Serious Eats: Drinks
Homebrewing Protips: Shortcuts to Make Brewing Easier
Beginning homebrewing recipes all start with simple steps. A first- or second-time homebrewer has enough to think about without an overly complicated list of instructions. But after brewing a few batches, it's pretty common to figure out a few tweaks and adjustments to the process that help you brew beer on your specific setup. There are times when you should never take a shortcut (especially when it comes to sanitation), but here are a few tips that we hope will help to simplify your brew day.
Bulk Yeast Starters
With mid- to high-alcohol beers, a yeast starter is usually recommended, particularly when using liquid yeast. Making a starter isn't difficult, but sometimes you don't get the chance to make one on time. If you find yourself in this position frequently, you may want to have a stash of pre-made starters waiting to be used.
A yeast starter is basically a small batch of beer. That's why one of the easiest ways to pre-make a starter for a future batch of beer is to simply make a little bit more beer when you brew your current batch. If you're brewing a Pale Ale or something similar, scale up your recipe to make 6 gallons instead of the usual 5 gallons. After you're done brewing, but before you pitch the yeast, pour the extra gallon into sanitized freezer bags and store them in the freezer until needed.
The best starters are made from pale, low hopped wort with an O.G. between 1.030 and 1.050. If you make starters with your leftover Imperial Stout wort, the yeast will have a hard time adjusting to the high O.G. of the wort, and the strong flavors of the dark malts will come through in whatever beer you add it to. Make your bulk yeast starters when you're brewing a wheat beer or pale ale instead.
When you use frozen wort with this method, you'll still have to boil and cool the wort in a sanitized container before you pitch your yeast, just like you would any other starter.
Some homebrewers take this idea a step further and make a set of "canned" starters from scratch. By mixing up a few liters of starter wort (100 grams of dry extract to 1 liter of water), canning them, and then putting them into the pressure cooker, you can make bulk batches of starters that will keep for several months. In order to guarantee your starter wort is sanitized and usable, the pressure must be 15psi for a minimum of 15 minutes. Any less than that and you risk lingering infection that would get into your beer and, in the worst case scenario, make you ill. You can pop these into the freezer like the boiled starters, but properly canned wort is even shelf stable for at least 6 months.
When you're ready to use your canned starter, bring it up to room temperature, open the lid and swirl it around to get oxygen dissolved into the wort. Don't forget that it's sanitary, so no stirring with unsanitized spoons. On the off-chance it it smells funky or sour, discard it. Otherwise pour in the yeast and cover it in foil just like you would any other starter. It should be ready to go in a day or two.
For homebrewers who bottle 5 gallons of beer, washing and sanitizing bottles can be a daunting task. There are a lot of gadgets out there that can make the process easier, but the easiest method I've seen is to use a regular dishwasher.
A dishwasher will only sanitize your bottles if it has a heated drying cycle. The water doesn't get hot enough to sanitize during the wash, but the steam produced while drying will do the trick. Stack the bottles with the opening down in the washer, and turn on the regular full wash cycle. Never use detergent with this method, since it can destroy head retention of your beer and possibly etch the bottles. After the drying cycle is complete and the bottles are cool, remove them from the dishwasher and fill as normal.
If you don't have a dishwasher, the heat from an oven works just as well. Dry heat in an oven takes longer to sanitize than steam, so you'll have to put them in the oven and wait for a while. According to John Palmer, author of How to Brew, the bottles should be in the oven at 338°F for one hour or 320°F for 2 hours. Obviously, this is not a good method if you have plastic flip-top bottles such as old Grolsch bottles.
What other shortcuts do you use when you're homebrewing? Share your tricks in the comments!