My Advice to New Homebrewers: Invest in the Cold Side

Any experienced homebrewer will give you the same advice. The path to better beer is through better fermentation practices. I recently teased this topic on r/Homebrewing and got a tremendous amount of feedback and mostly agreement from homebrewers of all levels. The more I reflect on my homebrewing journey, the more I realize how much I wish I would have shifted the majority of my time, focus, and money to the cold side of the process—fermenting and packaging. See 6 tips for better homebrew next.

If I could go back in time and wave a magic wand and erase every bit of brewing equipment I’ve purchased in the past and start over with a clean slate and full wallet, I’d be one happy brewer. Dipping your toe into the homebrewing hobby is a double-edged sword. You start small, invest little by little as you grow with the hobby, and if you’re like me and love it, you eventually graduate to more advanced equipment with all sorts of features, bells, and whistles.

The problem with this progression is you end up buying a lot of equipment twice. It’s the literal price you pay by cautiously approaching any hobby really. But let’s be realistic, most people have more common sense than to invest $2,500 right out of the gate in hopes a hobby will be a hit for them. If you don’t take to homebrewing or fall off the hobby wagon, you’re left with the sting of all this equipment you no longer have any use for. A poor investment.

Shifting My Focus to the Cold Side

Fermentation was always an afterthought for me. I’ll be honest, I fell victim to the love affair of constantly researching and dreaming of the flashy 3 vessel systems with automation, pumps, and everything you could dream of. I mean who wouldn’t want a small-scale brewery in their home? Well, the truth is there are lots of ways to effectively make wort, both simple and complex, but really only one way to make great beer, and that’s through a well-executed cold-side process.

Now I’m in no way disparaging guys who have top-of-the-line 3-vessel systems and love the process of making beer as a commercial brewery does. If you love the process and the building behind it, more power to you. It has truly become the hobby within the hobby and it satisfies the engineer that lives in all of us.

The problem lies in the misconception that higher brewhouse efficiency and more complex systems make better beer alone. A well dialed in RIMS/HERMS will make great wort with increased repeatability, precision/control, and will get the most out of every last bit of grain put into it. BUT you can achieve just as good of a final product with a simple system like brew in a bag (BIAB), and that’s the truth. Sparging isn’t going to make or break your beer, but your fermenting vessel very well may.

Efficiency Doesn’t Really Matter

Brewhouse efficiency does not matter in terms of producing high-quality beer. Efficiency is just a measure of wort losses from equipment plus how effectively your system extracts sugars from grains. Most homebrewers compensate for lower efficiency by simply brewing with additional grains. Grain is cheap, so a few extra pounds is usually a matter of a few extra dollars per batch.

Efficiency matters for commercial breweries trying to profit off of their product. Higher efficiency means higher margins and fewer ingredients required to produce the same product. A more important thing for homebrewers to understand is WHAT their overall system efficiency actually is so they can replicate and more easily predict results, such as hitting your original gravity.

Simplifying The Hot Side

I hear about more and more homebrewers who have scaled way back from complex systems and moved to BIAB with no regrets. The time savings, less cleaning, and ability to produce great beer allows them to enjoy the hobby for what it is, making and drinking great beer.

Getting predictable results from batch to batch is what makes you a more consistent and better brewer. When I first switched to all-grain I had a really simple 3-vessel batch sparge system that was just about as efficient as my current electric BIAB setup. It was a rough process as I had no automation, no sophisticated temp control, no recirculation, and no pumps. It doesn’t help that I really had no idea what the hell I was doing. The process was always disorganized and I was stuck lifting and maneuvering hot water and wort.

Needless to say, my beer is way better now and it takes me half the amount of time as it used to. Not to mention a lot less cleaning and setup/tear down. The extra steps with batch sparging and lautering was adding zero value to my final product. My efficiency was honestly probably the same as most BIAB setups. It took the fun out of brewing as it felt like such a chore on brew day. I missed the simplicity of extract brewing.

What Does Matter?

What really matters with the hot side process? Water treatment, understanding and hitting your mash temps, and paying attention to the pH of the mash. These are some of the key difference makers when it comes to the hot side. All of these aspects can be dialed in using brewing software like BeerSmith or Brewfather, no matter what system you employ.

If I Could Turn Back Time…(I know you just channeled Cher)

If I could go back and start fresh all over again I would jump right into a really simple BIAB setup and buy myself a conical with temp control and every feature I could afford. Now I know this isn’t necessarily a cheap option, but if I could count all the propane burners in my garage, kettles, pumps, fermenters, mash tuns, and everything else I no longer use, I would have broken even at this point and had a lot more to show for it.

The most basic BIAB setup paired with kick-ass fermentation capability will beat a RIMS setup and a plastic bucket every time. This is an extreme example but you get the point I’m trying to make. It’s time to rethink how we prioritize our brew equipment.

You can start very basic with BIAB and eventually upgrade your system to accommodate recirculation, an electric element, automation, etc. But at least you’re working towards a singular goal with one system in mind you can build off of without extraneous extra equipment. I could have EASILY bought an all-in-one Spike Solo or Ss Brewtech V1 by now and actually SAVED a lot of money! There are so many high-tech electric BIAB systems on the market today and it’s no mistake! It’s because brewers are seeing the value in a simplified brew day without sacrificing quality.

But before you purchase a kettle you should think long and hard about the beer volume you’re looking to produce in the future. For everyone saying they only make 5-gallon batches, you should take a hard look at the magic of split batch brewing!

Expensive Is Not Always Better

Yes, you can make great beer in a plastic bucket. I totally get that and I’ve done it before. I’m not saying you should or need to spend a lot of money on equipment to make great beer because you don’t. Fermentation temp control via fridge or freezer, proper wort aeration techniques, and making a yeast starter are all really affordable and simple methods that will help you make better beer above anything else!

If you have a kegging system, fermenting in a corny keg is an easy way to seriously step up your fermentation game and give you the ability to ferment or dry hop under pressure and create a totally oxygen-free closed system that will improve the shelflife, stability, and quality of your beers. Keg fermenting is almost perfect, but it does have its caveats as well.

So what’s the benefit of an expensive conical fermenter? I think it honestly depends on the style of beer you’re looking to brew. If I’ve learned anything about brewing NEIPAs, it’s that most pitfalls usually point to poor fermentation and cold side processes. A conical may not always be better than a simple bucket, but there is something to be said for reliability and time savings associated with an all in one fermenting vessel that allows you to ferment, dump trub, dry hop, cold crash, transfer, harvest yeast, and carbonate in a single piece of equipment. That means time savings, better process control, less cleaning, reduced risk of oxidation and off-flavors, and less time hiding in your basement with buckets full of Star San and PBW.

I will say every roadblock I’ve ever run into with homebrewing was always something related to my fermentation capabilities. It’s the only part of the brewing process that will ever truly NEED to be upgraded as you progress, assuming you want to brew more advanced beer styles with the best results. If you’re looking for a solid upgradable fermenter without breaking the bank, my pick would be Spike’s Flex fermenters. These are essentially bucket fermenters with really advanced features you can add over time.

My Advice to You?

Test the homebrewing waters with a budget starter kit for a while and then go all-in if you absolutely love it. Don’t make several incremental upgrades along the way like I did or it will end up costing you twice as much. Plan thoroughly and do your research. Invest in the cold side just as much if not more than the hot side. You’ll be glad you did.

If I could share any piece of wisdom with a new homebrewer it be to focus on sanitization, cleaning, and all aspects of fermentation above anything else. These are the pillars that separate good beer from great beer. I really wish someone told me this when I was first getting started. It’s really easy to get distracted with fancy brew kettles and powerful burners and lose sight of the boring part of the process, fermentation.

Obviously, I don’t want this article to sound like the hot side of brewing is of lesser or no importance at all. It’s obviously incredibly important and should be treated with equal value. But that’s just the point, EQUAL value, not more value. I understand everyone has their own preferences, budget, and has to grow at their own pace, but hopefully, this will serve as a reminder to not lose sight of what is most important. I really wish I read something like this 10 years ago, it would have saved a lot of batches of bad beer.

14 thoughts on “My Advice to New Homebrewers: Invest in the Cold Side

  1. Nice artical. I agree completely with the philosophy. The unitank seems to be the epitome of fermentation control. The obvious downside is capital cost as well as ancillary caveats (glycol chillers or large enough enclosures for temp control, additional cleaning/sanitation of fittings, etc..)

    As a DIY homebrewer/ tig welder/ mechanical engineer/ and overall cheap a**, I’ve already purchased all the raw materials to fabricate (2) unitanks from 1/2 bbl kegs. (Side note: buying all the parts didn’t save me that much… I’d say I’m at about the 2 for price of 1 point of a retail 1/2 bbl unitank not counting the metal fabrication tools/consumables I already have, and the amount of labor I’ll have to endure)

    My overall hesitation to build out the units stemmed from still trying to simplify my brewing process and current availabilities. While I drool at the capable features of a unitank, I don’t want the extra set up time right now, and my current fermentation temp control would need upgrading (currently an upright freezer). Once I became aware of the floating dip tube and readily available accessories for sankey kegs, I decided to stay on my current regimin of fermenting in unmodified 1/2 bbl kegs and utilizing a floating dip tube w/ screen to provide enough clarification (depending on style) prior to either tranfering directly to serving kegs or into another 1/2 bbl to act as a brite tank (all while dosing with biofine during each transfer). My main reason to using sankeys is that I have a revolving door of sanitized kegs from my pro-bewer buddy for the time being, but I’m still longing for the time when I can transfer or serve brite carbonated beer from a single vessel.

  2. I certainly agree with you and your theory. Proper cleaning and sanitizing (we are glorified janitors here) goes a long way to craft the perfect pint. I’ve learned a lot in my 10 years of homebrewing with regards to process control and I agree some sort of conical fermenter is key. I’ve got the Ss Brewbucket to ferment, temp control in a mini-fridge with a heat belt and pressure transfer to kegs. That process has yielded numerous gold medals in competition and that all really started when I got my 3-vessel Spike system. Was it the system? Perhaps. Maybe it’s just better process control over time.

    I think EBIAB, grainfather, etc. are all good starting points after someone has started the hobby brewing extract. The 3-vessel systems are great when it comes to partigyle brewing and other experimentation and cleanup is still a breeze if your process control is dialed in. It’s a fun hobby and if you absolutely love it, definitely invest in it. Glycol systems are pretty pricy, but you can achieve great beer with other methods of temp control.

    Your articles have been great. Certainly a breath of fresh air over those west coast experimenters. They can learn a lot from you!

  3. Man! Where was this article in 2012?? I guess half the equipment and techniques mentioned weren’t really around back then. However, the main concept could have saved me so much trouble the first 6 years of homebrewing.

  4. Man this hits home! I have gone through countless set ups, but have settled on a no-sparge set up with a single kettle and large cooler with a bazooka screen. No sparge, no chill into a corny, fermenting under pressure. The quality has really gone up and the work load way down

  5. I support so much of your advice. I find that people who invest in complicated systems often stop brewing because it becomes too much work to set up, clean and put away. I only do all grain. I started with a 10g stock pot with a bag clipped into a crab basket. I upgraded to a fine mesh basket for less than $100. An example is here.
    I can stir, add heat, step mash, sparge, squeeze if I want. I’ve recently upgraded to a 20g kettle and had a matching basket made. I chill with an submerged coil. Aerate with a paint mixer in a hand drill. I split the 10g batches into two 7g stainless kettles (bayou classic). They fit perfectly in a 7cf chest freezer with temp control. The lids act as an airlock. And make access easy for sampling, gentle stirring etc. Everything is super easy to clean. I often pitch two different yeasts or dh for experiments. I stopped messing with secondary fermenting. I just cold crash the fermenters then keg. No bottle nightmares. I think the hobby would be more popular if we did a better job of promoting simple systems. Nice job in that department.

  6. Thanks! I’ve been reading some of your articles and they help a lot. Can you do an article on water chemical additions?

  7. Great advice.

    I started with a brewzilla 35l. Still use it. What I have upgraded is my plastic fermenter to stainless. My hope for the best temp control to a adapted refrigerator for the best temperature for style. Hasn’t let me down yet.

    That said can’t wait untill I can upgrade to a better brewing system. As you said, the hobby within the hobby.

  8. Just found your site and really like it. Keep ’em coming! Great advice here, and very timely for me: I’m trying to decide the best path forward for incremental upgrades and I think this article convinced me to focus on the cold side for the time being. Thanks!

  9. Damn dude, this article may have just made we give biab a go. I’ve had a 3 tiered system for close to 20 years, its an all day process from setup to teardown. If I could replicate that with this simple system, I’ll do it! I totally agree on the cold side. I’ve been using a old milk fridge that can hold 4 corny kegs, and a diy BrewPi with great results. Cheers to a great article!

    1. Former homebrewer here and joined the ranks of the pros 11 years ago. Upgrading my temp control on the fermentation side was the single biggest positive influence on the quality of beer I produced back then. Spot on advice. You can make better beer with extract and temp control than all grain with no temp control.

  10. Great article and I totally agree.

    I use kegs as my fermentation vessels and see three main limitations:

    1. Trub separation (which a conical provides)
    2. You need a temp controller and fridge/freezer to manage fermentation temps (as opposed to a fitted glycol sleeve)
    3. Perhaps volume

    What are the other limitations of using kegs as a fermentation vessel?

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