I have always liked milk crates. When I was a kid, they made for great fortresses, traps and storage for action figures. When I got older, they were a cool tie-in to music, with crate digging vinyl being a romantic idea that I rarely actually participated in. Then I finally moved into my own house and they were a useful way to move stuff in, a perfect size carry a good amount of small items without getting too heavy or unwieldy.
A lot of the same ideas from above are some of the same things that make milk crates a great tool for homebrewers. The biggest thing I use them for is to hold large numbers of bottles. Standard sixteen quart, square milk crates hold twenty five standard, long neck, twelve ounce beer bottles. Obviously, that is one more than a case.
A five gallon batch, for me, usually yields just over two cases. Yes, a full five gallons will yield you fifty six or so bottles, but in reality, with loss for trub, racking, et cetera, fifty bottles is usually right around where I land.
Until recently, I had a huge number of cardboard beer cases in my basement. This worked out fairly well for a long time, rotating out old cases pretty regularly. Last Winter, though, I started getting some water in the basement and lost a lot of cases. Some others seemed okay, but eventually got really gross thanks to hidden dampness.
If you’re a homebrewer, let alone a homeowner, you know that mold is one of the last things you ever want to find. It didn’t get that bad, at least not that I could find visibly, but there was definitely some musty odors and I went on a mission to eliminate all cardboard from the basement.
I had about five milk crates that have been kicking around since the days when they were used to by Magneto to cage the X-Men in some very epic battles. To hold all of the bottles that I have accumulated in over three years of brewing, though, I needed a lot more.
After asking around, I got a few from some friends and got the advise to ask at gas stations and grocery stores. The advice didn’t pan out for me, but it is worth a shot if you’re looking for some free milk crates.
Then I decided to take my search online. There seem to be a pretty steady stream of offerings for milk crates on Craigslist, but they are obviously in demand because they disappear as quickly as they show up. Some of these listings offer free milk crates, most list them for a few dollars and some have seemingly absurdly high prices for “vintage” and “antique” crates. Ultimately, this approach never worked out for me either. If you live in a more populous area, it may work out better for you.
Eventually, I was getting frustrated and decided to suck it up and pay for some new milk crates from The Container Store. At $10 a piece, these things were not cheap. They are advertised as “the real thing” and really are identical to some of the milk crates I have from old dairies, just without the logos. This is great, because they are extremely sturdy and a durable, especially compared to flimsy imitations available at places like Target and Walmart, but it makes the price tag sting all the more knowing that most other ways of acquiring these crates are much cheaper, all be it for second hand merchandise.
At this point, I was up close to fifteen milk crates, which was enough to get by, but I was still keeping my out for more. And that was fortuitous because a couple weeks ago, on a drive home from an adventure with Amy involving retired horses, ringing rocks and a new German restaurant, we passed a yard sale in the process of shutting down due to rain.
They were packing their stuff up in milk crates. After passing the house, I got Amy to drive around the block to come ask about their milk crates. A brief interaction, trip in the rain to a barn on the property and $20 later, we went home with ten more milk crates.
Now, after months of searching, I finally have enough milk crates to house all of my bottles with a few left over for other uses. All of my brewing equipment lives in the basement but most of the brewing takes place in the kitchen and backyard. Carrying all of the little gadgets for various brewing tasks can take a few trips, but a milk crate can cut down the stair workout.
Aside from moving lots of small things, the crates are great for carrying one large, heavy, awkward, liquid filled item. I recently told my horror story of breaking a carboy, but even with durable plastic, the threat of dropping and spilling all your hard work is ever present. Five and six gallons carboys both fit nicely in my milk crates, which are equipped with handles that make them much easier to transport, especially on the aforementioned stairs.
Milk crates may not be the easiest items to procure, but they are well worth the effort, weather you’re a homebrewer or not. And get that cardboard out of your basement.