Bigger is better, right? As I pointed out in a previous article about scaling your batch size up or down to fit your needs, smaller is sometimes the way to go. (And if it isn’t, see my article on scaling up.) For apartment dwellers, scaling down from 5.0 gallon (19 L) batches might be beneficial due to space limitations. Brewing smaller batches can also be a good idea when brewing an experimental beer, or a beer style you’re not sure if you’re going to like. For example, if you’ve never tried a smoked beer before, but are curious, it may be better to generate a couple gallons of the beer rather than the usual 5.0 gallons (19L). Beer with expensive ingredients or very large grain bills are also good candidates for a smaller-sized batches. And of course, if you like to brew more than you like to drink, and the beer is piling up, scaling down may yield a more manageable beer inventory.
How Much Beer Are We Talking About?
In this article, I’ll discuss the ins and outs of making batches of homebrew in the 2.0-gallon (7.6-L) to 3.0-gallon (11-L) range. Three gallons (11 L) of beer will yield thirty-two 12-oz. (355 mL) bottles of beer. That’s a case, a six pack, and two more bottles. Compare that to the fifty-three bottles — just over two cases — that a 5.0-gallon (19-L) batch generates. For 2.5 gallons (9.5 L), the yield is 26 bottles, two bottles more than a case. Two gallons (7.6-L) yields twenty-one bottles,three bottles short of a case. Brewing this volume will take roughly the same amount of time as brewing 5 gallons (19 L), although your heating and cooling times may be shorter.
Once you’ve decided to scale down, you’ll find there are some incidental benefits that come with small batch brewing. If you’re used to brewing outside, you’ll be able to move your brewing operations to your kitchen, and perhaps escape inclement weather. And, as I mentioned above, you may be able to crank out a batch a little more quickly due to heating and cooling smaller volumes. (If you move inside, your heating times may be a wash as your propane burner almost certainly kicks out more BTUs than your kitchen stove.) Along with potentially quicker heating and cooling times comes less fuel use for heating and less water use for cooling. In addition, if you’re using the same heat source, scaling down will allow you to boil the wort more vigorously. If you’re an extract brewer used to boiling a thick wort, and diluting it to working strength in your fermenter, you will now likely be able to perform full-wort boils.
In this range of volumes, you may not have to make a yeast starter if you use liquid yeast. According to the Mr. Malty calculator, you can make 3.0 gallons (11 L) of beer at an OG of 1.048 or below without making a yeast starter. The no starter OG jumps to 1.058 if you’re only making 2.5 gallons (9.5 L) of beer and 1.075 of you’re only making 2.0 gallons (7.6 L). These recommendations are based on the optimal rates, and you could pitch to somewhat higher OG without a starter if you were willing to put up with slightly longer lag times. I would feel fairly comfortable pitching a single tube or smack pack to 3 gallons (11 L) at 1.064, 2.5 gallons (9.5 L) at 1.078 or 2 gallons (7.6 L) at 1.099. This assumes the yeast was fresh. (Also, you’ll need to be confident of your cleaning and sanitation.) Seriously underpitching can lead to unacceptably long lag times, sluggish fermentations, higher levels of fermentation by products (esp. esters) and higher than expected final gravities. So make a yeast starter if you’re outside of these ranges. The cell counts in 11 g sachets of dried yeast are sufficient to brew all but the biggest beers (over OG 1.100 for 3 gallons/11 L) at these volumes.
Given the proportionally larger surface-to-volume ratio in a smaller fermenter, simple fermenter cooling methods, such as the wet T-shirt method, are more effective.
Scaling down does have it’s drawbacks, though. Besides yielding less beer, your mash is going to lose heat faster than a larger mash. Also, the larger surface-to-volume ratio of a smaller fermenter is a double-edged sword — it’s easier to cool, but it’s also more prone to temperature swings when the ambient temperature changes. Finally, you may need to get a scale that measures small amounts with more precision.
If you’ve got a 5.0-gallon (19-L) brewery, you can use it to make smaller batches when the situation calls for it. However, if you’re primarily going to brew at this smaller scale, you’ll probably want to assemble a brewery that’s optimized for it.
One nice thing about this scale is you can use a beverage cooler lined with a steeping bag as a mash tun — there’s no need to install a manifold or make any actual modifications to the cooler. A 3.0-gallon (11-L) beverage cooler will work for 3.0- gallon (11-L) all-grain batches up to OG 1.048, assuming 65% extract efficiency, which is reasonable. A 5.0-gallon (19-L) cooler will work for 3.0-gallon (11-L) batches up to OG 1.080. Either of these coolers will easily fit on most kitchen countertops and of course can be used in conjunction with malt extract to make higher-gravity partial mash brews. (For more information, see our chart on grain weights, mash volumes and wort yields for small mashes.)
Relatively inexpensive stainless steel pots can be found at any size in this range. When picking a brewpot size, be sure to allow for an extra 20% in volume to handle the initial foaming that occurs when the wort comes to a boil.
At this scale, you don’t need a wort chiller. A small immersion chiller — for example, one suitable for a 5.0-gallon (19-L) brewery — is handy as it will quickly chill your wort. However, can also chill your wort by placing the brewpot in a sink full of cold water. You’ll need to change the water several times — and adding ice once the wort has cooled considerably will speed the process. And, swirling the wort when you change the water, or stirring it with a sanitized spoon, also makes the chilling go faster. Keep a lid on the pot as it cools in your sink to prevent airborne contaminants from falling into your wort. Using a wort chiller is faster and better, but not strictly required.
You can ferment a 3.0-gallon (11-L) batch in a 5.0-gallon (19-L) glass or plastic carboy. And if you want, you could use a 3.0-gallon (11-L) carboy for a secondary fermenter. For the smaller sizes, you could use a 3.0-gallon (11-L) carboy for your primary fermenter.
Three-gallon (11-L) Corny kegs exist, but they are hard to find and somewhat expensive. (Other small scale Corny kegs exist, but they are even more rare.) Of course, at this smaller batch size, bottling is less of hassle. And, other small kegging options exist. These include the stainless steel 5 L (1.3 gallon) mini kegs and the 6 L (1.6 gallon) Tap-a-Draft bottles.
Could you brew even smaller batches? Sure. Plenty of brewers make 1.0-gallon (3.8-L) test batches for experimental beers before scaling up. But at some point, the return on your investment of time is not going to be worth your while. The process of brewing can be made to work at almost any scale; you just need to pick the right volume to fit your space, your brewing ambitions and your drinking habits.