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Homebrewing: Brewing Outside
Sitting in the backyard and sipping on a homebrewed beverage as the wort boils away is one of my favorite ways to relax on a warm weekend. While homebrewers typically first learn to make beer inside their homes, most will eventually move the kettle out of the kitchen and onto the porch. It's not hard to make the change to outdoor brewing, and once you do, you'll find your brewdays to be more efficient and much more carefree. It just take a couple pieces of equipment and a little extra care to bring your homebrewing outside.
When you decide to brew outside, the first thing you'll need is a source of heat. The most common choice for homebrewers starting to brew outdoors is the inexpensive and effective propane camp burner. Some tech loving homebrewers might look into home-built electric burners or a custom natural gas range, but nothing beats propane for its simplicity.
The price range for a propane burner is usually between $55 and $100, depending on the BTU rating and the quality of the frame. For the homebrewer who makes 5 gallon batches, any burner rated over 35,000 BTUs seems to work fine, and it's hard to find anything rated lower than that. If you ever want to upgrade to 10 gallon batches or larger, don't go less than 60,000 BTUs—and the higher rating the better.
Almost more important than the heat rating of the burner is the quality of the frame. Since you'll be boiling a hefty 5 gallons or more for an hour, a cheap frame can bend over time. It's usually better to spend a few extra bucks to get a burner at your homebrew shop where they have experience with the different brands, rather than just getting the cheapest burner you can find online.
In my experience with brewing 5 gallon batches of beer, a standard 20 pound propane tank will last about 3 to 5 all-grain batches on a camp burner, while extract brewers might get 5 to 8 batches. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on the type of burner you have and your brewing methods, so it never hurts to have a spare propane tank on hand in case of emergencies.
Benefits to Brewing Outdoors
If you're accustomed to brewing on your kitchen stovetop, the first thing you'll notice when you brew outdoors is how much time you save. Those propane burners heat large amounts of water so much faster than a stove that I save about 30 minutes when brewing extract recipes and almost an hour when brewing all-grain. The extra heat can be a double-edged sword though, since the faster boil can result in more boil-off than you expect. If you forget to add additional water to compensate for the rapid boil, you might find yourself with a 4.5 gallons of beer at the end of the day instead of 5 gallons. Once the boil starts, I try to turn the burner down as much as possible and I still use about an extra half gallon of water for most recipes. Every system is a little different, and it might take a couple of batches before you find the right adjustment.
Aside from the speed, brewing outdoors has a few other major perks. When you brew inside, the aroma of malt and hops tends to linger in the house for the rest of the day. While I happen to like the aroma of malt and hops, it's not always desirable when you have family or friends coming to visit. Brewing outside solves this problem, and also helps if you have a significant other who may not be quite as enthusiastic as you are about living within a brewery.
Moving out of the kitchen and into the backyard will also save time on cleanup at the end of the day. For me, using a hose to clean out my my brewing kettle or mash tun is a whole lot easier than scrubbing them out in the tub or sink. That reason alone is almost enough to get me brewing outside even when the weather isn't ideal.
For the most part, your homebrewing process won't change much when you start brewing outdoors. If there's one thing that might need a little more attention, it's careful sanitation practices. With the wind and the open air, there may be a higher chance of infection if dust or debris is blown into your unfermented wort.
The easiest way to mitigate the extra risk is just to be more conscious of your sanitary practices. Always leave the lid on your brew kettle when you're cooling the wort, and close up your fermentation vessel immediately after you sanitize it. Anything that touches the wort with after the boil, including a spoon or racking cane, should be soaking in your bucket of sanitizer just before you use it and it should go back in as soon as you're done with it. If you keep simple sanitation rules in mind, brewing outside will lead to better homebrew and a more relaxing brew day.
About the author: Joe Postma is a homebrewer who is seeking that perfect blend of creativity and science required to make great beer. He moonlights as a consulting actuary during the week.