Brewer Vs. Nature (Part 1) | Craft Beer & Brewing

Brewer Vs. Nature (Part 1)

Our columnist Jester Goldman has some tips on how you can make the most out of homebrewing as the temperatures drops.

Jester Goldman 11 months ago

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Stovetop brewing has its challenges. Monopolizing the kitchen for a day and making a sticky mess can destroy domestic tranquility. The heat and condensation can also be unpleasant. You usually need to compromise your process, too, because of limitations on what your stove can reasonably bring to a boil.

Taking it outside addresses those problems: there’s more space, cleanup is just a hose length away, and a propane burner can handle a full keg boil if necessary. The downside is that you have to deal with the bounty of nature. Unless you live in some mythical Eden, you’ll have to contend with pests, weather, and climate.

Fortunately, insect repellant and screen covers for your kettle will block out most pests, but you may have to adapt to handle any extreme temperatures and weather that your part of the country throws at you. Don’t worry, though, we’ve got some tips for you, starting with cold weather brewing.

Winter is Coming

To some extent, cooler weather can make homebrewing a bit easier, but cool and cold are not the same. A dry, sunny 45°F (7°C) day is a pleasant outing, but kick up the humidity and drop the temperature to freezing or below, and you’ll be inclined to leave any brewing to the White Walkers. Be stout of heart, though. While your propane efficiency will suffer, there are several ways to mitigate the frigid temperature.

A common shortcut is to avoid the wide open spaces and retreat to your garage. Even unheated, it’s usually warmer than outside and the walls serve as a decent windbreak. It’s a good strategy, but remember to keep your garage door at least partially up and open a window or back door if you have them. This will provide ventilation to clear any carbon monoxide and excess condensation.

The garage may get warm enough to be comfortable, but if not, or if you do stay outside, make sure you have the right outdoor gear to avoid hypothermia. Aside from the normal advice to dress in layers and keep your head covered, gloves are the key. You’ll need a pair with a waterproof shell, like neoprene, and fleece or thinsulate inside. Ice fishing gloves can keep the bitter cold at bay, but you should avoid anything too bulky.

If you’re stuck outside or your garage is very cold, you’ll need to prep your gear to limit the heat loss. Rule #1 is to keep the lid on as much as possible, but plan on insulating your brew kettle to get the rolling boil you need. If you’re an all-grain brewer, you should do the same with your hot liquor tank and mash tun. Water heater insulation or Reflectix work equally well, but you should be careful to leave a gap at the lower edge of your pot if you direct fire your kettles.

Aside from insulating your mash tun, don’t forget to compensate for colder grain. You can either store your grain inside at least the night before to avoid the problem, or you can mash in with hotter water. Even with the insulation, you need to watch your mash temperature. If you see it dropping off, add some more hot water, or plan for another way to introduce some heat.

If it’s particularly bitter cold, you should also pay attention to your propane tank. As gas leaves the tank, the pressure change makes it colder. This can get cold enough to freeze the valve, cutting off the gas flow. Setting the tank in a warm water bath can help, as well as periodically pouring warm water over the valve and regulator.

When it’s time to chill the wort for pitching, many people assume that a snowbank is a great solution. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. After melting a little, you end up with an insulating layer of air around your pot. On the plus side, the tap water should be fairly cold, making your wort chiller more efficient. Regardless of whether you’re in the garage or not, you’ll need to be prepared for any wastewater runoff. The last thing you want to do is flood yourself out or create an ice rink in your driveway or somewhere equally inconvenient.

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At the end of the brew day, you may be left with the final challenge of keeping your fermenter warm enough. If you heat your house to a constant temperature, this is no big deal. But most people turn the thermostat down in the evening, and temperature swings will hinder your yeast. A temperature controlled fermentation chamber makes that issue moot, but a simple controller and a heated belt or wrap will keep your carboy snug through those cold nights.

Good luck brewing in a winter wonderland. Next week, we’ll look at how to deal with the opposite extreme.

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