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My Brewing Process, Part 1 - Getting Ready to Brew

A couple of homebrewing friends have asked me about my process. They want to know how I go from a recipe to a finished beer, the steps I follow, why I follow them, and the tools I use. This post is an attempt to capture and share all the information.

It's important to note that my process changes a bit as I learn new things, gain new equipment, or discover better or easier ways to do things. Consider this post a "snapshot" of my process and equipment as it stands right now. Six months from now it could be different.

The Equipment

My current brewing equipment consists of the following:

  • iMake's The Grainfather RIMS brewing system: This handles mashing, boiling, and chilling of the wort. I also added the Graincoat accessory to reduce heat loss and speed up kettle heating time.
  • An induction cooktop and Mega Pot 1.2 kettle: This provides heated sparge water. I have it on top of a tall table, at a height that I can open the valve on the kettle and have sparge water flow down a silicone tube into The Grainfather's grain basket for sparging.
  • A one-gallon plastic pitcher with markings at the quart levels: I use this for various things, including measuring mash and sparge water, catching drops from hoses, etc.
  • A long stainless steel spoon: This is used for stirring the grains at the mash step, for stirring ingredients like candi syrup into the kettle during the boil, lifting out hops bags, and other tasks.
  • Miscellaneous plastic containers: These hold grain, spices, hops, and other ingredients.
  • A Kitchen Scale: This weighs grain, spices, hops pellets, and other ingredients as needed.
  • A 5-gallon stainless kettle: This holds The Grainfather's grain basket after sparging until I'm ready to discard the grain and clean it up, preventing sticky messes on the floor.
  • Grain crusher: This allows me to keep my grain as fresh as possible before brewing. Crushed grain will tend to go stale more quickly. I'll typically pair this with the 5-gallon kettle to hold the crushed grain.
  • Clipboard and Pen: These allow me to take notes as I brew, such as gravity and volume figures, last-minute changes to the ingredients (e.g, I spill my last ounce of Carafa I malt and replace it with Chocolate Malt)
  • Refractometer and Pipettes: These allow me to measure the gravity of the wort after the sparge (pre-boil) and after pumping into the fermenter (original gravity). 
  • Stopwatch or Brew Timer App on my Phone: This allows me to track mash and boil time, so that I know when to change mash steps or add things during the boil.
  • Hop Spider and hop bag: This allows me to easily add hops during the boil and, if I need to boil longer to reduce the kettle volume, remove the hops to prevent over-bittering.
  • Hand truck: I use this to easily move a full fermenter around the basement. My brewing area and fermentation temperature control systems are on opposite ends of the basement. Hauling a 50-pound fermenter across the distance is a pain. With the cart, it's a simple stroll.
  • SS Brewing Technologies Brewmaster Bucket: This is my fermenter of choice. Its stainless steel design makes cleanup easy and prevents aromas and flavors from one batch affecting a future batch. Its thermowell makes temperature control more precise. Being metal, heat transfer from a fermwrap heater or cooling jacket is better than for a plastic or glass fermenter.
  • Generic terry cloth rags and kitchen towels: I use these to clean and dry things, wipe up spills, etc. They go in the washer after each brew to keep them clean and ready for use.
  • InkBird ITC-310 Temperature Controller:  This kicks on a fermwrap heater if my beer is getting too cold, or an aquarium pump submerged in refrigerated water if it gets too hot.  The pump pushes water through a Cool Zone cooling jacket wrapped around the fermenter to cool it down from the outside.  This setup allows me to keep fermentation temperatures within a degree of my target.
  • William's Brewing Rack and Pinion Bench Capper:  I have this mounted to a piece of plywood.  The design of this capper makes it such that I can easily mix bottles of any size in a batch and cap them without having to "reset" the height of the capper. It also seems to crimp caps very evenly and thoroughly.
  • Igloo Cooler with InkBird ITC-308 temperature controller and fermwrap heater: This combination allows me to place bottles of beer in a temperature-controlled location to aid in carbonation.  I typically set the temperature to 76F (depending on the yeast in question) and leave it there for a week or two. This has worked well to carbonate beer. 
This doesn't cover my labeling process.

Step 1: The Recipe

It all starts with figuring out what I want to brew. Maybe I want to clone a Belgian beer I like, or brew a style I haven't made before. Whatever the case, I need a recipe. Typically, I'll start by looking for recipes that have won medals in national competitions. If I can find one, I'll start with that. If not, I'll check BYO magazine, the American Homebrewing Association (AHA) web site, or other sources to find a starting recipe.

Most published recipes are based on a brewhouse efficiency rating of 75%. They'll also typically list the batch size, original gravity, final gravity, bitterness, and other factors. I use the BeerSmith software to help me modify the recipe. I begin by entering the recipe "as is" from the original source. Then, I'll let BeerSmith scale the recipe to a 5.78 gallon batch. Now, I'll start carefully adjusting the amounts downward to account for my 80% brewhouse efficiency, keeping the ingredient ratios as close to the original as possible.  Why this combination?  I've found through keeping detailed records that it most closely matches the results I get at the end of brewing.  I've been able to hit volume and gravity targets within a couple of SG points nearly all the time.

Now I have a recipe tailored to my equipment and process. BeerSmith gives me the estimated original gravity, pre-boil gravity, and final gravity. I adjust these figures from standard gravity to Brix, since my refractometer measures in Brix.

I'll also use the Refractometer tool in BeerSmith, combined with the original gravity, to reverse engineer the refractometer reading in Brix (for fermenting wort) that will correspond to the expected final gravity of the beer.

Now, using a spreadsheet I built for the purpose, I calculate mash and sparge water volumes based on the formula required for The Grainfather. I round these up or down to quarts, to make it easier to measure later on. I'll also tweak the amounts slightly to achieve a 5 gallon fermenter volume.

When I'm all finished, I put together a brew day sheet and print it out. I attach it to a clipboard with a pen and take it to the brewing area.

Step 2: Mise en Place

I know from past experience that if there's a way I can forget a step, overlook an ingredient, get things out of order, or otherwise mess up a brew day, I'll probably find it. I'll think I have a grain on hand that I don't, or get through the boil only to find I don't have the yeast I thought I did. I've even managed to accidentally spill a key ingredient while measuring it - and have to run out to get more at the last minute. This step is my best effort at preventing the kinds of mistakes I can make that ruin a brew day or make it frustrating.

Professional chefs follow a methodology called "mise en place" which essentially means having all your ingredients measured and ready to go before you begin. This is an excellent habit to get into as a home brewer. For me, it boils down to this:
  • Verify that I have all the ingredients I need to make the beer. Gather them together in one place so that I know where they are.
  • Measure the grain and crush it. I'll also stir all the grain together while it's dry. This seems to help prevent a stuck mash and may make it easier for the enzymes in the base malts to work on the specialty grains.
  • Measure the hops and place each addition in its own bowl or muslin bag. Stack the bowls or arrange them in the order they need to be added. This makes it easy to know what should be added next and track whether you've done it.
  • Clean and sanitize anything you plan to use.
  • Put water in The Grainfather and drop in a Campden tablet to begin removing chlorine and chloramine from it.
When absolutely everything is cleaned, sanitized, measured, and set out for use, I'll make one last check and switch on The Grainfather. Based on my brew day sheet, I set the mash temperature.

At this point, if I have bags of grain, hops, etc., sitting out that aren't going to be used in this recipe, I'll put those away. Otherwise, I'll have a tendency to procrastinate on that and the brewing area becomes a mess.

Hops additions, weighed and arranged in the order they'll be added
Grain, loaded in the crusher and ready to crush

Grain bill, crushed and ready to mash
I usually stir my grain bill while it's dry to try to distribute everything evenly before the mash

Brew Day sheet, listing ingredients, mash schedule, boil schedule gravity, etc.


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