The advantages of small batch brewing.
For some of us homebrewers, consuming a “typical” batch of beer is fun but sometimes challenging. Five gallons can be a lot to consume, even with help from family, friends and neighbors. It can be difficult and a hassle to find enough outlets to consume your beer before it stales. Obviously this is more of a challenge with some beer styles than others. For example, IPAs should be drunk while they are young and fresh while other styles like stouts and porters improve with age. A possible solution to all of this is to consider brewing half batches instead.
Smaller Batch Benefits
Along with making beer consumption easier, the best benefit to small batch brewing is it allows you to brew more often. I love to experiment with new recipes. Brewing smaller batches allows me to experiment more without as much regret if I have to dump a beer because the recipe didn’t turn out as I hoped. Other more obvious smaller batch brewing benefits include shorter brew days and a lower cost ingredients bill. Smaller volumes means less time to heat water and chill your wort. Brew day clean up is a little less work, since cleaning smaller pots and mash tuns is typically quicker and easier. Since smaller batch recipes use less gain and hops they can be much cheaper to brew, though obviously you end up with less beer.
Cost-wise, smaller batch brewing can actually be more expensive. Lower cost for ingredients can be quickly offset by new investments in equipment. For example, you may find you want a smaller mash tun and / or smaller pots. However, you may discover you already have some of these items around from your earlier days homebrewing. In my case, I found I had a smaller mash tun from my time experimenting with partial mashing. The same is true for pots, as you may find you have smaller pots around that meet your needs. If you move water and wort around your system using gravity or pumps, you may need a different set of hoses to accommodate the different lengths associated with smaller mash tuns and pots. New mash tuns and pots may require you to purchase and add new plumbing to them, like false bottoms and valves.
You may also want to consider purchasing new or making use of smaller carboys for fermenting your half batches. Published fermenting experiments have shown that excessive fermentor headspace may lead to oxidation and /or off flavors. Smaller fermentation vessels may help minimize this risk.
Finally, if you keg you may want to consider purchasing smaller kegs. You could use your larger kegs, but you will be wasting a lot of CO2, filling the open keg headspace. Depending on how small your batch sizes are, you could consider bottling your brew as well. Much of the hassle and tedium frequently associated with bottling is significantly reduced with smaller beer batches (i.e. fewer bottles to fill).
Other Brewhouse Challenges
Brewing smaller batches will require you to make adjustments to your recipes, equipment and mash profiles. Your recipes will need to be scaled to the smaller batch size you’re planning to brew. In your brewing software, mash and equipment profiles will need to be calibrated to reflect the changes to volumes including; dead space, pre & post boil volumes, boil off rates and fermenter losses.
My Experiences Brewing Half Batches
Next to making the leap to brewing all-grain, learning to brew half batches was the most challenging thing I’ve done in my time brewing. The good news it that challenge has been a blast! Figuring out how to brew smaller batches has forced me to “up my game”, making me a better brewer.
For me, brewing smaller batches meant brewing 3-gallon batches instead of 5 gallons. It wasn’t as simple as just scaling my 5-gallon recipes. Doing so caused my efficiencies to fluctuate wildly. Failing to account for using a smaller mash tun (I discovered one gathering dust in the basement) was stupid. Mash tun heat retention/losses differed dramatically from my larger mash tun. I also experienced stuck sparges, which rarely occurred with my larger tun, despite being outfitted with a correct size false bottom. Surprisingly, wort chilling took forever to complete. Failing to consider that my wort would be much shallower in a pot used for double the boil size was a silly mistake. The immersion chiller was only making small contact with the wort, leading to really slow cooling.
To correct the stuck sparge issue, I replaced the false bottom with a brew bag. The brew bag does an excellent job of not only eliminating stuck sparges but also allows you to mill grains finer for enhanced mash extraction and higher efficiency. To address the wort chilling issue, I asked and received a smaller brew pot from Santa. The smaller pot is taller and smaller in diameter to optimize contact with my chiller. Chilling time is now super short and satisfying.
Even with those corrections, I was still experiencing swings in brewhouse efficiency. The culprit was found in my brewing software profiles; more specifically my volumes were pretty imprecise. Evidently I failed to appreciate how important these measures can be, since my 5-gallon efficiency was ok. Being just ok doesn’t cut it when brewing smaller batches. Carefully measuring volumes at each step of my brew day to dial in dead space, pre & post boil volumes, boil off rates proved critically important. Measuring fermenter losses turned out to be very useful in calibrating my volumes as well.
Honestly, this exercise was great fun! No really! For someone who loves the challenges offered by homebrewing, this “work” was right up my alley. The rewards included not only reaching my highest brewhouse efficiency ever, but also and more importantly gaining new brewing knowledge.
For me, the reoccurring reward for brewing smaller batches comes from experimentation. Brewing smaller batches enables me to experiment much more since it requires less of a brew day cost and time commitment. If I mess up a batch, I don’t feel as bad dumping a failed beer since it was less of an investment. I believe experimenting has made me a better brewer. It’s certainly a lot of fun!
I hope you found this article interesting and useful. Share yours thoughts by commenting on this article below. Good brewing!