Why would a blue-ribbon, all-grain homebrewer, who routinely mashes eight- and 12-gallon batches either solo or with his club buddies, switch — regress, in some homebrewers’ minds — to brewing three-gallon partial-mash beers?
Furthermore, why would he boil the wort, a mere two gallons’ worth, at a gravity near twice the target gravity? Good questions. Possible answers: The club members threw him out for his comments about the club president’s Peanut Butter Ale. His bursitis prevents him from lifting more than three-and-a-half gallons. He’s lost his mind. All of the above.
The correct answer is: None of the above.
I’m the brewer in question, and there’s a rational explanation for the apparent regression. I winter in Texas, avoiding the onset of the next Ice Age at my permanent home in New England. My wintering digs is a 30-feet-long, eight-feet-wide travel trailer — it’s sufficient room for me, my partner Yvonne, and my Welsh corgi, Guinness, but it lacks room for a big-batch, all-grain brewing system.
Nonetheless, I was determined that I would not spend five months without brewing and quaffing a pint of my favorite beer. Before leaving home I planned how I could brew on the road and what equipment I would need to make it possible.
It took some thought, and there were some errors of omission (more about them later). But for the most part I made the right choices, and the errors were readily correctable.
My experiences taught me that brewing quality beer on the road is possible and as much fun as doing it at home, maybe even more fun with the different challenges. The approach: minimum equipment and a small-volume, high-gravity boil. This approach works just as well in the small space of a boat, camp cabin, or a big city efficiency apartment.
I decided to stick to extract-based, partial-mash beers. My mash tun is a two-gallon insulated beverage cooler. In place of a false bottom I use a mashing bag. The mesh bottom of the bag is sufficient to contain the grain, and it supports the proper formation of a filter bed. Rather than simply steeping the specialty grains, I do a complete mini-mash infusion conversion.
I brew 3.5-gallon batches and keg the beer (in three-gallon Cornelius kegs) rather than bottle it. My primary fermenter is a five-gallon plastic bucket, and I use a three-gallon glass carboy as a secondary fermenter. I travel with two three-gallon Cornelius kegs. With two of the six-cubic-foot refrigerator’s shelves removed, I can chill one keg and still have room for food. Consequently, I can have two beers “in the can” (kegged), with one chilled.
The five-gallon bucket has sufficient head space to allow kraeusening without messy blow-out, and when I rack to the secondary I fill the carboy to the bottom of the neck, which is slightly more than three gallons. When I subsequently rack to a keg, leaving behind the dregs, the excess ensures a full keg of clear, bright beer.
I boil the wort at high gravity, adjusting the hop utilization estimates for the higher gravity. My boiling kettle is a stainless steel pot with a four-gallon capacity. This choice was based on two considerations: The storage space for the pot is small, and the pot’s headspace is nearly foolproof against boilover. The picture of sugary wort caramelizing on the trailer’s small gas stove — its sides and innards are almost inaccessible for cleaning — was not one I wanted to face. This strategy led to the following equipment list.
• Mash tun: 2-gal. insulated cooler and mash bag
• Brew pot: 4-gal. stainless steel stockpot with lid
• Primary fermenter: 5-gal. plastic bucket with lid and spigot
• Secondary fermenter: 3-gal. glass carboy
• 2 3-gal. Cornelius kegs
• Carbon dioxide: 5-lb. canister, with regulator and hose
Miscellaneous equipment included two airlocks, a siphon hose with check valve; a mash run-off hose; a bottling hose; a thermometer; a hydrometer with sample tube; a stainless steel, long-handled spoon; four 16-ounce or 22-ounce snap-cap bottles (Grolsch-style bottles); and one bottling wand with check valve.
Storage space is at a premium in the trailer. All of the equipment, except the two kegs, stores compactly in the space beneath one seat of the trailer’s dinette.
I set up my mash tun, brewpot, and bucket for mashing, sparging, and boiling in the trailer’s small kitchen. The fermenter and brew pot each have two roles. I heat pre-measured mash and sparge water in the pot, and I collect the sparge runoff from the mash in the plastic fermenter. The stove’s open oven door forms a shelf at a convenient height for collecting the wort, both while sparging and subsequent to boiling. (It’s a good idea to support the oven door with a box or two-by-four to avoid straining its hinge.) And I’m careful about cleaning and sanitizing the fermenter after transferring the wort to the brewpot.
At home I carefully control the fermenting wort’s temperature, essential for quality and batch-to-batch consistency, with a temperature-controlled refrigerator dedicated to brewing. I have nothing with which to control the trailer’s temperature other than its woefully inefficient forced-air furnace. During the 11-day period that my first beer was fermenting, the ambient temperature plummeted to below 30° F at night and climbed to 80° F in the daytime. I hadn’t come prepared for these extremes. The solutions bordered on silliness but were effective.
During the warm days I covered the secondary carboy with a moistened T-shirt; at night I replaced the T-shirt with a British Royal Navy sweater: crew-necked, thick wool. I have only the taste of the resulting beer to verify the efficacy of these controls; it’s great.
I thought I had packed everything I needed. I forgot to include cleaning and sanitizing brushes and chemicals. That was easily remedied because there is an excellent brewshop in San Antonio. I had researched its stock via the Internet before leaving.
My plans relied on purchasing my specialty grains locally, as fresh as possible. If, however, I had not had the luxury of a nearby brewshop, I would have gotten by with bleach and drugstore iodine (for the stainless steel kegs), and I would have packed a supply of grains for the beers I anticipated making. There is sufficient space in the trailer refrigerator’s freezer compartment for at least 10 pounds of grains before encroaching on food storage space, and hop pellets or plugs occupy very little room.
The one major improvement indicated is an alternative burner. I presently use the trailer’s cooking stove. The pot doesn’t span two burners, so I am limited to using only one. A single burner only emits 4,000 or 5,000 BTUs. With a starting wort temperature of approximately 130° F, bringing two gallons of high-gravity wort to boiling takes about 40 minutes.
I am currently searching the local stores and mail-order catalogs for a single, portable burner and regulator that generates 30,000
to 35,000 BTUs. I can access my trailer’s LP gas system with an adapter hose, and mash, sparge, and boil on a picnic bench.
I’ve considered managing water composition by using distilled or bottled spring water and adding hardeners that match the water profile appropriate for the beer style. But I probably won’t do this. I like to keep my brewing simple, and I enjoy the occasional surprises.
Sharing the Beer
A San Antonio brew club, the Lager-Rhythmics, with typical Texan friendliness, admitted me as a guest. Sharing and critiquing homebrews is the centerpiece of their meetings. I don’t have a counter-pressure bottler, and I didn’t want to tote the keg, but I wasn’t stymied.
I prefer the low carbonation of a typical English pub cellar. If I chill empty bottles in the freezer for
10 minutes, I can fill the bottles directly from the keg with a minimum of foaming. The snap-cap
bottles, listed among the miscellaneous equipment, serve this ad-lib bottling well.
October will see me on the road again heading for Warm Country. My improved on-the-road-brewing kit will be with me. Come December I’ll be sharing a fresh batch with my nomad neighbors and members of a local club. I think I’ll do a porter first; Y2K deserves welcoming with a fine brew.
David Griffiths is a retired engineer and a member of the Hop River Brewers in Connecticut, his summer home.