Archive | November 2013

The quest for a quicker brewday

Wasting my time
Resting my mind
And I’ll never pine
For the sad days and the bad days
When we was workin’ from nine to five

– Pink Floyd, “Biding My Time”

In February, a friend just starting out with extract brewing came over to observe my all-grain brewday. The hot liquor tank had just been fired up for the mash-in when he arrived at 10 a.m.. I mentioned casually that I would be working until about 5 or 6 p.m.. He looked at me in wonder and said something like, “Wow. I can’t imagine what would take eight hours.”

Of course, he was speaking from his experience with extract. Many all-grain brewers probably can imagine an eight-hour brewday. The mash and sparge – i.e., the very things the extract brewer doesn’t have to contend with – can easily add three hours once you factor in the time to heat water, vorlauf, etc. Not to mention time spent cleaning the extra equipment. But my friend’s curiosity got me thinking about whether I could be doing anything differently to speed up my brewday.

I was reminded of the article “Speeding Up Your All-Grain Day” in the March/April 2012 issue of Brew Your Own magazine by Dave Louw, which applied the Critical Path Method of project management to an all-grain brew day to find the shortest distance between Point A (setting up equipment) and Point Z (putting away clean equipment while yeast happily devour the meal you’ve set for them). The principle Louw applied was to identify the tasks that must be done sequentially and focus on those, working in the other required tasks while those are taking place. If you sanitize your fermenter while wort cools, you’ve got the idea.

By sticking to the Critical Path, Louw illustrates how an all-grain brewday can be begun and done in less than 4 hours, though his example is extreme to illustrate a point. There’s an abbreviated 45-minute mash. A no-sparge lauter. A 60-minute boil. All legitimate techniques, but not “my way”. Yes, my 60-minute mash, double batch sparge, and 90-minute boil make for a nearly nine-hour brewday – ten in summer thanks to slower cooling. But I get consistent results. And I’m happy brewing my way.

Was that the choice I was faced with? Between being happy and being fast? I set out to test this on a recent brewday.

NOTE: The following is about as scientific as I get. Unlike some of you homebrewers with backgrounds in engineering or chemistry, I’ve got a liberal arts degree in English and classical studies. I can’t build an Arduino-controlled HERMS system, but I can identify zymurgic puns in classic works of literature and explain the origin of the word “Saccharomyces”.

The brew was about as simple as it gets: a Maris Otter-Fuggles SMaSH ale. 9 pounds of malt and a handful of rice hulls, 1.25 oz of hops each at 60 and 15 and 1 oz at flameout, and Safale S-04. Nothing fancy, just a vaguely English fast-flocculating pale ale to fill an empty keg in 4 weeks. It seemed right for my experimental “rush brewday”.

I did everything I normally do – no shortcuts – but not wasting any time, either. At no time was I sitting on the porch reading a book and enjoying a beer or coffee. I did little tasks while the Critical Path was running: set gear up while water heated, measured out hops while the mash rested. During the boil I even got a head start on the one task that’s so unpleasant I usually save it until the end, or the next day: cleaning.

I didn’t stop. I was so busy going about the various tasks of my “rush brewday” that I completely forgot to hook up the iPod and listen to some Rush.

And I finished in six hours. My “Critical Path” looked something like this:

Critical Path Other Tasks
11:00 Setup pots, burner, etc.
11:15 Begin heating strike water
11:25 Mill grain
11:45 Preheat MLT with strike water
11:50 Mash in
11:55 Set mash timer for 60 minutes
12:15 Heat sparge water
12:35 Boil water for yeast rehydration
12:55 Vorlauf & first runnings
1:05 Begin batch sparge #1
1:20 Vorlauf & second runnings
1:25 Begin batch sparge #2
1:40 Bring kettle to boil
1:57 Set boil timer for 90 minutes
2:15 Begin cleaning
2:45 Prepare wort chiller
3:25 Sanitize thermometer for cooling
3:27 Start wort chiller
3:58 Stop wort chiller
4:00 Whirlpool cooled wort
4:05 Sanitize fermenter, hoses, etc.
4:30 Transfer wort to fermenter
4:37 Rehydrate yeast
4:40 Aerate with aquarium pump
5:00 Pitch yeast

The one thing I should point out is that I did leave some of the cleaning for the next day. Just the mash tun and brew kettle, which I like to soak overnight with PBW anyway.

The beer isn’t in the keg yet, but it’s going to be great. I hit my target OG and FG perfectly, so consistency was achieved. And I did it all in six hours instead of nine. That’s a pretty definitive result (see note above re: “This is as scientific as I get”). But I was exhausted by the end of the day. And though of course brewing is always better than nine hours at the ol’ day job, my rush brewday was nothing like the relaxing experience I usually get as the other reward for my brewing labors.

And isn’t the fun why we do it? It’s why I do it.

So I’ve done some English-major-level science and answered my own question. Yes, for me it is a choice between happy and fast. And experience has cured me of my desire to brew faster. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to know that by busting my ass, I can get a simple brew done in six hours and still have time to shower before leaving the house if I have evening plans for dinner … or whatever. 

But unless I have to, I’m not gonna.