At my local brew store yesterday, I was asked about upgrading to all grain brewing. The home brewer in question is relatively new to home brewing and thought all grain was the key to cheaper and better beer. While all grain is less expensive in the long run it does not necessarily make better beer. Malt extract has come a long way since the early 80s. The two things all grain brewing does are open up the choice of ingredients and give you more control. While I couldn't make brewing any cheaper for him, I outlined how to achieve better beer without the expense of moving to all grain.
First things first: Full volume boils.
This is the first, and possibly the most expensive upgrade, any brewer should do. Being able to boil the full volume (amount) of wort will increase the quality of your beer exponentially. When boiling partial volumes you increase scorching, increase the darkening of the beer, reduce the amount of bitterness from hops, and create more off flavors. I’m not going to go too much into the mailard reactions but simply put the increased viscosity (thickness) of the partial boils increases negative flavors and color in your finished beer. It can be expensive to more to full volume boils. Many starting brewers use turkey deep fryers. Make sure you get one with a kettle that is at least 6 gallons. If using aluminum proof the kettle first by boiling water for 15 minutes. This will help create an oxidized layer on the inside of the kettle. When cleaning, just use a soft cloth and don’t try to scrub this layer off. You will also need to way to chill the entire volume of liquid. The least expensive way is an immersion coil. This is a copper coil that attaches to the garden hose or sink faucet and pushes cold water though the coils while being placed in the wort.
The second upgrade: air
Next I’d recommend a better way to aerate your wort. Most beginners aerate by simply splashing the wort around inside the carboy. While this works, it’s not efficient and doesn't fully saturate the wort with oxygen. Yeast need oxygen. When you add your yeast to the wort the yeast goes into a growth phase. This is a bit simplified but basically they multiply until they run out of oxygen and then start fermenting. During the growth phase if there isn't much oxygen, the yeast won’t multiply enough, will be unprepared to fully ferment the beer, and will leave you with a sticky sweet mess. An aquarium pump and a diffusion stone are inexpensive and will make a huge difference in yeast health. A diffusion stone is a small object that has many tiny porous openings used to better diffuse the air into the wort. With a pump, let it run 5 to 15 minutes.
Third upgrade: Temp control
The third upgrade would be fermentation temp control. I've hit this one in almost every post I've done so I’m not covering it here. Fermenting beer at optimal temperatures will create a better tasting beer.
Healthy yeast is vital to good beer. Most liquid yeast is ready to go for beers under 1.050 O.G. and when used with in about 2 or 3 months of their production dates. If you have a bigger O.G. then 1.050 or if the yeast is old you need to either use multiple packs/vials of yeast or to create a yeast starter. Yeast starters, yeast washing, and storage will be covered in depth in a future post. The other option that many home brewers use is to rack a new beer on a yeast cake from a previous batch. The idea here is to brew from small to big, less hoppy to more hoppy and light to dark. If you rack your beer directly onto the yeast cake left over from a previous batch you lose a lot of the yeast flavors generated in the growth phase. I usually recommend using only 1/4 to 1/2 of a yeast cake. This will allow for some yeast growth and a greater contribution of flavors. The process I use is pretty simple. Rack your beer in to the bottling bucket or keg as usual. Take care to keep your air lock clean. Once done racking, replace your air lock on the carboy and continue your bottling process. Once done, I use a large, sanitized, mason jar and dump swirled up remains in. I let the stuff settle for about 15 min and then decant most of the liquid out of the mason jar. I then split the remaining yeast into 3 or 4 (sanitized) jars. I try and plan my kegging to take place while I brew, that way I have a nice large pitch of yeast waiting to do. The remaining yeast can stay viable for several weeks, but I wouldn't plan on holding on to it for more than 14 days without some sort of small starter to get it going.
Anyone else have recommended upgrades? Which ones made the biggest difference in your brewing?