As the weather begins to turn from winter to spring, we can begin to think about brewing outside again, or at least brewing outside comfortably. I (Nate) brewed my first batch of the spring just last week. My equipment sits dormant for the winter in the basement. Where does your equipment sit when you are not brewing regularly? There are some questions to ask yourself before breaking it out again for the “brewing season”.
Does my equipment need to be cleaned?
With the extended time sitting somewhere, even if it was cleaned thoroughly before being put away (and I hope it was), it doesn’t hurt to give your equipment an inspection and a quick cleaning before brewing for the first time. Unless you see something growing (blah!) or obviously see some dirt, this does not need to be a super sanitize clean. A quick wash in warm soapy water should be enough. Make sure you give everything a good rinse after. Look at your brew pot, funnels, hydrometer, and such.
Does plastic equipment need to be replaced?
If you are like me, you use the same auto siphon, wine thief, and bottle filler over and over and over… Give each of your pieces of plastic equipment a look. Maybe a clean is enough. Maybe it is time to replace it. If it looks like there are tiny scratches or even cracks (I’m thinking about my auto siphon here), it may be time to replace them before you begin brewing for the year. Each of these items aren’t that expensive and I always feel good using new equipment, even if it is not a new toy. Other small pieces to look at are airlocks and stoppers. Do you know where they are and are they actually clean? If not, get some new ones.
Does your plastic tubing need to be replaced?
All that clear plastic tubing you have that isn’t as clear as it was when it was new, replace it. This plastic tubing is one of the leading causes of contamination in you beer (or other fermented beverage). If the tubing is starting to get foggy, starting to turn yellow, or even feels a little tacky/sticky, you are better of just replacing it. It would be a shame to have your first batches of the year become accidental sours at best (soured IPA, yum).
Do you have hops in the freezer that can be used?
I always end up with half an ounce of this hop and a third ounce of that hop that didn’t go into a brew. I close them up as best as I can, seal them in a plastic bag, and stash them in the freezer to be forgotten and buried. Do you have a collect of hops in your freezer? If you stored them well, away from air and frozen, they might still be good. Before I even decided on my recipe for my first brew of this year, I made a list of all of these hops I had so I could think about them as I choose my what I am going to make this year. Remember to give them a smell before you use them. If they don’t smell good anymore, they aren’t going to taste good in your beer. (There are some styles that traditionally use old, “cheesy” hops. If you are keen enough, maybe some of your older hops can go this direction.)
Do you have the small ingredients you use for each batch?
I always use some additive ingredients in each batch. I try to remember to get more immediately after I use up what I have or when I notice I am running low, but there is always the time I forget until brew day. Why not take inventory now? For all-grain brewers; do you have your water chemicals you use? minerals? salts? acids? maybe 5.2 if you are being as simple as possible but still paying attention to your mash pH. If you are measuring your pH, do you have enough buffer, cleaning, and storage solutions? I always through a finning agent at the end of the boil; whirfloc or irish moss. Do you have enough left from last year to get you started? I also like to give my yeast enough support as they can have. I like to add some yeast nutrient or energizer to the end of the boil. Do you have some to help have healthy yeast?
Do you have enough cleanser and sanitizer?
Since we are talking about ingredients, what about your cleanser and sanitizer. Remember you cannot sanitize something that is not clean. We already talked about giving your equipment a quick inspection and clearing before your first brew day. But, how do you clean your equipment before putting it away temporarily until your next brew? (Trust me, it makes it easier to brew again if it is clean already and you don’t have to clean it before brewing. Also, what about your fermentation vessels? How do you clean those? I like to use a brewery cleaner (I love PBW) to save myself some elbow grease. Don’t forget to check your sanitizer levels. You don’t want to be brewing and go to prep your fermentation vessel (glass carboys for me) and find that you are out of your favorite sanitizer. Might as well get some when you are getting your ingredients for your brew.
If you brew outside, if your propane tank full enough?
This happens to me about once a year; I am in the middle of a boil and the propane runs out. I know, I should just get a second tank so that I always have one full for brewing outside or grilling, but I just haven’t bitten the bullet and bought a second tank. Check your propane level before starting to brew. Remember, as propane expands (as the propane in the take does when you are removing some to brew or cook hot dogs) its temperature decreases. With it still being cold out, if you are not careful, your propane tank can freeze. To help prevent this, you can put your take in a water bath (more thermal load to give heat to the tank), maybe even with some of that extra warm water from your mash.
Are your measuring tools calibrated?
The start of the “brewing year” is a good time to make sure all the tools you use to measure the numbers of your beer are calibrated. Most dial thermometers have an adjustment screw. Some digital can be adjusted. If your thermometers are off, at least knowing how far off will help. Or, start the year with a new one. Maybe you get that more accurate cooking thermometer with a timer and temperate alert built in that you have been looking at. If you use a pH meter, you are probably used to calibrating it repeatedly. What about your hydrometer, or if you are lucky enough, a refractometer? Both of these can be checked with pure, distilled water. They should read 1.000 SG. Refractometers are easy to adjust. Hydrometers are a little more difficult. Again, maybe you need to just know how much it is off or get a new one.
How are you going to cool your first batch?
I usually use an immersion chiller from my outside hose to chill by beer. With the groundwater here and Lake Superior, it is usually pretty cold and easily can lower the temperature to pitching temp in the time it takes me to get some of the rest of by brew cleaned up (and maybe open a beer). It was a good thing that I thought ahead before my first brew. I must not have fully drained my hose last fall. It had some ice in it blocking the way. I’m glad I checked this and had a plan. I would not be able to cool with my immersion chiller outside but can use it from the utility sink in the basement. I decided to carry by kettle with 6+ gallons of work downstairs. If you don’t have an immersion chiller that you can attach to a utility sink, or cannot carry your brew pot down stairs, you need to think about how you are going to cool your wort. Can you use your usual method at this time of year? Do you need to try some other method? Back when I brewed in apartments and before a built my immersion chiller, I used to place my kettle in the sink, bathtub, or big plastic party tub with ice water. Maybe this is what you do now. Maybe you need to go back to this method early in the year.
With the weather turning warmer, yes it is relative, it is time to begin brewing outside again. Be prepared before you brew. It will make the session go more smoothly and you will remember how much fun it is again. If you don’t do a little prep work, your day might be a little more difficult. But then, what homebrew day goes absolutely perfectly? I’m sure there are things I missed and already forgot I did (or should have done). As Charlie Papazian says, “Relax. Don’t Worry. Have a Homebrew.”