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Smaller is Better: The benefits of small-batch homebrewing

Winter
Downtown Bellingham Partnership – General

The most common homebrew batch size is 5 gallons, which results in about two cases of beer. 5 gallons became the standard for a variety of reasons. Supposedly, glass carboys of this size were readily available when homebrewing took off decades ago. Nowadays, 5-gallon glass and plastic carboys and food-grade buckets are still most commonly used, though other sizes are available. For homebrewers who keg their beer, 5-gallon Cornelius kegs (aka Soda or “Corny” kegs) are mostly used because they’re easy to fill and clean. 5 gallons is also the maximum amount of liquid most people can easily lift and move around.

Plastic and glass carboys come in a wide variety of sizes these days.
Plastic and glass carboys come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes these days.

Larger batch sizes (i.e., 10- to 15-gallon batches) require larger and more expensive equipment, more BTUs to heat the larger volume of liquid, pumps to move all that liquid from one place to another, a more powerful wort chiller, and more. Basically, the kind of stuff that exceeds the capability and capacity of most kitchens, not to mention the extra storage required for all the finished beer.

Intuitively, most people think bigger is better. After all, if you’re going to spend many hours brewing a batch of beer, why not brew the biggest batch possible so that you’ll end up with more beer? While this is a valid argument, brewing as much beer as possible isn’t the main objective of most homebrewers.

In fact, brewing smaller batches (typically 1 to 3 gallons in size) is easier than ever and it offers many benefits. Here are some of them:

IT REQUIRES LESS SPACE

Over many years, I have heard countless people say, “I’d love to get into homebrewing, but I live in a small apartment.” This is no reason to hold back. If you can cook food in your kitchen, you can brew beer in your kitchen. Most stoves can accommodate a 3- to 5-gallon stainless steel kettle, and the smaller equipment is easier to work with, easier to move and easier to store. And if you want to brew all grain (i.e., no extract), you can even employ the Brew In A Bag (BIAB) method, which is an easy, quick and no-hassle way to make all-grain beer.

5-gallon kettle (left), 8-gallon kettle (right)
5-gallon kettle (left), 8-gallon kettle (right)

IT ALLOWS FOR FULL-WORT BOILS

Years ago, after I bought an 8-gallon kettle that allowed for full-wort boils for a 5-gallon batch (6 gallons of boiling wort will result in approximately 5 gallons of finished beer, after accounting for vapor loss during the boil, hop absorption, yeast sludge, etc.), I noticed my homebrews improved drastically. There are many benefits of full-wort boiling, including better hop isomerization (i.e., it’s easier to attain more hop aromatics, flavor and bitterness). If you only have a 5-gallon kettle, you can do a full-wort boil for a 2- to 3-gallon batch.

IT’S LESS EXPENSIVE, WHICH MEANS LESS RISK

Smaller batches use less ingredients, which equates to less money. If something happens to go wrong (i.e., getting an infection, using a bad recipe, having some sort of accident, using too many spices, etc.) and you have to dump the batch, you’re not out as much money.

IT’S A GREAT WAY TO MAKE TEST BATCHES

Years ago, I really got the urge to make a mint chocolate stout, but I worried about spending $50 on ingredients and ending up with a drain pour. Eventually, I got the courage to make a 3-gallon batch, which was less of a financial commitment. Fortunately, I ended up loving the beer, so I brewed an additional 5-gallon batch of it. Keep this in mind whenever you make a small batch of beer that you really like: You can always scale it up to a larger batch. Or you can keep tweaking and refining small batches.

IT ALLOWS FOR VARIETY

I rarely drink the same beer, one after another, over the course of an evening. I like to bounce around from one brand or style to another. And homebrew is no different. I prefer to have a variety of homebrews available to drink and share at any given time. Additionally, for every batch of beer I brew, I think of two more that I want to brew. Small batches better accommodate these types of obsessions.

IT ALLOWS YOU TO BREW STRONGER

High-gravity (i.e., high alcohol) beers require huge malt bills, which exceed the capacity or at least push the limits of most 5-gallon-batch mash tuns. These big beers can also necessitate long boils in order to concentrate the wort through vapor loss. Thus, for many homebrewers, making a 5-gallon batch of 12% ABV barleywine just isn’t feasible. But making a 2- or 3-gallon batch is very doable.

IT PROVIDES YOU WITH MORE BREWING EXPERIENCE

If you view brewing as a chore, then homebrewing might not be the hobby for you. Alternately, if you only have one day per month or so to brew, then small-batch brewing probably isn’t for you, either. But if you’re like many homebrewers out there, you enjoy the process just as much as the product. Personally, I like formulating recipes just as much as I like actually brewing. Small-batch brewing can lead to more brewing sessions and more opportunities for experimentation, which in turn leads to more brewing experience and a quicker learning curve.

IT’S SLIGHTLY QUICKER

For the most part, making a 3-gallon batch of beer takes almost the same amount of time as a 10-gallon batch of beer, although smaller batches can take less time (especially if you use the BIAB method). Depending on the heat source, heating up a smaller amount of fluid can be quicker, and it can lead to a more vigorous boil. It’s also easier and quicker to chill 3 gallons of hot wort versus 10 gallons of hot wort, which means less lag time before pitching the yeast.

YOU WILL END UP WITH A MORE MANAGEABLE AMOUNT OF BEERFermentingBeer

I usually brew 5-gallon batches, but when my hobby starts to get out of control and I end up with more beer than I can drink or give away, I dial things back with some smaller batches. With these smaller batches, I tend to take more risks with spice additions, adjuncts, bacteria, etc., which is always exciting.

CLEAN UP IS EASIER

Generally speaking, having less equipment and smaller equipment means less clean up. Small kettles, carboys and coolers are also easier to lift and wash in a normal kitchen sink, which is something you can’t do with a 15-gallon kettle.Wyeast_Activator

PITCHING ENOUGH YEAST IS A NON-ISSUE

Most packets/vials of yeast (whether liquid or dry) say they provide enough yeast cells for a 5-gallon batch of 1.040 to 1.060 gravity wort. Thus, for 1- to 3-gallon batches, one packet/vial of yeast is more than enough, even if it’s a high-gravity wort. To add, small-batch brewers rarely have to worry about pitching rates or deal with the hassle of making yeast starters. [Read more about advances in beer yeast.]

All of that said, there are a few drawbacks and challenges with small-batch brewing:

There are fewer small-batch ingredient kits available online and in homebrew shops. Fortunately, this seems to be changing, as some homebrew suppliers are beginning to sell small-batch ingredient kits. Of course, many small-batch homebrewers develop their own recipes, so this isn’t much of an issue.

If you refer to recipes online, in books/magazines or elsewhere, you will have to scale them down. This isn’t always as easy as using 50% less ingredients when scaling down from 5 gallons to 2.5 gallons, for example. Fortunately, there are plenty of brewing software programs (some of which are free) that make this process very easy. Just keep in mind that efficiencies might also change, and a decrease in boil volume can hamper hop isomerization. You will also have more vapor loss with a smaller boil volume, so you’ll need to adjust for that.

Controlling temperatures can be challenging. The smaller mash volume may lead to greater heat loss over the course of an hour, but this can be managed with a little extra effort. Also, during fermentation, less volume means your fermenting beer will be more susceptibility to air temperature changes. In other words, if the temperature in your home or basement fluctuates wildly over the course of each day, 2 gallons of fermenting beer will be more affected by those changes than 5 gallons.

Small-batch brewing will yield less beer for essentially the same amount of work and time as a larger batch. This is true, but if you truly love the process of brewing and appreciate all the other benefits of small-batch brewing, then you really won’t mind.

About Aubrey Laurence

Aubrey Laurence
Aubrey has been a craft beer fanatic since the mid '90s and he has written about beer for a wide variety of publications in Washington, Oregon and Colorado for more than a decade. He has judged beer in multiple competitions, plus he has rated and taken notes on more than 3,400 beers from all 50 states and 68 countries -- visiting 16 of those countries on 6 continents. Additionally, he is a Certified Beer Server with the Cicerone Certification Program, an avid homebrewer and a hop grower. In 2013 & 2014, he spearheaded Bellingham Beer Week. When he’s not drinking beer, he’s probably climbing a mountain somewhere. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and three cats. Follow him on twitter @AubreyLaurence.

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