Written By Timperial Stout
As of yesterday, DSR and I have completed 5 collaborative batches of beer on the 10 gallon gravity-fed homebrew system that we built together. Some, great success. Others, massive failure.
It goes without saying that, in these early days of experimentation, we have learned a great deal about brewing beer at home. I’d like to share some of those things with you, just in case you are thinking that it’s about time to stop only drinking other people’s beer, and start making your own.
Also, I recently started working at Homebrew Heaven up in Everett, and am learning massive amounts with each passing day, so listen to me people!
The number one rule, when getting into homebrewing, at least from my experience, is to be prepared to spend a lot more money than you initially calculate. Honestly, I’m not complaining when I say that. For people like DSR and I, who absolutely live and breath beer and will pretty much do anything to make good beer, money is about as close to no object as possible. But if you are feeling a little bit on the fence about it because of the initial investment required, your worries are legit. Take a couple of extra months to save up.
Here’s a few things to think about when determining your budget.
Your kettle/brew pot is your baby. Though the “magic” mostly happens in the fermentor, most of your labor will revolve around the kettle. Make sure you get one that is much bigger than you think you need. Boiling over is a lot easier than you may imagine, and it sucks something fierce. I’d go with a 9 gallon pot for a 5 gallon batch. We have a 15 gallon converted keg for our 10 gallon batches and it’s not big enough. Also, get a spigot and thermometer installed. Mash temps are crutial, and the Blichmann Brewmometers really makes life easy.
While on the topic of suping up your brewpot, I’d highly recommend getting a kettle screen. Whole leaf hops just feel more official, but they can seriously be a pain in the ass to infuse into the wort. Reusable steeping bags are really hard to clean, and chances are good that you’ll end up having to re-buy. With the screen, you can just toss the whole leaf hops into the boil and you won’t have to worry about jamming up your spigot. You’ll also get a better infusion of the lupilin. The best part is, it’s a “buy once and done” item. That, I think you’ll find, is a bit rare in homebrewing.
This leads me to my next point – you must factor in the reality that a lot of the items used in brewing are extremely fragile. At the very least, expect to break your hydrometer, test jar, and airlocks at some point along the way. Also, if you get at all lazy about cleaning and drying your hosing, racking cane, cleaning brushes, etc., expect to have to replace them at some point. Our carboy brush got rusty somehow, and our raking cane hose got all moldy on the inside. Quite obviously, these items were swiftly replaced. After all, like I’m sure you have heard a million times before, cleanliness is everything with brewing.
The last subject I’d like to breach at this time is the dilemma of bottles vs. kegs. Like with almost everything in homebrewing, the better option is more expensive at first, but much easier and cheaper in the long run. Bottling sucks ass. What do you think sounds easier, cleaning and sanitizing and filling and capping 54 12 oz bottles/30 22 oz bottles or cleaning 1 corney keg (5 gallon batch)? You’ll have to refill your co2 tank every couple of months, but believe me, it’s totally worth it. Yes, this may require a large refrigerator or kegerator, I know, but make it happen. It’s almost ChristmaHanuKwanzaakah right? Wish wisely.
This one is brought to us by Amateur Hour, our good friend Erik Baldwin. Enjoy….
Home Brewing is a Lot Like Fishing
(And other observations of mildly compulsive pleasuredrinkers)
In the same way that a lazy parent bribes an annoying child with candy to stay quiet during an important phone call, the Beer Blotter Crew bribes me with promises of public exposure to keep my fingers out of the sparge during the brew process.
Act One: The Dedicated Amateur
Amateurs like to speculate. From our position, hovering like fruit flies around the rotting tomato of professionalism, we’ve learned that the best way accomplish any goal is to slightly modify expert instructions by adding our own clever shortcuts. Flying in the face of safety, logic and tradition, the dedicated amateur can turn even the simplest task into a labyrinthine convolution of do-overs and back pedaling. This is evidenced clearly in the homebrew process.
“Wow, that looks pretty lumpy” (Poke the sparge with my car key)
“That’s not sanitary. You could contaminate the entire batch”
The dedicated amateur knows the best way to deal with a contamination issue is to hope for the best.
“Nah, It’ll probably be ok, my car keys are pretty clean, as far as car keys go. I drive a BMW”.
Act Two: Yeah, I’ll be back in a minute
Anybody who’s ever brewed beer at home knows it’s a waiting game. Waiting for water to heat up, waiting to add grain, waiting for wort to cool down… Bah. The dedicated amateur recognizes these gaps in productivity as opportunities to drink beer somebody else has conveniently brewed for you.
Because of repeated and prolonged absences during the brew process, much of the amateur’s understanding of how beer is made is gleaned from questions ex post facto.
“So, did you guys add the hops yet?”
“No, we’re just sanitizing the kettle right now.”
“Oh, for sure, yeah. Let me know if you need anything, I’ll be inside for just a quick second.”
(2 hours pass)
“Boy, that malt really smells good, when are you going to add it?”
“That’s trail mix. I brought it to snack on.”
The dedicated amateur, above all else, knows better. When he sees someone struggling at a simple task, such as seating a cork firmly into a carboy, he is more than willing to do it right for them.
“Damn, this cork isn’t fitting right.”
“Here, let me try it.” (plop) “Yeah, no, it doesn’t fit. Somehow it fell right in. Is that a problem?”
“Get the hell out of here.”
I don’t anything about home brewing. Its a fact.
Ok, well its a partial fact. Subjectively, many would say I know nothing about home brewing – and I would never argue. The extent of my knowledge comes from a half-cocked reading of Charlie Papazian’s Complete Guide to Home Brewing. Good book, little absorption without action.
So its time to take a numbskull, absolutely overdue step and put together a system. How do I do it? Where do I go?
Well people like to talk about the internet these days. Apparently its a resource. We start and end the bulk of our daily research at the world wide web, without knowing the reliability of our sources. But this is a reader powered world. Content produced by bloggers is tangible and it makes sense. So I decided to trust my instincts and start with a Google search bar.
Here are some quick flash in the pan ideas, my research and my proposed result. In the end, I’d love it if you would share your feelings about these proposals in our comments below.
What is Home Brewing?
There is a must read: the aforementioned Papazian brewer’s bible – The Complete Guide to Home Brewing. Get the book, read it and then begin your search for additional questions online.
Charlie is a teacher. In that respect, he knows exactly how far to push you before you begin to ask questions. His writing is simple, basically scientific, and practical.
But what really would help is a starter system as you peruse the book. If you have a friend that has a stove top system, I would implore you to read a chapter and then go and dabble. Translating the words into tangible actions will make the experience better – I can almost guarantee.
Once you have a better understanding of brewing basics – peruse the web for answers. The Home Brewers Association has a nice website; so does Basic Brewing Radio, who offers a podcast. All it takes is Google and a search term.
How Do I Build My Own Brewery?
Lets not get too excited. Building a “brewery” is not simple. I thought it might be – I was a bit rambunctious.
Take it slow and do not over invest if you do not have to do it. Do not simply think about how much beer you can make – but the cost of ingredients, how it will be fermented, where it will be fermented and how it will be stored. Answering these follow up questions will dictate the type of system that you build.
For me – the converted sankey keg system was the perfect size. This system will allow us to brew 12 gallons a beer each brewing session.
Converted kegs are relatively easy to construct. Homebrew Heaven, in Everett, Washington took our old kegs, cut the tops, added gauge portals and spigots and returned them to us in just a week. Oh yeah – and we got a nice lid for the kettle.
There are three main types of converted keg systems:
(1) 3 Tier System (Gravity Based With No Pumps)
(2) RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash System)
(3) HERMS (Heat Exchange Mash System)
Each system has its pluses and minuses, based mainly on the battle between cost and ease of use. You can read more about it at this nice online debate.
The optimal type of keg system is wholly dependent on you, your budget and your stress level. For us, we have decided to go inexpensive, and easily alterable. Thus, we will be building a wooden three tier structure that can easily be obtained, built, modified and tossed out if we decided to upgrade.
A gravity system allows us to focus more on the brewing process (ingredients, temperature, variables) and not the equipment (pumps, hoses, etc.). Though it would be nice to be afforded all of the convenience, love and sex appeal of a single level RIMS or HERMS system – we are going basic.
How Do I Build My Brewing Structure?
Well, lets assume that I want to make a 3 tier structure. I do, so this is easy.
We need to first determine whether or not we will be able to weld this sucker. If so, great. If not, no big deal – wood exists. There is a growing misconception that only metal racks will suffice. Unfortunately, metal racks mostly require welding (or good tools to bore holes/cut pieces), are extremely heavy and get really hot. A wooden structure can solve most of these problems, as it is lighter, more easily fastened and dammit – more appealing to most.
But what about the fire hazard? Do not worry about the heat. Find yourself a nice diagram and you will see that heat is projected upward. Get yourself a nice burner (see below) and you will see that it is mostly shielded, keeping heat inside.
To add extra protection, you can fasten sheets of 3/4 inch plywood below the burners to prevent heat from escaping towards your structure. You can also add a sheet of metal to the bottom of your burner that can be spaced off the plywood using washers. This allows a nice air vent between the wood on your structure and your burner’s bottom.
What Type of Heating System?
There are systems (like HERMS) that do not require gas/propane heat sources. If you go that route, you likely do not need to read this article. You probably are more ambitious than me.
Again, we aim to keep it simple. If you are using a normal gas/propane heating system, you want to make sure you have adequate burners. Lets discuss some of these options.
Bayou Classic is the leader in outdoor propane burners. They make systems from anywhere between 25000 BTU (British Thermal Unit – measurement of heat) to north of 200000 BTU!
Other burner outfits like King Kooker make similar products, but they do not seem to be as well received by the brewing community (though there are always those who swear by them).
But there is clearly a consensus that the Bayou Classic Kick A Banjo Cooker is the best burner on the market. Kicking out a mind-bending 210000 BTU from a 10 inch cooking surface, the Banjo Cooker can get your pot boiling in half the time of more conventional cookers and even has a 30 PSI regulator that makes high pressure brewing a reality.
For those of you ambitious folks, the Kick A Banjo Burner can be purchased as the burner only for roughly $25.00-40.00 out on the web. You can buy these burners if you intend to weld the burner into your upscale brewing rig. For us, the stand-alone version with the add on regulator does the trick at $70.00-80.00 a piece.
Get 1, 2 or 3. If you get three – awesome. If you can only afford 2, ditch the mash tun burner and turn out a quickly boiled liquor tank and kettle wort. If you can only get one, best to use it on the liquor tank so that you can get your sparging water to boiling temp in no time.
How Do I Make a Beer?
Once you have your system screwed together, your new converted kegs cleaned and ready to roll, and your burners fired up – we need to make beer. Well, I already told you that I am not an expert so I’m on that same road with you. Luckily I have been traveling down that road for some time and found a few nice guides to help you make a tasty beer.
The Brewing Network – This is a collection of beer brewing recipes, tips, techniques and how to’s. Its definitely the location of my primary resource – once we begin brewing. Its repertoire includes the Jamil Show (read below), Brew Strong and Sunday Meet. Check out the podcast on developing your own yeasts!
Beer Recipes.Org – Amazing mass of beer recipes from around the world. Not much else to say here – there are a ton.
Beer Recipator – This website is very useful if you have to convert a lot of things for batch size, metric units, etc.
Homebrew Chef – Sean Paxson makes awesome food with amazing beer. His food recipes are unmatched and if you get the opportunity to eat at one of his beer dinners – do it. Sean also publishes interesting beer recipes that both look good and can be easily understood. Check out the Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA clone recipe he published. Yes, please.
The Jamil Show – The Jamil Show is probably my favorite read on brewing recipes. Its also the source of the 120 Minute IPA recipe above. Each week award winning homebrewer and author Jamil Zainasheff, along with co-host Jon Plise, covers a specific beer from a well-known brewer – and tries to clone it. Wow – cloning Nogne Porter?!
Remember, your local homebrew shop has a ton of recipes as well. Check them out when you go to pick up your ingredients.
I hope that you all foray into homebrewing soon. Please let us know if you have any additional information that might help us as we begin our own journey. Leave any comments below!