size rule. However, I brewed two beers in NYC with mine, and the gear fit compactly into my luggage, so I’m ruling it viable.
Bottling is an obvious low-tech solution to the packaging issue, particularly if you can find swing-top bottles wherever you’re traveling. However, bottling comes with two key issues: It can take more time than you may have, and it’s risky to bottle a beer that’s not completely fermented (think bottle bombs).
While bottling is still totally viable with a quickly fermenting yeast, packaging is the part of the process that requires the most creative solutions. Here are a few.
You could always drink flat beer, possibly right out of the fermentor—think extreme cask ale.
In theory, you could flash-carbonate the beer with a tiny CO2 cylinder. However, you generally can’t fly with them, and buying them is tough even in a well-stocked location. So, short of ordering them online—viable, if expensive—this option is less than ideal.
Your best low-tech bet is to blend a somewhat higher-ABV beer with carbonated water. For example: If you brew a 6 percent ABV beer and water it down 1:2, you’ll have a reasonably carbonated (though hardly saison-level) session beer at a solid 4 percent. Yes, you will be diluting your beer, so plan your recipe accordingly. Note: Seltzer water is generally very low in total dissolved solids, but sparkling mineral waters tend to have a salty taste. If you must use those, choose your base beer carefully—you have to plan all this out beforehand anyway, for the most part.
Now for a bit of mad science: You could bring something like KegLand’s two-liter mini keg and a spunding valve, both of which I’ve used to spund-ferment a dark mild. By fermenting under pressure, you mitigate the fact that you’re fermenting at ambient temperatures while also merging the fermentation and carbonation steps. It’s cumbersome and kind of insane, but it’s easily the best option—though if you want to use the gear for regular ferments back home, you won’t want to brew a Lacto beer with this technique. Note that it’s easiest to first assemble the wort in a large-mouthed container—such as my beloved one-quart soup container—and rack into the mini keg from there.
With those considerations out of the way, let’s look at our ingredients.
Every type of malt is technically viable given the above techniques, from DME to under-modified pilsner. However, you might guess what I’m about to say: Don’t mash. Don’t mash! You might as well just bring an induction burner and a kettle.
However, because using even a modest quantity of hops is tricky with any of the above methods (with one exception), I recommend brewing either dark beers or sour beers to cover up potential yeast off-flavors and to layer complexity atop the somewhat dull extract flavor, since you can’t lean into hops to do so.
To elaborate: I suggest either (1) a pale, all-DME beer flavored with Lacto, fruit, tea, or some combination of those things, or (2) brewing a dark session beer such as a dubbel, dark mild, stout, or even a Lutra-fermented schwarzbier.
Finally, you’ll want to mill any grains before your trip (for obvious reasons)—unless you can visit a homebrewing store at your destination (a shopping trip that I find to be one of the more fun parts of brewing abroad).
Adding hops the conventional way is tricky and time-intensive; you should seriously consider alternatives to hopped beer. Having said that, if you assume 17 percent isomerization, you could multiply hopping rates sixfold (and potentially get a somewhat harsh and grassy beer). In theory, you could mitigate the risk of astringency with high-alpha or even Cryo hops, or with isomerized extract. If you can get them, pre-isomerized “steam hops,” such as those used in the Beermkr machine, also should work fantastically. It’s also worth considering the traditional raw-ale method of brewing a separate hop tea (perhaps with a hotel room’s electric kettle) and blending with wort or finished beer to taste.
Meanwhile, plenty of breweries these days are brewing hazy IPAs without actually boiling any hops—many don’t add them until the whirlpool, often at 180°F (82°C) or below. So, I suspect someone out there could brew a hazy IPA in a week using one of the above methods, whether or not it’s worthy of an award.
We’re looking for a few things from our yeast, and they neatly limit our options:
- fast fermentation (seven days at most)
- high flocculation, in most cases
- wide temperature tolerance
- portability; i.e., ideally dried
That still leaves a handful of options that can handle a range of styles: Voss Kveik, SafAle US-05, SafAle S-04, Belle Saison or other dried Belgian-type strains, and the lager cheat-code yeast, Lutra Kveik.
Your fermentation control is minimal—maybe a blanket for your fermentor—which is a huge endorsement for any kveik. These cultures are also lightning-fast and highly forgiving, making them the undisputed champions of travel brewing.
Outside of the Saccharomyces realm, dried Lactobacillus plantarum is fast and clean, with final pH usually reached in about 36 to 72 hours. Lallemand’s WildBrew Sour Pitch is a great option here, and you can even co-pitch it with a kveik for a clean, drinkable, tart beer in as little as a day and a half. Mix in some seltzer water and fruit juice, and you have a delicious, reasonably legitimate, fruited sour.
That particular duo is by far your best bet for a quick sour beer, while something like a Lutra schwarzbier or even stout would be your fastest malt-forward option.
Water is one of our primary infection vectors, so you need to be careful, even with a brewed and consumed-quickly beer. You have two solutions: Get your water hot or use bottled water.
How hot is hot? I’m sure someone out there will roast me for this, but if 20 seconds above 160°F (71°C) is good enough for big breweries to pasteurize their beer, it’s good enough for my brewing water. Any of the wort-production methods above, except the first, should get the wort hot and sterile enough for your purposes.
Beyond this, any bottled water and most good-tasting tap water should work—though you’re welcome to bring brewing salts and dose up, say, a full gallon (3.8 liters) of distilled water to your liking. Just brew with what you need and drink the rest.
As for heating the water, if you’re not brewing sous vide, a kettle or a microwave should work.
I’ve had success with fruit juice and hibiscus, but I could see anything from licorice candy to Earl Grey tea working in a quick beer. So, if you’re brewing something off the beaten path, and since you’ve chosen an easier brew method anyway, you might as well go crazy. This is a great way to incorporate elements from your trip into your beer—maybe local honey, flowers, or exotic fruit. You can also play with interesting priming sugars, such as muscovado for a porter. Why not let your locale inspire you?
A Few More Considerations
Here are a few more things to keep in mind, so you can get to brewing your own quick quart of saison or smoked porter on the go.
- If you’re planning recipes, you can simply scale an existing recipe down to one quart (one liter) and be in the ballpark. However, if your fermentor is to-the-brim just a quart in volume, you may want to aim for 85 percent of that amount; don’t overfill your vessel.
- Possible shortcut: Use your favorite yeast-starter calculator to get a DME quantity and yeast pitch rate for a one-liter starter, and just go with that for your recipe.
- To recap, when choosing your style: malty flavors are forgiving; hops are tricky but possible; acidity is an easy win; fruit, tea, and similar additives also are easy wins. Beyond that, there are few limitations.
- The quickest method to “carbonated” beer is to ferment with kveik and blend with seltzer water. Bottling is tricky, timing-wise; don’t gamble with carbonation. Also, tasting a bit of yeast is just part of the deal.
- Fair warning: My only one-quart travel brews that have been north of pretty decent have been session beers with minimal hopping rates. Start on the easy path before getting ambitious with hops and higher gravity.