Over the past week I have been installing a fence in my backyard. Installing a fence means I will have to set posts in concrete, so I have had to make sure that I am working in the temperature range necessary for the concrete to set up the way I want it to. I can easily imagine what my fence might look like if I hadn’t worked in the appropriate temperature range; a wonky, Seusian, Tim Burton inspired nightmare that might still function as a fence, while not at all succeeding in looking like one.
Try to prepare noodles in water just south of boiling and you’ll have something “near pasta.” A grill at too low a temperature will fail to cook meats correctly.
The metaphorical connections might continue, but suffice it to say that temperature control is as important for the above-mentioned as it is for your homebrew Fermentation temperatures.
Every professional production brewery has some system in place that is designed to control and monitor fermentation temperatures. More often than not, this system will involve a bath of glycol that is heated and or cooled before being circulated around a fermentation vessel in order to achieve the temperatures a brewery desires.
For those unfamiliar with glycol, or jackets on fermenters, imagine if your jacket was hollow between its outer and inner layers. Now imagine that there is a tank of liquid which, at your command, can fill the hollow layer in your jacket. If you had the ability to control the temperature of that liquid precisely, you would always have a jacket that warmed or cooled you to the exact temperature most comfortable for you.
Unfortunately for us, 2015 hasn’t even given us a hover board, let alone a “sleep number” style jacket, but the technology has existed in the fermentation industry for decades. Breweries utilize these systems to create a fermentation environment best suited to the yeast they have chosen to ferment with. This should function as the goal of the homebrewer as well; to provide an ideal fermentation environment for beer based largely on the temperature range designated by the yeast chosen for the batch.
Most ale yeasts have a temp range that roughly equates to room temperature, so often the homebrewer makes ales instead of lagers, or those styles of beer with extreme temperature control needs. For the purposes of this piece however, let’s assume you’ve got an itch, and the only thing that’ll scratch it is to make a mai-bock. Let’s also assume you don’t have the thousands of dollars necessary to install and implement a glycol system of your own. What then are your options?
To be frank, there is a shit-ton. The most popular of them is called a “fermentation chamber,” and even the most minimally handy of folk can put one together easily, though not without some monetary investment. The necessary components for the chamber are; A. A small insulated environment, be it a fridge, freezer, or something built; B. A way to monitor and control the temperature in the environment (see example).
The two elements combine to create an environment that a homebrew-sized fermentation vessel can easily fit in, while being cooled or heated to the specific temp range that the yeast calls for.
Though this system well mirrors the glycol jacket of professional breweries, it is, as I mentioned, costly. Some people will use a bath of lukewarm water and a damp towel to wrangle in their temps. Some hardy D.I.Y. fanatics will cannibalize computer fans and create intricate air flow systems that cool using the wind. Many and more articles are published each day with people’s clever homemade gadgets that serve the purpose of working within a specific temp range, though the prevailing method most beginners, and many seasoned home beer makes prescribe to is picking yeast with the temp ranges that best suit that ambient temperature of their own home.
Fermentation temperature should be a primary consideration for every batch of beer you make at home if you want to make beer like the professionals do. Each day it is a part of my job to make sure that the temperatures of the beer I work with are where they are supposed to be. If they are not, it is then my job to rectify the situation or risk the beer not tasting the way it is supposed to. Bear in mind, a beer fermented 10 or so degrees cooler than it should be may still be beer, but you can be sure it won’t taste the way it should. For a production brewery, that is unacceptable.
The easiest way to make the beer you intend is to pick the right yeast for the job, make sure your temperatures are in line, provide a clean and sanitary environment, and check those factors daily. The beer will take care of itself.