There is a tendency for some homebrewers to go big. Their enthusiasm for the hobby drives these brewers to build bigger systems that more resemble craft breweries than the kitchen-based efforts that are at their roots. At the same time, other homebrewers are moving in the opposite direction, brewing in smaller batches. Reasons for brewing smaller batches include meeting the demands of limited space, trying out new recipes (especially those with expensive ingredients), conducting experiments or just to brew more often but to produce less beer to store and “dispose” of.
Small Volume = Big Fun
Brett Niland, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, latched onto the small batch concept with a fanatical fervor. In December of 2006, he wrote, “I’ve been brewing for just a few months now, and in just the last month I have put up three beers, two ciders and have another beer in primary and three in secondary. In 5-gallon (19-L) batches, that’s roughly 495 bottles. I’m sitting on less than 60 bottles representing various types and styles. I am having an absolute blast.”
Small batch brewing fits with Niland’s short attention span. “If I were brewing in 5-gallon (19-L) batches, I’d probably be working on my second batch and would not be enjoying the process or the rewards,” he wrote.
Since then, Niland writes that he has taken the small batch philosophy to all-grain brewing, converting a 2-gallon (7.6-L) drinking water cooler into a mash tun, using a perforated vinyl tube loop in the bottom as a manifold.
“I’ve done eight all-grain batches so far and have streamlined the process to the point that I consistently get nine bottles from a 1-gallon (3.8 L) batch,” Niland says. “Also, I intend to venture into lagers. Imagine being able to lager beer without the expense and space needed for a beer fridge. Life is sweet!”
Navin Mittal from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, jokingly refers to himself as the only homebrewer in his country. Since locating homebrewing ingredients and equipment is difficult, he imports everything that goes into his beers and improvises brewing gear from what he has on hand.
According to Mittal, the price of real estate in Mumbai comes close to what one pays in Manhattan, New York. Space is a precious commodity.
“When I first started out,” Mittal says, “the thought of making 5 gallons (19 L) was just crazy. At home, the largest pot we have will hold only about 2 gallons (8 L), and the kitchen is really set up to cook for two to four people. So, I started with making 1.3-gallon (5-L) batches, but that was a bit much, also.”
To cope with temperatures that usually hover around 100 °F (38 °C), Mittal ferments in a small refrigerator dedicated to the purpose. “I have done over twenty batches, all-grain, so far, and if it weren’t for these smaller batches, I might have given up long ago,” he says.
Michael Tonsmeire of Washington, D. C. has been experimenting with small batches since the beginning of his homebrewing career. “When I first started homebrewing, my buddy, Jason, and I would get crazy ideas and just brew a 1-gallon (3.8-L) batch to try them out,” Tonsmeire says. “For example, we brewed a peppermint chocolate stout and a persimmon wheat.”
For Tonsmeire, the ease of small batch brewing, coupled with the economics, makes the process appealing for trying new things. “Many experimental ingredients that would be cost prohibitive, like exotic spices, or hard to work with on a larger scale, like interesting fruits, are good choices for small batch brewing,” he says.
In the same way craft breweries run small pilot batches of beer to formulate recipes, Tonsmeire says homebrewers can run their recipes through a small batch to shake out the bugs before scaling up to full volume. “Small batch brewing is a great way to get familiar with an ingredient you have never used without risking 5 gallons (19 L) of beer on whether or not you will like it.”
My fascination with small batches started when I was conducting an experiment for Basic Brewing Radio, a podcast I host on the topic of home brewing. There had been some discussion on the podcast about the benefits and potential drawbacks of waiting until near the end of the boil to add any malt extract to an extract brew. So, I decided to conduct a test. I boiled two 1-gallon (3.8-L) batches side-by-side on the stove. In one, I added malt extract and hops at the beginning of the hour-long boil. In the other, I added hops to plain water and waited until the last fifteen minutes to add the extract. My co-host, Steve Wilkes, and I tasted the two samples on the show, which also turned into the first episode of Basic Brewing Video. (We found no off-flavors from boiling the hops in water, but we did find that the hop character and color of the two batches differed considerably.)
Inspired by the results of the experiment, I decided to take it a step further. On the second episode of Basic Brewing Video, Steve and I brewed up a six-pack of IPA on camera. Listeners and viewers responded to the six-pack episodes very positively. Some wrote to us saying that they didn’t realize beer could be brewed in volumes smaller than 5 gallons (19 L).
The same theory can be applied to mead. Twice, Steve Wilkes and I have conducted small batch mead experiments, each beginning with a volume of must or fermented mead that was divided into smaller containers to test different ingredients.
In the first test, Steve and I fermented 6 gallons (23 L) of mead. Then, we divided the mead between six 1-gallon (3.8-L) jugs and added interesting ingredients: ancho chili pepper, blood orange, black cherry, allspice and apricots with saffron.
For the second round, we decided to put five yeast strains to the test to see how they affected a divided must: Narbonne, US 56, Hefeweizen, Trappist Ale and Montrachet.
In each mead experiment, we were able to use an expensive ingredient – honey – in a way that allowed us to preview the effects of various variables on a small scale before we made the commitment to make a full 5 gallons (19 L).
Brewing is basically the same at any scale, but the details of small batch homebrewing differ from “full-scale” homebrewing in a few key ways.
A sensitive scale is needed to measure the quantities of ingredients, since the amounts are smaller and small differences in weighed amounts can have a big impact on the beer. This is especially true when it comes to weighing hops. A scale that can measure to the nearest gram is very useful to a small-scale homebrewer.
If you are a partial mash brewer, brewing small batches, it’s easy to formulate your recipes such that most of your extract weight — the fermentable and non-fermentable “stuff” that contributes to your original gravity — comes from mashed grains rather than malt extract. This gives you the flexibility to use a wide variety of base malts as well as fairly large amounts of some starchy adjuncts (such as corn or rice).
Small-scale mashing can easily be done in small pots or beverage coolers. For every 1 gallon (3.8 L) of space you have in your mashing vessel, you can mash 2.0 lbs. (0.91 kg) of grain and collect about 1 gallon (3.8 L) of wort at around 12 °Plato (SG 1.048). The exact volume and wort density you achieve will depend on the grains you mash, how well they are crushed, how much sparge water you use and other variables. Batch sparging or no-sparge procedures work well for smaller batches.
The time to take a small batch of wort up to boiling temperature is shorter than a full-sized batch, obviously. Even on a standard kitchen stove, there is relatively little down time waiting for the mercury to rise. However, this raises the point that since you are boiling a small amount of wort, you may need to watch the boil more carefully to see that the wort isn’t scorched or the evaporation rate is too high.
One big benefit for stovetop brewers is that, with batch sizes of 3 gallons (11 L) or less, they can likely perform a vigorous full-wort boil on their stovetop, instead of boiling a thick wort and diluting it later with water. With a full-wort boil, you don’t need to worry about your hop utilization limiting the bitterness of your beer or the wort picking up too much color during the boil.
In small batches, wort chilling can be done quickly and simply, without a wort chiller. In a recent brew session, I timed how long it took to chill my wort in an ice bath in my kitchen sink, using around 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of ice. The three quarts (~ 3 L) went from boiling to pitching temperature in around ten minutes. Batches up to 3 gallons (11 L) can be cooled in a sink without too many problems (although it may take an hour or so and require more ice).
Tubes of White Labs liquid yeast and packs of Wyeast liquid yeast contain around 100 billion cells per package. Likewise, an 11 g sachet of dried yeast contains around 110 billions cells. (Note: These numbers are approximate. Cell counts in yeast packages vary and poor handling can significantly decrease the number of healthy cells present.) For 5 gallons (19 L) of moderate-strength (12 °Plato/SG 1.048) ale, the optimal number of yeast cells to pitch is around 260 billion. Thus, for smaller batches, you may be able to pitch straight from the package and get close to the optimal pitching rate.
Using a yeast pitching calculator can help in determining the proper amount of yeast to pitch. For example, Jamil Zainasheff’s “Mr. Malty’s Pitching Rate Calculator” (at www.mrmalty.com) indicates that two grams of dried yeast is recommended for 3 quarts (2.8 L) of wort at 1.055 specific gravity and the “Six-Pack Late-Hopped Simcoe Ale” accompanying this story fermented very well with two grams of dried yeast. Again, an good scale is a necessity.
As with a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of homebrew, you can bottle your beer in 12 oz. (355 mL), 16 oz. (473 mL) or 22 oz. (651 mL) bottles. You can also bottle condition in 1 L swing-top “torpedoes” or 2 L “growlers.” However, more convenient options are available.
Most homebrew shops sell mini-keg systems, including those based on 5-L (1.3-gallon) aluminum kegs or 6-L (1.6-gallon) plastic (PET) bottles. These mini-kegs are primed with sugar and bottle conditioned like regular homebrew, but dispensed with small CO2 cartridges (like those used in paintball guns). If you have a standard homebrew kegging system, a 2.5-gallon (9.5-L) or 3-gallon (11-L) Corny keg could be used — if you can find one; they are not as common as the standard 5-gallon (19-L) size.
In priming the beer at bottling time, we choose to prime each bottle instead of adding sugar to the whole batch. To make this process easier, we use Cooper’s Carbonation Drops, which are essentially plain sugar “candies” that are designed for the priming process. Muntons makes a product called CarbTabs for the same purpose. Of course, you can also dose each individual bottle using dextrose or sucrose as well, but be very careful in your measurements.
Most homebrew recipes are formulated for 5 gallons (19 L) of beer. To scale a recipe down linearly, just multiply the amount of each ingredient by your batch size, then divide by the batch size specified in the original recipe. For example, if a 5-gallon (19-L) recipe called for 9.0 oz. (0.26 g) of crystal malt. A 3-gallon (11-L) recipe for the same beer would require [9 x 3 / 5 =] 5.4 oz. (0.15 kg) of crystal malt. Of course, at a smaller scale, you may be boiling more vigorously, boiling your full wort, cooling quicker and doing other things that will affect how the recipe turns out. Take good notes and use these as a guide to making recipe adjustments.
In addition to a good scale for weighing your hops, there are a few other items you may find helpful when scaling down your homebrewing efforts.
With such small quantities, even pulling enough wort to float your hydrometer can put a strain on your yield. A refractometer — an instrument that measures the density of a solution based on the degree it retracts light — only requires a few drops to measure original gravity. For brewing, you need to get a Brix refractometer, the most commonly available kind of which has a scale that covers 0–
30 °Brix. As a rough guide, you can consider °Brix the same as °Plato, each degree of which equals roughly four “gravity points” (GP). For example, a 10 °Plato wort has an original gravity of 1.040, or 40 GP.
I have a collection of 1-gallon (3.8-L) glass jugs on hand – usually filled with the latest experiments. Two-gallon (7.6-L) and 3-gallon (11-L) carboys are also fairly common and are great for smaller batches, especially when used as secondary fermenters to minimize or eliminate the amount of headspace in conditioning beer.
Finally, Fermtech now makes an auto-siphon that is only 13.5 in. (34 cm) long — perfect for 1-gallon (3.8-L) jugs.
The most common criticism of small-scale brewing I have found, “If I’m going to put in the work of brewing a batch of beer, I want to brew at least five gallons (19 L).” Obviously, every homebrewer has their own preferences and circumstances. But for those of us with limited space and resources, or a sense of impatient curiosity, small batch brewing can scratch an itch that brewing big can’t reach.
Small-Scale: What You Need
The equipment you need to brew a small-scale batch of homebrew looks a lot like the standard equipment used in extract brewing. A good scale will let you accurately weigh ingredients (especially hops). A refractometer will let you take gravity readings from only a drop or two of wort, rather than needing to fill a hydrometer jar. For partial mash brewers, a small beverage cooler (not pictured) or pot can serve as a mashing and lautering vessel that will supply a significant proportion of the extract weight of the wort. In addition, brewpots, fermenters (carboys) and serving vessels (mini-kegs) are all available in a variety of smaller sizes.
Small-Scale: What to Expect
Small-scale brewing takes a little less time than brewing a “full-sized” batch of homebrew. Although the boil (and mash, if you perform one) will need to be the same length, heating and cooling the wort generally proceeds faster. Likewise, in most cases, packaging of the beer can be done more quickly than bottling the just over two cases of 12 oz. (355 mL) bottles that come from a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of beer.
Six-Pack Late-Hopped Simcoe Ale
(3 quarts/3 L, extract w/ grains)
OG = 1.064 FG = 1.016
IBU = 64 SRM = 10 ABV = 6.2%
The ultimate short brew day. From flame-on to cleanup is only 90 minutes. Lots of floral, fruity Simcoe flavor and aroma from the 15-minute boil.
2.0 oz. (60 g) crystal malt (60 °L)
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) light dried malt extract
4.6 AAU Simcoe hops (15 mins)
(0.35 oz./10 g of 13% alpha acids)
2.0 AAU Simcoe hops (5 mins)
(0.15 oz./4 g of 13% alpha acids)
0.15 oz. (4 g) Simcoe hops (0 mins)
0.15 oz. (4 g) Simcoe hops (dry hop)
2 g Safale US-56 yeast
Step by Step
Crush or mill crystal malt. Bring 1.0 gallon (3.8 L) of water to 150 °F (66 °C). Steep crystal malt in grain bag at around 150 °F (66 °C) for 30 minutes. Remove bag and bring water to boil.
Once water is boiling, add malt extract and 0.35 oz. (10 g) of Simcoe hop pellets. Ten minutes later, add 0.15 oz. (4 g) Simcoe hop pellets. At the end of the 15-minute boil, turn off the heat and add 0.15 oz. (4 g) of Simcoe hop pellets.
Place kettle into ice bath and stir with a sanitized spoon, moving the kettle in the ice and making sure not to get ice water into wort. Check temperature often with a sanitized thermometer. Remove from ice bath when wort reaches 68 °F (20 °C).
Dry the outside of the kettle with a towel to avoid contamination when pouring. Using a sanitized funnel, pour the wort into sanitized 1-gallon (3.8-L) jug, leaving hops and trub behind. Pitch yeast and aerate. Cap off with sanitized stopper and airlock.
When primary fermentation subsides, add 0.15 oz. (4 g) of Simcoe hop pellets for dry hopping. Three days following, chill fermenter jug in refrigerator for 24 hours to clear beer.
Bottle by siphoning from the primary fermenter into bottles. Add priming sugar to each bottle. Bottle condition, chill and enjoy your six pack!