Homebrewing in the Winter: Tips for Brewing when it's freezing outside
The arctic-freezing-polar-vortex-winter-chillabone is here! It seems like the temps keep getting colder and colder and much of the country can't catch a break, so I thought we should talk about the thing on many brewers' minds this time of year: How the hell am I supposed to mash in when I can't feel my fingers?
Well, rest assured that it can be done, and those freezing temps can actually help you out.
A Few Frosty Pointers:
First, make sure you are well organized going into brewday. Get your gear out and ready to go before you open up the garage door or move it outside (minimize contact with that artic blast!). If you traditionally do a lot of your cleaning or chilling using your outdoor garden hose, be sure to bring it into your house or garage the night before you brew so it thaws out before you run water through it. It's fine to run the hose when it's freezing outside, just be sure to detach it when you are done (or when not in use if it's really cold outside; insulating the faucet is also a good idea). If you bring the hose inside, put down some type of container to capture any leakage as the hose warms up...otherwise your partner will not be impressed.
If you have a garage, use it! It's safe to brew using turkey style burners in the garage as long as you keep it well ventilated. When it's fridgid outside we open the garage door while the burner is on, then close it when the burner is off (after the gasses have ventilated). It's worthwhile to keep a carbon monoxide detector and fire extinguisher nearby just in case. The warmth of the MLT actually serves as a space heater to help keep you toasty. And, a real space heater is also quite useful on days like this.
A heatstick is a tremendous asset when it's this damn cold out, as to maintain a rolling boil I don't have to use my burner at all: once I get up to a satisfactory boil I turn off the gas and let my heatstick go to work maintaining that boil. No additional ventilation needed.
One thing that I've been considering is adding a food grade hose to my gear which I could attatch to a laundry sink in the house for all of my water needs. This would be particularly beneficial in the winter as I could use moderately warm water for cleaning and could gather my liquor without running in and out of the house. Not sure how my wife will feel about running a hose out the window when it's 3 degrees out, but we'll get to that later. A lot of brewers will actually jury rig a "temporary" basin sink in their garage. Assuming the hose is long enough, this would definitely make it easier to keep warm during cleanup without the crazy expense of plumbing your garage.
Make sure you have some brewing gloves on hand, which not only help with scorching hot liquid temps but are also great for cleaning in cold weather so your index finger doesn't break off. Also, don't dump your wastewater in the driveway, lest you want your car to do an imitation of a hockey puck.
Finally, if it's REALLY cold or you don't have a garage, it's time to go old school. How about doing an extract partial boil on the kitchen stove, just like the old days? I've tasted or produced many award winning extract beers, and it would be a fun, nostalgic adventure to take you back to your roots.
Benefits of Brewing in Winter:
Brewing in winter isn't all about freezing your hops off. There are a few things that father freeze can do to actually benefit your beer. The first, of course, is cooling your groundwater temperatures. This makes chilling your beer a whole lot faster, which is nice when jack frost is nipping at your hose. In one of my former rigs, we used to drop the BK into a pile of snow outside to give the chiller a little extra kick.
Additionally, winter is a great time to brew a lager. In fact, I can only lager in the winter as I don't have a dedicated lagering fridge; and I'm OK with that. I like the old school simplicity of that concept. The aformentioned water temps help get the wort down to lager pitching temps, while the cold air temps (and cold garage or mud room temps) are great for the primary or secondary stages of fermentation.
Finally, you are less likely to have infecting organisms, bugs, or nosy neighbors show up in your beer when it's below freezing outside, which is always a plus.
So, celebrate this snowpocolypse with by planning your next brew session. You might just find that your HBS is empty when you go to pick up ingredients as not everyone has figured out brewing in winter like you have.