Going from Hot to Cold: Transition like a Boss

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What's the most precarious stage of homebrewing? To me, it's going from the hot side to the cold side. That all important period between the end of the boil and the start of fermentation.
I call it The Transition.
On the front end you have the hot side. A nice, long boil. You can kick back and relax a little. Maybe get some cleaning done. Toss in some hops every now and then.
On the back end you have fermentation the most hands-off stage of brewing. You did your job and it's now up to the yeast to work their magic.
In between you have The Transition.

Why is this phase so important? A handful of reasons:
  • You cool the beer, so it suddenly becomes susceptible to infection. You can no longer rattle off my favorite homebrewing phrase: "f*ck it, it's preboil." You actually gotta' be careful now.
  • Yes, fermentation is mostly in the hands of the yeast. But like a good boss, you need to set your workers up for success. Fail to set the right conditions and your beer will pay the price.
  • There's a lot happening. Depending on how well you prepared, it can be downright chaotic. I can't tell you how many times I've cooled to my pitching temperature only to realize I forgot to sanitize my fermenter. Or I forgot take my yeast out of the fridge. Or I still need to find that regulator that's been missing for weeks.
  • Since it's the end of the brew day you're exhausted, and maybe even a little sloshed. It's VERY easy to forget something at this point. My best example of this was after one of those disastrous brew days when everything goes wrong. I was completely spent. And it showed, because I forgot to dump the 3 gallons of Star San out of the carboy before racking the wort into it. Oops.
But fear not! Here are some tips to keep you on track:
Have your gear ready
It's amazing all the "little things" you need right after the boil. Just a sampling, ymmv:
  • Fermenter
  • Stopper and airlock
  • Funnel
  • Flameout hops
  • Tubing
  • Aeration equipment
  • Spoon for whirlpooling
  • HopRocket
  • Thermometer
  • Hydrometer & jar
  • Beer thief
  • Yeast
  • Fermentation chamber, ready to go
And most of these need to be sanitized. The most foolproof way to remember it all is to work from a checklist.
I try to have all this gear ready before I start cooling. Otherwise, Murphy's Law states that something will go wrong, I'll get distracted, and will accidentally overchill the wort. Or forget to sanitize something.
It gives you peace of mind when you're chilling your wort and everything for the next step is in place, sanitized, and ready to rock.
Prepare for liftoff
This step, or steps I should say, have made the biggest difference in the quality of my beer. You need to set the ideal conditions for fermentation. Do so and your yeast will reward you. Don't, and they'll make you one bummed out brewer.

Here are the key steps to get ready for fermentation:
  1. Pitch enough yeast. This is a biggie. Use a yeast calculator like Mr. Malty to figure out how much you need. There are a lot of tips that could fit under this step that we don't have time for. In short: Only use clean, healthy yeast. Make a yeast starter. And step up your starter if you need to. If you're working with a monster starter, chill it for a few days and then decant the wort that's on top. You don't want to add nasty, oxygenated wort to your precious new batch.
  2. Aerate. Using pure oxygen is ideal, but if you don't have the setup then shake the hell out of the fermenter for at least 60 seconds.
  3. Pitching temperature. Pick a temperature and do your best to hit it. While chilling the wort, I know getting those last 5 degrees can brutal, but it can make a big difference.
  4. Fermentation temperature. You don't always ferment at the pitching temperature. A common practice is to let the beer free rise to a higher temp. It's a good idea to go into fermentation with a plan of what temps you want to hit.
Any great tips you've picked up to make The Transition go as smoothly as possible? Let us know down in the comments.
Billy Broas heads up The Homebrew Academy, where you can find tips, videos, and online courses for brewing world-class beer at home. He's co-author of the book Craft Beer for the Homebrewer, a certified BJCP beer judge, and his beer philosophy is that "we should all be beer geeks, not beer snobs."
Great advice as temp control and pitching enough yeast is very key to a successful brew.
I would say another huge tip is to not brew intoxicated. I have found that when I started refraining from drinking until I have pitched, my batches have also improved and I am not scrambling as much. "Relax and have a homebrew" after the brew day is wrapped up and the yeast is pitched.
Where in that list is your immersion or counterflow wort chiller? Did I miss it? I will sanitize the bucket either while waiting for the boil to get there, or once the first boil hops are dropped. Usually have 30-45 minutes before the next addition to sanitize and then move the sanitizer out of the fermenting bucket. I use my phone's timer to remind me to get back to the garage (I chill using the laundry sink in the basement, garage/patio for mashing/boiling.
Agree with bbohanon - I don't drink usually while brewing. I wait until the wort is going into the bucket before cracking a brew. I usually brew first thing when I wake up Sunday morning. I had my water all set up and ready to go in the garage the evening before. Started at 7 a.m. and the beer was in the fermenter with the yeast by Noon.
@jezmez68 Yup the wort chiller should be in the list. Good heads up. I sanitize my plate chiller with near-boiling water during the 90 minute boil.
These days I normally wait until the yeast is pitched to crack a beer, although if you never drink during brew day then you're missing out on the miraculous experience of a Hot Scotchy!
Brewing without drinking...blasphemy! I just keep it to one (or if a hot summers day, a couple of session ales/lagers).
I always sanatize the carboy right after chilling my wort. Get it down to pitching temp, pull the immersion chiller out, pull the pot out of the sink, rinse chiller and then stick carboy in the sink and fill with water and idophor. Let sit 4 minutes after filling, dump, funnel, pour wort, dump in yeast, shake it like a maracca (which is often funny trying to shake 40-50lbs of beer!), airlock it and carry it down to my basement.
I do frequently find myself having to do things like run to another sink to wash my hands, because I am doing stuff while chilling the wort and realize my hands probably aren't all the way clean.
The other lesson I have learned, I CANNOT do this outside/with a garden hose. At a brew event, sure, but I need to be indoors to do the chilling and stuff otherwise. Just too many steps that are messy and/or I need access to an honest to goodness sink to make my life easier rather than a garden hose.
The actual brewing however, works a lot better for me outside with a propane burner.
For aeration, I've been using a hand mixer (beaters properly sanitized). It creates a foam 'header' after a few minutes. Dry yeast is sprinkled on top. Not sure whether that's good or bad, but no problems so far.
"Eh, it's hot-side" is my favorite thing to say when I goof before chilling. "RDWHAHB" is my favorite thing to say after chilling :)
Well done! Finally, somebody put the hot side aeration issue to bed once and for all. Eff it, it's hot-side. Hot side doesn't matter. Gospel. I like it, and I'm using it as my go to phrase for now on. Eff it, it's hot-side. Thanks!
I agree with most of this (though you overdramatize it at a few points), but as long as your fermentation chamber can cool your beer that last few degrees, that's often the best way to go. Getting those brutal last ten degrees with a chiller can waste almost as much water as the first 140. Unless you're pitching a monstrous, highly-active starter, your ferm chamber is probably going to cool the beer down to ferm temps before it really takes off anyway.
I picked up a cheap submersible pump at the hardware store, and now recirculate 4 ten pound bags of ice through my 1/2" copper immersion chiller. It works like a charm. My last 5 gallon batch went from flame-out to 65 degrees in under 8 minutes! That makes the Transition a No-Brainer for me these days.
I do exactly what GrillaRays does with a cooler/ice/cheapo recirc pump that I picked up at the big box store. Keeps the water usage low and I can always use that recirc'ed chill water to help clean up with once the wort is chilled. I hate wasting water..
I've sprung leaks on my immersion chiller several times so I'm committed to doing a thorough check and tighten all those connections during the boil.
Also I brewed outdoors last December while it was 18F outside. I had made sure to keep my garden hose detached inside my garage earlier in the fall but, sure enough, I had a chunk of ice hiding somewhere in the line. Threw off my whole cooling process. I basically had to bring the hose into my laundry room, run HOT water through it until I unfroze the line then switch back to cold and resume coolign my wort. PITA and my wife wasn't too thrilled having this garden hose running through her house in winter with the door cracked open.
It's always the little things that get me. HOwever, I remember them and add to my checklist for next time. Cheers!
Funniest comment I've read in a long time...I always felt kinda ashamed when drinking in the shower, but now I know I'm not the only one!
You touched on this in the article and I'll follow up with a phrase that is used in Avaition and applicable here, "In God we trust. Everything else we checklist."