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Homebrewing – Fermentation Temperature

One of the most overlooked aspects of making great beer is the fermentation temperature. In fact, fermentation temperature is one of the most significant factors in determining the final quality of the beer.

If your fermentor is too cold then your fermentation may never take off, or it may be sluggish and give out before the beer is fully fermented. If your fermentation is too hot, then the yeast will produce off-tasting chemicals that might make your beer taste a little bit like bananas. A hot fermentation can also cause the yeast to speed up too much, and starve out – also leading to an incomplete fermentation.

The best way to ensure a full and complete fermentation is to keep the temperature right in the sweet spot for the strain you are using, and to keep the temperature very stable.

Commercial breweries have sophisticated ways of controlling fermentation temperature. On the large scales that they produce, the biggest problem they have is dissipating heat. The fermentors they use are “jacketed” meaning there is a thin gap between the outer wall of the fermentor, and the inner wall where the beer lives.

The brewer can pump glycol through the jacket to bring the temperature of the brew down to whatever level he desires, and can keep it within a degree or so throughout the fermentation process.

Most homebrewers do not have glycol systems. The cheapest ones available run around $1500, putting them well above the weekend warrior’s price level. I put this type of system on my Christmas list each year, but so far SWMBO hasn’t come through with it. So, we improvise.

The first step in controlling temperature is knowing what the temperature of your fermentation is. Your local homebrew shop (LHS) probably has an inexpensive “stick-on” thermometer that you can use to get a reading on the outside of a carboy. That’s a good start, but you might also want to invest in another thermometer that can take a reading of the interior of the beer since there can be a difference between the surface temperature of the carboy, and the beer inside.

It is far, far easier to increase the temperature of your fermentation than it is to lower it. Therefore, I find that it’s best to put the fermentor in a place that is a few degrees cooler than I actually want the beer to be. I can then use a heater to warm it up to the desired temperature. In this way, if I need to cool the beer, I just shut off the heater, and the ambient temperature will bring the fermentation temperature down.

The easiest thing to do is to get an aquarium heater that is designed for reptiles. This will be able to raise the temperature of your fermentation by 5 – 10 degrees F above ambient. These things cost about $15 or so. Do not put the heater on the bottom of the carboy; the weight of your carboy would destroy it. Instead, attach it to the side using bungies or big rubber bands. If you try and tape it to the carboy, it will expand and contract with changes in heat, and pull the tape off. There are also larger heaters that are designed specifically for home brewing that can raise the temperature even higher. If you find that your heater is not up to the task of raising the temperature enough, you can always wrap your fermentor (and heater) in a blanket to help retain some heat.

If your fermentor is in a place where the temperature fluctuates, you can always put the heater on a timer (they cost about $15 at your local hardware store). You can set it to turn on at night when temperatures are typically cooler, and turn off during the day.

Now that we’ve covered heating up your beer, it is important not to over-shoot your ideal fermentation temperature. There are devices you can purchase from various Homebrew shops that will allow you to set a temperature on a special probe switch that will turn your heater off if your beer gets too hot. These run around $100, and might be worthwhile if you brew a lot.

The most important thing is to keep your beer in an environment that has a STABLE temperature. The fewer variables, the easier it will be to maintain a constant temperature in your fermentation.

Another important thing to consider is that when your fermentation is very active, it will actually produce heat. As the fermentation slows, the internal heat goes down. So you will need to check on the fermentor a couple times per day to make sure it isn’t getting too hot, or too cold.

What if, despite your best efforts, your beer gets too hot anyway? Don’t freak out, there are solutions, and it won’t kill anything if your beer gets too warm for a day or two. Here are some things you can do to bring the temp down.

  1. Put the carboy in a cooler place. If you normally ferment in your closet where the ambient temperature is 70 degrees, and you find that the internal temperature during krausen has increased to 75 degrees (not an unusual circumstance), then you might relocate it to the basement where the temperature is 65 degrees.
  2. Put the carboy in a bathtub with about 6 inches of water in it. You can blow a fan on the water and it will actually cool the beer off by several degrees because of the evaporation of the water.
  3. If you are fermenting in a plastic bucket, you can also use copper tubing to create a heat transfer coil. Using a pump and another vessel (like a cooler), you can alternatively pump warm or cool water through the coil and control the temperature that way.

Either way, you want to make sure your cure isn’t worse than the disease. If you cool your beer too much (by putting ice in the bathtub trick), you will cause your yeast to go dormant, and it’s hard to wake it back up. If you heat it up too much, you can cause the fermentation to speed up too much, and that can have other adverse effects on the beer.

One excellent way to get the hang of it is to fill your carboy with water and practice maintaining a constant temperature with that. This way you won’t mess up your valuable beer if you make a mistake. Once you have found the ideal mix of heat and location, you can then graduate up to the real thing. Keep in mind, however, that the fermenting beer will behave a little differently than water because of the changing exothermic properties of the yeast over the fermentation cycle.

For more information on homebrewing, visit www.drunkmansguide.com!


December 12, 2007 Posted by | beer, Homebrewing | , , | 6 Comments

Quote of the Day: On Whiskey

Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. had the following to say to the Mississippi State Legislature in 1952:

“You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.


“If when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

December 11, 2007 Posted by | Alcohol Quotes, Cocktails, Liquor | , , , , | Leave a comment

What You Need to Stock Your Bar

Step 1

Stocking your bar usually starts off with having a short conversation with yourself.


You can do it the way we do it; talking out loud while sitting at the back of the bus. Or you can do it silently by yourself. Whatever.


During this conversation, decide what drinks you like the most and make sure you always have the stuff to make them on hand. IOW, if your name is Jeffrey Lebowski, then all you need is some cream, a bottle of cheap Vodka, and some Kahlua.


Step 2

Put together the basic components of most other drinks. This will usually require a little more money, and you might want to build it up over time. Here is a short list of the staples most any bar includes:


Liquors and Spirits

  • Gin
  • Vodka
  • Tequila (White and Dark)
  • Rum (Light and Dark)
  • Vermouth (Extra Dry and Sweet)
  • Whiskey
  • Scotch
  • Brandy/Cognac
  • Beer

Fillers, Liqueurs, and Flavoring Agents

  • Triple Sec
  • Grenadine
  • Bitters
  • Cream
  • Sugar
  • Lemon Juice
  • Lime Juice
  • Orange Juice
  • Various Sodas (Cola, Club Soda, and Lemon Lime at least)

If you buy “good” liquor (that’s the stuff on the middle shelf), then properly stocking your bar will probably cost you about $350.


If $350 is looking like it’s too similar to your week’s pay, then look for your liquor on the bottom shelf – that will bring your cost down to under $200.


If $350 is looking more like an hour’s worth of pay, then you can probably look for your liquor on the top shelf.

December 10, 2007 Posted by | beer, Cocktails, Liquor | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Friday 5 o’clock Cocktail – Christmas Cheer

Today is a day for some shots. Since we’re in the season to be Jolly, how about joining Santa for a shot of Christmas Cheer that will keep us warm and fuzzy.

How to make a Christmas Cheer:

1/2 shot Eggnog
1/2 shot Peppermint Schnapps

Stir the ingredients together in a glass and pour it into a shot glass. This is a shooter, so no sipping!

December 10, 2007 Posted by | Cocktails, Liquor | , , , , | Leave a comment

Martinis – It’s Enough to Make a Drunk Man Cry

Ok, I don’t mean to go off on a drunken rant here, but WTF with the Martini mods?! Look, I’m all about putting an olive in the glass, and maybe a little of the brine to make it “dirty”, but all these crazy concoctions and versions have really, in my opinion, bastardized the drink. Hell, they may have even bastardized drinking…

Ok, maybe I went a little too far there.

Here’s the point: When you get to where there isn’t any Gin or Vermouth in the drink anymore, how can you honestly call it a Martini? It’s a DIFFERENT DRINK people!

Of course, the purists are no better.

Over time, the public’s definition of the Martini has included less and less Vermouth. When the drink was first concocted in California in the early 1800’s, it was two ounces of Vermouth and one ounce of Gin.

By WWII, General Patton described his ideal Martini as taking a bottle of Gin and pointing it in the general direction of Italy.

 Clearly, one can go too far in either direction.

It is, of course, a matter of taste, but I think that we can all agree that Martinis are made with Gin AND Vermouth. If you want to substitute Vodka for the Gin, I won’t get after you, but please dispose of the pretense that it’s a Martini.

The whole point of the Martini is to be able to taste the Juniper in the Gin, and the sweetness of the Vermouth. When you take either of those things out, it’s a different drink. If you don’t like Gin (because you’re some sort of a wussy), then you don’t like Martinis. Maybe you should have a nice Strawberry Daiquiri instead.

You can get more information on martini recipies, even apple martinis, at www.drunkmansguide.com.

December 6, 2007 Posted by | Cocktails, Liquor | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Homebrew – Creating a Yeast Starter

A yeast starter is a way of taking a small yeast culture and making it larger and more active prior to “pitching” it into your wort on brewing day.

A lot of people ask whether you really need to do a yeast starter, and does it really help anyway?

The short answer is that if you are only brewing 5 gallons at a time, and you are using White Labs pitchable yeast (or Wyeast Smack Packs, or something similar), then you probably don’t NEED to do a starter. If, on the other hand, you are brewing larger batches, or you are culturing yeast up from a slant, then you definitely need a starter.

Even if you are brewing 5 gallons and using a vial of pitchable yeast, it can still help to do a starter for three reasons:

  1. You will know for a fact that the yeast is viable and active because it is fermenting and you see bubbles in the airlock. Even store-bought yeast vials can go bad, and you really never know if the yeast is alive or dead until you see it fermenting.
  2. A starter will give you a larger inoculation. This decreases the likelihood of an infection, and increases your yeast’s ability to overcome the hardships of going into the beer.
  3. By starting the yeast in a wort that is similar to the beer you are going to make, the yeast will already be acclimated to the environment in which it will be fermenting. This improves the time frame that it takes to get a real fermentation started.

Creating a yeast starter does increase the amount of time it takes to brew since you essentially need to have two brewing sessions instead of one. That said, creating a yeast starter is usually easier than doing a full brew because it doesn’t take nearly so long to start the boil, or to cool the wort prior to pitching the yeast. It is also easier to clean small equipment than larger, so you will find that the whole process of creating the starter is something you can easily do in the evening while you are watching TV.

How to Make A Yeast Starter

There are three methods to making a yeast starter. Each has its benefits.

Bare Minimum Method

Take two cups of wort and a quart of water. Stir them in a saucepan, and bring it to a boil for 15 minutes. If you feel inclined, you can add a small amount of hops to this, but it isn’t necessary. Let it cool to room temperature, and then pour the simplified “wort” into a sanitized wine bottle. Put an airlock (sanitized also, of course) on top, and put it in a dark place to ferment.

Small-Batch Method

The best starters are actually just small versions of the larger beer. The reason is that this method gets the yeast acclimated to the environment it is going to be fermenting in. For most Ales this is probably overkill, but if you are making a high-gravity barelywine or some other “exotic” beer that might be on the edge of what the yeast would normally tolerate, then it’s a good idea to use this method to acclimate the yeast.

So, you can easily make your starter by simply scaling your beer recipe down. Boil it just as you would for a full batch. Then, just as with the “Bare Minimum Method”, you cool it, put it into an appropriately sized (sanitized) container like a wine bottle, and put your (sanitized) airlock on it.

Big-Batch Method

Another option is to make 5 gallons of wort all at once – just as you would if you were making a full-size brew – and then break it up into individual “starter-size” packages. You can freeze them in 1 quart containers, and use them for future brews.

The size of your starters depends on how large your batches are, but thinking in terms of at least a pint, but ideally a quart or more per 5 gallons is a good rule of thumb. My starters are usually two quarts per 5 gallons.

When to Make the Starter

The idea is to have your starter fermenting at full krausen by brew day. Usually, this means making the starter a day or two ahead. I do mine two days before.

Keep in mind that the starter will not produce as many bubbles through the airlock as a full batch will – even when it’s at full krausen – simply because it is smaller. This is one of the great reasons to use a clear container for your starter. That way you can see the thick foamy head on the top of your fermenting beer and know it’s ready to pitch. Keep in mind that if you use a clear container, you should make sure to keep it out of the sunlight, but in an area that will be the same temperature as you plan to ferment. I put mine in my closet.

When you are ready to pitch your starter into your final brew, place some plastic wrap over the mouth of your starter container, and stir or shake it up really well. Be prepared for the starter to foam up. You want to make sure the yeast sediment on the bottom is nicely suspended before you add it to your final beer.

Finally, just pour the starter into your final wort. You will find that your fermentations will take off in a matter of hours, and you will be much more confident that your yeast are healthy and active on brew day.

For more information on homebrewing, visit www.drunkmansguide.com/homebrew

Good luck with your brews!

December 5, 2007 Posted by | beer, Homebrewing | , , , , , | Leave a comment