Top 5 Reasons to Brew Beer in Small Batches
By Dan Jablow
Like many other homebrewers, when I first started brewing beer about four years ago, I began by brewing in single-gallon batches. Also like other homebrewers, after gaining a level of proficiency that I felt good about, I eventually scaled up my brewing efforts, buying an electric, brew-in-a-bag system capable of producing five gallons of beer at a time. While there are times that I brew on my larger system, especially when asked to make beer for a party, event or to share with my friends, to this day I prefer to brew beer in one-gallon sized batches.
I have spoken with many other homebrewers that question the single gallon approach, suggesting that for the same amount of effort I could brew five gallons at a time. In my experience, I haven’t found this to be true. Whether you are new to homebrewing or have lots of brewing experience I believe that there are some distinct advantages to brewing beer in small batches. Before we get any further, let's define a small-batch as anything less than five gallons of beer with a sweet-spot between 1 and 2 1/2 gallons.
#1 Lower cost
You probably have most of what you need to support small-batch brewing already in your kitchen - a few large (roughly two gallon) pots with lids, a large stirring spoon and a strainer are items that immediately come to mind. If you need to purchase this equipment, it will likely be less expensive than an electric, all-in-one system or a non-electric three-pot setup with a five-gallon capacity. With a small-batch setup you can also get by without having certain equipment that would be needed for a larger system. For example, a wort chiller is optional for small-batch brewing because the pot used for boiling wort is small enough to fit in an ice bath in your sink. You will likely need to invest in some equipment to support fermentation and typically the smaller the fermentation vessel, the lower its cost will be.
#2 Less Space Needed
A small-batch brewing setup is very compact. You can easily brew a single gallon-sized batch of beer and take up no more space than you would if you were making a pot of chicken soup. There are lots of times I prefer to brew outdoors but I also experience all four seasons where I live and there are times where I would much rather brew indoors. My small single-gallon setup is perfectly suited to brewing indoors. I can't say the same about my five-gallon electric system, at least not in my kitchen. And because the equipment I use is appropriately ‘kitchen sized’ it is easy to properly clean and sanitize in my kitchen sink. I can also easily find places to stash gallon-sized carboys during fermentation - I have a small utility closet that will keep a constant room temperature and I also can fit a gallon-sized carboy in the back of my refrigerator if I want to lager something. I even have a single-gallon sized keg that fits in the door of my refrigerator so I can enjoy my homebrew on draft. I would not be able to fit a five-gallon keg in my main refrigerator. The same holds true for bottling as I can also fit a few bottles of my homebrew in my refrigerator but I'd have a hard time keeping cold all the bottles that a five-gallon batch will yield.
# 3 More Frequent Brewing
When you only brew one gallon at a time, naturally you go through a finished batch of beer much faster. As the primary drinker of beer in my house, this is fine with me since it takes me a long time to finish a five-gallon batch of beer. The best part about going through beer quickly is that it forces me to brew more frequently, which to me is the fun part, plus that allowed me to gain hands-on brewing experience quickly across a wide range of styles.
Single-gallon sized batches are perfect for experimentation. If I am working on a new recipe I will always brew a single-gallon of it before I scale it up to a five-gallon size. I can also experiment with brewing many different styles and if I brew something that I don't like or if something goes awry during the brewing or fermentation process, at the end of the day, a gallon of beer is not too much beer to dispose of.
#5 Quicker Brew and Packaging Days
In my experience, small-batch brew days are much faster than larger-batch brew days because the strike water heats up faster, it takes less time to bring wort to a boil and it also takes less time to cool down the wort after boiling. Cleaning up after a small-batch brew day also takes far less time than a larger batch because all the equipment is appropriately sized for a kitchen sink and can be cleaned quickly without following a clean-in-place protocol that adds more time for heating the washing and rinsing water. It also takes a lot less time to fill a small keg than a larger one. An even greater benefit is the time saved on a small-batch bottling day where you only need to clean, fill and cap eight bottles of beer vs. 40-45 bottles for a five-gallon batch.
A case to Brew Big!
Certainly, there are some disadvantages to brewing in one-gallon sized batches when compared to a large batch:
You’ll lose out on some economies of scale on a small-batch brew day. For not that much additional time and effort you could brew five times as much beer.
It becomes harder to share your delicious beer with your friends when you have less of them. Beer, not friends, that is.
It’s harder to justify taking samples of your beer for gravity readings when you're only working with one gallon of beer.
When you make something great, you may be bummed when you run out of it. That's true for all beer but is especially true when you only have a gallon of it.
For me, the pros of small-batch brewing far outweigh the cons. While there will always be a time and place for larger batch brewing, my heart is with small-batch brewing.
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