An imaginary brewer recently said, “When you happen upon Munich malt, brew Märzen!” Never one to turn down sound advice I started planning for a brew and realized there was a minor problem.
I have been doing lots of daydreaming since I started working from home on Friday, March 13, 2020. Another major life-changing event occurred on that same day; my 23-year professional relationship with Springfield Brewing Company also came to end. As with many key decisions in life, that was a hard choice to make, but it was time to turn a page and move forward, and was something I wanted.
For the first time in 30 years, I was without a place to brew beer. That was my minor problem. I knew this would be the case, but it wasn’t real until it was. You know the feeling, right? That’s when my imaginary brewer friend shouted “Dude! You need to start homebrewing again!”
The soul searching and serious conversations with myself began; I was struggling to determine what a kid like me needs to happily brew. After much ado about brewing, I figured I needed to explain to myself why I needed to brew and how I was going to approach my brewing system. For a long time, the “why” for me has been focused around the love of the fundamental ingredients. I’m not just saying that I love malt because I work for a maltster, but malt has always driven me towards continual exploration of flavor. Hops have captured the imagination of many brewers, but for me, malt has a wider spectrum of flavors and aromas than hops. And malt brings color, foam-positive proteins (yeah, hops are also foam-positive, but not as much as malt), body-building dextrins, and fermentables. No malt, no beer. One commonality among most modern malts is that intensive mashing methods are not required, and when a brewer needs multiple mash temperatures, decoctions and hot water infusions are handy methods. More on that later. The other thing I needed was a practical way of continuing my conversations with other brewers.
This introspective talk about brewing setups turned into a months-long paralysis by analysis. The problem is that I am totally fascinated by brewing gizmos and doo-dads. Seeing pictures of incredible homebrew setups tugs the brewing engineer in me towards that cool factor that comes with technology, stainless steel, floor tiles, and a tool for everything a brewer needs. But the reality of cool brewing gizmos is that they take up space, don’t have many other uses outside of brewing, and can be expensive. I decided that my design objective was to buy/build something that would allow me to address the “whys” while also trying to be as minimalistic as possible; my internal mantra became KISS . . . Keep it Simple Shell (my middle name).
What follows summarizes some of the conversations I had with myself and the outcome. My reasons for sharing this are not to boast about my fancy setup or the new brewing wing of my house because what I built is not fancy and my garage doubles as my brewing wing. The reasons for sharing are that I see the same sorts of questions come into BYO and on social media forums that I had as a young brewer almost 35 years ago and, apparently, things have not really changed much. The difference between then and now is that there is so much mind-blowingly, cool stuff for homebrewing that new brewers may feel that they need to upgrade their simple systems to stay current. I don’t agree. Brewers need tools to do what is needed for them to brew. In my case, I selected simple tools, and so far, knock on wood, my beers are turning out pretty darn good as judged by my candid palate.
Many a commercial brewer views their brewhouse as their favorite tool. It’s the thing that embodies what it means to be a brewer. Yet, at the end of the brew day, brewers know that we produce wort and yeast are the invisible magicians that transform our wort into beer. Some brewhouses are stunningly beautiful while others are rough and tumble. Peel away the outward façade, and we see some fitted with all the latest bells and whistles and others with solid bones unfazed by the most negligent of brewers, but with little of the modern pizzazz that catches the eye of the technophile. Individual brewhouses have their own peculiarities, sounds, vibrations, and happy places. Brewhouses don’t lie and technologically advanced versions don’t make mediocre brewers great. If you want to know a brewer’s skill and attention to detail, ask their brewhouse.
I decided to go old school; rectangular coolers, C-PVC sparge and wort collection assemblies, and stainless ball valves to control wort collection and sparge flow rates. Keeping with my KISS approach I used the same size cooler and ball valve for my hot water reservoir and mash tun. Why the simple design? Most malts these days don’t require intensive mashing and work quite well with the infusion mash method, so I figured it wise to build something around the norm, not the exception. For decoction mashes, an 8-quart pot and strainer from the kitchen is all the borrowing needed, and I am good to go. And of course, hot water infusions are another handy way to heat a mash.
My choice of water heating for mashing and sparging is also old school in that my brew kettle and propane burner are used to heat water and boil wort. My brew day begins by heating ~9 gallons (34 L) of reverse osmosis (RO) water to 180 °F (82 °C). Brewing salts are added, the water volume needed for mashing is moved to my mash tun, and the balance moved to the hot water reservoir. Yes, the water in my mash tun is too hot for mashing, but that is the idea as the hot-hot water heats the mash tun (with the lid closed), and then is easily cooled by stirring the water to help with surface cooling until the strike temperature is reached, followed by mash-in.
The mash tun lid is closed, and a few bits of equipment are dropped into the water reservoir — a large slab of Styrofoam with a ~3-inch (7.5-cm) hole lays on top of the water, an Anova immersion water heater/circulator fits into the hole, and a volume-calibrated PVC tube hangs in the reservoir. I dubbed my heating contraption the “Floating MacGyver” because if the real MacGyver homebrewed, he would have totally heated hot water like this. The Floating MacGyver is usually used to maintain hot sparge water at a set temperature, but it is capable of heating water if the kettle is occupied when more hot water is needed. The slab of Styrofoam does a great job at minimizing heat loss from the surface and makes mounting the immersion circulator a snap.
My brewhouse budget was reserved for a nice kettle and propane burner setup. I selected a 10-gallon (38-L) MegaPot 1.2 without an outlet valve, a 55,000 BTU Backyard Pro burner, and a copper immersion chiller. This simple kit has worked very well for me; the kettle hasn’t once come close to a boilover, my wort is nearly boiling when wort collection is complete, the evaporation rate is way more than needed, my immersion chiller does what it is supposed to do, and there are no invisible wort contact surfaces to worry about cleaning. I decided against an outlet valve on the kettle because I wanted the flexibility to use my kettle for something other than brewing if the urge arises, and an outlet valve is often attached using threads and thrifty ball valves are usually not hygienically designed.
Thoughts About Cleaning
A major challenge with brewing on any scale is cleaning and sanitation, especially when it comes to equipment and processes that follow wort boiling. It’s hard to imagine how different things were before much was known about wort/beer spoilage bacteria and yeast. Add to this the lack of hygienically designed equipment and funked-up beer must have been rampant and extremely difficult to troubleshoot back in the day. Even after scientists and brewers understood more about microbiology, hygienic processing was challenging because much of the equipment we take for granted today was simply not available.
My approach to cleaning and sanitation is simple. I prefer seeing anything that touches wort or beer. Invisible or hard-to-see surfaces, like the insides of pipes, hoses, valves, or heat exchangers should be hygienically designed and be chemically or thermally sanitized before contact with post-boil wort or beer. These simple rules are pretty easy to follow and help avoid brewing tools and techniques that can cause microbiological issues.
Not having a mill was not an option for my project, and I selected a solid two-roller mill that works equally well when powered by a drill motor or a hand crank. Investing in a mill is totally unnecessary for homebrewers who buy malt from a supplier who offers milling, but owning a mill does give control over a very important part of the brewing process. Malt milling affects yield, mashing through its effect on undermodified malt bits, ease of wort collection, and wort clarity; I wanted control over my own grist. And my decision to buy a mill is continually affirmed when I read questions asking if pictures of barely-cracked malt kernels are normal for milled malt. Milling malt at home fits into my project objectives and it’s really not that big of an investment. So that’s the gist of this bit about grist.
Brewers ask a lot from their yeast, and we often have unrealistic expectations given the poor working conditions some of us give our co-workers. Yeast working in a controlled environment produce better beer than yeast operating in unsteady conditions. That’s just a simple fact of brewing. A great bit of beer nerdery is found by reading about how Gabriel Sedlmayr II applied Carl von Linde’s newly-invented refrigeration machine to brewing at Spaten in Munich, Germany. I figured if controlling cellar temperatures was revolutionary to brewing 125 years ago in Munich, it is one of those things that just has to happen at home.
I again went old school with fermenter selection and chose glass over stainless steel. Long story short, the cost and complexity of modern fermenters make perfect sense for commercial brewing, but scaling this technology down to homebrewing or nanobrewing scales does not make sense to me if the goal of cool kits, i.e., fancy fermenters, is to reduce production costs. Small-scale brewers don’t make enough beer for this to monetarily pencil out. But that’s a fun conversation to be had over a few beers. Costs aside, I like to see what’s going on in the fermenter during fermentation because a lot of information can be gained through visual observation. “Old school” in my mind takes me back to the early 90s when I was a student at UC-Davis and a brewer at Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hübsch. All of the Davis lab fermentations at that time were carried out in glass carboys placed in temperature-controlled rooms (ale, lager, and cold-conditioning) and all lager and weizen fermentations at Sudwerk at the time were carried out in open fermenters. The simplicity of these methods have always appealed to me.
The bottom line is that my KISS design ended up with the purchase of a small chest freezer (referred to now as my cellar), external controller, and a Big Mouth Bubbler (BMB). This set-up is working well for fermenting and cold conditioning ales and lagers over a wide range of temperatures.
Finicky things with these choices
Because freezers do not have internal fans, the position of the probe sensor is critical because of the temperature gradient in the chamber. A true limitation of having only one cellar is the inability to have multiple beers in various stages of fermentation and aging simultaneously in process. A second cellar or a refrigerator is definitely needed!
Although I have been very happy with my 6.5-gallon (25-L) Big Mouth Bubbler (BMB), I recently revisited the MacGyver School of Design by replacing the oddly-fashioned carrying harness that comes with the BMB with a sturdy, milk-style crate. The BMB’s large lid requires applied pressure from the top to completely seal and the carrying harness has a removable attachment for that purpose. Eight, carefully-positioned, ¾-inch (~2-cm) holes plowed into the upper section of my plastic crate was all it took to allow the most functional portion of my BMB’s carrying harness to be attached to my crate. The retrofit looks a bit janky, but it is solid and easier to use than the harness that gave me fits. Score #2 for MacGyver!
Carbonation & Packaging
I had to revisit my goals a few times when considering how to carbonate and package my beer. My decision for homebrewing had two main objectives: 1) Allow me to play with different raw materials, and 2) Keep my feet wet lest I become a gasbag without his own beer. If the only things I wanted were to brew beer, enjoy the fruits of the brewery with friends and family, and make carbonation and packaging as simple as possible, I would have gone 100% into draft. Period. End of discussion. Unfortunately, that was not going to work for me. Plus, funds could be saved if packaging convenience was traded for some ongoing labor.
Short digression about racking . . . it makes sense. I made the decision to ferment all brews in my BMB at an adjustable cellar temperature and then rack from the BMB to a keg where three different approaches to carbonation can be used. One method is to bottle condition (the sidebar below shows some simple conditioning math). The upside to bottle conditioning in my setup is that time in the cellar is minimized because once fermentation in my BMB is complete and the yeast has settled, the beer can be racked, primed, and bottled. The downside to bottle conditioning is that it forces bottle conditioning on many styles that are not typically carbonated in the bottle.
Spunding is a robust alternate to bottle conditioning that is hard to really mess up. Some brewers spund in stainless steel when the fermentation is about 1.5 ˚Plato (1.006 specific gravity) above terminal, others rack at this point into a lagering vessel, and others allow primary to run its course before racking and adding kräusen beer or priming sugar. All of these methods work very well, and the choice of method depends on how diligent one is with sampling and how easy it is to kräusen if that is your chosen path.
I happen to be a fan of racking when fermentation is nearly complete, then adding enough priming sugar to produce all carbon dioxide required for full carbonation. This simple method also minimizes the volume of beer sacrificed for gravity checks. One benefit of being able to see what’s happening in the fermenter, especially when using a handful of yeast strains with known fermentation habits, is having a really good idea when active fermentation is nearly complete. And if there is more fermentation going on than meets the eye, no worries because excess carbon dioxide from racking early and/or adding too much priming sugar/kräusen is simply vented from the spunding valve. Once pressure is established, gas production stops, and any time-related rests are complete, it’s time to hit the cold cellar. This is a reminder that I really need a second cellar! At this point, draft beer can be enjoyed or the beer bottled using a counter-pressure filler.
Luckily, my project budget did not require funds for a counter-pressure filler as I had one from many years ago. So, I opted to invest in reusable, half-liter, E.Z. Cap, flip-top bottles that I can fill, fob by tapping (if required), and close without any assistance. The key to counter-pressure filling is cold beer, wet glass, a bit of practice, and a clean place to rest the filler when both hands are needed to close or crown a bottle. Safety glasses should always be worn when bottling because bottles can explode when pressurized before filling. Seriously. Wear safety glasses when bottling.
Spreadsheets and Brewing Software
There are really some awesome brewing software packages on the market. Not much reason to build spreadsheets for brewing unless you really like brewing math and developing cool spreadsheets. That brief thought had my imaginary brewer friend chastising me for even thinking about buying brewing software because I like brewing math and building spreadsheets. Starting from a clean slate was long overdue for me and kicked off the real design phase of my project by sizing my vessels based upon what I wanted to do with my equipment. My aim was to rack 5.3 gallons (20 L) of beer into a Cornelius keg, so I worked backwards to determine my pre-boil wort volume. These calculations are handy for brewers of all scales and are provided in the sidebar below.
Process control and automation appeal to gearheads and practical brewers alike. Cool factor, technologically advanced, fail-safe, consistency, expensive, labor-savings, safety, complacency, laziness, and boredom are some of the topics that may arise when discussing automation with those who have worked with highly automated process equipment. I made the command decision to go with a minimal level of powered assistance, but I did use a few modern creature comforts to help me in my pursuit of great beer. My design premise was intended to exercise my mind and body, as in move around as opposed to poking at keys, while simultaneously dragging me out of the house. What I have works for me, is reliable and easy to use, didn’t cost too much money, and, most importantly, it is mine!
The only electrically powered devices that are part of my system are my electric drill motor, immersion heater, and cellar. In my book, temperature control is key for reliable brewing. One thing I find interesting when looking at the shiny brewhouse systems offered in the market is the total lack of insulation on most heated vessels, which is one reason why heated mashing systems, like RIMS (recirculating immersion mash system) and HERMS (heat exchange recirculating mash system), are so common. My old school use of plastic coolers may appear simple and crude, but they definitely don’t lose heat like uninsulated, shiny, vessels (especially those without lids).
The only special bit of control I purchased is an external thermostat for my cellar. I chose a Baylite BTC211 unit that has an output for heating and an output for cooling. This article is not a how-to article, but if you are in the market for this type of device you need to be sure the controller has enough power to match the current requirement of your refrigerator/freezer/heater plugged into the controller.
You may be wondering how liquid is moved in my system given the lack of any pumps. I use human power, gravity, and gas pressure. My brew day starts by heating mash and sparge water in my kettle. This hot water is transferred the old-fashioned way using a 6-quart (6-L) cooking pot and a bucket. Water is “ladled” from the kettle using the pot, transferred into a 2-gallon (8-L) bucket, and carefully moved to its destination. Sparge water and sweet wort both flow by gravity. Cooled, hopped wort and beer after primary are transferred by siphon, and carbonated beer from my keg is moved using gas pressure.
The inspiration from the simple method of water transfer came from a talk that John Mallet of Bell’s Brewery gave at a MBAA (Master Brewers Association of the Americas) meeting a few years ago about touring some very old brewery sites in England. In his presentation he discussed how medieval brewers used long-handled ladles to move water, mash, and wort. In fact, there are three old brewing tools shown on the crests of many brewing organizations, such as the MBAA: A mash paddle, a long-handled ladle, and a malt shovel.
I also have four battery-powered devices — a digital thermometer, two digital scales (one for salts and hops and a second for malt), and a pH meter, that all rank highly in their usefulness to brewing. Rounding out my brewing equipment are three hydrometers with integral thermometers (0–8 °Brix, essentially the same as Plato, 8–16 °Brix, and 16–24 °Brix), and a few graduated cylinders.
My journey into brewing started with extract kits, moved into to some funky all-grain methods in the late 1980s, took me into an awesome world of commercial brewing that is a story unto itself, and, now, I am again brewing beer at home.
What is my point? Good question! It’s simple. We homebrewers should know what we want to do with our hobbies, amass the tools needed to accomplish our goals, and look for relevant advice. My advice, for what it’s worth, is simple. Raw materials are the brewer’s palate. The brewhouse is the paintbrush. If it’s art that you seek with brewing, look towards your palate and not your brush.