Time is Beer: Brew Faster Without Rushing or Cutting Corners

A few weeks ago I doughed in at 8:34PM - not because I'm an insomniac (though that's kind of true), but because I knew I could be done brewing well before midnight.  "Done" as in a full mash, sparge, boil, whirlpool, chill, oxygenate, pitch, and cleanup.  Three hours, fifteen minutes from the first lick of heat on the mash tun pre-heat water to hanging up the last damp towel to dry.

A friend, reacting to this news on social media, wrote, "How is that possible???"  

The answer is a simple one (of course): it just doesn't take me long to brew.  I don't have a magic wand or a 6,000-watt heating element.  I'm also not making micro-batches (though admittedly they're 4.25G instead of a full five - kettle size).  These are full batches of all-grain beer on conventional (even weak) heat - but it's efficient, and that's what many are lacking in their brewing processes.

This week B:S will focus on promoting efficiency in your process: why it matters, what you might do differently (all without rushing), and what I do (to show it in practice on one system).

Why to Brew Faster

On a homebrewing discussion thread, someone recently asked, "why do I want to brew faster?"  The answer, from this blog's previously-stated perspective, is that a shorter brewing process means you'll be more likely to be able to find the time to brew, which will mean that you'll do it more frequently, which will both make you better at it and produce more beer.  

But you certainly don't have to.  Brew your own way!  For many, brewing is a long affair - and for many, that's exactly what they want, which is fine.  It's fine the same way many people use golf as an escape, a reason to spend some time in nature, and a good excuse to drink good (homebrewed, hopefully) beer at 10AM.  But for many others, brewing (especially all-grain) is simply too long a process, and that's a problem.

I golf.  Not very well, but I golf.  One of the reasons I'm not better is that to commit to a round of golf is to commit to 5-6 hours at the course, on the course, and recovering from the course, and that's a big chunk of time.  Now, if you told me that I could play a round in only 3:15, I'd be much more likely to do it.  Not all the time - but a lot more frequently than I currently do.  The same logic holds for brewing.

I want to be clear that I'm not talking about rushing.  I'm not even really talking about clock-watching.  I'm talking about a number of efficiencies that can be implemented as part of your regular brewing routine that just happen to save you time.  And faster brewing will (probably) mean more of it, at least until you hit your next bottleneck (money, keg space, tolerance for the smell of boiled hops in your place...).  

How to Brew Faster

My (anyone's) process is going to be equipment- or infrastructure-specific, but faster brewing is really about not wasting time.  That's all.  Not faster pumps or more energy output or cutting out steps, just using your brewing time well.  

How much time do you spend staring at a thermometer?  Or watching a pot (about to) boil?  Or cleaning?  The answer is probably "too much."  The total time involved in doing brewing tasks is certainly 7-8 hours, but most of that time it's the equipment doing the work, not you.  Rather than waiting for it, do other things while it's working.  

Some simple changes that yield good results:

  • Clean as you go.  Once I'm done with a piece of equipment, I clean it right away, as soon as I'm not actively managing my brewing process.  Why pile it up, all to be cleaned at the end?  By the time I'm chilling and pitching, the only things that remain to be cleaned are the wort chiller, the kettle, and the oxygenating stone.  Mash tun?  Clean and draining.  Spoon and paddle?  Cleaned in the runoff from the wort chiller. Pitchers, tubing, counters?  Done, done, and done.  And if you can keep a tub, bucket, or sink full of your favorite cleaner, all the better.  Let the chemicals do the work.
  • Be prepared.  Those Boy Scouts really had it right.  If it's time for a hop addition, have your hops weighed and ready to go.  When it's sparge time, have that water at the right temperature to go in as soon as you finish lautering.  I watch friends brew, and they're often reacting to their brewing instead of planning for it.  The great part is that once you get your routine/process down, you'll always be ready and won't even need to think about it much.
  • Start warm.  This one may be a bit controversial, but one way I cut time out is to start with the hottest tap water I can.  Some have pointed out to me that thanks to mineral buildup in the water heater, brewers might be using water that is chemically different than what they're expecting.  True.  But so what?  Try it first - see what your results are.  Maybe submit two bottles for water testing, one pure cold and one pure hot and see what the differences are - hell, it might even help!  But I'm not one for looking for problems before they exist.
  • Cover your kettle while you come to a boil.  This will get you to boiling faster (about 45% faster, on my induction element) and anything that would have steamed off in that time will likely come out in the boil anyway (and if you feel better, you can lift the lid carefully and wipe off the water that's collected there, keeping it out of the boil!). 
  • Get hot, early.  If you keep your tubing off of the bottom of your kettle, there's no reason you can't start heating immediately at the start of runoff (assuming you're using high-temp tubing).  Silicon tubing is rated up to 275F (135C), and your wort isn't getting that hot.  Start up that heat source and get to pre-heating your wort as it runs off to shave time off of your boil run-up!
  • Whirlpool efficiently.  Don't overdo the whirlpool.  There's an upper limit to how fast you can get that wort spinning with your spoon - 20 or so good strokes will get it moving at a brisk clip, and then you wait for it to settle out.  I've read folks who wait for up to 20 minutes for their beer to settle - why?  After five minutes or so the surface is still in my kettle, and I runoff successfully without a screen or false bottom.  
  • Count Whirlpool in your Boil time.  Even though the heat's off, that wort is still plenty hot to isomerize alpha acids.  Until you drop below 190F, you're still getting 50% or more isomerization.  So if it's a 2-3 minute whirlpool and a 5 minute rest and a 7 minute runoff, that's about 15 minutes.  If you count that at half par, that means your proper "boil" time can be reduced to 53 minutes while still giving your initial hop pitch (and later pitches) their "full" boil time.  In fact, this may solve a problem some have with "not getting any aroma or flavor" out of their hops.  You're whirlpooling so long, resting so long, and (before that) boiling so long that even your 10-minute addition is getting effectively 45 minutes of heat. 
  • Pre-heat your mash tun (if you're in a cooler).  This will save you a few degrees of heating for your mash water.  Just be sure to use the same volume and temperature of water each time - I like one gallon of boiling water, shaken up a bit after the lid's closed (to get a little more coverage and release steam).  Then work out your strike temp until you know the proper adjustment.
  • Keep your grains at room temperature.  This is another thing that's easy to overlook: cold grains affect mash temp, which means you'll either miss it low and spend ten minutes adding in small boiling water additions to get to the "right" temperature, or you'll simply spend more time bringing it up to the proper temperature in the first place (in a direct-heat mash vessel).  
  • Consider adopting a no-sparge process.  It'll cost you a bit more in grain, but will save you the time you'd spend adding water, settling, and vorlauf-ing.  You might even like the flavor better!

There are other time-savers out there, of course, but they get pretty system-specific.  Just look at your brew day, and make note of how much time you spend standing and staring - then fill that time with something you'll need to do anyway.  See how many times you're adjusting things - then work out a consistent process to avoid the tinker time.  Efficiency doesn't mean rushing.

My Brew "Day"

"Day" is in quotation marks because it isn't even a brew morning.  I use a Coleman mash tun, an 1800W induction element, a five-gallon kettle and...that's it.  Here goes.

  • Put 1G hot water into a pot, cover, and put on high heat on the stove (this is my one cheat - I use the kitchen stove to heat the mash tun pre-heat water).
  • While that's heating, I measure my mash water.  It comes hot from the faucet, through the carbon filter, into the measuring bucket.  That goes into the kettle, which immediately goes to 1800W (high) and is covered, on its way to strike temp.
  • Next I measure my sparge water.  It goes combo hot/cold into the measuring bucket, and is then set aside.
  • At that point, my mash tun pre-heat water is near boiling.  It goes into the mash tun, and gets a good shake.
  • While the mash tun is pre-heating, I go down to measure and mill my grain.  
  • When I come back up, I measure the mash water.  Usually, at this point it's within 10F of strike, and I drain the pre-heat water out of the tun, keeping the lid closed to preserve the heat.
  • When the mash water is at strike temp, it goes into the mash tun.  The milled grain follows.  A stir and a temp check, and we're good to go on the mash.  Elapsed Time: 15 minutes.  
  • Mash gets stirred twice, at 20 and 40 minutes.  At 20 minutes I also put the sparge water into the kettle and turn it to 1400W (med-high).  It's ready to add when mashing is complete (I do a modified no-sparge method).  
  • At 60 minutes after dough-in, the "sparge" water goes in, gets a stir, and is followed by a 10-minute rest.  Elapsed time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
  • I do a two-minute Vorlauf and a 13-minute runoff (about 1.5 qt/min), with heat running at full bore from the second Vorlauf finishes and I start running out the wort.  Elapsed time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
  • Once the kettle is full, it's covered.  At that point I clean out the mash tun, fill the sink with sanitizing solution, and add the cold-side equipment to it.  By the time that's complete, we're at a boil - start the clock!  Elapsed time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
  • 53 minutes later, and I've added whatever hops are necessary, Irish Moss (though I'm not convinced it does that much...), and it's time to kill the heat.  Whirlpool starts (just a spoon), and while it's swirling and settling I hook up the plate chiller and position the tubing to get ready to chill.  Roughly seven minutes later, we're ready to go.  Elapsed time: Two hours, 50 minutes
  • Fire up the water, open the ball valve on the kettle, and let gravity do its thing!  At 0.5GPM, the kettle is empty and the fermenter is wort-ed in under ten minutes (remember, only a 4.25G batch, after boil-off).  At that point it's 30 seconds of wide-open pure O2, in goes the yeast, and the carboy cap goes on.  Elapsed time: 3 hours
  • After that, it's just cleanup.  The wort chiller gets a full flow of hot and cold water from both ports, in sequence (wort in, wort out) and is set aside to drip-dry with the rest of the already-cleaned equipment.  The kettle gets hot water and a scrub, and water forced back through the ball valve to be sure it's clear, then a towel dry.  The sink, counters, and anything else left out is wiped down and put away.  
  • I carry the carboy down to the fermentation fridge, set the temperature, and mark the calendar date that it went in.  And that's it.  Elapsed time: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Waste Not, Want Not

At no time here am I rushing - unless I realize that I've forgotten I'm out of a certain grain and need to adjust my grist on the fly!  And this isn't about being in a hurry - as I often say to my wife (usually while following a very slow driver), "I don't need to be in a hurry to not want my time wasted."

Brewing faster gives you more time to do...anything.  It's a gift to yourself.  And it will mean more batches, faster skill development, and more of your homebrewed beer on offer.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to use some of my saved time to watch an old episode of Game of Thrones.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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