All-grain homebrewing for lazy cheapskates

carboy cosy
Neither carboy nor carboy cozy are, strictly speaking, necessary

One of the best books I’ve ever read about gardening was Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book, which advocated the use of a heavy hay or straw mulch and dismissed the idea that gardeners have to cultivate, make compost, or even pull weeds very often. Stout’s system worked for anyone who had enough space to do it in, which included me as a kid. But I found I still enjoyed the strenuous labor of the French-intensive biodynamic system, double-digging raised beds and the whole nine yards. The big problem with Stout’s method, of course, was that it neglected the need many gardeners feel to putter in their gardens.

Nevertheless, knowing that I could do things more simply if I wanted, that double-digging was just so much play, was really useful, helping me separate out the “culture” part of “horticulture” and understand better some of the underlying ecological principles. Then I discovered the equivalent book on farming, The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. Most farmers, Fukuoka observed, are regularly being encouraged by agricultural experts to try one new thing or another; the advice changes every few years. Instead, he suggested farmers should constantly say to themselves, “How about not trying this?” and “How about not trying that?” Pretty soon they might discover, as he had, just how few techniques are really necessary.

As far as I know, there hasn’t been any similarly heretical book on brewing. Stephen Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers came close, reviving 19th-century concepts of homebrewing in which any old sugar-water would do in a pinch, and scorning the contemporary brewer’s obsession with “minor differences” in malt, yeast and hops. Buhner was right that learning to use herbs and spices other than (or in addition to) hops can have a greater effect on the over-all flavor profile than using a half-pound of amber rather than biscuit malt in a given recipe, and his challenging of the five-gallon-batch orthodoxy makes great sense for experimental brewers. But based on my own experience (more than ten years of herbal brewing), I can confidently say that, all other things being equal, a different yeast variety or blend of malts in a given gruit recipe will result in a noticeably, often profoundly different beer. So I think Buhner was throwing out the baby with the mash water.

Our very ability to experiment with things like gruit blends without worrying too much about the yeast and the malts is a direct result of the precision and predictability achieved by industrial brewers over the past 200 years. We can ignore the yeast component only because we have access to single, pure strains of brewing yeast, and don’t have to learn to work with a complex local microflora as was the norm for pre-modern herbal brewers. Nor do we have to malt our own grains, something even most craft brewers don’t bother with nowadays. Commercial malts are reliably fully modified, freeing us from complex and time-consuming mashing regimens. And sparging is a money-saving technique invented by industrial brewers which almost all homebrewers follow, not only because it’s cheaper, but also because trying to make two batches of beer at the same time, one from the first runnings and one from the second, is kind of a pain in the ass. I know because I’ve done it.

Buhner is right that one can make perfectly good beer with malt extract (I’d go for the dried rather than the liquid), but I disagree that learning more complex techniques has no value. In addition to the pleasure and flexibility that come from making more interesting recipes, all-grain brewing can save a lot of money — I’m not ashamed to admit that’s why I switched from partial-extract brewing. I think my case might be fairly unusual, though: my impression from reading brewing books, blogs and brewing supply catalogues is that all-grain brewers are expected to invest in a lot of fancy equipment, and for many of a certain geekish bent, it becomes an excuse to turn the cellar or the garage into a hobbyist’s lair. (Do female homebrewers do this too, or is it just the man-cave impulse?) That’s fine if you’re handy with tools, have a cellar or garage (I have neither), and don’t have any other avocations to make a claim on your free time. Because creating and maintaining a technologically complex operation will take over your life if you let it.

Well, I’m afraid this has turned into one of those blog posts with an out-sized introduction to a bullet-point list, but here are a few things I’ve found I can do without as a fairly lazy, cash-strapped all-grain brewer:

  • Mash tun. Steel is actually a pretty good insulator. I’ve found that a stainless steel brew pot with a lid keeps the mash from falling more than five degrees Fahrenheit in the hour or so necessary for starch to sugar conversion, even in a fairly cold (60 F) house. No modified picnic cooler necessary. I suppose you could throw some blankets or a down comforter over it if you wanted no heat loss at all.
  • Lauter tun. If you have a very large colander of some sort, as I do, you can jerry-rig a lautering system with a combination of large mesh grain bag and bottomless bucket. Otherwise, simply make an enormous colander by drilling a couple hundred small holes in the bottom of a food-grade plastic bucket and use that.
  • Mechanical sparging arm. I use a soup ladle and lots of patience (helped along with some good tunes).
  • Wort chiller (immersion or counter-flow). Because I brew with herbs, it makes sense for me to prepare a two-gallon batch of tea with part or all of the herbs in advance, put it into sanitized gallon jars and refrigerate it. This does mean I have to boil the wort for an hour or two longer to reduce it to three or three and half gallons in order to make room for the chilled tea, but the resulting caramelization — not to mention avoiding the purchase of another piece of equipment to keep clean and find storage space for — is a good trade-off. Adding the cold tea all at once gives a cold break, if you care about sediments in your beer. To drop the temperature the rest of the way, I immerse the pot in a sink full of cold water and ring it with a motley assortment of frozen plastic water bottles. Chilling is usually complete in 25 minutes.
  • Oxygenator. As part of the cooling process, I stir vigorously with a sanitized plastic paddle, which seems to introduce plenty of oxygen into the wort.
  • Blow-off tube. I just use a larger fermentation vessel (seven-gallon plastic bucket or six-gallon glass carboy) so the foam doesn’t bubble out the top. Since I brew mostly dark, heavy beers from the ale family, it doesn’t change the flavor profile much at all to have a little extra sediment in the bottom for two weeks.
  • Bottle washer. As long as you’re religious about thoroughly rinsing out your bottles immediately after emptying them, the only time you might conceivably need a special bottle washer is when getting new (used) returnables from the local beer distributor.
  • Carboy carrier. These are said to only be good for carrying empty carboys. In my experience, it’s the full ones you might need help with.
  • Carboy. I do use one, but mainly because I like the look of it. The old plastic bucket still does just fine, too, unless I’m making something that needs to age in the fermenter for more than two weeks, which is a rarity.
  • Expensive roller mill. I do just fine with my old Corona mill. However, if you’re one of the fortunate few with a brick-and-mortar homebrew supply shop near you, you can just buy your grains as you need them and grind them for free in the store. Home milling is only really necessary if you’re buying in bulk (e.g. from a mail-order supply company) or storing for a long time.
  • Bottle drying tree. I stack the bottles upside-down in a couple of standard dish racks (which being plastic, sanitize easily) after soaking with iodine solution.
  • Hydrometer. Honestly, I don’t give a shit what the O.G. and F.G. are. Stuck fermentations are an extreme rarity in my experience, certainly not worth the risk of poking around in the beer all the time. (One reason I can get away with using a plastic bucket — an open fermentation — is I never disturb it until bottling time.)
  • Propane burner. Unless you want to make more than five gallons at a time, the kitchen stove should work fine.
  • Liquid yeast strains. I’ve tried some, but they’re awfully pricey, and like Buhner, my experimental interests lie elsewhere. General-purpose dried ale yeasts work great, I’ve found, especially Cooper’s and Safale S-04. Both stay active at a wide range of temperatures. Note also that you can raise your own yeast strains if you have a good attention to detail and sanitation. The most I’ve done is save some trub from one brew to make a starter for the next on occasion.
  • Hops. Even some otherwise highly knowledgeable beer writers repeat the canard that hops have unique antiseptic properties. In my experience, mugwort, yarrow and Myrica gale (among others) work just as well. The point is, if you want to brew with hops, that’s fine. But hops don’t age particularly well compared with other herbs, so if you have to rely on mail-order as I do, getting fresh hops might not be worth the trouble. If you have a garden, you can grow your own hops, but they are a bit pickier and require more care than yarrow or mugwort, which will out-compete most other weeds and take over if you’re not careful.

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