This isn’t exactly a recognized hobby, like raising miniature horses, but miniature homebrewing is something I’ve fallen into and at least for now — a few batches in — it makes a lot of sense for most batches I’m brewing.
Miniature Homebrewing has at least three components I’ve identified so far: brewing small batches, using lightweight carboys, and bottling in small bottles.
Go Half-Batch. The standard batch in homebrewing is 5 gallons, a quantity which brings to mind my father’s occasional excursions into the kitchen when I was a child, which always involved an elaborate, all-day production of some party food, such as chopped liver, cooked in gargantuan quantities that had me bringing chopped-liver sandwiches to school for weeks. (One week, great. Three weeks of that, and it’s only due to my half-Jewish ancestry that I still crave chopped liver.)
For a novice brewer, five gallons can mean about 8 sixpacks of bad beer (or even just average beer) which if you are like me you will feel compelled to drink, one grim bottle at a time, So It Doesn’t Go To Waste. (Full disclosure, I hid one sketchy batch in the bottom of the linen closet and am trying to forget it exists.) That, and you’re battling — storing, lifting, lugging, and ultimately bottling — a 5-gallon vessel of fluid.
Consider going small. You will need to use (and halve) a recipe, since kits are universally focused on the 5-gallon “standard.” Your local homebrew store can sell you the ingredients for a halved recipe — one of their own recipes, or something you find in a book. And once you start using recipes, then you’re really having fun.
Yes, it’s almost as much work and time for half the amount, but so what? How many of us have slaved for hours — maybe even days — over a dinner for six, only to watch it gobbled down in thirty minutes? Brewing four sixpacks is pretty reasonable by comparison, particularly if you hit your limit early, as I do, or if you do not have an entire Man (or Gal) Cave devoted to storing your beer, or you want to go wild with some wacky Radical Brewing recipe but you aren’t quite sure how much you’ll really like a beer that is 17% jaggery sugar and an unfortunate pinch of fenugreek.
Half-batch brewing is also much less energy, water, and bottling effort, and by adapting all-grain recipes to partial mash (a discussion for another post), I can brew some very good “advanced” beers in the kitchen, rather than going into exile out on the patio with the turkey fryer. Yes, I know, some homebrewers love their outdoor brew sessions, but I like my lair — I mean, kitchen.
Use plastic carboys. For my first several batches I just used a food-safe plastic fermentation bucket. But then I wanted the experience of watching the beer ferment (yay yeast! better than TV), and I also had batches that for various reasons needed to be drained to another container after a week or two (or “racked to secondary,” to use brewing jargon).
Lifting five gallons of beer is hard. Lifting five gallons of beer in an immense glass vessel would require two or three of me. I would probably drop it… cut a major vessel… and bleed out on the floor of the sun room. (No lie, people have ended up in the emergency room due to major cuts from dropped carboys!) Even half-empty glass carboys are formidable — and of course, breakable.
Whether you are brewing large or small batches, food-safe plastic carboys, such as those made by Better Bottle, are safer, saner, easier on the arms and back, and, it is reported, less expensive, due to the rising cost of shipping glass (which is due to energy — so there is a “green” angle to this as well). True, plastic carboys scratch more easily, so don’t use brushes; fill them partially with OxyClean and warm water, shake, let sit, toss in a washcloth, and shake again, and they will come sparkling clean.
Not only that, but I bought two 3-gallon Better Bottle carboys, and now I can lift my half-batches.
Finally, Bottle small. I’ve gathered a very good collection of 12- and 16-ounce bottles from friends and the local Freecycle list, but I eventually went to my local homebrew store and bought a box of two dozen 6-ounce bottles… and soon returned for another box.
Going small on the portion size is the other direction from many homebrewers (“Dude, I’m chuggin’ a 24-ounce IPA!”) but a perfectly fine place to be. 6 ounces works out to a red-wine glass, which is perfect for meals or for that nightcap during Law and Order.
Small bottles are also useful for taste-testing the beer during its evolution, particularly if you’re brewing small batches. Also, if the beer has any kick to it, I’d rather have a smaller serving; when it’s time to brew the Christmas barleywine, I won’t use any other size. Finally, calorically, 6 ounces of beer is easier to work off than 12.
Small is good. It’s worked for my brewing. The only sad spot is when I brew something very wonderful and I know I’m going to run out of it soon. But the 6-ounce bottles buy me more time–and when in a week I break open my half-batch Two-Hearted Ale clone, I’m hoping that I enjoy it tiny bottle by tiny bottle.