Ask Mr. Wizard

Simplifying homebrewing


Brian Knight • Tampa, Florida asks,

I feel like homebrewing has gotten overly complicated. I read that you are still using glass carboys. What “simplifications” do you recommend that will bring the joy back?


This is a fun question that probably has more than a few people questioning my wisdom over the use of glass carboys. Just to be clear, I keep mine in a crate and am very careful when handling. I’ll touch on this topic later but wanted to address the elephant in the room as disasters caused by broken glass carboys should he taken seriously! So, you feel homebrewing has become too complicated? Based on your reference to my use of carboys, I assume you are referring to the high-zoot equipment that seems to come in all shapes and sizes these days and will focus my discussion on simplifying equipment.

Wort production is the area that seems to bring out the gadgets more than others, be it at home or in commercial breweries. There is no denying the beauty of both the classic copper and the modern stainless steel brewhouse. And when it comes to techno-centric homebrewing, mash tun, brew kettle, and hot water tanks are often mounted on frames or stands with pumps, valves, pipes, hoses, instruments, and fancy heaters. Some brewers love this sort of thing and see lots of flexibility with process and endless concoctions waiting to be prepared, while others see dollar signs, lots of stuff to clean, and a setup that requires ample space in the home or garage.

When I hung up my commercial brewing boots in 2020, I walked away from an automated 15-BBL brewhouse with loads of flexibility. And when I began homebrewing again I built an old-school setup using a cooler for a mash tun, a cooler for a hot water reservoir, and a propane-heated kettle as my sole heating source. While this equipment is simple, the propane flame pushed me outdoors and I found that my setup and cleanup times took too long. A few years ago, I moved away from coolers and began using an all-in-one Grainfather system along with an electrically heated hot water reservoir. These systems are not as basic as a cooler, but they are simple to use and clean, can be used indoors, and don’t require much storage space. At the end of the day, my current system is much simpler than my old-school system.

Although wort production is where the big, showy stuff is usually seen, homebrew fermenters that mimic commercial tanks have always looked like overkill to this simple brewer. Not only do stainless steel fermenters require a larger financial commitment, they are usually coupled with a refrigeration system. And just like shiny, big brewing systems, they offer a lot of flexibility when it comes to temperature control during fermentation and aging, allow brewers to easily harvest yeast, make beer transfers simple, and can be cleaned-in-place given the right pump and spray device. I cannot imagine not having this sort of equipment in a commercial operation, but personally find all of this too much for my homebrewing setup.

Call me a troglodyte, but I love fermenting in glass carboys. I can see what’s going on and don’t feel the need to frequently pull samples because old dudes like me have seen enough fermentations to have a good idea of things without taking many measurements. I also like the simplicity of cleaning by using a mild detergent, a modest amount of elbow grease, and the ability to easily see areas that are not clean. The problem with glass is that it’s relatively heavy and can break. The good news is that plastic carboys, fermentation buckets, and cone-bottom fermenters are all available for those who don’t want to deal with glass.

The two challenges that these types of fermenters all present is temperature control. The simplest approach is to ferment in a basement with a cool and consistent temperature using yeast strains that work well in the environment. If you don’t have a cool space and/or more flexibility with yeast strain selection, you are going to want some sort of cooling system. Last year I played around with a MacGyver-version of a swamp cooler using a plastic basin (new litter box), a fan, temperature controller, water, and two paper towels. By placing my carboy in the basin, adding several inches of water, taping the paper towels to the side of a carboy where the bottom is submerged in the water, taping the probe of the controller to the backside of the carboy (I cover it with insulation so that it only senses the carboy temperature), and controlling the fan, I am able to keep my fermentations a couple of degrees below ambient. Gotta admit, this rig is my pride and joy!

The end of my process is super simple. I prepare a keg for use by first filling with StarSan and pushing it out with carbon dioxide. When I am ready to rack, I attach a black ball-lock fitting to my racking hose, open the bleed valve on the keg lid, and rack. Zero concerns about oxygen introduction because the system is completely filled with carbon dioxide. And if you are worried about the air in the racking hose you can crack open the ball-lock fitting, start the siphon, and tighten the fitting before attaching it to your keg. I’m also one of those thick-skulled brewers who racks more than once because I work in the commercial brewing world where this practice is still common, despite what the homebrewing pundits in the cyberworld say about the pointlessness of serial racking. Once my keg is full, I pressurize the headspace, toss it into my beer cooler, and force carbonate after it has chilled for about a day. Bottling is not something I enjoy doing, so I rarely bottle. When I do, I use a counter-pressure filler.

Other ideas on simplifying homebrewing include purchasing pre-milled malt, using dried yeast or liquid yeast that does not need to be propagated, and not getting too hung up about step or decoction mashing unless there is a compelling reason to do something other than an infusion. Don’t pay much attention to the hype surrounding pressure fermentation, it’s not a new thing and it does not work miracles. Use Gordon Strong’s approach to brewing water (starting with reverse osmosis water and making simple adjustments) rather than brushing up on water chemistry and going gonzo with water calculations. Last but not least, spend more time enjoying the beer you and your brewing friends brew and less time talking about equipment.

Response by Ashton Lewis.