Home > advice, equipment > >Equipment for the Small Batch Brewer

>Equipment for the Small Batch Brewer

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The Small Batch Brewer’s equipment setup can vary just as much as any brewing setup, but the Small Batch Brewer has a few particular requirements due to the small batch size, and there are a few things that become especially handy. After about six months of trial and error, this is the setup I’ve come up with, and I think it works pretty well.
The Crush:
Much of my homebrew gear was inherited from my father when he stopped brewing. Fortunately, like me, he was a bit of a gear head, so I got a few very nice pieces of equipment I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. The first is my Valley Mill.
Some old-school brewers will recognize the brand; this was a pretty popular option before the company unfortunately went out of business. Owning my own mill provides two main advantages:
1. Bulk grain lasts much longer if stored whole. Crushed grains lose their freshness fairly quickly, and having many grains whole and on-hand allows me a lot of flexibility when it comes to quick recipe formulation.
2. Your crush is one of the biggest factors in extraction efficiency, and owning my own mill allows me to dial in my crush to my own system, instead of dialing in my system to my LHBS’s crush. After dialing in my crush, I regularly achieve 80% extraction efficiency with no lautering issues.
The Mash:

I mainly use a good ol’ fashioned 5 gallon Igloo cooler with a Phil’s false bottom.


For sparging, I’ve found that batch sparging is the most efficient and least time-consuming method. I’ve tried fly sparging a small batch, but I found no particular advantage, and it was more equipment-intensive and time consuming.

The Boil:

My main kettle is a 30 quart Polarware economy stainless steel kettle.

The 30 quart size is great because I can do 90 minute boils (with my boiloff rate, I start at about 4 gallons pre-boil) without worrying about boilovers, and I can also use it for the occasional 5 gallon batch.

I added the weldless spigot for the convenience of taking samples, draining from the bottom, and to use my pump for a whirlpool. I think any brewer worth their salt knows how handy a spigot on their kettle is.

Chilling the Wort:

For small batches, a standard 25′ 3/8″OD copper immersion wort chiller is more than sufficient for my needs. Mine is a suitably ugly homemade job.


I mentioned I use a pump in conjunction with the immersion chiller; This dramatically increases the efficiency of the immersion chiller by continuously circulating the wort (my setup is inspired by Jamil Zainasheff’s Whirlpool Chiller. Googling it will bring up a ton of great info.) Without this, most brewers experience stratification, where the wort immediately around the chiller is much cooler than throughout the rest of the kettle. To create the inlet for the whirlpool, I simply bent a piece of 3/8″ copper so I could attach a hose coming from the outlet of my pump.


Here’s the whole apparatus in action:

Fermentation:

For me, the six gallon bucket is the best and most convenient primary fermentation vessel. They’re cheap, easy to clean, easy to heat (for diacetyl rests), and easy to move. Also, having a spigot drilled makes transfer a snap. Yes, they are quite oxygen permeable, so I wouldn’t leave a batch in one for more than a few weeks, but for 1-2 week primaries the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages for me.

Instead of using a sealed lid and airlock, I have a loose fitting lid that sits on top of the bucket, effectively creating open fermentation. Honestly, this is more for convenience than anything. With the loose lid it becomes easier to quickly pull a sample, and the fact that it’s clear lets me see whats going on inside.

I rarely do secondaries, but when I do (dry hopping, fruiting, long-term aging) I’ve found nothing better than 3 gallon Better Bottles.

They’re light, easy to clean, unbreakable if dropped, punted for easy racking off the sediment, and their square shape makes multiples fit better into closets and the like. Here’s a couple in action holding some sour beers I’m aging, along with some 5 gallon sour batches, also in Better Bottles:
A quick word on Better Bottles: There are some in the homebrewing world who argue that glass carboys are superior. I personally have not heard a convincing argument that Better Bottles are flawed in any way. There is the oxygen issue (some argue that Better Bottles are oxygen permeable, which would oxidize the beer during long-term aging), but according to the Better Bottle website, the permeability is negligible unless you’re planning to age something for several years. I still have yet to hear an effective refutation of this, and I have had no oxidation issues at all (for the sour brewers out there, the pellicles on my sours are from burping the airlocks, not from any supposed wall permeability.) If anybody has proof otherwise, please let me know! The goal in the end is simply to make better beer, and I’m open to any method.
Serving:

Like many experienced brewers, I grew tired of bottling days quickly. Kegging was the obvious choice, and as a Small Batch Brewer, the 3 gallon Corny Keg is both a blessing and a curse:


A blessing because of the perfect size for small batches, and the space savings in my keezer (a kegerator made from a chest freezer, for the uninitiated). A curse due to both the rarity (small kegs are becoming increasingly more difficult to find used), and the extraordinary cost of new ones (easily $120 new). Suffice to say, whenever I come across one, I try my damndest to get my grubby little hands on it.

I do bottle condition on occasion, mostly if I’m planning on aging a beer in the bottle (very big beers, sours, anything brett-spiked). The nice thing about bottling a Small Batch is that it usually makes a tidy single case of 12oz or 22oz bottles.

Measuring:

One last thing that is incredibly handy for a small batch brewer is the refractometer:


I check my gravities as frequently as I can (especially during fermentation), and if you use a standard hydrometer, the repeated pulling of large samples can take a significant toll on your final yield. With the refractometer, all that’s required is a few drops to get an accurate sample. Also, most refractometers have ATC (Automatic Temperature Correction), so the number you get doesn’t have to be adjusted for temperature like a hydrometer.

Unfortunately there are some disadvantages. First, most hydrometers can’t read over a gravity of 1.120, or 30 Brix. This isn’t a problem 95% of the time for me, but when it comes time to do a really big beer, it’ll be annoying to have to break out the hydrometer every time I need to take a reading, especially because fermentation schedules are so critical with high gravity beers and need to be closely monitored. Secondly, refractometers are built to take readings on pure sucrose solutions. Wort is mostly maltose, so there is a correction factor that has to be applied to get an accurate OG reading. Also, after fermentation begins, another correction has to be made for the presence of alcohol. Fortunately both of these issues can be sidestepped with almost any brewing software.

Conclusion:

Many brewers can adapt their current setups for Small Batch Brewing, and I hope my methods can inspire other brewers to do the same. Do you ever do Small Batches? If so, let me know your methods in the comments!


Cheers,
Matt
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Categories: advice, equipment
  1. 2011/02/25 at 3:48 pm

    >Great Job. Nice post.

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