by Jeff Stephens (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 4, No.5)
With a little planning and careful consideration of your options, you can continue to turn out high-quality batches while on the road.
While packing for a recent business trip, I was confronted with the problem of what to do with my fermenting beer while away. Although the solution seemed simple — cover and move it to a cool, dark place — I was unsure whether my prolonged absence would have a measurable effect on the quality of the finished product. My plane was leaving in the morning, and I was scheduled to be away for five days. The way my business trips usually evolve, however, those five days could have turned into many more. Luckily, I had just pitched the yeast the day before, and initial signs of fermentation were appearing. As a minimum precaution, I moved the wort to a cooler location for fermentation.
During my absence, I wondered whether certain conditions or elements of the brewing process could be manipulated to provide me greater flexibility in my brewing practice while ensuring a high-quality product. This kind of flexibility would be critical for business travelers uncertain about their schedules.
This article describes the hazards of leaving fermenting beer unattended for extended periods of time and offers suggestions for not only minimizing these hazards but ensuring great results, even if you return home later than anticipated.
The Hazards of Inattention
My first concern about leaving fermenting beer unattended for extended periods of time was fear of autolysis. As yeast cells deplete the nutrients available in the beer, they release enzymes that break down the cell walls of dormant yeast. Autolysis is the spontaneous rupture of these cells, releasing the cell contents of fatty acids and lipids into the beer. Autolysis usually occurs when beer remains on spent yeast cells for two to four weeks, and it produces by-products that impart a rubberlike flavor to the beer.
Spoilage was another concern. The longer beer sits, the greater the likelihood of spoilage. Most wort- and beer-spoiling bacteria thrive at temperatures between about 80 and 130 °F (27–54 °C). After the first three to six days of fermentation, the kräusen will fall back into the beer and the yeast will begin to settle. When fermentation activity stops, the protective layer of foam and carbon dioxide is no longer present and the possibility of contamination increases.
You can avoid autolysis and spoilage in your beer by making simple choices that do not sacrifice quality — even with unpredictable travel schedules.
Strategies for Success
Lagers versus ales: When deciding which recipe to select, one of the fundamental choices is whether to brew an ale or a lager. As most brewers know, ale yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) are best used at temperatures of 55–75 °F (13–24 °C). Lower temperatures tend to inhibit ale fermentation. Lager yeasts (Saccharomyces uvarum), on the other hand, are best used at temperatures ranging from an initial 55 °F (13 °C) down to a cool 32 °F (0 °C).
The German word lager means “to store,” and true lager beers are left to mature, usually for a minimum of three weeks; some styles are lagered for more than three months. Although lager beer is often freshest and tastes best within three to four weeks from the onset of fermentation, its affinity for aging is a definite plus for home brewers who may be away for extended periods of time.
When selecting recipes, choosing a lager beer — and the longer fermentation schedules lagers require — rather than an ale will give you more flexibility in your travel schedule. If you do choose a lager yeast, however, you will need low temperatures to reap the true rewards of lagers, including clean taste and stability. You can achieve lower temperatures by brewing lagers in the cooler months or in hotter months using temperature-control devices sold in homebrew supply stores. A steady temperature is as important as the correct temperature because sudden temperature changes can alter fermentation and produce unwanted by-products, including fruity esters or higher alcohols.
Several things happen when you lager your homebrew. The yeast cells that remain active in suspension continue to break down fermentable carbohydrates and settle out, thereby clarifying the beer (for a more complete discussion of the lagering process, see Jim Busch’s two-part series on lagering in Home Brewery Advancement [1,2]). Much of the chill haze will also precipitate and settle out. The evolution of carbon dioxide during lagering removes volatile, undesirable flavor compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and dimethyl sulfide.
Open versus closed fermentation: Another variable for the home brewer is the selection of open versus closed fermentation. With open fermentation, you ferment your beer in a loosely covered, sanitized plastic container. Closed fermentation refers to fermentation in a much more tightly controlled environment, such as sealed and vented carboys or specially made home brewing fermentors (miniature versions of the cylindroconicals used in larger breweries, for example). The advantage of open fermentation is its simplicity. Home brewers, even beginners, who use open fermentors can be every bit as successful as those who use closed fermentors, as long as they adhere to good sanitation practices. Keep in mind that because sanitation is so fundamental to home brewing, open fermentation increases the possibility of exposure to bacteria and wild yeast and is therefore more suitable for the faster maturing and more quickly bottled ales.
Single-stage vs. two-stage fermentation: The difference between single-stage and two-stage fermentation is the number of containers used during fermentation. With two-stage fermentation, you closely monitor fermentation, waiting for the initial activity to subside and the kräusen to fall back into the beer. At that point, you siphon the beer into another fermentor and attach a fermentation lock. A sediment of spent yeast cells is left behind in the first fermentor.
Psychic Survival for Home Brewers on the Road
For business travelers who consistently spend days or weeks away from home, finding time to brew can be difficult. But being away from home doesn’t mean you have to be away from home brewing altogether. Here are some tips to help you keep in touch with the hobby while you’re traveling.
One of the easiest things to do is to take a sample of homebrew with you. When traveling by airplane, stow it in your carry-on, or package it carefully and check it as baggage — it works wonderfully. A six-pack of homebrew tucked away in your luggage during a two-week business trip can vastly improve your attitude.
If baggage filled with homebrew is impractical, other options may be available to you. Why not mail it to your destination — even overnight! What better way to start a trip than to have a box of homebrew waiting for you at the hotel. Other possibilities include sampling someone else’s efforts (local homebrew clubs are often happy to help out “fellow travelers”), visiting a local homebrew supply store, or even, for extended trips, finding a brew-on-premises near your hotel. If you’re heading to a homebrew supply store, watch out for opportunities to find new recipes, unique accessories, or valuable information about brewery tours or local multitap establishments. Check the Yellow Pages for a nearby supply store.
Remember, your love for great beer can travel with you wherever you go!
The purpose of two-stage fermentation is to avoid bringing beer into prolonged contact with an inordinate amount of spent yeast cells. If you plan to travel for more than 2–3 weeks, use a two-stage process to ferment your beer. Otherwise, if you use one container in single-stage fermentation you run the risk of the yeast undergoing autolysis.
There’s no real advantage in keeping the beer sitting around for over three weeks unless you’re fermenting at cold temperatures with quality lager yeasts. Long, cold lagering and post fermentation aging require that the beer be moved off any sediment for optimal development. The advantage of two-stage over single-stage fermentation is that the beer can be kept in a fermentor for longer periods of time before it is bottled without adverse side effects. This benefit can be important for travelers with uncertain schedules.
Other factors affecting home brewing success: In addition to the three important issues described, home brewers can control other variables to increase flexibility in anticipation of an extended travel plan. Make it easier on yourself, for example, by keeping plenty of supplies on hand. When an opportunity arises to fly home for a short weekend, extra supplies such as bottling caps, sanitizing solution, and corn sugar (for bottling) can help minimize delays. Your rush to buy supplies for a 10 p.m. racking or bottling session in between flights may be out of step with the business hours of your local homebrew supply store.
In addition, help yourself by making it easy for others to help you while you’re gone. Keep all your supplies together and organized so friends or family members can transfer or bottle your beer in your absence. You may instinctively know that the bottling wand is on the third shelf behind the empty bottles, but your spouse may not. Step-by-step instructions faxed home can only help the process work more smoothly.
Attention to Detail
If you travel frequently, you probably often face uncertainty about your ability to attend to your fermenting beer, whether the concern is racking, bottling, or simply monitoring fermentation temperatures. To minimize the possibility of off-tasting beer or spoilage, focus on those factors that have the greatest likelihood of causing problems. By planning your recipe and brewing methods well ahead of time, you can continue to brew great beer even when away from home. Your passion for brewing great beer doesn’t have to be placed on hold while taking care of business.
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