There are two kinds of people in the world: pig lovers and pig haters. That’s what anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski might have said. What would Mr. Malinowski have said if he had been studying homebrewers instead of Trobriand Islanders? Perhaps he would have noticed that there are two kinds of homebrewers: apartment brewers and house brewers, minimalist brewers and maximalist brewers.
Like pig loving and hating, the differences between minimalist and maximalist brewers are due as much to differing philosophies as to environmental requirements. Minimalist brewers know from experience that bigger is not always better. Sometimes small is sexy.
“Of course, living in a dorm inspires very simple brewing techniques,” reports Eugene Sonn of Oswego, N.Y. “First, I never used a chiller, always did a single-stage fermentation, and only laughed at the idea of brewing a lager.” One of his beers, a strawberry-wheat beer, became so popular at Swarthmore College that friends and roommates commissioned a batch for a party.
Homebrewers like Sonn are minimalist by necessity; they live in studio apartments, dorm rooms, or condominiums. Other homebrewers are minimalist by nature; they simply prefer less to more. Whether you inhabit a dorm room or you are a minimalist in a mansion, space- and effort-efficient homebrewing can be satisfying and fun.
The apartment brewer may marvel at the ingenuity and inventiveness of a Recirculating Infusion Mash System (RIMS) controlled by a laptop computer, may admire the sheer power of a 165,000-BTU King Kong Kooker that boils five gallons in a few minutes, and may envy the house-brewer’s ability to lager in the cellar. But in the end the apartment brewer can only laugh with Eugene Sonn while brewing another great-tasting batch.
Excuse Me, Can You Spare a Few Cubic Feet?
I learned to brew in a wee Brooklyn apartment. Unencumbered by the usual garage, cool basement, grassy lawn, brewing refrigerator, and spacious kitchen, I attempted to brew simply, with a minimum of gear and effort. “Reduce! Re-use! Relax!” was the mantra I chanted while brewing. By New York standards the apartment was spacious and sinfully inexpensive, which means by any other standards it was impossibly small and implausibly overpriced.
Once the refrigerator door opened, the kitchen was full. Like a puzzle with sliding tiles, moving one item here meant moving several other items over there. As I stuffed all my homebrewing gear under the only table, which blocked the closet, I realized either my brewing and I would adapt to this micro-environment, or one of us would perish.
During the earliest stages of adaptation, I cleared the bottom half of a closet. There I stacked most things brewed and brewing related, but piling everything together meant emptying the closet every time I wanted to drink a beer, so I installed shelves in the closet. The lighter items went on shelves or hung on hooks. This freed up space around the heavy items on the floor: carboys, bottles, and grain.
The most voluminous item, a seven-gallon enameled pot, earned its keep by serving sequentially as grain storage bin, mash tun, boiling kettle, emergency blow-off reservoir, bottle sanitizer, bottling pot, and homebrew icer-downer. Reduce! Re-use! Relax!
All-Grain Brewing for the Minimalist
When not brewing, I stored the grain bag in the seven-gallon pot. This had the advantage of keeping my friends, the rats and mice, out of the grain. I mashed in the pot by heating the water in it and then adding the grain. The mashed grain went into a homemade Zapap (double bucket) lautering system, and then the run-off went back into the same pot. To do this you need to have more than one large pot, but with a combination of the right techniques you can create five gallons of sparge water using only a “spaghetti pot.” Sounds impossible, but it’s true.
To sparge a typical batch, about 10 pounds of grain, you need about five gallons of 170˚ F water. This doesn’t mean you need an extra five-gallon pot or that all five gallons of water must be hot at the same time. After all, to avoid the dreaded stuck run-off and achieve full extraction you should sparge rather slowly.
The minimalist can use a trick I’ll call just-In-Time Sparging. I learned this method the hard way after discovering in the middle of a mash that a friend had borrowed a large pot and never returned it. Just-In-Time Sparging means boiling a smaller quantity of water and then adding hot tap water as needed to bring the temperature down to the 170˚ F range.
The minimalist may use as many or as few pots as she or he may have. By combining the boil-and-add-hot-tap-water technique with the heat-as-you-sparge technique, you can make five gallons of 170˚ F sparge water using only a few household-size pots, thereby rendering superfluous the purchase and storage (perish the thought!) of an extra five-gallon pot. Reduce! Re-use! Relax!
I must confess, sometimes in the middle of reducing and re-using I did not succeed in relaxing sufficiently. Pots overflowed, boiled over, ran out. But the least relaxing moment came one 100˚ F summer day when exploding bottles in the closet threatened to reach critical mass and flood my downstairs neighbor with a wit-beer meltdown.
My downstairs neighbor, Julie, a part-time dominatrix, would not have appreciated my uninvited wit. Realizing the potential for an un-neighborly disaster, I donned ski goggles, ski mask, sweater, jacket, and heavy leather gloves for protection and transferred bottles, one by one, to the fridge, averting a meltdown and a certain-to-be-punishing visit from Julie.
Depending on your neighbors, brewing in an apartment does not have to be so punishing. “Actually, I found it easier to brew in a tight, cramped apartment kitchen,” writes Alex Flinsch, a systems consultant living in Hamilton, N.J. “Everything seemed to be within easy reach.”
Even Flinsch admits that apartment brewing poses some unique hazards. Once while he was on vacation, a bottle of beer exploded, cracking a full carboy. The contents of the carboy leaked downstairs, dripping beer on the landlord’s Friday night seder. “Needless to say I moved a few months later,” reports Flinsch before adding that he was already planning to buy a house.
The lesson to the brewer who must co-habitate with fermenting beer and neighbors: First, minimize wild yeast and bacteria in your brew, and second, protect yourself and your neighbors from the rare accident. Line the floor of your storage space with plastic bags under a half-inch of newspaper. The paper will soak up most unforeseen spills and overflows. If you have concrete floors (as many storage rooms in apartments have) the paper also pads the carboy.
During the first few days of fermentation, when the risk of blowoff is high, place your fermenter inside a large pot, or at least on top of a plastic lid, cookie tray, or something large enough to collect possible overflow.
To avoid a case of Alex Flinsch’s chain-reaction carboy failure, contain bottles in boxes, away from any fragile items. Charging a mere taste of your latest, your local beer distributor will probably be more than happy to let you have a couple sturdy, partitioned, reusable boxes.
Boiling in the Great Indoors
Even if lack of space is not a question, lack of access to the outside world can pose problems to apartment dwellers, especially when it comes to large-volume boils. “My apartment starts on the second floor,” says Laura Conrad, an apartment-bound, all-grain homebrewer from Chelmsford, Mass., “so I can’t just step outside and use a propane burner.”
Instead she boils the seven or eight gallons of wort in two pots. “This means that I am using three burners on my gas stove, which may not be as powerful as a propane burner but certainly beats one burner on an electric stove.” She adds that she ferments six-gallon batches in two three-gallon carboys because the three-gallon carboys fit on her kitchen counter better than five-gallon ones.
“The best advice to give beginners with space problems,” offers Conrad, “is to get several smaller pots that nest rather than one large pot that will be a storage problem (and which holds more hot liquid than you really want to lift, anyway).”
As you probably know, the truly essential gear for brewing five gallons consists of about a dozen things: A seven gallon plastic fermentation bucket with lid, airlock, rubber stopper, hydrometer, siphon tube, racking tube, bottle filler, bottling bucket, bottles, bottle capper, caps, bottle brush, and a pot erstwhile known as the spaghetti pot. This is how many fine brewers start.
Homebrew supply stores will sell this gear (not including the pot) together with an instructional book for about $40. The space needed to store your new gear is no larger than the seven-gallon bucket. Everything else basically fits inside. Even the smallest studio apartments and dorm rooms can accommodate a couple of extra cubic feet.
If you are interested in more advanced brewing, add a five-gallon glass carboy as your secondary fermenter. For all-grain brewing add a large spoon, a thermometer, a seven- or eight-gallon enameled ($30) or stainless steel ($120) pot, a lautering device of some sort. If you are feeling expansive, you could buy or devise a wort chiller. For cleaner brews use a seven-gallon carboy instead of the plastic bucket. Whether you brew from extract or all-grain, all your equipment, supplies, and the delectable final product should fit in the lower half of a regular closet.
While not essential to brewing, there are a few devices that still qualify for minimalist status because they either save space and effort or improve the quality of beer sufficiently to offset the space they occupy. One candidate for minimalist status is a five-liter mini-keg system ($95 for tap, 10 carbon dioxide cartridges, and four mini-kegs), which makes cleaning, sanitizing, filling, and storing 60 bottles unnecessary. The mini-kegs are lightweight and of a size that will fit any kitchen cabinet or refrigerator.
The main disadvantage is that bottles are free while mini-kegs aren’t. “We actually discourage people from [the mini-kegs] a bit,” says Darren White of Austin (Texas) Homebrew Supply. White says that the initial expense combined with the need to use about four CO2 cartridges per five-gallon batch makes mini-kegging almost as expensive as a “real” kegging system. But for the space-conscious brewer who can’t or won’t use a “real” kegging system, who also dislikes the hassles of bottling, the value of mini-kegging may be somewhat higher.
Chilling the Wort
The most space- and effort-efficient wort chiller is your sink or bathtub. “Hell, in the wintertime I just stick the carboy out on the fire escape,” says Chris MacDonnell, an engineer in Brooklyn, N.Y. If you are brewing from extract, “you really don’t need anything more than a bathtub, a fire escape, or a block of ice,” says MacDonnell. Just fill your kitchen sink or bathtub with ice and water and place your covered pot of wort in the ice bath.
One tale popular among urban brewers is that you can fill two-liter plastic bottles with water, freeze them, and throw them in your pot with the boiling hot wort. This method would work even with full-volume boils, since it would add no water to the wort. But for the extract brewer, “the easiest way is to make three gallons (of wort) and add it to cold water,” says MacDonnell.
Because they must conduct full-volume boils, all-grain brewers will probably, though not necessarily, want a chilling device of some sort. There are two types of chiller: immersion and counterflow. Larger, heavier, harder to clean, and more expensive, the garden-hose variety of counterflow chiller, which consists of 30 feet to 50 feet of garden hose with copper tubing on the inside, is not a candidate for minimalist status.
Even the heaviest immersion chiller weighs only a few pounds, can be made to fit any pot, and requires no special tools or knowledge to make. The immersion chiller consists of 30 to 50 feet of copper tubing bent in concentric circles and attached to your faucet with some plastic tubing. This chiller also has the advantage of allowing you to siphon the wort away from the trub and hops in the bottom of the pot.
Lighter and smaller than both the garden-hose chiller and the immersion chiller is another type of counterflow chiller made from a wide-diameter plastic pipe that encloses a coil of copper tubing. Cold water flows through the pipe, hot wort through the copper tubing. The drawback to this chiller is that it is more difficult to construct than the immersion chiller and also more expensive to purchase pre-made.
Neighbors, Roommates, Landlords, and Lovers
“I’ve been brewing in a small one-bedroom for a few months now,” writes Matthew Wilson, a financial analyst living in Takoma Park, Md. “The only real concern that I have is that when I brew, the aroma that I find so pleasant can smell up the hallway and possibly neighboring apartments.” Apparently, not everyone loves the smell of boiling malt and hops.
“For that reason, recently I have been brewing at night when I feel most everybody is home and sleeping. It works out all right because I will pitch the yeast sometime after midnight and by the time I wake the next morning, visible fermentation has begun without any worry of a failed fermentation.” Other strategies are to boil on days when roommates will be out, to use the ventilation hood over the stove if possible, and to close doors to contain the steam.
When landlords and roommates first find out about your homebrewing hobby they may imagine strange smells, a still in the bathtub, and a visit from friendly Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators. What your roommates and landlord don’t know about homebrewing may work against you, so why not inform them?
Lagering the Natural Way
“I’m dying to try doing a lager but live in a tiny apartment with a tiny fridge that my spouse insists we use for such incidentals as food,” complains Michael Kerns in a recent Homebrew Digest, an electronic forum. “I was wondering if I could put the fermenter on my balcony, as the temperature here has been in the 40˚ F to 60˚ F range.”
Believe it or not, it is possible to lager in an apartment, and you don’t need to buy a brewing refrigerator. If your apartment has a fire escape, balcony, or sturdy plant box outside your window, you can let Mother Nature lager your beer — as long as Mother Nature is in the 35˚ to 60˚ F range.
Derrick Pohl of Vancouver, British Columbia, advises Kerns and other apartment-bound lager aspirants to “wrap up and insulate the carboy as best you can, to prevent light penetration and to minimize temperature fluctuation...Also, pitch the yeast inside at room temperature and don’t move (the carboy) outside until fermentation gets going.” Pohl and a friend have “both brewed several lagers in this fashion with good results.”
Make the Least of It
When it comes to apartment brewing, and minimalist brewing in general, the joy comes not only from sipping your own Balcony Lager, Farnham Hall Strawberry-Wheat Brew, or Just-In-Time-Sparged Ale but from devising the techniques and equipment that will work most efficiently in your environment. Stripped of all superfluous gear and armed with space- and time-saving techniques, the minimalist brewer says less is more with each new batch. Reduce! Re-use! Relax!