The legend at our house (the house where my wife grew up) is that the water source — a private well — is quite deep compared to our neighbors’ wells, and connected to an underground lake. Still, Northern California is in the midst of a terrible drought, and many of our neighbors’ wells have already run dry. It does not seem prudent to fail to conserve water, or to use water needlessly.
After sharply reducing the watering schedule for sprinklers in the yard this summer, we recently decided to turn them off almost altogether. We’ll try to keep things alive until the autumn cools things off (and hopefully brings rain!). I didn’t water the vineyard very much at all this season, after reading an article that grapevines can be “trained for drought conditions” by sending roots deeper and deeper to find their own water. And we’re filling bottles with water and placing them in storage “just in case”. I’m harassing everyone to pay attention to faucets, shower times, flushing needlessly, etc.
The amount of water that gets wasted during the process of brewing is a troubling issue, especially in times of drought. The most significant use of water occurs during “wort chilling”, after boiling. Apparently other brewers are concerned about the same thing, because this week I received the September 2014 issue of Brew Your Own, and read and article on “No-Chill Brewing” with interest.
Typically, after the “wort” that eventually becomes beer is boiled in the kettle, conventional wisdom (mirroring commercial craft brewing techniques) says that it is vital to bring the temperature of the liquid from boiling to below room temperature as quickly as possible, so that the yeast can be “pitched” and begin consuming the sugar that converts to alcohol and makes beer. Doing this is the best way to ensure that nothing that can contaminate the beer has a chance to ruin it.
If you added yeast to hot wort, you’d likely kill it. So there are several ways that homebrewers go about “chilling” their wort. The simplest method is to submerge the hot kettle into an ice water bath, or have cold water circulating outside the kettle. This method can be slow, is dependent on the temperature of the water of your tap, and really does not work at all for batches over 5 gallons. I don’t have a place that would even hold my 15 gallon kettle, and I wouldn’t be keen to pick up a kettle of nearly-boiling liquid that size.
The second, more intermediate method, is to use an “immersion chiller.” These come in various sizes and types, but is normally composed of a coil of copper (or steel) tubing with cold water passing through it. You “immerse” the coils into the hot wort, turn on the water, carrying water through the coils. The copper coils “conduct” heat from the hot wort to the cold water, and that energy is carried out the other end by means of an attached tube.
For homebrewers, this is the most common method, because an “immersion chiller” can be made using simple parts from the hardware store. It is not terribly efficient for batches over 10 gallons, however, and you find homebrewers go into the “advanced” category by using “plate chillers” or other more specialized equipment, oftentimes needing an electric pump in the process. The more “advanced” you get, the faster the wort will chill to a pitching temperature, but you will also spend more money and have more equipment to maintain.
For all of these techniques, the use of cool or cold water is part of the process. I would estimate that my immersion chiller requires 30-40 gallons of water for each batch of beer, or in the summertime (when the water is not very cool) even more. You can use the water on the lawn or in the flower beds, but watering the lawn feels wrong when people nearby have no water source at all at the moment.
The “no-chill” technique uses no water, because there’s no chilling. You dispense the 200+ degree wort from the kettle directly into a clean fermenter, seal the fermenter, and wait for 24-36 hours or so, until the ambient temperature brings the wort down to a suitable room temperature for pitching the yeast. No-chill is no-good for homebrewers that use glass carboys for fermentation, because the nearly-boiling wort can shatter glass pretty easily. The only thing worse than a shattered carboy is a shattered carboy surrounded by five gallons of boiling wort. You need “high-density polyethylene” (a type of food-grade heat-resistant plastic) containers.
I like this method for several reasons: (1) (most important) no waste of 30 plus gallons of water; (2) while you need clean fermenters, you don’t necessarily need to sanitize them; five gallons of 200+ degree wort will kill anything living on the surface of the fermenter, and any part where the liquid isn’t directly contacting the plastic will be “steamed”. You sanitize the vessel using the hot wort itself; (3) it saves time. My immersion chiller normally takes a least 30, and depending on the season, up to 60 minutes or more to cool a batch of beer. With no-chill, I can clear out my kettle right at flame-out. This permits me to brew two batches, back to back, in under five hours; and (4) you can use the same wort from kettle to make a “Real Wort Starter” (RWS). Yeast starters are great because they allow you to save money and really get a jump-start on fermentation. The conventional approach to making yeast starters is that you make up a little batch of wort using “dry malt extract” (DME) a day or two before brewing. With no-chill, since you’re going to be waiting at least 24 hours before pitching the yeast anyway, you don’t have to make a special starter, but can just take a liter or so of the actual wort used in brewing (RWS) and use that to make the starter.
So this weekend I brewed my first two “no-chill” batches of beer — a DIPA (malts: two-row, some 40L, Carapils and Victory; hops: Columbus, Bravo, Simcoe and Cascade; and a couple pounds of dextrose) and an English Brown (malts: two-row, 120L, melanoidin; hops: Fuggles and East Kent Goldings) — drawing 1250ml from each to make two RWSs using a single packet of US-05.
I’ll report back on the results in a couple of weeks.