There are many roads to success in brewing. I try to avoid telling people how they should brew. So, I talk about how I brew, and let others decide whether or not my methods have any value to them.
Generally speaking, the universal recipe for making alcohol is 1) dissolve sugar in water; 2) add yeast; 3) wait for the yeast to work; and then 4) wait some more for the resulting product to be palatable. That’s it. We’re done here.
Well, I suppose there are a few more things to chat about. Firstly, there are many ways to make or acquire sugar-water. You can dilute honey with water. You can extract juice from fruit. You can mash malted grain in hot water. You can combine all of those options. Secondly, you can select from different kinds of yeast to improve your odds of getting a pleasant flavor in the final product depending upon what your source of sugar was. Thirdly, you can add all sorts of other ingredients to alter the flavor of the product at various stages in the production of that product. These include flowers, spices, herbs, and charred/toasted wood. And we’re not going to talk about any of those things today (Nephilium is taking the lead on those topics).
Today, we are going to focus on step 3) waiting and step 4) waiting – otherwise known as fermentation and aging. Given the products I make, steps 3 and 4 are pretty much the same regardless of which primary fermentable sugar I am working with whether it be honey for making mead, fruit juice for making cider or wine, or malt for making sour ales. This is because I ferment everything at pretty much the same temperature and age everything for pretty much the same amount of time (at this point I only make sour ales which can benefit from months even years of aging, so no young hoppy beers from me). This means that I have lots of product sitting around in secondaries for long periods of time – typically 12 months (and sometimes up to 36 months) before I package it up. This takes space – lots of it. And it requires good climate control.
My brewing room is roughly 15 feet by 15 feet in size. Three of the walls are part of the poured concrete foundation for the house. The last wall is a standard stud wall that I built to isolate the brewing room from the rest of the basement. There is no ductwork bringing heating or cooling into the room. Other than the open doorway, there is no significant flow of air in to out of the room. So, the temperature in the room is extremely stable and there is basically no temperature change over any given 24-hour period (this is probably true for any given week).
The temperature in the room is effectively controlled by the temperature of the soil outside the foundation walls. The soil temperature lags the seasons by about 3 months. So, the coldest temperature in the brewing room is typically late March or early April when the temperature drops to about 62° F (although it got down to 58° F after one particularly brutal winter). Conversely, the warmest temperatures occur in late September or early October when the room reaches about 68° F.
That means I do all fermentation and aging between 62° and 68° degrees. I focus on cool, slow fermentation, and I think this works great for the things that I make – mead, cider, wine, and sour ales. However; this is not ideal for other types of products such as lagers that need to be fermented cooler or saisons that need to be fermented warmer. But I rarely drink those products, and I never make them. When I do want one, there are many fine drinking establishments in the area that can provide one at a reasonable price.
But a room with temperature control isn’t enough. We need structures – tables, counters, shelves – to store primaries and secondaries that are in use, primaries and secondaries that are not in use, tools, ingredients, and other assorted sundries. My room has built-in shelving around the entire room. Every linear foot of wall (excluding the door) has shelves.
The middle shelf is a bit higher that a standard kitchen counter. This is where the most of primaries and secondaries are stored during fermentation and aging. Occasionally, I work with primaries that are too big for the shelves (note the 44-gallon Rubbermaid Brute that I am starting a batch of pyment in – to be discussed in a future post.). The middle shelf is wide enough to hold a 9-gallon demijon (not shown in the picture). The corners can hold a 14-gallon demijon.
The bottom shelf is somewhat narrower than the middle shelf. This keeps me from banging my shins when I am lifting primaries and secondaries from the floor and then placing them onto the middle shelf or moving them from one place to another. I generally keep heavy stuff on the bottom shelf, like the cases of honey in lower left of this picture (six 5-lb jars per case). There is an upper shelf which is the same width as the middle shelf. I keep empty carboys and other not-so-heavy items up there.
I long ago lost track of how may primaries and secondaries I have. I sold off a dozen 6-gallon carboys to my brewing friends several years ago. I have since acquired both bigger and smaller containers to fill that hole in my heart.
To the best of my recollection, I have a dozen ½-gallon jugs; two dozen 1-gallon jugs; half a dozen 1.3-gallon demijons; half a dozen 2.6-gallon demijons; half a dozen 3-gallon carboys; a dozen 5-gallon carboys; a dozen 6-gallon carboys; a dozen 6.5-gallon carboys; three or four 9-gallon demijons; and three or four 14-gallon demijons.
I generally use plastic for primaries. I have converted 2.5-gallon and 6.5-gallon screw-top pails into primaries. Basically, you drill a ½ hole in the screw-top and install a replacement rubber grommet into the hole. This allows the use of a standard airlock. I have half a dozen of each of these sizes. I have about half a dozen standard 7.9-gallon wine pails from the home brew shop. And I use a lot of Rubbermaid Brute garbage cans. They are food grade plastic and come in a variety of colors. I use white so they are easier to see if they are clean. As far as Brutes go, I have 10-gallon, 20-gallon, 32-gallon, and 44-gallon pails.
I generally use the small containers (plastic primaries and glass secondaries) for experimental batches. I have done yeast trials and oak trials over the years to see how these affect the product. I also do sets of small batches to make samples for teaching classes. I use the mid-size containers for most of my brewing (5 to 6.5 gallons of finished product). I use the large containers for bulk production – usually wine – when I am working with fresh seasonal fruit – mostly local grapes.
I also use the large Brutes for blending products such as ciders made from 3 to 5 different varieties of apples. The apples get harvested at different times in the season (anywhere from early August to late October), so the initial fermentation is done for each variety separately. Later in the winter, multiple batches of single-variety cider will get blended in a large Brute and then pumped into mid-sized or large-sized glass secondaries (carboys or demijons) for additional aging before packaging.
In the beginning, when I started making mead, I was paranoid about using air-tight primaries and airlocks. All the homebrew books and brew shops tell you that you need them. Then I started making wine with some friends. When you make red wine, you open the primary two or three times every day to punch down the cap (to be covered in detail in future posts, but you are pushing the grapes skins down into the wine below). You learn pretty quickly that as long as the fermentation is going strong, all you need is a loose cover to keep the bugs and dirt out. I have been to pro wineries where wine was fermenting in steel tanks with a blue plastic tarp pulled over the top.
I continue to use air-tight primaries and airlocks when I am working with small to mid-sized batches. This allows me to lift and move the primaries without worrying about spilling. But when I work on large batches with lots of whole fruit, I use the Brutes with loose fitting lids. The key point is to rack into an airtight secondary when you’ve extracted what you want from the whole fruit and fermentation is slowing down. Note, that I recently acquired the 1.3-gallon and 2.6-gallon demijons (listed above) which have very wide openings so that I could do small experimental batches with whole fruit. This allows me to open the demijon and punch down the fruit during the initial fermentation and to reach in and clean the demijon after the product is racked to a secondary.
One of the tricky issues is deciding when fermentation is done. It seems like an easy thing to check. The airlock stops bubbling or the hydrometer reading stays the same for a while. But rubber bungs and airlocks don’t always maintain a perfect seal. So very slow fermentation may not move the bubbles in the airlock. And the specific gravity of the product may change by less then your ability to detect it on a standard hydrometer. So, I have discovered an alternate way to tell.
The key is to watch the very top of the product in a clear carboy or jug. Even when it is fermenting very slowly (too slow to notice activity in the airlock), you can still see tiny little bubbles running up the outside of the carboy or jug and joining a ring of bubbles at the top. When there is a continuous ring of bubbles, the product is still fermenting quite a bit. When there are only a handful of bubbles, the product is nearly done. When there no bubbles, there is no fermentation going on in the product.
If you are making a carbonated beverage and are going to bottle condition or keg, a ring of bubbles on the top of the product is not a problem. In fact, it indicates you have healthy, active yeast to support bottle conditioning. But if you are going bottle still products in a standard bottle with a cork, you need to wait till it is finally done. If you are going to continue aging the product in a carboy or jug, you can replace the bung and airlock with an airtight screw cap or rubber carboy cap as appropriate for the type of container.
I try to rack my products a few times as possible. My general schedule is to leave the product in the primary fermenter for 2 to 4 weeks, depending up what it is and how strongly it is fermenting. After primary fermentation is complete, I will the rack into a secondary and leave the product alone for 2 to 4 months. It is during this time frame that I will do malo-lactic fermentation if the product requires it (typically for ciders or wine). This is also the time when I will use oak cubes if it is part of the plan for that product. After this, I will rack it into another secondary (or tertiary, since it the third container). Here it will sit for half a year or several years depending up what product it is. Note that there is no fermentation going at this stage. So, there is no dead yeast piling up on the bottom. Therefore, autolysis is not an issue, and I don’t worry about the product sitting on whatever sediment builds up during this phase of aging.
When aging is done, it is time to package the product. If you want a carbonated beverage, you can bottle condition (fermentation in a sealed bottle) or force carbonate in a keg. If you bottle condition, the product must be put into a bottle that is intended to handle the pressure – beer bottles or champagne bottles. Standard wine bottles can explode if fermentation occurs in the bottle. If you want a still product, it can be put into pretty much any kind of bottle and sealed with a cork, a cap, or a swing top. Specific information on different ways of packaging products will be provided in subsequent articles on cider, wine, mead, and beer.