Backyard Brewing

  Backyard Brewing

Ah, nature! The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, and the beautiful outdoors is the place to be. Since homebrew is a natural beverage made from grain, hops, yeast, and water, why not make it outdoors where nature made the ingredients?

Many homebrewers do their brewing outside. Some brewers choose the great outdoors because they like the peace and quiet and because it helps the brewing process. All that’s needed is a small area of a backyard or patio, and you can enjoy a nice, quiet beer-making session far from the roar of the vacuum cleaner, the kids, and the television set.

Other brewers take it outside because they have to. It’s not unusual for homebrewing to be done outdoors at the request of someone else in the household — usually a spouse who doesn’t appreciate the pleasant aroma of boiling wort or whose enthusiasm for kitchen cleanup is surprisingly limited.

The Outdoor Advantage

There are some real advantages to taking the brewing process outside: having space for a full-wort boil, making cleanup easy, and cutting down on wasted water, to name a few.

Full-wort boil: The ability to boil the entire wort on a natural gas or propane cooker is one of the biggest advantages to brewing in the great outdoors. A full-wort boil is important to beer quality, and sometimes it’s hard to do in the kitchen. Ten- or 15-gallon batches are just about impossible on a kitchen stove, because the pots are much too large to fit on a single burner. And even if they did, it would take a long time to bring one to a boil.

Even a five-gallon batch requires about a seven-gallon brewpot. A pot that size often won’t fit conveniently under a kitchen range hood. If it does it will probably span a couple of burners, which can scorch the stove top. Electric ranges can cause some problems in brewing, such as scorching malt extract in the bottom of the pot. Temperature control on an electric range is difficult because the heating element stays hot after it is turned off.

The solution to all this is purchasing a natural gas or propane cooker to use outside. Bigger is better for this, so don’t be afraid to get a big one for homebrewing. Gas and propane cookers are economical, usually less than $50 without the propane bottle. They go from about 50,000 BTUs to 200,000 BTUs. BTU, or British thermal unit, is a standard measure of heat (a BTU is the amount of heat it takes to raise one pound of water at a specific temperature one degree).

A 200,000-BTU propane cooker at full throttle sounds like a 747 taking off, frightens small children and timid men, and brings five gallons of cold water to a boil in about 15 minutes.

All gas cookers must be used outdoors, unless you have an inspected and approved venting system installed for the exhaust gases.

If you are brewing 10- or 15-gallon batches, be sure to get one of the cookers with extra steel support to handle the weight. Your homebrew supplier can help you find a cooker made especially for homebrewing. The “shrimp cookers” made of round wire and sold by chain stores will bend under the weight of a big brewpot.

Easy cleanup: Brewing outside can save a lot of cleanup time in the kitchen. At the start of a full-wort boil, it seems that the pot tends to boil over once or twice just before the hot break. Indoors that’s a big deal. If you can’t stop the foam from going over, the stove has to be cleaned. Outdoors, all that is involved is hosing off a patio slab after the brewing session. Since I brew outdoors in all weather, I have found that being outside can even help control a boilover. A handful of clean, fresh snow tossed into the brewpot makes the foam go down!

Instant cooling in the heat and heating in the cold: Snow, on the other hand, is not an effective wort chiller. Some homebrewers in cold areas figure that they are getting effective wort chilling when they brew outdoors in sub-freezing weather by packing the brewpot in snow.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well. It takes too long that way to get a boiling batch down to yeast pitching temperature, and a wort chiller is still needed. What does work well, and makes the brewing experience more pleasant in sub-freezing weather, is standing close to the boiling brewpot and holding your hands in the steam!

In the summer getting warm is not a problem; quite the opposite is true. Boiling the wort outdoors can be a lot better than boiling it inside the house on hot days. By brewing outdoors you can avoid generating a lot of unwanted heat in the kitchen. Of course in the summertime it may be more important to keep a lid on your outdoor brewpot. I once made a batch of homebrew I named “Grasshopper Ale,” and the origin of the name is obvious when you consider that I made it outdoors, on the grass, in Missouri, in August. Every time I removed the brewpot lid to stir the wort, my beer had visitors. I think I got them all out. People eat grasshoppers in some parts of the world anyway, and heck, it was a great beer.

Water Conservation: Wort chilling (not with snow) works great and wastes less water when it is done outdoors. All immersion and most counterflow-type wort chillers use running water to chill the wort, but if you’re using them indoors, the outflow of running water has to be sent down a drain, wasting water. When chilling wort outdoors, the water source is usually a garden hose, which is easier and more mobile than hooking up to a kitchen faucet indoors. When doing this outside, it’s easy to direct the outflow to plants that need watering, a wading pool, or buckets for washing a car. The water from the outflow is clean and there is no need to waste it.

Easy-to-use equipment: The garden hose is an outdoor brewer’s friend. It’s great for rinsing equipment, hosing off spills, and attaching to a wort chiller. It should not be used for brewing water or to add water to the beer wort. If you have to top up a brewpot to replace water that has evaporated, bring water from inside the house. Hose water tastes like, well, a garden hose — which is not a desirable beer flavor.

A “sanitation tub” can be maintained outdoors better than indoors, at least in above-freezing weather. There are many different versions of this practice, and homebrewers have figured out various ways to keep items of equipment in a semi-sanitary condition between brews.

I hate scrubbing dirty beer bottles — especially when they come from a bar and have mold and cigarette butts inside. Instead, I keep a covered, 30-gallon plastic trash can in the backyard. It holds about four cases of 12-ounce beer bottles, stacked neck-up so they will fill. The trash can is full of water, to which one pound of chlorinated TSP has been added.

The bottles are kept in the sanitation tub until they are needed. At bottling time it’s easy to fish out two cases of bottles, blast them with a hot water rinse, then sanitize them. Chlorinated TSP is a powerful cleaner and sanitizer, and it will even soak off factory beer labels after a couple of days. It does have a warning label about not ingesting it or getting it in eyes, so if you use it, be sure children aren’t exposed to it. Also, rinse the bottles well with hot water to get rid of the TSP, then sanitize again with iodophor or chlorine before using.


Choosing Your Site

Deciding to brew outdoors depends a lot on the housing situation of the brewer. A convenient yard, patio, or porch with an available water supply is a great place to brew. If you live in an apartment, brewing outdoors might be more difficult, but it depends on the physical situation. Many apartments have fenced outdoor areas that would be perfect for brewing. Homebrewers are wonderfully inventive, and everyone seems to come up with the brewing setup and location that he enjoys most.

Unless the outdoor brewing location is completely fenced, your neighbors will see you when you brew outdoors. This can be both good and bad. There are still a very few places in the US where homebrewing is technically illegal. Those laws are usually hold-overs from Prohibition and are not generally enforced, especially when the activity is carried out inside a home. However, if you happen to live in a place where homebrewing is against the law, doing it outside might get you more attention than you want. Find out for sure that homebrewing is technically legal in your area before taking it outdoors.

Brewing outdoors can be a great way to meet your neighbors, and it can help spread an understanding of the homebrewing hobby. Homebrewing is a much more popular hobby now than it used to be, and as homebrewers we tend to assume that most people understand what the hobby is about. Unfortunately, that’s not true. A great many people don’t really know what we are doing, and they don’t know how beer is made. The people who don’t understand what homebrewing is are sometimes the ones who oppose it. There’s a lot of neo-Prohibitionist sentiment right now, and some public education regarding homebrewing sure doesn’t hurt anything.

There’s something about standing beside a boiling brewpot, stirring, smelling, and tasting, that gives you a good feeling. Balancing the malt and the hops, adjusting the burner, stirring, measuring, and creating the beer you want is a fine thing. Doing it outdoors can enhance the experience, and if someone comes over to share the experience, so much the better.

Issue: July 1997