The Highs and Lows of Micro-Batch Brewing
By Derek Fleming
Most homebrewers refer to any process smaller than about five gallons as “small-batch brewing.” The label isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but it misses the point somewhat. Homebrewers doing batches of five gallons or more at a time typically want to produce enough beer, mead, cider, or whatever hybrid they make to offset or eliminate buying beer at the store. Micro batch brewing is about crafting a unique beverage, not a mass-produced product.
Anyone who has gone to a brewing supply store or joined in a discussion about homebrewing who brews in smaller batches has experienced the disdain and down-the-nose looks bigger batch brewers tend to give. I’ve heard “brewing in smaller batches is a waste of time” or “when you step up to a ‘real’ brewing system…” countless times in the decade or more that I have been brewing at home.
I think it is a shame that smaller batch brewing isn’t more highly respected than it is because the process offers challenges bigger batches avoid while opening up opportunities to experiment with unique and different processes, ingredients, and combinations that simply can’t be done when brewing five gallons at a time. For this reason, I refer to one gallon homebrewing as micro brewing. The name is a little more classy and better represents the process in my opinion.
Like the vast majority of homebrewers, I got into homebrewing using a one gallon kit. It was an extract kit with a glass carboy, airlocks, a thermometer and hydrometer, and a handful of other mostly useless accessories. The results were predictable: not bad, but not great, either.
At the time, I lived with my wife in a 480-square foot one bedroom apartment in Sacramento, CA, where we were college students. As you might expect, the kitchen in that apartment was beyond tiny. It was basically a closet with a stove and a sink. There was hardly any counter space and even less storage, so any brewing I did had to be very small batches at a time. Even brewing one gallon batches was challenging due to the lack of space.
I was fortunate to have a local brewing supply store run by a guy who understood that anything larger than a one gallon operation was simply a non-starter for me. He was also incredibly helpful in guiding me through most of the common problems that new homebrewers encounter and was creative enough to show me ways to use regular cookware that I either already had or could use for other cooking processes so that I wasn’t clogging up storage space with gear that was just for brewing beer.
There were successes -like my favorite Chocolate Rye Ale that I still make to this day- and some seriously hazardous failures -like Persimmon Cider that turned explosive. When the opportunity to go bigger came, I decided to stick with my microbrewing process and leave the bigger batches to people who wanted to focus time, energy, and resources at mass producing suds. I still brew in micro batches to this day and love the process so much that I host parties on the solstices and equinoxes to share microbrewing with my friends.
Among all the things I have heard from other brewers that can’t fathom why anyone would want to brew small is that you don’t make enough beer at once to make it worth doing. This is a mute point for me since I am not trying to brew enough beer to enjoy it daily. Instead, my homebrew is something special that only comes out for occasions that warrant more than store-bought beer.
It is true that when you make a really great beer, it runs out way too soon. Who cares, though? The point is to make something special, something unique, and something I want to share with a small group. Popping open the first bottle of a batch that only totals ten 12 oz beers is a celebration all on its own, and it changes how people drink my homebrew. It’s for savoring, not guzzling.
When things go awry -and sooner or later they will- I am only tossing out a few bottles, not a few gallons. Of course, we are always trying to avoid bad batches, but it does happen. When a beer turns out with off flavors or doesn’t carbonate or looks funny, I don’t have to think about it. I just throw it out, clean the bottles, and start over.
Have you ever wondered what the difference in an all-grain IPA would be if you used an English Ale Yeast versus an American Ale Yeast strain? Micro brewing allows you to do just that. You can brew several gallons of wort at once, then divide it into smaller batches and pitch the yeast separately. Similarly you can mash in smaller batches and make small changes to the grain bill to get an idea of the differences in flavors and colors from subtle differences in the grain bill. This allows the homebrewer to experiment without committing to five or more gallons of beer at a time.
Microbrewing is all about the process. Since the grain bill is smaller, little changes can make a big difference. Just a few extra pellets of hops in an IPA can transform the finished beer. Changing the water pH between two batches using the same grain bill highlights the differences that water makes. Adding and subtracting ingredients becomes part of the fun. In fact, I’ve brewed several batches that I didn’t even use a recipe to create. Just add grains until you hit a target weight, mash out, and see what you’ve got. You don't want to try that with a five-gallon or larger batch, but why not in a one-gallon batch? If it’s gross, just dump it out, or even better, stash it away somewhere for a year or two and see what happens.
Micro batch brewing opens up opportunities to try several things at once. Since you are dealing with smaller volumes, it is possible to brew four or five batches all at the same time. During Fall 2022, I brewed two one-gallon batches of mead -one was orange blossom honey while the other was mixed nectar. With everything else identical, the finished meads had noticeable differences in flavor, color, and aroma that only came from the unique differences in the honey. No one would want to brew ten gallons of 14% ABV mead just to taste the differences, and my bill for the honey was substantially lower than even one five gallon batch would have cost.
Speaking of cost, microbrewing is relatively cheap. Fancy cookware is great, but it isn’t necessary. A good stock pot, a large strainer, recycled one gallon glass carboys from grocery store cider, a little tubing, and a few tools is all that is necessary. There is no need for an expensive wort chiller or a mash tun with special features for straining grains from the wort. You just pick up the pot and dump it into a strainer, then sparge over the strainer. It might not be as efficient as bigger setups, but it gets excellent results without expensive, purpose-built gear. When the beer is fermenting, you just put it in a closet or a cupboard -no taking up valuable storage space required. Same thing with bottle conditioning and storage.
I’ve often thought about building a larger brewing system, but I keep returning to microbrewing's intimate nature, even if I am not making lots of beer at once. For me, it is all about quality, and microbrewing makes it possible to craft really great beer in small batches without the time, expense, and space that larger operations require. I will probably go bigger one day, if nothing more than just for the simplicity larger batches offer.
Still, there will always be a love of microbrewing in my heart, and I hope that other brewers will encourage anyone interested in microbrewing to give it a shot rather than try and talk them into a larger system. I would have given up brewing years ago if I had listened to all the doubters who told me I was wasting my time. Few things in life make me happier today than getting out my little brewing kit and whipping up a few six-packs of London Brown, a West Coast IPA, a Smoked Porter, and a Cider all at once in my kitchen, which isn’t as tiny as that old place where the journey of microbrewing began.
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