There are endless ways to improve beer. Homebrewers and professional brewers alike constantly make changes from batch to batch, aiming to reach the right recipe — all with the noble goal to create beer they like to drink, and to share with others. Along with recipe tweaks and fermentation techniques, another way to boost beer quality is with new or more advanced equipment.
Brewing equipment can be expensive, though, and many tools only have one purpose (what else are you going to put in that conical fermenter?). For this reason, upgrades to better equipment can be cost-prohibitive. One emerging method that’s catching on in the homebrewer circuit is sous vide homebrewing, which, depending on your budget, is a relatively affordable way to up your homebrewing game. It does this via the sous vide immersion circulator: a tool priced around $100 that maintains water bath temperature within extreme precision — 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit — for long periods of time.
“Sous vide” (“under vacuum” in French) is a slow- and low-cooking technique in which food, usually meat, is cooked in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag in a bath of water for a long period of time. Although typically used for cooking food in vacuum-sealed bags, sous vide involves keeping contents to specific temperatures, a constant concern for homebrewers who need to get water to a certain temperature and maintain it as precisely as possible. Homebrewers are using sous vide devices with immersion circulators to make the brewing process more efficient — and more compact.
On the heels of the holiday season, many homebrewers find themselves with sous vide devices, such as an Instant Pot (interest in sous vide devices spikes around the holidays, when shoppers are searching for a gift for their food-obsessed friends). Homebrewer Doug Boczek, like many “foodies,” received his sous vide device as a Christmas present. He used an Anova sous vide to prepare food for four years before integrating it into his homebrew process about a year ago.
“It’s definitely improved the quality of my beer,” Boczek says. “The biggest part of consistency in brewing is maintaining temperature during the mash process.”
Boczek is far from alone in the realization that sous vide immersion circulators can be an instant upgrade in homebrewing. The devices have become so recognized in the brewing community that the active Facebook group “Sous Vide Beer Brewing” grows by roughly 20 members a week. And there are dozens of posts to the popular subreddit “r/Homebrewing” featuring questions about getting started using a sous vide device and troubleshooting mechanical issues.
Anthony Neuberger, a homebrewer of 10 years and active member of “Sous Vide Beer Brewing,” used an Instant Pot as part of his transition to all-grain brewing. “It took me a few batches before I got the efficiency right, but eventually I got an extra few percent out of it,” Neuberger says.
The combination of consistent heat and better water-to-grain contact from the immersion circulator assisted Neuberger so much, he’s now brewing all-grain batches at 80 percent efficiency. He no longer needs to correct his original gravity with extract.
Cost and Space Efficiency
Sous vide brewing, homebrewers such as Neuberger find, is also cost-efficient. “If I brew the same all-grain beer with malt extract, malt extract would cost $15 to $20 more [per batch],” Neuberger says.
For those brewing outside on propane burners, sous vide mashing also saves on gas costs by reducing the amount of propane needed for each batch.
Beyond cost savings and enhanced quality, sous vide machines allow brewers to make beer in small spaces where it might not otherwise be possible.
Blogger Brian Kinney of The Modern Journeymen travels the country in an RV and writes about his experiences fermenting beverages and food in tiny living quarters. Kinney uses his sous vide (also an Anova) to make two-gallon batches of beer. He says this allows a much smaller footprint than his former mashing method, for which he used a cooler.
“I do brew-in-a-bag in a pot with a screen between my circulator and the bag,” Kinney says. “This way, it can circulate the wort without ever risking coming in contact with the grains.”
Scorching sugars on the heating element (for example, a finicky burner on a small stove) is a risk for any homebrewer, and sous vide eliminates this risk.
Kinney says using an Anova allows him to finish an entire small batch brew day — from heating strike water to transferring wort to the fermenter — in just three hours. (This can typically take double that time.)
Boczek, meanwhile, brews with eight gallons of water, proving sous vide can handle full-sized batches — his sous vide method can maintain mash temperatures as well as heat water to strike temperatures.
“There are times where I’ll fill my water kettle the night before, put my immersion circulator in it, and let it heat overnight,” Boczek says.
Hands-free homebrewing is not the goal, however. Sous vide devices are integrated into the brew day. And it doesn’t stop at wort — there are myriad uses for sous vide in the homebrewing process, from pasteurizing fruit before it is added to a fermentor, to maintaining correct temperatures while kettle souring. (For the real geeks out there: Sous vide also helps control kveik yeast fermentations at 86 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.)
How to Use an Immersion Circulator for Sous Vide Brew-in-a-Bag
Step 1: Heat strike water.
Option A: Use an external heating source to heat strike water.
Option B: Set the sous vide immersion circulator to strike water temp and allow it to heat overnight or over several hours depending on batch size.
(Note: You will need to factor in evaporation when using this method.)
Step 2: Add grain to water.
Gently lower the bag into the water, ensuring water is flowing through the bag and surrounding all grains.
Step 3: Insert sous vide immersion circulator.
Check that the bag is far enough from the machine’s uptake that it will not be sucked into the machine. Or, use a screen to block the bag from the machine uptake.
Step 4: Remove sous vide immersion circulator.
Use an external heat source to heat to a boil, and continue the brew day as normal.
Step 5 : Clean coils immediately.
To avoid buildup on heating coils, clean your sous vide immersion circulator immediately. Simply fill a vessel with equal parts vinegar and water, insert the sous vide, and set the temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to use only white vinegar — other vinegars may contain sugars or dyes. When the sous vide reaches temperature, the cleaning is complete.