The Disposable Brewery: When in Doubt, Throw it Out

There are a lot of home brewers out there that deserve their own episode of Hoarders.  You crack the door on their "brewing equipment" closet and it looks like it's seen less upkeep than the Well of Souls.  Their tubing is about as flexible as the arteries of a steak-pounding octogenarian with a whiskey problem.  They own carboys and buckets that are growing things not seen on Earth since dinosaurs roamed Pangaea.  They're using hop bags that, though once white, are now a beautiful shade of mahogany and allow so little liquid flow that they'd work just as well as water bottles.

If this is you and your brewery, don't panic.  There's a simple solution: throw most of that shit out.

Trash Your Way to Better Beer

In any system there are durable goods and non-durable goods.  Durable (or "hard") goods are designed to last for a while and only be replaced when they break or break down to such a degree that the cost of repairing them begins to outweigh the cost of replacing them.  Non-durable (or "soft") goods have a much shorter lifespan and are intended (and usually priced) to be replaced with some regularity.

Your kettle, burner, stir plate, wort chiller, and most of the rest of the stuff that's made from metal fall into the "durable" pile.  But a lot of your brewing equipment is not designed to be used until it falls apart, and should really be dumped at regular intervals.  I routinely (see below for a schedule) throw away nearly anything in the brewery that is made of plastic and touches my beer, and I think that it's part of what explains why I've had some luck avoiding consistent contamination, off-flavors, and faults.

Why?  Because you've probably noticed that with every use, most of your equipment shows some evidence of corrosion, erosion, accretion, staining, soiling, wear, tear, and more.  And since we're talking about producing something that you're going to taste, then we have to acknowledge that there may well be a flavor impact the next time we brew from the stuff that gets left behind on our tools after the last time we brewed.  

By simply replacing at regular intervals, you remove a big question mark from your beer.  Tubing that has either water spots or some new kind of bacteria?  Gone.  Buckets that might have abrasions that are harboring persistent bacteria?  Gone.  Inconsistent hop utilization because of grubby hop bags?  Gone.  Late-process contamination from a bottling bucket, bottling wand, or racking cane?  Gone.  And this applies to draft lines and equipment, too.

Is it overkill?  Maybe.  But I'll gladly spend $15 on 100 feet of food-grade tubing that will last me the rest of my life in exchange for not having to question whether I contaminated five gallons of Flanders Red that I've been nursing for three months by using the only piece of bottling tubing I could dig out of the drawer.

Never Let Go, Jack [Yes, it's a Titanic reference and No, I'm not proud of it]

First things first - here's what I consider "durable" goods in my brewery, and simply clean them.  I wouldn't consider tossing any of this stuff without first confirming that there were no options.

  • Burner - I think this one goes without saying, but you never know.  I keep it clean for aesthetics.
  • Kettle - I'm not that opposed to replacing it, but I've never had the need.  It cleans up well, getting a scrub after each brew and a once-per-year treatment with Barkeepers Friend.
  • Kegs - Again, if it's metal, you're probably fine with just cleaning, but see below for an important caveat
  • Plate Chiller - This gets a soak in OneStep before each use, and a blast-out with hot water (then cold) after every use.  
  • Ball valves, screens, metal fittings - If they're not showing corrosion, then they get to stay.  If they start to pit, rust, or corrode, then get rid of them.  But I haven't had to yet (8 years on the oldest one).

Garbage Time

Some things, though, need to go.  

  • ALL flexible tubing, at least annually.  Sometimes I see that a length hasn't dried promptly and has what are probably water spots...but again, why take the chance?  I'll throw out tubing the way a pitcher demands a new baseball just because the one she/he just threw touched a single molecule of dirt.  I've got lots.
  • SOME rigid tubing, bi-annually.  There's one exception: if you use a bottling wand, replace that thing often. It's getting INSIDE every single bottle.  But racking canes, autosiphons, etc?  I'll replace them if a visual inspection shows anything fishy, but they just don't get much opportunity to get too beat up.  Every couple of years seems reasonable.
  • Rubber/plastics in kegs, upon purchase and then bi-annually.  In your kegs, as noted above, there's one thing you need to replace: get those old, Barqs-infused o-rings out of there.  They're disgusting, and they absolutely impart flavors and aromas into your finished beer.  Even if you buy a "refurbished" keg, I still think it's worth the $2 for the "o-ring replacement kit."  If you buy in bulk you can get even that price down - I bought ten sets for $12 recently.  You might also consider, if it has a plastic gas tube, swapping that thing out for a steel version.  Just because.
  • Bottling bucket, annually.  If you're bottling, this thing is touching ALLLLLLL of your beer.  Spend the money and swap it out.  You can keep the valve, but change out the bucket - it's the one thing in my brewery that I'm consistently hitting with a drying towel, and as I also use it as a vessel to sanitize my bottling equipment, it's DEFINITELY picking up some scratches.  
  • Hop bags, semi-annually (if I still used them, but I don't).  After a few uses, you'll start to notice that the fine mesh in these bags starts to get "clogged."  Not with anything all that visible, but it's there.  You'll notice they take a while to drain after you pull them, and that means you're probably not getting great flow through them, either.  Swap them out now and again, when you think of it - this might also apply to the mesh bag you use in your hop spider.  

The total cost here per year?  Just about $30, assuming you have five kegs and three hop bags.  That works out to about $1.20 per batch at 25 batches per year, or about 3% on my brewing costs.  Worth it.

[EDIT!  Thanks to a reader for pointing out something I absolutely intended to include: before you throw them out, you might take one set of your "plastics" and mark them for use on your sour beers only, so as to avoid any concerns about cross-contamination.  THANK YOU to uberg33k over at reddit!]

Hold on Tightly, Let Go Lightly [Yes, it's a Croupier reference and Yes, I'm proud of it] 

Some things, though, fall into the "judgment call" category, and are tougher to nail down.  For example...

  • Cooler mash tun - I've had one for eight years, and haven't noticed any issues, but...it still seems like I should be replacing it.  The plastic interior walls are warped.  It's a very odd shade of brown inside.  There's grain hulls stuck in places I can't reach.  But it smells SO good.  I think if I ever had a persistent off-flavor it'd be the first victim in my brewery-wide eviction parade, but for now I'm hanging on.  Call me sentimental: it's the only one I've ever had.
  • Carboys - If they're glass, I say use them until they break.  But if you're like me and use Better Bottles (or buckets), then maybe consider dating them and toss them after a while.  I haven't had any issues yet and I rotate through a set of six, but I strongly suspect the day is coming when I'll get my first real contamination, and they'll probably be the source.  I believe it's time to start a planned retirement system with those, depending on levels of use.
  • Mash paddle - if yours is gross and growing things, either invest in a hard-core steam clean or get yourself a new one.  Sure, it's going in "cold-side," but you might still be adding flavors.
  • Draft Faucets and shanks - If your draft system is mostly high-grade stainless steel, then don't worry about it.  But if you're using a lot of "chrome-covered" whatever, then keep on top of it.  I'm told that more-acidic beers or meads can eat that chrome right off of those things.
  • Disconnects, fittings, carboy caps, airlocks... - When it comes to the miscellany in your brewery, play it by ear.  Some will undoubtedly be fine forever, but others may degrade more rapidly.  Stay on top of your tools.  Don't be afraid to scrap things that look/smell/taste off.  

Don't Play the Blame Game

At the end of the day, the quality of your beer will probably have a lot more to do with how you treat it than what you made it with, but don't neglect the small stuff that might be harming your beer.  I always tell people that you can get to 80% quality on your beer with very, very little effort.  You can ramp up to 90% by being just a bit more rigorous and thoughtful in your process and recipes.  But getting above 90% takes a disproportionately greater effort, and at that level even very small things matter, because all that's left are the marginal improvements.  This is one of those things.  

It may be a poor workman who blames his tools, but it's also a poor workman that neglects them in the first place.  And if nothing else, this gives you a great reason to head on out to the LHBS and get some shiny new toys!  So don't be afraid to throw things away: you might be tossing a lot of your brewing challenges along with them.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Mead: Simple

One of the best things about the information age is that ignorance is no longer something that’s imposed on you by an inefficient world (just ourselves, if we’re not careful).  When I want to know something, I can easily and instantaneously search for the information myself, and even better, find someone to explain it to me!

Thus, I find myself sharing a great piece written by one of the best meadmakers in the world – that he also happens to be a wonderful person and a good friend is just icing on the cake.  Today’s guest blogger, Adam Crockett, is co-owner (along with his fellow-meadmaking-and-brewing-and-beer-judging wife Erin) of Haymaker Meadery – and if you don’t immediately find a way to get your hands on some of their mead, then you’re really letting yourself down and you don’t even know it.

Today, I’m taking a back seat to let Adam talk us through the basics of mead.  I genuinely like mead (and my wife genuinely loves mead, especially Adam & Erin’s), but it’s something I’ve always found intimidating, for some reason.  After reading this, though, I’m quite confident that anyone (even me) can hit the ground running on making mead.

Take it away, Adam.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 

An Intro to Mead

Mead is an amazing beverage.  It's neither beer nor wine, but somehow falls in the middle of both. It's an ancient beverage, too, and in fact some people believe it's actually the oldest fermented alcoholic beverage on Earth.  Fermented Honey dates back as early as 2000 BC based on chemical signatures found in Asian pottery.  The ancient Greeks also drank Ambrosia, a delicacy made of honey and believed to be the drink of the gods.  So what is mead exactly?  

All alcohol is derived from the conversion of sugar by yeast. Whereas beer derives its alcohol from malted barley, and wine derives its alcohol from grape juice, mead is primarily made up of fermented honey.  Although mead hasn’t enjoyed the popularity that beer and cider has in the craft revolution, it finally seems to be getting some rightful attention, showing up in homebrew circles as well as being commercially produced. The best part about this resurgence is the quality of the mead being made: no longer is mead a cloyingly sweet beverage that takes years to mature.  A drinkable mead can be made in under two months with only a minimal amount of time, effort, and money. So, if you have been thinking about making your first batch of mead, this article will help you to take that leap.

 Prep

Mead making is a bit different then homebrewing. There is no boil involved and the attention and activity needed is spread out over a few weeks rather than a 6-hour brew day. [B:S editing note – Adam, you really need to let me take a look at your brew day.  We can cut that thing down substantially!] There is also less equipment involved, which means less to buy and less to clean.

The first thing you need to locate is honey. The better the quality of the honey, the better your final product will be, but really any honey will do. I prefer to use honey from a local apiary, and they can be found by searching sites like honeylocator.com.  Farmers markets are also great places to meet bee keepers from your area to score some good local honey.

If you have homebrewed before then no extra equipment is necessary. If, however, this will be your first time making mead then I would suggest speaking with your local homebrew shop about what you’ll need to get.

Once you have your honey and equipment it's time to get started. To start, combine the honey and the water to make “must” (the meadmaking equivalent of wort). I prefer not to boil my must. The non-boil method better preserves the delicate honey character in the final product, in my experience. Also, honey has antiseptic properties which will keep your mead from any bacterial or wild yeast infection, so there’s not much risk involved. Mix your honey using a wine whip or a large spoon, adding enough 80-90F water to bring your total volume to 5 gallons. Next, take a gravity reading. If you are happy with your gravity (mead comes in all strengths, so it’s up to you!) then it’s time to add your yeast nutrient. Yeast nutrients are necessary because, unlike beer, honey doesn’t have enough nutrients on its own for a healthy fermentation. For nutrients, I prefer Fermaid-K but any wine yeast nutrient will work. Sprinkle 4 grams of Fermaid -K into a water solution and stir it into your must.  Don’t worry about oxidation: whether you are using a wine whip or spoon, you want to introduce oxygen into your mead by splashing the must. The only thing left to do is add your yeast, so rehydrate it or sprinkle it on top (or, if you’re using a liquid yeast, just pour it in), then close up your fermenter.

 

Fermentation

Like beer yeast, mead yeast likes and needs oxygen during the adaptation and growth stages of fermentation, but unlike beer for the first three days you want to open up your fermenter and stir out the C02 and introduce more oxygen. This is because CO2 is toxic to yeast and can impart undesired flavors that take a while to age out. Degassing the CO2 will lead to a mead that is drinkable faster. To degas, simply take your spoon or stir whip and agitate the must. Be careful and make sure everything is cleaned properly, and be sure to avoid a volcano-effect overflow when you are stirring out the C02 (the off-gassing may cause a head to form!).

By day 3 you should have a good fermentation going and it's now time to add the second addition of your yeast nutrients.  Again, sprinkle 4 grams of Fermaid-K into your mead and stir. Once you have made this second nutrient addition, stirred out the C02, and introduced oxygen, it's time to leave your mead alone until it's done fermenting. Fermentation time can vary depending on honey variety, fermentation temp, and the original gravity, but a good average is about one month.

 

Post-Fermentation

After a month, take a gravity reading then wait three days and take another gravity reading. If the gravity is the same, you’re done fermenting. Once Fermentation is complete you want to remove your mead from the inactive yeast, proteins, and heavy fats on the bottom of the fermenter and rack it into a new carboy. This will help you start the clearing process of your mead and start the bulk aging process as well. This is a great time to do a few minor flavor adjustments to your fermented mead.  You might like to adjust the acid levels with an acid blend, back sweeten if your mead is not sweet enough with more honey (be sure to add potassium sorbate so fermentation doesn’t restart) or add more spice or oak . I prefer to age my mead in a 5-gallon carboy rather than bottle right away, since I believe this gives the final product a more complete and rounded flavor. During the bulk aging process you will want to rack your mead at least one more time after about 2 months. If your mead cleared on its own after bulk aging consider yourself lucky: if not you will want to pick up a clarifying agent like Super-Kleer. Follow the directions and after it has cleared, rack it again into a clean carboy or your bottling bucket. Your mead is now ready to bottle. A 5 gallon batch will give you around 24 bottles (750ml) or two cases of mead.

Thinking outside the box

Meads can be as simple as honey, water, yeast, and nutrient or as complicated as you can imagine. Don't be afraid to try something new like barrel aging, adding a funky or sour yeast, using the whey after making cheese instead of water, or even using an unconventional ingredient like peanuts. Also, meads don't always have to be 12% or more; I enjoy making low gravity meads in the 8% range. This way you can enjoy a few glasses with friends and not have to age your product for extended periods of time. Anything you can imagine for a beer is just as capable for mead, so go out there and get creative!

 

Some Recipes to Get your Started

This is a recipe for a simple mead that will give you a good sense of what your selected honey variety tastes like – you can build future recipes off of this one and get as crazy as you like:

Traditional Mead (Follow directions given in article)
15# Orange Blossom honey (or any variety you want to use)
Add water to achieve 5 gallons
Lalvin 71b yeast
8 grams Fermaid-K yeast nutrient

 

Here is my recipe for a pyment (a mead-wine hybrid) that recently won a first place ribbon at a massive local competition (nearly 1,000 entries):

Petit Syrah Pyment
36# Petit Syrah Grapes
9# Wildflower honey
Add water to achieve 5 gallons
Lalvin D47 yeast
8 grams Fermaid-K yeast nutrient

Have your local homebrew shop crush the grapes for you, add this must to your honey water solution. Stir and introduce oxygen for the first three days, after that punch down the grape skins everyday for a week. After a week remove the grape skins and matter from your mead and let fermentation complete.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 

Josh again:

And it’s just that simple.  To date, I’ve made two meads, but I’m giving serious thought to making more – specifically, I want to focus in on recipes (probably pyments or dry meads) that I can use as wine substitutes.  Then, once I’ve hooked them on the dry mead, I can tell them that they haven’t been drinking “wine” at all! 

Or, worst case scenario, I can just keep buying it from Adam & Erin. 

Whichever route you (or I) choose, keep in mind that, just like beer, mead can be as simple as you want or need it to be.  Care and craft don’t need to be complicated, and it’s usually that caring that yields a superior product.

Thanks again to Adam, and as always…

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 

A previous version of Adam’s article appeared in Philly Beer Scene.