I started homebrewing with a friend several years back, doing all extract+specialty grain. The beer was fine, but not great… brewing was just a fun thing to do on a Saturday afternoon while hanging out. I knew there were many improvements to be made, but that was a rabbit hole I wasn’t ready to go down. We made ~20 batches this way, primarily to have beer on tap for parties (kegging upgrade came after bottling 1 batch...).
In mid-2012, I moved and didn’t brew for a couple years. But during this time, I became much more interested in the rapidly growing variety and quality of available beer. After re-reading How To Brew a couple years later, I decided to get back into it.
I wanted to take brewing to the next level, but was pretty overwhelmed when first researching… all the information, acronyms, pictures of complex brew-day setups, ingredients, processes, and calculations.
After going through the upgrade process, I wanted to share my perspective in hindsight since I’ve enjoyed reading similar stories.
My original setup was pretty basic… the only upgrade I had really made from a starter kit was an autosiphon and a 25’ copper immersion chiller.
Rather than jumping right into it, I spent the first few brews gathering gear and improving cold-side processes in the comfort zone of extract brewing, while also researching and over-preparing for all-grain.
Brew 1: Gear Upgrade
Overall, things went smoothly apart from the chiller output tubing slipping off and shooting near boiling water in various directions. The beer itself came out decently, though it had a noticeable vegetal taste that I wasn’t a fan of (perhaps from the 12-14 day dry hop recommended in the recipe).
Recurring themes in the /r/homebrewing daily Q&A threads had suggested some improvements right off the bat: I was using secondaries for every batch, wasn’t doing starters or oxygenating, and wasn’t controlling temperature.
I bypassed secondary and went straight into the keg after 3 weeks in primary, which I’ve mostly followed since.
Separate research into kegerator setups also led me to the miracle of Perlicks (after years of dealing with stuck faucets), and running longer 8’ lines to alleviate constant foaming problems.
Brew 2: Fermentation Temperature Control
I didn’t yet have a dedicated ferm chamber, so I repurposed my kegerator to try out temperature control with a Johnson temp controller (which I’d acquired a few years earlier for an ill-advised lager attempt).
The probe was insulated and taped to the side of the fermenter.
I redid a recipe I’d done in the past that had come out well: a simple extract pale ale recipe from my LHBS with a quart of fresh grapefruit juice added at kegging. The recipe used WY2565, which I fermented at 63 for the first week. It was then moved outside to regain kegerator use.
I ran across an old post about gravity transferring from a Speidel.
Never having been a fan of the siphon, I decided to give it a try… and I haven’t used an autosiphon since.
The Gelatin exBEERiment convinced me to give gelatin fining a try on this batch as well.
Unfortunately, this ended up being a non-ideal batch to try it on, as the haze from the juice never really cleared up.
(I also probably shouldn’t have used juice with pulp in it…)
Previously, I had paid little attention to the temp, so I’d likely fermented out of the recommended range of the yeast last time I made this. By improving cold-side processes, I ended up producing a noticeably cleaner beer. Unfortunately, it didn’t taste nearly as good as before... the grapefruit juice now overpowered the beer.
Brew 3: Ferm Chamber
I decided to do one more extract batch and picked the highest rated kit on northernbrewer.com.
The brew mostly went off as expected… apart from cracking my 2l flask during the starter boil, and then throwing the stir bar in with the yeast.
I also picked up a fridge to use as a dedicated ferm chamber.
The speidel fermenter fit nicely in the fridge, with the help of a cinder block and a board.
I chilled to the low 70s, transferred to the fermenter, and placed in the fridge with the temp controller set to 68. Unfortunately, it way overshot that and got down to about 60. I didn’t have any easy way to heat it, so just let it ride. The resulting beer was tasty, but ended up with some muted flavors… the coffee/chocolate that the reviews mention weren’t really present.
Separately, I came across an article on this pump cleaner for cleaning the lines, which comes in very handy.
Brew 4: First All-Grain
I tried out Beersmith and input my equipment profile, and set myself up to try and start measuring efficiencies (measuring boil-off and dead spaces, marking volumes on the Speidel, etc.). I would definitely recommend this to anyone, as I also discovered that my kettle’s volume markings were about a quarter gallon off.
I went with a 10G cooler mash tun, with my BruGear doubling as an HLT/boil kettle, and my old 5G extract pot used to hold first runnings. After reading a few suggestions, I also picked up a ginormous whisk for stirring the mash.
I didn’t want to mess much with adjusting water yet, so I decided to use 100% distilled water and follow the suggested mineral additions for a hop-forward water profile from Homebrew Beyond the Basics (65ppm calcium, 18ppm magnesium, 164ppm sulfate, 58ppm chloride).
The day was a bit hectic, but somehow nothing went catastrophically wrong. Beersmith’s temp adjustment for equipment seemed to not be enough, and I ended up mashing in 3-4 degrees low (which I didn’t try to adjust). Efficiencies were a bit lower than targeted due to some volume/boil-off miscalcs, but not too bad. I again overshot while cooling to fermentation temp, but this time remembered I had a fermwrap I had never used, which actually works quite well taped to the inside of the ferm chamber.
All things considered, I was pretty happy with results. The beer seemed slightly thin and lacking in body, which may have been from the low mash temp or many other things I probably did wrong. But, it was unquestionably beer, and was maybe even sort of good!
Tags for this post: all grain, equipment, transition, brewing