Let’s say you promised to bring a keg of homebrew to a party. It’s now the weekend before and all your kegs are empty. What do you do? Bring some commercial beer? Skip the party? How about brewing a quick turnaround beer — a beer that can be ready in a week (or even less)?
It is possible to produce beer that is ready to drink in as little as four or five days. However, there are limits on the styles you can produce this quickly. Here is a recipe for a very quick turnaround beer referenced in “Early American Beverages,” by John Hull Brown.
GOOD, WHOLESOME SMALL BEER: Take two ounces of hops, and boil them, three or four hours, in three or four pailfuls of water; and then scald two quarts of molasses in the liquor, and then turn it off into a clean half-barrel, boiling hot; then fill it up with cold water; before it is quite full, put in your yeast to work it; the next day you will have agreeable, wholesome small beer, that will not fill with wind, as that which is brewed from malt or bran; and it will keep good till it is all drank out. – “American Economical Housekeeper,” 1850
OK, perhaps our ancestors had a slightly looser definition of beer than we do these days. But you have to admit, one day from brewing to drinking is about as quick as you can get for a fermented beverage.
To minimize the time between the kettle and a glass of modern homebrew, you have to eliminate a number of styles that are at odds with a quick turnaround process. If you really want to quaff your beer quickly, you need to forget about true lagers, high gravity beers and sour beers. All of these take extended periods of time to ferment or condition. This leaves low to moderate gravity ales as your best choice. A typical ale fermentation finishes in two to five days. Ale strains operate at a warmer temperature than lagers and are more conducive to quickly reaching the final specific gravity.
Pitch Enough Yeast
There are several techniques to reduce the overall time until fermentation is finished. The first, and most important, of these is to pitch an adequate amount of yeast. For a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of low to moderate gravity ale, you need to make a 1–2 quart (~1–2 L) yeast starter. Make your starter with a specific gravity around 1.030-1.040, aerate it well and perhaps add a pinch of yeast nutrients. Pitching a bigger starter may help speed the fermentation a bit, but there’s no need to greatly overdo it.
Another way to be sure you have enough yeast to get a rapid onset of fermentation is to pitch your new batch onto the yeast from a prior batch. While it is best to pitch the new batch right after the first batch finishes fermentation, even if you are a couple of days late, you will still get a fairly quick onset of fermentation. Likewise, if you know other homebrewers in your area, or are friendly with a brewpub brewer, you may be able to get yeast from them. For a 5-gallon (19-L) batch, one cup of yeast slurry should yield around the optimal number of cells.
Of course, if you are pressed for time, taking a day or two to make a yeast starter may not be a viable option. Pitching two packs or tubes of liquid yeast is another option — this should give you around 200 billion cells, easily enough for 5 gallons (19 L) of quick turnaround ale. Alternately, you may want to pitch a couple packets of dried yeast, if an appropriate yeast strain is available. Be sure to rehydrate the yeast properly before pitching it.
Most ale strains will ferment quickly when pitched to a low to moderate gravity wort. However, if you are looking to absolutely minimize your turnaround time, look for a strain that ferments hard and has a high flocculation. Also, since contact time with the beer is going to be minimal, a good diacetyl reducing strain is a plus.
Aerating the wort thoroughly before fermentation is required to help the fermentation proceed quickly. If you use oxygen, give the wort a one-minute shot, swirling your fermenter as you go. If you use air — for example, pumped with an aquarium pump through a HEPA filter —let it go for 5–10 minutes, swirling the wort occasionally. (You may have to stop a few times to let the foam subside.)
For a low-to moderate strength ale, one shot of aeration should be sufficient. Longer aeration times will not make your fermentation start or proceed faster and multiple aerations before fermentation starts may cause more problems than benefits in a quick turnaround beer.
Every yeast strain has a temperature range in which it produces the best beer. For most English ale strains, this is around 68–72 °F (20–22 °F). For a quick turnaround beer, you will want to ferment in the middle to high end of your yeast’s range as colder temperatures cause fermentations to proceed more sluggishly. Putting a sweatshirt over the fermenter may help retain some heat, if needed. Fermenting an ale at a higher than recommended temperature will make the fermentation go faster. However, the resulting beer will likely be too fruity from the overproduction of esters. It may even be undrinkable due to the presence of higher alcohols (“fusel oils”).
Pitching enough yeast, aerating adequately and fermenting above the low end of the yeast’s temperature range should yield a fermentation that proceeds as quickly while still yielding good quality beer. Attempting to rev the yeast up excessively — for example by grossly overpitching or running the fermentation too hot — will decrease fermentation time, but the resulting beer will almost assuredly suffer.
With the exception of a few styles like like German wheat beer, you want the beer to be clear by the time it is served. Most ale yeast strains are flocculent and will drop out of suspension quickly once the fermentation is over. If a fermentation is finished and you want to package the beer before it drops clear, you can consider filtering. Filtration is an everyday practice in commercial breweries, but most homebrewers aren’t equipped to filter. Filtration can also remove all the yeast, making it difficult to bottle condition unless you pitch some bottling yeast.
Another alternative to accelerate development of a clear beer is to chill the beer until it drops clear. As homebrewers, our fermenters and kegs are small when compared to commercial equipment, so the process can go quickly. Again, crash cooling can present problems if you want to bottle condition the beer since the cold temperature can cause the yeast to go dormant. Also, you do need to make sure any remaining diacetyl has been reduced before chilling.
For the British session beers, a little haze can be tolerated and the cask-conditioned versions can be fined with isinglass. The cask-conditioned beers have another advantage for quick turnaround; they don’t need much carbonation and rather depend on the hand pump and perhaps the attached sparkler to introduce some sparkle to the beer at serving time.
If you keg your beer, you can chill it and force carbonate. The method that allows you to reach the desired CO2 level most quickly is to use a carbonation stone at the bottom of the keg. A few minutes of bubbling CO2 through the keg will carbonate the beer. If you don’t have a carbonation stone, you can still accelerate the carbonation of the keg by shaking the keg while applying the appropriate CO2 pressure.
Quicker methods of carbonation typically yield coarser foam in your beer. If you can manage it, it helps to let the keg sit for at least 24 hours at the proper level of carbonation, temperature and CO2 pressure before serving the beer. If you inject CO2 or shake the keg to carbonate, try to do so at least a day before the keg will be tapped.
You can spend a couple of weeks waiting for a bottle conditioned beer to develop the proper carbonation level as the yeast cells left in the bottle slowly consume the priming sugar and produce the carbon dioxide needed to achieve the carbonation. You can accelerate the bottle conditioning by keeping the beer warm after bottling. In Belgium, where commercially produced bottle conditioned beers are still fairly common, I have seen commercial producers hold the just bottled beer at 80 °F (27 °C) or warmer. Once the yeast has consumed the priming sugar, you can lower the temperature to a serving temperature.
One good style for a quick turnaround beer would be German (Bavarian) wheat beer. The German wheat beer yeast strains Wyeast 3068, Wyeast 3638, White Labs WLP300 and White Labs WLP380 all work fast and the fact that the beer can be slightly cloudy works in your favor. Even though the style is traditionally served bottle conditioned, you can get the beer ready to drink in just four or five days if you force carbonate. American wheat beers are likewise a style that can be turned around quickly. American wheat beer yeast choices include White Labs WLP320, Wyeast 1007 and Wyeast 1010.
Other good choices for quick turnaround beers are the so-called session beers, such as British bitters and milds. For these, you can allow three to four days of fermentation and another three days for conditioning. Producing ales in such a short time does require the use of a flocculent yeast strain. For quick turnaround ales, Wyeast and White Labs recommend Wyeast 1968, Wyeast 1187, Wyeast 1099, Wyeast 1332, White Labs WLP002 or White Labs WLP007. These session beers have relatively low original gravities — from 1.030 to 1.040 — so the yeast can finish their job quickly. The acceptability of fruity esters in these styles also means that it is possible to ferment at the high end of the yeast’s temperature range.
As you move up to higher gravity ales, you increase the amount of time until you can quaff the beer. Add a few more days to a week to your schedule and you can brew styles such as English brown ales, Irish dry stout, and even some of the American ales. These beers are relatively clean ales and therefore can’t be fermented overly warm, but they still can be fermented quickly with the proper yeast strain.
As homebrewers, we are used to giving our beers time to develop. Commercial brewers, on the other hand, need their beers to be ready as quickly as quality allows. Beyond a certain point, of course, beer cannot be rushed any further. If you follow the instructions here, and are prompt about racking or kegging, you can be drinking good beer in the minimal amount of time.
It’s Just A Starter (6-Day Mild Ale)
(5 gallon/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.036 FG = 1.007
IBU = 24 SRM = 31 ABV = 3.6%
The name reflects the use of my most recent batch of mild. I needed to grow enough yeast to make a batch of OG 1.116 barleywine for filling a bourbon barrel. The mild was made one weekend and was racked to a keg the following weekend while the mash was underway for the barleywine. The chilled barleywine wort was then transferred onto the yeast cake from the mild and a little oxygen was added. There was activity in the airlock within about an hour. — Steve Piatz
- 4.66 lbs. (2.11 kg) 2-row pale malt
- 0.97 lbs. (0.44 kg) crystal malt (55 °L)
- 0.40 lbs. (0.18 kg) chocolate malt
- 1.17 lbs. (0.53 kg) flaked corn
- 0.25 lbs. (0.11 kg) crystal malt (150 °L)
- 6.2 AAU Fuggles hops (60 mins)
- (1.55 oz./44 g of 4% alpha acid)
- Wyeast 1968 (London ESB) or
- White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) yeast
- 0.66 cups corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Mash at 152 °F (67 °C) for 45 minutes with 1.33 quarts of water per pound of grain — 2.48 gallons (9.4 L) overall. Sparge with 168° F (75 °C) water until you collect 6.5 gallons (25 L) of wort. Boil the wort for 60 minutes. Chill to primary fermentation temperature and pitch your yeast. After 6 days, you can rack the beer out of your carboy and into a keg. Force carbonate to about 2 volumes of CO2 and enjoy.
Bonneville Flats Bitter
(5 gallon/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.040 FG = 1.009
IBU = 27 SRM = 9 ABV = 4.0%
I brewed this beer on a Sunday and served it to my homebrew club the next Saturday. I thought it would still be green at that point, but it actually tasted finished Friday evening. I designed the recipe and procedures to not only yield a beer that would ferment and condition quickly, but one that would be quick to put together on brew day. — Chris Colby
- 0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Briess Light dried malt extract
- 3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) Alexander’s Pale liquid malt extract (late addition)
- 0.5 lbs. (0.23 kg) corn sugar
- 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) 2-row pale ale malt
- 0.25 lbs. (0.11 kg) crystal malt (30 °L)
- 0.25 lbs. (0.11 kg) crystal malt (40 °L)
- 1 tsp. Irish moss (15 mins)
- 1/8 tsp. yeast nutrients (15 mins)
- 6.4 AAU First Gold hops (45 mins)
- (0.8 oz./23 g of 8% alpha acids)
- 2.0 AAU First Gold hops (15 mins)
- (0.25 oz./7 g of 8% alpha acids)
- 0.75 oz. (21 g) First Gold hops (0 mins)
- 2 pkg. Nottingham dried yeast (rehydrated)
- 0.75 cups corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Make your brewing water by combining 6 gallons (23 L) of soft, distilled or RO water with 1.5 tsp. gypsum. Steep grains in 2.0 qts. (1.9 L) of this water at 158 °F (70 °C). Steep for 30 minutes, then rinse with 1.0 quart (0.94 L) of water at 170 °F (77 °C). Add dried malt extract, corn sugar and water to make 2.0 gallons
(7.6 L) of wort and bring to a boil. Once initial foaming subsides, add bittering hops and boil for 45 minutes. Do not let the wort volume dip below 2.0 gallons (7.6 L) during the boil. Add boiling water to make up volume if this happens. With 15 minutes left in boil, turn off heat and stir in liquid malt extract, Irish moss and flavor hops. Stir until extract is dissolved, then resume heating. (Keep the boil clock running.) Add aroma hops at end of boil. Cool your 2 gallons (7.6 L) of wort (in sink or with chiller). Once cool, let sit (covered) for 15 minutes. Transfer wort to fermenter, leaving the majority of the sediment in brewpot behind. Add water to make 5 gallons (19 L), aerate and pitch yeast. (Rehydrate yeast — in a clean, sanitized measuring cup — as described on package.) Ferment at 72 °F (22 °C) until fermentation is complete — about 3 days, when I brewed it. Taste small sample. If you don’t taste diacetyl, rack the beer directly to keg or bottling bucket. If kegging, force carbonate beer for 3 days at around 30 PSI. When done, release pressure from keg and adjust regulator to proper dispensing pressure for your system. If bottling, keep bottles warm (74–80 °F/23– 27 °C) for five to six days, then chill in refrigerator for two to three days before opening.