One of the unoriginal truisms of my life is this: the hard part is figuring out what you want. Once you know that, actually getting what you want can be surprisingly easy. In this case, the hard part isn’t so much figuring out what you’ll brew with and where to procure it, but what the heck to do with the huge sacks of base malt and innumerable one-pound bags of specialty malts that are about to invade your home brewery. Where are you going to store all of this stuff? In this second part of “Building an Ingredient Library,” we focus on exactly this part of the equation, and we’ll cover both what to store in and where to put the things in which you put the things.
The Big Idea
Without a doubt, the biggest (pun intended) question is what to do with all of that base malt. If you follow my suggestions in Part 1, you’ll have three sacks (or about 165 pounds/75 kg) of it, and that’s no laughing matter. Not stored properly it can get damp and mealy, attract vermin and bugs, and waste your money (which defeats one key purpose here). You have two solid options here, so you can choose the one that works best for you, but they both operate on the same principle: you need large vessels with screw-down gasketed lids. These are often referred to generically as “Gamma Seal” lids, but that’s actually a trademark of US Plastic. It doesn’t need to be exactly that brand (though they’re great). The important part is that you have more than just a tension seal on your bucket or container, because that’s insufficient to keep out the air and moisture that can compromise your grains.
Now, as for those two options of yours, you need to decide what you’re more comfortable with: dog food or paint.
One common option used by homebrewers is the Vittles Vault pet food storage container. These are terrific because they’re stackable, come in a range of shapes and sizes, which lets you fit them to your space, allow easy access for a scoop or small bucket to pull out your grain, and they feature the kind of airtight screw-down lid we want. One sack of grain fits nicely into the Vittles Vault 50; though it’s designed to hold about 50 pounds (23 kg) of dog food, grain leaves less space for air than kibble, so the extra few pounds in your 55-pound (25 kg) sack fit just fine. If you’re concerned, you can go with a slightly larger size.
So what’s the downside? Cost. If you’re patient, you can catch an incredible sale on them (I bought four 5-pounders on principle one day when I saw them on sale for less than $5 each), but at retail they can be a bit on the pricey side— a single Vittles Vault 50 can set you back $30–35. You can decide whether it’s worth it for you.
Another option, though, is the venerable hard plastic paint/utility bucket. A 6-gallon (23 l) work bucket, fitted with a Gamma Seal lid, will hold just about half a sack of grain. I bought six of them (and a 6-pack of Gamma Seal lids) for less than $50, all in a pleasant bright white that proved to be a great background on which to mark with a dry-erase marker (so I knew what was in each bucket). One wire rack later, and I have a nice, compact base grain station (pictured at top).
The Grain Library
For those malts that I use often (but aren’t base malts), I was given a mandate: at least make them pretty. Fair enough.
For the most common everyday malts that I was planning to buy by the ten-pound bag, I ordered (at very reasonable prices) 1.5-gallon (5.7 l) glass jars with gasketed metal lids—basically, think “candy store” jars. They’re not as airtight as the Gamma Seal lids, but they’re good enough, and these are malts that I burn through fairly quickly.
For the specialty malts that I’d buy a pound at a time, 16 oz (473 ml) mason jars were ideally suited—each holds about half a pound (227 g) of grain, which is usually what’s left over after brewing with said specialty malt (and, worst case scenario, I’d just split it between two of them). The result is a quaintly old-fashioned look that is also pretty easy to keep organized (again, dry-erase markers to the rescue, with names right on the glass).
Hop To It
Finally, hops. The good news is that hops, once dried, are really, really survivable—even just throwing them into any zip-locked bag, forcing out the air, and tossing them in the freezer works just fine. Some hops vendors even ship their hops in nice, thick, non-oxygen-permeable re-sealable bags.
On The Shelf
The last thing I’ll say is that you should try to set up your ingredients in ways that make them easy to access and use on brew day. My scale, mill, and grains are all in the same place—a small corner of my basement, fitted out with some shelving for my specialty grains and the aforementioned wire racks on which sit my big buckets of base grain.
On brew day, I simply make my way downstairs with my recipe in hand, add the ingredients to the bucket on the scale, and once I’ve weighed out the grist I have a short turn to dump the whole thing into the mill.
So much of brewing better is about brewing frequently, and so much of brewing frequently is about convenience. If you make your brew life easier, you’ll brew more—and, therefore, you’ll likely brew better. That we can do so while saving money on every batch is just a very happy coincidence. Build your ingredient library up, and you’ll never regret it.