Automated and countertop brewing options

Automated?!? That adjective seems to draw comments like “takes all the fun out of brewing” or “that’s nothing more than a Keurig for brewing” or “I want to be hands on in the brewing process”. Well having come from completely non automated brewing and slowly progressing into somewhat automated brewing I have to say it does have it’s place in homebrewing and certainly in small batch/small space brewing for several reasons but probably the most appealing is control and consistency. With consistency comes repeatability.

First let’s look at what automated means in home brewing. There are varying degrees or levels of automation and if you look at them they are not really “push a button and you have beer” automated. I think if that level of automation should ever come to be, would be at the same level as going to the pub or tap room and asking for a beer and shazaam there is a beer in front of you.

Let’s start by looking at what they all have in common with more traditional backyard/kitchen home brewing methods?

  • Recipe selection – What do you want to brew? You either create a recipe, use one someone else has created or even buy an ingredient kit.
  • Ingredients – You buy the ingredients with everything measured out and grains milled or you measure out everything and mill grains yourself.
  • Add ingredients – you dump your measured ingredients (including water), either into a mash tun, kettle or a bin in a machine.
  • Clean up the mess – you have to dump grains, clean up hop and hot break trub, you have to clean your equipment.
  • Fermenting – you have add yeast and keep fermenter in a temperature controlled area.
  • Dispensing – you have to rack, bottle or keg your finished beer.

I think we can all agree, especially when it comes to clean up and bottling, these are very “hands on” aspects of home brewing.

Levels of automation –

  • None – You do everything by hand and control temperature by fiddling with burner valve or stove knob while watching a thermometer and control time by watching a clock.
  • Slight – You use a mill to crush your grains, you use a pump to transfer wort but you still have very basic temperature and time control.
  • Moderate – You add some sort of basic electronic process control for temperature control such as a PID or electromechanical  thermostat that controls your burner. Some of these also offer basic timer capability. (This is where a growing number of home brewers are at)
  • Moderately techie – You go with a computer based process control such as the Brew Boss, BrewTroller, Brewery Control System, BrewPi or similar control. These add a graphical user interface, pump automation and total temperature/time control.
  • Moderately techie all in one – This would be the PicoBrew Zymatic, PicoBrew Pico, Brewie. These are a brewing appliance that is self-contained with web-enabled computer based time/temperature control, pump automation and require little or no interaction by the user during the mash and brew process. They handle the introduction of hops during the boil period by redirecting wort through hop compartments.
  • Advanced – This would be extensions of the BrewTroller, BCS and BrewPi which add automated solenoid valves for water and wort flow and in some cases volume measurement so water/wort levels are controlled for you. They also can handle automated wort chilling at the end of the boil. These are also very DIY from the aspect of construction and the software side as they are open source platforms.

The brewing appliances such as the Brewie, PicoBrew Zymatic and Pico are automated to a degree but there is still plenty for the brewer to do.

The Brewie has not been released yet but appears to add water volume control as it requires a water connection.

The PicoBrew Pico is the most basic and is targeted at people that might be completely new to home brewing and want to start brewing their own beer . It offers 5L recipe kits, called Pico Paks, based on recipes submitted by craft breweries. This allows you to brew beers that sound appealing but you may never get to taste due to limited distribution by the breweries. PicoBrew is also working on creating Freestyle Pico Paks that allow you to brew your own recipes and they send you the ingredient pak with the ingredients you have chosen.

The PicoBrew Zymatic has been around since 2013 and is their more professional machine that allows the brewer to brew any 2.5 gallon recipe he or she creates with their own ingredients as well as access recipes from other Zymatic owners through the company’s website where the Zymatic owner creates and stores their recipes.

They are all small batch capable, have a small footprint for those with small space requirements and operate on standard 120V electrical service.

Countertop systems such as the Grainfather (technically sits on the floor) have moderate automation with a pump and have temperature control, operate on 120V and require little space. The Grainfather also can brew smaller batches as well as standard 5 gallon batches. The Grainfather has been successfully used for several years by home brewers in Australia and New Zealand before being released in the USA.

While these are certainly more expensive than your kettle on the stove method of brewing they also combine many elements of brewing equipment into one unit thus reducing space and equipment requirements.

When the Zymatic was the first brewing appliance to hit the market in 2013 I had the same initial feelings as most but after doing more research and reading reviews and owner’s experiences I realized it is a sound brewing process. Several AHA National competition winners brewed their beers on the Zymatic and many craft breweries are using them for recipe development.

Are these brewing appliances for everyone? No. Are they, or some sort of automation something to at least consider? Definitely, based on your budget. I just aquired a used PicoBrew Zymatic and while I haven’t brewed on it yet I am excited to start. I did have to perform some maintenance on the machine because it wasn’t taken care of so I can attest to the value. The construction, engineering and development that went into it, and most likely the other systems, makes them worth every penny. Will I abandon my current system? Nope because it produces good beer and I designed it for my situation and brewing style and ultimately I enjoy brewing on it.

I guess the biggest appealing factor to me about some level of automation is the ability to relax while I brew and focus on the beer itself, the ingredients and what they contribute to the final product and have that consistency and control that automation provides.

Cheers

 

 

The new kettle…

It’s been a long time  coming but it’s here and finished. I had a Bayou Classic 24 quart that I used for some time but wanted a heavier kettle and wanted to add some features. Like the Bayou this one has a stainless mesh basket that I really enjoy over bags.

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This brewing kettle began as a $70 “open box” Amazon Warehouse Deal Winco SSDB-20 20 quart double boiler. 20 quart size works fine for my small 1 to 2-1/2 gallon batches but for an occasional 3 gallon batch I will need to mash thicker and rinse sparge to top off to my desired pre-boil volume which I’m ok with. To start the kettle build I had Chad at Arbor Fab modify the double boiler insert by cutting the bulk of it off and creating an extended stainless mesh basket. As you can tell from the pictures they do awesome work. One reason for going with the stainless mesh over a bag was increased flow-thru for recirculating and quick draining. Super easy cleanup too, flip it over and rinse it off. I guess you’d call it Brew In A Basket.

Click here to visit Arbor Fabricating

To allow for recirculating I silver brazed in a 1/2″ triclamp fitting on the top ring of the insert. I have never had much luck with silver soldering but I found flux-coated silver brazing rods to be very easy to get great results. As with silver soldering there is a little flux clean up but not bad.

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For monitoring the wort flow I put together a recirculation assembly with surplus mini-triclamp fittings including a sight glass and valve to adjust the flow. Why? Well if for no other reason than to watch the wonderful wort go by but it also allows me to monitor flow and clarity. Part of the reason the build took so long was finding the mini-triclamp pieces at a cheap price…thank you eBay lol. I went with triclamp fittings due to the fact that, after working in a small brewery many years ago, I saw how sanitary they are, thus easy to clean and they simply do not leak. To make everything easier I have made custom length silicone hoses for my system and brew cart with the mini-triclamp fittings.

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To disperse the returning wort on top of the grain I wanted to try different methods to see what their effectiveness is so I created a few different recirculation fittings. One is a simple piece of silicone tubing that will rest on top of the grain, another is a simple shower head design and another is a perforated tube that will go all the way down into the grain and return wort throughout the mash (very similar to how the Brew Boss COFI system works, a very interesting concept). I’ll report back as to how they all work.

For heat I used a 2000W element from my Bayou kettle. I got a couple of them a few years back on clearance from a home brew supplier in Idaho that unfortunately no longer carries them but I have had great success with them. No problem boiling 3-4 gallons and if you’re patient even 5 gallons without scorching. They originally had a severely under-sized cord on them with no ground provision (probably why they were on clearance) so I made an enclosure that allowed the important grounding as well as adding a larger 12 gauge cord. The element installs the same as most 1/2″ NPT weldless fittings in a 13/16″ hole but with a flat silicone washer instead of an o-ring. It can be quickly and easily removed for a more thorough cleaning if needed. With the flat silicone washers repeated disassembly is possible without leaks. O-rings tend to lose their shape and/or squish out from behind fittings.

For temperature control there is an Auber Instrument RTD weldless probe in the kettle wall and one in the recirculation path that connect to my controller (featured here https://stainlessbrewer.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/the-over-engineered-brewing-controller/). I also have a Brew Boss temperature probe that I modified to use in the recirculation path with a triclamp fitting.

To monitor water and wort volumes I made a sight glass and calibrated it to the kettle with markings every 1/4 gallon. It is made from 1/2″ diameter polycarbonate tubing and stainless compression fittings with a vent at the top that can be removed to scrub the tube if needed. The sight glass guard is a piece of aluminum channel intended to be used as edging on 1/2″ plywood but fits snuggly on the tube and is where I stuck the graduation markings for the liquid levels. The markings are easily seen through the tube and when liquid is in the sight glass they appear magnified…great for my “getting older vision”.

The drain is a Blichmann drain bulkhead and 1/2″ three piece ball valve with triclamp adapter. With the Blichmann drain bulkhead and their ball valve the valve threads right up against the wall of the kettle and seals great without pipe tape thanks to their captive o-ring in a washer allowing for a more compact drain valve assembly. If needed I can use their dip tube with the bulkhead fitting, just like on their Boilermaker line of kettles, but I was able to mount it low enough I don’t think it’ll be needed.

To aid in lifting the basket and to support it while it drains and if I rinse sparge I made a handle out of a nylon web handle from an old duffle bag and a couple stainless clips. I also made a few supports for the basket that simply hang over the side of the kettle and support the basket about an inch and a half into the kettle to avoid drips.

While the wort drains I wanted to have a way to squeeze all the sweet wort from the grains, like those of you that squeeze the grain bag, so I made a press plate out of a piece of cutting board that I cut to just fit inside the basket.

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Since I like to “clean in place” by recirculating hot PBW solution I installed a mini-triclamp fitting in the lid that a mini spray ball can be attached. Although it is a relatively small kettle it is still rather heavy so I let PBW and a pump take care of the post-brew day cleanup. Quick rinse with kitchen sink sprayer and then a gallon or so of hot PBW solution and let recirculate for 20 minutes or so. Very little scrubbing, if none at all, is needed and it also cleans all the fittings, tubing and pump in the process. It also provides a place for a dial thermometer to rest for double checking mash temps if desired.

This build was a challenge but very rewarding at the same time. Over-engineered? Yep, but if you know me that is how I do things lol. Realistically it is a very basic build but offers a lot of flexibility and with my experimental brewing style it works great for me.

I hope everyone can use something from this build or it sparked some thought for your own kettle build.

Here is a link to my YouTube video of the kettle in action on a recent brew day… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F96P8MYNDrg

Thank you for checking out my blog and subscribe to receive notifications of new posts! Also a “stainlessbrewer” Facebook page is coming soon.

Cheers

The over-engineered brewing controller

Well I have hinted at my new controller build for the new brewing cart was coming and here it is. I had several different ideas of what I wanted in an ultimate brewing controller and those ideas were all over the map. I like to experiment in my brewing, both in beer styles and brewing methods. Most of the time I brew small batches using the BIAB method but sometimes I do traditional all-grain with multiple vessels, sometimes I want to brew a 5 gallon batch and pull out the 7.5 gallon Blichmann with the Boilcoil out of the closet and other times I hear about something new and want to try it so flexibility was important. I love the temperature control that electric brewing offers but I also wanted the flexibility to control multiple elements in multiple kettles, maybe some newer automation technology, compact yet industrial quality and above all 120 volt operation.

It started with a piece of stainless lab equipment surplus, the enclosure began its life as some sort of  lab equipment platform. I picked it up several years ago at a thrift store for few bucks. Never knew what I was going to do with it but hung on to it. When I decided to make a custom brew cart for my small batch brewing style I needed to make a controller to fit it. With only a narrow spot on the cart for something a lightbulb went off…that stainless enclosure! It already had openings on each side that had outlets but the back panel had all kinds of different unusable cutouts. I was able to cut the spot welds for the back panel and had a new piece of stainless cut and bent to fit. I laid out what needed to go on the back panel and cut the holes and then had the finished panel tack welded in place. The front panel and inside was a blank slate so I needed to think about what I wanted it do and then started to plan it. I went with a sub-panel inside to mount all the components on for easy of assembly. Having the entire bottom open made putting everything together so much easier than my previous builds. Cutting the openings on the front panel for the PIDs was less than fun. Plastic enclosures are so much easier to work on but I had this so patience and occasional swearing got it done.

The enclosure has a small footprint at 16″ wide by 14-1/2″ deep by 3-1/2″ tall. I epoxied a piece of high temp resistant Richlite board to make look more finished. I cut a piece of sheet stainless to cover the bottom. I used a surplus DIN rail with terminal blocks for electrical connections. An internal heat sink for the solid state relays with a temp sensor that controls the rear panel fan when things heat up. Incoming power cord connections are Neutrik PowerCon 32A connectors. Two 120V cords allow the simultaneous use of two elements up to 2250 watts including the Blichmann Boilcoil with twistlock plug. Each element outlet has it’s own master switch on the side and dedicated circuit breaker on the back panel. There are multiple temp probe inputs that are switchable so I don’t have to switch cables when I’m done heating the mash water and then switching to monitoring temperature in the wort recirculation path. It features a brewing event timer from Auber instruments as well as two of their PIDs with built-in timers for the mash/kettle and HLT/RIMS elements. The SWA-2451 PIDs can start a timer when a specific temperature is reached. I also have the Auber EZboil power regulator that I can switch to when it’s time to boil and it controls both element outlets simultaneously with a simple knob to vary the boil power as well as control mash and offer pre-boil alarm. There are two switched pump power outlets and an shared alarm lighted buzzer for the brewing event timer and the two PIDs with timers.

During the build I began looking at the Brew Boss brewing control and I liked the fact it was tablet controlled with a lot of time spent developing and supporting the hardware and software. It is a simple controller with a lot of advanced capabilities. One of its features is the ability to import mash temps and hop additions from a Beersmith recipe file and populate that data into the brew session program. It will also control their Hops Boss hops dispenser. I call it smart simple automation for the hands on home brewer. I like the hands on aspect of turning valves, filling the kettle, mashing in etc but also like the simplicity of automated time and temperature control. I found out that the Brew Boss was available as a DIY board kit. After some research and thinking, I knew I could integrate it in my controller build. After a getting a gift certificate for the Brew Boss website for Christmas (yes your children listen to your brewing rambling and mumbling) I went ahead ordered it. I had to add a couple multiple position switches for the element solid state relays and the main pump but it was relatively easy at this point. After a couple days of work it was working! I already had a Android tablet so I was ready to go. Now I can switch from traditional PID control to Brew Boss control whenever I’d like. On a side note I have to give props to Darin at Brew Boss…a great guy, fellow home brewer and provides great product support.

And the finished controller on the brew cart…

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Is this all necessary? No, but it fits any need I could have in my brewing. It was also a challenge from people that said “no way”, I want to say “yes it can be done”. Over-engineered? At about a year in the making and a about 100 hours of build time, absolutely it was over-engineered but if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. If nothing else it is an example that a home brewer can do anything they want and can accomplish it if they set their mind to it. Are those incredible dream systems restricted to big batch brewers with a lot of money and space? Nope, like I have said before, we small batch brewers can have anything from mild to wild. Limited budget? This project took a year and part of that time was finding the best prices for components, finding parts I could repurpose and moving forward as budget allowed. Need a workshop? Not at all, the controller was built and assembled in my kitchen. Do you have to be an electrical engineer? Nope, 90% of what I know about process control and electrical application is self-taught. Designing this controller was done mostly in my head and through doodling on paper and yes, even the cliche napkin or two. Heck there are functions of my smartphone that I still don’t understand after several years.

After all is said and done I am still about simplicity and this allows me the control over brewing while remaining hands on and I can focus on the beer itself.

Thanks for checking out the blog.

Cheers!

The Brew Cart!

Well I couldn’t wait so it’s time to reveal one of several of my projects nearing completion. I have been working on these projects for many months and this one is close enough to being completed to share it with you.

This started as necessity as I’ll soon be moving and not really knowing where I’ll be living or how big of place it’ll be. I wanted to have the majority of my brew day stuff in one small moveable unit but didn’t want to have to feel like I was sacrificing anything just because I was going small. It needed to be small enough to fit in any environment and look good, it needed to be sturdy, it needed to be functional and hold the necessities for my typical brew day, it needed to be moveable so I could roll it to where I was going to brew, it needed to be adaptable to different needs down the road, it needed to be easy to assemble with minimal tools and it needed to be reasonably priced. I think this demonstrates that home brewing at any level is possible anywhere you are if you get creative and take your time to plan.

I looked at different options and a cart of some type seemed to be the best choice and really fulfilled all I needed in a compact brewing unit. After some searching online I found that wire shelving carts were readily available in different sizes, expandable, easy to assemble and relatively inexpensive. That being said my BrewKart was born.

I started with individual wire shelving pieces from shelving.com although there are many pre-configured wire utility carts available from many sources including Amazon, Costco and Sam’s Club. The whole basic cart was less than $140 since an online sale was going on when I ordered. Many of the pre-configured carts are similarly priced so isn’t terribly expensive. My cart is approximately 31” wide x 18” deep x 38” tall overall taking up less than 4 square feet of floor space. Its height places my kettle at a comfortable position for brewing and almost matches kitchen countertop height so that is convenient on brew day when I roll it into the kitchen in front of the sink for easy access to water and it’s right in front of the window for ventilation.

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Out of the box it features locking swivel casters, a handle, a pullout second shelf and a basket style third shelf. All the shelves are standard size 18″ x 24″ wire shelves. The shelves will easily support 150+ pounds each so no worries if I wanted to do a 10 gallon batch. Assembly was easy and only required a rubber mallet to seat the shelves onto their clips. Here is where some planning is needed, take the time to figure out where you want each shelf. They are easily adjustable in one inch increments but it’s just easier if you get them where you want them the first time.

The first things I added were a black plastic shelf liner for the bottom shelf (ordered with cart) and a thick piece of HDPE cutting board material, it was found destine for the dumpster at work, to sit my electric brewing controller on the pullout shelf. I then needed something heat resistant for the top where my kettle would sit and chose a 1/4″ thick piece of black Richlite which I cut the corners out, using the shelf liner as a template, so it fit nicely on the top wire shelf. The top was totally optional, kettle can just sit on the wire shelf, but I like how it turned out.

The next obstacle was some place for taller items like my stainless mesh hop basket/strainer. I was walking through a home improvement store and noticed these pullout wire baskets that are used in kitchen cabinets and thought that would be nice since I wouldn’t have to move things to get at something in the back and stuff would be contained in the basket so nothing falls off the shelf while rolling the cart. Did a little online shopping and found a used one for $20 on eBay. I attached it to the bottom shelf, bolting it through the shelf liner and using fender washers under the shelf to span across the wires and provide support for the nuts.

Now I started thinking “what else do I want?”. How about a place to hang stuff like hoses, a spoon, power cords for the controller? Hooks! Found chrome plated hooks for wire shelves at Target for a few dollars but also available online and they just clip over the edge of the shelf. While rolling the cart through the house one day I noticed the pullout shelf wanted to roll out on its own…easy fix, I drilled a hole in the track for the shelf and used a push-to-release pin to secure the shelf in the closed position.

Now came the hardest, but still actually not that difficult, addition. I like to use a small plate chiller to cool the wort, a pump to recirculate during the mash and adding oxygen to the wort before pitching the yeast is very beneficial but how to incorporate all that in a compact fashion on the cart? While working on a commercial A/C unit at work I noticed all the major electrical components were mounted to a sub panel inside the unit, why not do something similar on my brew cart? I picked up a piece of sheet stainless steel from a local metal shop and had them bend a 90 in it creating something of a shelf. I measured the cart shelf spacing and drilled holes to match in the sheet of stainless. Using bolts, fender washers and nuts I was able to secure it to the side of the cart and it doesn’t extend past the cart handle so the cart is still the same size overall. I was already in the process of building an inline wort oxygenation assembly out of surplus triclamp pieces from eBay so I took two of the clamps that hold the pieces together and had threaded studs welded to them and attached the whole assembly to the side panel. My plate chiller had mounting studs on its back some I attached it below the oxygenation assembly. Finally was the pump and that fit perfectly on the shelf that I had bent in the side panel. So when it was all assembled it was all neatly contained on the side of the cart. To hold the disposable oxygen cylinder I reused a water bottle cage from a bicycle and screwed it to the cart pole.

For storing additional brew day items, like StarSan and PBW I added a wire basket below the side panel. I also had some small plastic storage totes and four storage bins that I added to the basket-style shelf to hold brew day items such as hydrometer, pH meter, thermometer, refractometer, carboy stoppers and airlocks, spare triclamp gaskets and clamps etc. There is still room on the bottom shelf, next to the pullout basket, for storing another small kettle, sanitizing bucket or possibly a grain mill.

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I had a surplus 3-way ball valve laying around that I never knew how I was going to use but being a nice piece of stainless plumbing I could never bring myself to get rid of it. One day while watching a home brewing video on YouTube I saw a brewer using a 3-way ball valve to redirect flow from his pump without changing hoses. Would I need it? Maybe. Would it hurt to add it to the system? Nope. I had a piece of stainless plate laying around so I mounted the valve to the cart in same fashion as the side panel using thumb nuts so it is removable/movable without tools.

While not an intentional idea of adding all kinds of stuff to the cart I did want it to be functional. Holding brew day items is being “functional” and a kettle lid is an item used every brew day. But what to do with it when the mash is done since you don’t cover the boiling wort? Hang it on the cart!

One final addition (for now LOL) was a mount for my Android tablet which has Beersmith brewing software on it as well as some music to enjoy while brewing. I used a RAM motorcycle tablet mount and clamped it to one of the cart poles.

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Now that I have a place for brew day essentials that doesn’t take up a ton of space in the house I started thinking “that’s great but it’s still an industrial cart sitting in the living room”. Well I’m no interior decorator and struggle at sewing but I figured I could do something to camouflage it a little. Being a guy going to a fabric store wasn’t to appealing so where else do you get fabric? Drapes! A quick trip to a discount store and I was on my way home with a couple modern looking blackout drapery panels for under $20. After almost an hour of what I’m sure was comical draping of the panels over the cart and pinning them here and folding them there I broke out the sewing machine and scissors. Now anyone who sews I am humbled by your abilities but after, what seemed like way too long I sewed up a cart cover. Now it looks a little less like the elephant in the room and could pass as a table? Maybe? Sorta? Anyways I think it turned out pretty good.

One more addition was a separate folding table that could be used if I decided to do a slightly different two vessel (Brutus 20) brew day for a larger batch, just wanting to do something different or just needed extra flat place to put something. A long time ago while wandering through a thrift store I found what used to be some sort of sit and twist kind of exercise equipment that I’m sure was sold on TV and thought I could use it for something. Well that day finally came and after adding a butcher block top to it, that had a previous life as a cutting board, the space saving folding brewing table was born. It sits at the correct height for a holding a kettle, below one that is on the top of the cart, and it is really sturdy.

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Here are a couple additional pictures of the whole cart so you can kind of see the idea of consolidating what some would consider brewing features reserved for the advanced home brewers with tons of space to brew in…all in the same amount of space as a coffee table. While I do have a second slightly larger wire shelving unit, which is begging for a matching cart cover, for things like grains, 3 gallon carboys and small corny kegs the bulk of what I use every time I brew is now in one place that I can easily move around and hide in plain sight. Are all the features necessary? Not at all, configure your equipment and even your storage solution to your style of brewing. Whether it’s mild or wild, high tech or low tech you do not have to be held back by brewing small batches or brewing in small spaces. Remember this is a very strong cart, there are carts rated to hold 800 lbs per shelf, and you could easily brew 10 gallon batches by doing electric BIAB and still take up very little real estate in even a small studio apartment.

Takes for checking out my blog. Subscribe to get notifications of my latest posts and enjoy brewing because you are making beer…how awesome is that?! Remember don’t be held back by being in a small space, having a small budget or popular brewing misconceptions. Stay tuned for next post on the new control panel made for this cart! Cheers.

Update! I wanted a little more brewing space but didn’t want a larger foot print. Solution? Add a folding side shelf! I actually had one from a previous larger cart so I added brackets with hooks to the existing folding shelf brackets so the whole unit just hooks on the end of two of the wire cart shelves. Folds up when needed and folds down out of the way when you don’t need it. If I really want it out of the way I can hang it off the back of the cart. The shelf will easily support 40-50 lbs counterbalanced by the weight of the cart itself.

What’s up…what’s next?

If you have been following my blog you have seen some posts on my builds, experiments, tips etc. In some of those posts I have hinted that there is more coming. Well there is…and it’s getting close but not quite yet. Sorry. I am continuing to work a few major projects for my brewing but I like to take my time and think out every angle, every possibility while still enjoying life. There will be posts that detail the projects coming soon. I’ve working on it diligently. I also have been enjoying some great craft beers from breweries here in the midwest (if you are in the Minneapolis area make it a point to stop by the Surly Beer Hall, great beers and awesome food and don’t forget Dangerous Man Brewing). I also did a first for me and started a small batch of hard cider that is almost ready to bottle or keg and I’ve been refining a handful of my favorite beer recipes. I believe and hope the upcoming posts will inspire and create discussion.

So what is going to be? What is he building? As you know I am small batch brewer but I am also someone that is trying to downsize my life for a future smaller living space, two things that in some ways might sound like they can restrict brewing and life…that is the “what’s next?” Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.

I like to brew small batches of varying styles of beer using different methods, some simple and some more complex, so I need adaptability and flexibility in my system and what’s coming will offer that. I want to consolidate and organize my brewing supplies for a smaller space. Having the things I use for brewing handy and in one convenient place is a goal for me and what’s coming will offer that. I have gotten rid of some extra un-needed pieces and can fit my fermenters, kegs and miscellaneous items on a wire shelving unit so I’m getting there.

A few things that won’t change…I like to experiment and work on solutions to problems we face as small batch brewers so my mind is always going and I’ll always be tinkering.

To give you a little tease of what’s coming here are a couple pictures to get you thinking.

Stay tuned. Cheers!

Small batch brewing primer…

If you have checked out my blog you probably have noticed that I am a small batch home brewer. I love it and it works perfectly for me and my situation. Small batch home brewing has really taken off and offers so much for the new home brewer and experienced brewer alike. It also fits the needs of those with limited space that want to brew their own beer or even make their own hard cider. Recipe and starter equipment kits are available from the majority of the online home brewing retailers such as Williams, Austin Home Brew, Northern Brewer, Homebrewstuff and Midwest Supplies as well as the company that really pushed small batch home brewing into the market, The Brooklyn Brewshop. Your local home brew shop should be able to help you get started as well and provide you with advice on brewing in general. I am a big advocate of supporting local home brew shops as they are small businesses that support the hobby. Many were there long before online ordering was around.

The process of brewing beer is the same for one gallon as it is for 5+ gallons. The equipment is a little different but only in regards to size. Any of the equipment used for brewing 5 gallon batches can be used to brew smaller batches but there are distinct advantages to using equipment sized for small batch brewing. For example the mini auto-siphon is so much easier to use in a one gallon jug than a standard auto-siphon, small fermenters allow for less headspace thus eliminating excessive exposure to oxygen but the best reason for smaller equipment is that it takes up less space.

All beer needs to be boiled as part of the beer making process, it kills bacteria and helps to utilize the bittering components of hops. Fortunately pretty much any kitchen stove will easily boil two to four gallons for small batches. This is a big advantage over five gallon batches which start with at least a 6 gallon pre-boil volume and that usually sends home brewers outside with a large propane burner.

What do you need to start? Well you can purchase a starter equipment kit but I compiled a list of what I have used on pretty much every batch I have ever made. This would be the minimum I would recommend and most of it is included in the better starter kits. Not a lot of money has to be spent for the basic necessities.

  • Mini Auto-Siphon for 1 gallon jug/2 gallon bucket or Regular Auto-Siphon for 3 gallon carboy
  • Hydrometer
  • Hydrometer test jar
  • Dial, floating or digital thermometer for mash temperature monitoring
  • Bottle Brush
  • Bottle filler wand
  • Air Lock and drilled stopper to fit your fermenter
  • Siphon Hose with Shut-off Clamp
  • Sanitizer such as StarSan
  • Cleaner such as PBW
  • Hand capper
  • Bottle caps
  • 5 gallon bucket for soaking/sanitizing bottles/equipment and using as a bottling bucket and a place to store most of your equipment.
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Brewer’s Best Small batch starter kit

 

For boiling and mashing…

Generally speaking for Brew In A Bag (BIAB) style brewing you would want a kettle that is 2 to 2 ½ times as large as your recipe size to fit all the grains and the full volume of water. That rule of thumb is good for extract brewing also as it provides room for a full volume boil. So for 1 gallon batches you would want a kettle that is 12 quart, for 2 to 2 1/2 gallon batches a 20-24 quart and 32 quart for 3-4 gallon batches. Aluminum, stainless steel or graniteware are all acceptable. For folks wanting to try one gallon batches there is a pretty good chance you have a large enough pot/kettle in your cupboard already that you’ve been using for pasta or soups.

For fermenting…

Based on your batch size these would be the recommendations for fermenters.

  • 1 Gallon Glass Jug
  • 2 Gallon Fermenting Bucket with Lid (great primary fermenter for one gallon batches also)
  • 3 gallon carboy fermenter for larger 2 to 2 ½ gallon batches
  • 5 gallon carboy or bucket fermenter for 2 ½ to 4 gallon batches

For bottling…

Any regular beer bottles that do not have the twist cap, 12/16/22 oz all work fine. You can get new or save your empties after enjoying a good craft beer variety. Swing top bottles are convenient and available in many sizes. I do not recommend bottling in glass growlers as they are not designed to handle the higher pressures that can occur during bottle conditioning, as opposed to just storing poured beer, and can become a bottle bomb. Some have successfully done it but it is not worth the risk. I also would stay away from plastic  bottles such as 2 liter soda bottles as they can absorb oxygen over time which will adversely affect the beer if you wish to age it.

Kegging small batches? Yes you can!

If you are looking to keg instead of, or in addition to, bottling your beer you are in luck as there are several good options now for small batches. There is a greater initial cost to get started kegging but the equipment is reusable and will last for years.

There are two options that I will mention as they do serve the purpose but are getting harder to find and that is the Tap A Draft System and the Party Pig System. Both use a PET plastic bottle as the storage/dispensing vessel. 5 liter Mini Kegs are another option, but again, they are harder to come by and the kegs have a limited life as the lining of the kegs begins to breakdown with time and use. The best solution, as it follows the standards of current kegging systems, is the corny style kegs and CO2 tank and regulator. Several companies are now offering corny kegs in 1.75, 2.5 and 3 gallon sizes. They all use standard ball lock fittings so they have a lot of options for expanding and dispensing. Force carbonating is also possible with these systems.

Another option that I have recently discovered and like using (especially for one gallon batches) are the new mini keg style stainless growlers. They are available in 1/2 gallon and one gallon sizes. They can handle pressures of 25 psi, easy to clean/sanitize, don’t break and are very portable so you can take your home brew to a friend’s house and they fit in your kitchen refrigerator! You can bottle condition in them or force carbonate with the right CO2 attachment. There are even faucet taps available for these. Plus you can always get them filled with your favorite craft beer and keep it carbonated for more than a couple days. Many brewery taprooms sell them and they are also available on eBay along with matching tap/CO2 options.

CO2 tank and regulator options for these small systems range from disposable CO2 cartridges in different sizes to refillable paintball tanks that are inexpensive to purchase and easy/inexpensive to get refilled at most sporting goods stores that sell paint ball supplies. These smaller CO2 systems also easily fit in your fridge with the mini keg growlers or small corny kegs. Standard CO2 tanks and regulators are also an option with these. I like the paint ball tanks since I can get them refilled 7 days a week and late hours at local large chain sporting goods store for $3

Hopefully this has given current and prospective small batch brewers some information and food for thought.

Cheers!

Small batch brewing…yes it makes sense.

Well looking back over the years of brewing I made the natural progression that most brewers have. I started home brewing in Seattle in the late 80’s doing 5 gallon extract batches. Why? Well that is basically how home brewing has always been set up, recipes were and still are written for 5 gallons, fermenters were sized for 5 gallons etc. After switching to all-grain I saw the logic in stepping up to 10 gallons, if you are gonna spend 4 plus hours brewing why not brew twice as much? Made sense and there was always someone to help drink my beer. A few years back I downsized life and moved into a smaller place but still wanted to brew but decided to stop and re-evaluate my brewing. I was in a smaller place, didn’t have a warm sheltered place to brew in the winter, I wasn’t consuming beer with such fervor and not as many people around to help consume all the beer. On top of that I was really interested in brewing more often but with my life’s restrictions how was I going to make this all work?

Brewing smaller batches was the answer! I had the answer but now what? I did some research online to see if this was a somewhat popular practice and at the time it was gaining some momentum. Today it has become a very popular alternative to the standard 5 gallon batch and many famous home brew suppliers have developed recipes and equipment kits. Ok this can work I thought but the more research I did there would always be the nay sayers with the “why waste your time brewing so little when it takes the same time to brew more?”. Well the part about taking the same time is pretty true but they’re missing the point. Yes it roughly takes the same amount of time to make several gallons of spaghetti but if it’s only me eating it then it doesn’t quite make as much sense. Same goes for brewing beer. And we don’t brew ourselves to save time or money, we brew our own beer for much of the same reasons that we cook food from scratch.

There are many advantages to small batch brewing…

Less expensive, some of the equipment you may already have in your kitchen and we are seeing an increase of brewing equipment specifically made for small batch brewing. Easy to do inside and in small spaces such as a studio apartment, almost everyone’s stove will handle boiling 2-3 gallons…a big plus when it is -10 outside with a 20 mph wind and you want to brew. The equipment needed can literally be kept in a small storage tote and stashed in a closet or under a bed. You can brew more often, experiment with different styles and recipes and still be able to keep up with consuming what you’ve made. Bottling is easier, a dozen or so bottles is no big deal compared to the 50+ bottles requires for a 5 gallon batch. Imagine bottling a 10 gallon batch in 12 ounce bottles! Less space is required to store those bottles while they condition. Kegging is still an option with kegs as small as 1.75 gallons now available and 2.5 – 3 gallon kegs that have been available for some time. Less of a monetary loss if that dry hopped Sriracha Raspberry Porter doesn’t taste as good as you thought it might. Scaling down existing recipes or creating new ones in any volume is easy with all the brewing software available for your computer, tablet or smart phone.

The only real challenges are that sometimes the hop amounts are smaller than what we normally deal with so they require a scale that can measure smaller amounts such as down to .1 ounce and maintaining mash temperatures is a little more tricky since there is less thermal mass with less grain. Both of these challenges are easily handled, small resolution scales are available online and from many home brew supply retailers. As far as maintaining mash temps it is a lot easier if your mash tun is well insulated and sized for the batch, i.e. a smaller cooler instead of trying to do a 2 gallon all-grain recipe in a 40+ quart cooler. Going the BIAB method allows for the addition of small amounts of heat from the stove while stirring to easily keep the mash in the required temperature range. I use both the BIAB and regular all-grain methods without any real problems with batch sizes ranging from 1 gallon to 3 gallons.

Think about it…Have you thought about home brewing but you don’t want to brew 5 or more gallons at a time? Are you, like myself, at a point where you want to continue brewing but have to re-evaluate you’ll continue your hobby? Are you living in a small space, want to brew your own beer, but think you don’t have the space? Consider small batch brewing. It’s a great way to get your feet wet in brewing, a great way to keep brewing when things in life change and many home brewers have come to small batch brewing and are staying here.

The American Homebrewers Association and Brew Your Own magazine have more information on the growing trend in home brewing that isn’t going away. Visit The Brooklyn Brew Shop, Midwest Supplies and Northern Brewer websites, to name a few, to see some of what’s available for small batch brewing.

New fermenter just for small batch brewers!

One thing I have struggled with, as a small batch brewer has been fermentation vessels. Try this one this batch and then try this one the next batch, back and forth. For 2 to 2-1/2 gallon batches standard 5 gallon buckets and carboys are really too large. Part of the benefit of small batch brewing is not needing as much space to brew in so a small batch size-matched fermenter would be ideal. Size matched also reduces the amount of headspace, reducing the possibility of oxidation if the vessel is used to secondary ferment in. Other things I want in a fermenter is trub/yeast avoidance when transferring, easy to fit in a small refrigerator for temperature control, being able to see the fermentation activity and not having to siphon. Oh and not having to siphon and if I forgot to mention…I’d rather not siphon. I think you get my priority here.

Current choices for small batch brewers are carboys, glass or PET plastic and the old go to…buckets. I’m not a fan of glass carboys due to weight and chance of breaking one, it happened to me once and that wasn’t pretty so we can scratch glass carboys off the list. Next is PET carboys…not bad, light weight, spigots are available to avoid siphoning, and for the most part they unbreakable. Downside to the PET carboy is cleaning. Cleaning is a bit of work since they are plastic and can scratch so a brush is not recommended. Spigots are available in two company’s PET carboys and do work ok but installing or removing the spigots is less than easy. Now there are buckets, cheap and easy to get inside and clean and you can install a spigot if you’d like…downside is anything around 3 gallon in a food grade bucket is hard to come by and you can’t see what is going on inside and that also limits the ability to determine where the trub/yeast is when transferring. What is one to do? Start looking online and do a lot of web searches that’s what.

Well I a stumbled on a website belonging to a new small company focusing on small batch brewing called Brew Demon and they offer a 2 gallon conical fermenter with a spigot!

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I was impressed to find another company focusing on small batch brewing and had to try one of the fermenters but had some questions. I shot them an email with a question and mentioned I blog about home brewing with a focus on small batch brewing and equipment and was interested in trying one. Nick from Brew Demon quickly replied with the answer to my question on a specification detail and actually kindly offered to send me one to try and review here. So here we are and let’s see what the fermenter is like.

It arrived well packed and it requires minimal assembly, simply attach legs to stand and put the spigot in. A note of caution, be sure the rubber washer is installed on the outside of fermenter with taper in towards the hole in the fermenter. Snug up the nut on the inside but don’t over tighten. Nice feature is you can easily get your hand inside to tighten the spigot nut without any special tool and the easy access will surely make cleaning easy. Once the spigot was installed I put in some water to cover the spigot and checked for leaks. There was a little drip but I just moved the spigot a little and tightened it a little more. Again, not much force is needed to tighten it enough so it doesn’t leak. I let it sit with water for a while and no leaks.

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Now a few details about the fermenter. It is marketed as a 2 gallon conical fermentation system but has an actual capacity of just a little over 3 gallons so it is perfect for 2 to 2-1/2 gallon batches.  There are molded volume graduations on the side of the brown colored plastic fermenter body, which is a nice touch and will come in handy. The brown tint reduces the effect of sunlight on the fermenting beer yet still allows you to see the activity during primary fermentation. It has a small footprint and will easily fit in a small apartment-sized refrigerator for temperature control if you’d like. The spigot is barbed for tubing. If you use a standard 3-piece airlock (which is available from Brew Demon also) it would be about 20” tall and will fit in an 11” square space. The large screw on lid makes for easy access for cleaning, adding yeast and dry hopping if you like. There is a vent cap that allows CO2 to escape and still keep the nasties out. A drilled stopper can replace the cap so you can use a standard airlock. Their “Bubbler Upgrade” comes with the drilled stopper, airlock and a gasket for the screw-on cap to make it airtight so all the CO2 escapes through the airlock. The body of the fermenter can be removed from the stand for cleaning. The conical part has space for approximately 16oz of liquid/trub/yeast below the spigot. While it is not a true conical, with a bottom dump valve, small batches would loose too much volume in that process so it isn’t missed. The conical benefit in this case is that it limits the surface area of yeast/trub that the fermenting beer is exposed to which is a big benefit especially for longer fermentation times.

My beer choice to try out this fermenter is a pale ale, simple yet tasty. Before starting I gave the fermenter a quick wash and a good rinse. The brew day went well, while the beer was chilling I sloshed around some Star San in the fermenter for a few minutes and let some drain through the spigot to get it sanitized also. The pale ale was chilled and I drained it straight into the Brew Demon fermenter. Got about 2-1/4 gallons which is fine. Now I pitched the Safale dry yeast and here is another benefit of the larger opening, easy to sprinkle on top of the wort instead pouring straight down the middle of a carboy opening. More yeast actually in the wort instead of clinging to the sides of the carboy neck! I moved it to my fermentation chamber, which is a mini fridge, and it fit perfectly. Taped the temp controller probe to the side and let the yeast do it’s thing

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Even without using an airlock I was able to see the active fermentation when I checked it 12 hours later. Now to let the yeast do its work in their new conical home. Well after 7 days I decided to take a sample to get a specific gravity reading and having the spigot was awesome, quick and easy. The pale ale was ready to keg and the yeast/trub deposits were well below the spigot and easy to see through the fermenter side. The pale ale finished and I had my keg sanitized and was actually about to grab my auto-siphon when I had to stop myself…we don’t need no stinking siphon! Not having to siphon and still leaving behind all the sediment was awesome and alone worth switching to this fermenter. I simply started the flow to keg slowly to make sure I wasn’t disturbing any of the sediment and the transfer was great. This will be a very clear beer.

 

 

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Overall I was very impressed with this simple little plastic fermenter and I am looking forward to fermenting my next batch in it. Truthfully the only con I can see to the Brew Demon 2 gallon Fermentation System is no airlock, but that is minor and definitely not a deal killer.  After all, my trial batch finished fine without using one and no indication of infection at all. After fermentation begins the beer is blanketed in CO2, which prevents infection, and the vent plug prevents bad things from getting in the fermenter while allowing excess CO2 to escape. After transferring the beer to my small keg clean up of the Brew Demon fermenter was very easy, I removed the spigot to soak and using a little PBW, water and a dish rag and it was like new.

So I would have to give the Brew Demon two thumbs up and recommend new brewers and small batch brewers check out their website. I don’t review many things but I appreciate honest user reviews so it’s easier for us to spend our money wisely. That said I hope this review helps other home brewers. I enjoyed doing this review and honestly like the fermenter. Thanks again to Nick at Brew Demon for sending me the fermenter to try and the great customer support.

Cheers