Unclutter Your Brewing

By Greig McGill

This month, the fun and funky team at Brewshop have asked me to write about some general tips and tricks for brewing. I thought I’d centre them around a theme that’s been near and dear to my heart of late – getting rid of the clutter.

Clutter, of both the mental and physical varieties, is the enemy of just about any task. When it gets in the way of brewing, the results are usually imprecision and compromise, leading to beers that simply aren’t as good as they could have been. We deserve the best, right? So, here’s some things I do and others have done to reduce clutter and make better beer.

Visualise

Begin with mentally stepping through each part of your brew-day. Note each part, and what it entails. It might seem silly, but back in the day, I actually acted some bits out! Sometimes miming a valve closure, or hose swap can trigger you to think of a part of the process that could be refined, or might otherwise have been forgotten.

Plan

Once you’re done with the visualisation exercise, you should have a detailed list of steps written down. From this, it’s good to analyse each step, thinking about optimisation. For example, if you’re rinsing out a cleaned vessel with sanitiser solution, is it something like StarSan which you can collect and use again until it starts to go cloudy and lose it’s kill power? If so, why not save it in a bucket and use that same solution to sanitise your hoses and fittings? Or perhaps you only have one bucket, and this might lead you to purchase some more so you can optimise further.

You can take optimisation too far, of course. Some people enjoy many of the more manual processes, and that’s just fine. Home brewing is about enjoyment, and you should never do anything to impede that enjoyment. With that in mind, for many the best enjoyment to be had is making great tasting beer consistently. The more you take “fudge factor” out by planning ahead and removing the possibility for manual process errors, the more likely you are to hit that goal.

With your degree of optimisation now planned out, you can start preparing a checklist. I break mine into several sections in chronological order.

  • Things I do several days in advance of brewing – check my stocks and order ingredients or supplies, prepare my yeast starter, ensure drill batteries are charged for driving my mill etc.
  • Things I do the day or night before I brew – ensure everything is cleaned and sanitised, check my gas bottle is full, prepare my brewing liquor, grind my grist.
  • An ordered step-through of my brew-day itself, including easily overlooked things such as hooking up the right transfer hoses between steps etc. Some brew software such as Beersmith will do this for you, but my preference is to prepare my own step-through checklist as then it is tightly coupled to my particular system and method of working.
  • Finally, a post-brew-day list of tasks, such as inventory checking and restocking, equipment testing and repair/replacement etc.

Prepare

This part is really easy, once you’ve followed the above two steps. Again, I find visualisation is a great technique for this. If your process step tells you to “prepare your brewing liquor”, then you know to weigh out all your calculated mineral additions, dose with acid (the liquor obviously, I’m not encouraging a psychedelic brew here), and/or whatever else is required by your specific recipe and equipment setup. As you think about this, it might occur to you that you could further optimise by setting up a sensible storage system so that all related components of your brewing process are stored together and easily managed.

However you decide to do this, your brew-day itself should then simply flow down your list of steps, without any extra action or complication.

Execute and revise

As you work through your plan, keep a pen handy. Yes, that’s a bit of a stone aged suggestion here, but I think it’s far easier to risk blotting wort all over a piece of paper than it is to dump hot PBW solution all over your nice new MacBook Pro! Some people are perfectly happy to risk their phone, tablet, laptop, or other cool tech for the sake of note taking, so if that’s you, good luck! Anyway, as you work through your list, if you notice anything that doesn’t work right, or is missing steps, note them down.

After you’ve finished brewing, and are all cleaned up and sipping on a well-deserved pint, read over any revisions you have made. Think about how best to integrate those into your plan, and effectively start the cycle again with the improved process document.

So there’s a fairly simple method to go from chaos to professional-like production of wort during your brew-day. No clutter and a well-defined tight process means a smooth, happy, and safe time playing with boiling hot yeast-food!

With that in mind, and as additional food for thought, here are some often-overlooked things to make sure not to leave out of your process documents.

  • Leak testing hoses and fittings. There is nothing more frustrating than having your kettle spring a leak just as the wort creeps past the valve bulkhead fitting simply because you hadn’t noticed a washer had perished. If that example caused groans of frustration, at least it’s better than a potential life threatening situation of, say, an oxygen regulator connection leaking near a burner, because doing a “soap bubble” leak test regularly was overlooked. If you’re not sure what that is, please click on the link. I am not exaggerating when I say it could save your life.
  • Be lazy! Or perhaps I should put that in better terms – work smarter rather than harder. If cleaning your equipment is a burden, invest in some PBW, and just let soaking and the magic of time clean for you! That doesn’t mean you should be any less rigorous in your visual inspection to ensure your vessels and tools are as clean as possible, just that there’s no sense wasting time and energy scrubbing when a hot PBW soak will do the work for you.
  • Check and calibrate all your instruments regularly. Thermometers, refractometers, hydrometers, pH meters, etc. All these things generally require calibration or verification of accuracy. An inaccurate thermometer is not the end of the world, so long as it’s consistently inaccurate at all temperature points and you can just apply a correction factor. If you’re not aware that it’s not calibrated though, you will have problems!
  • Build a storage system to suit your workflow – separate brewing ingredients, water treatment salts and acids, hoses, and vessels, and design a method to store them that is both convenient and sanitary. This might seem like a lot of work, but it pays dividends on brew-day!
  • Keep spares. Things like hoses, hose clamps, even spray bottles for sanitiser can be damaged or simply wear out, and Messrs Murphy and Sod dictate that this will happen at the worst possible time. Get your scout on and be prepared.

Here’s to an uncluttered brew-day and a resulting beer that induces calm so Zen-like that you’ll be wondering what happens if you burp in the woods and nobody is around to hear it…