Article

Equipment Mods

It took me roughly 12 months with lots of late nights in the barn while a newborn and a 4-year-old made sleep a luxury in the house. But the night I flipped the switch on my RIMS (recirculating immersion mash system), 2-tier homebrew system is a night that I still remember 9 years later. Now, not every homebrewer is a gearhead, but I do think every homebrewer is a tinkerer at heart. By nature, homebrewers are always trying to improve upon the craft of brewing. They are not happy simply purchasing beer found on store shelves, they want to improve upon those creations and make it their own. Likewise, they often are not happy with just the basic, rudimentary equipment that they started in on either: They want to modify.

So these impulses give rise to system upgrades . . . for many homebrewers this is more than just a single desire for an upgrade but rather it’s a laundry list of wants. Some of these modifications can be simple and with one item the upgrade can be complete. Other DIY upgrades can take weeks, months, or even years to complete. Over the next several pages, we’ve compiled several modifications and projects that just about any homebrewer can handle. Some of these may not be for everyone, but hopefully there will be something in the following pages that inspires you to modify. Embrace the tinkerer found inside you. My homebrew system was a giant leap forward for me and still brings me joy. I’m constantly adjusting and modifying it to this day and as fellow gearheads might appreciate . . . it’s currently scheduled for an upgrade.

Fermenter-Chiller System

Brian Budris • Wayne, New Jersey

I used to chill my wort with a counterflow chiller while pumping from the kettle to my 12.5-gallon (47-L) MoreBeer! stainless steel conical fermenter. Over time, the chiller became less and less effective, and I would have to pump very slowly to hit my target temperature. When I looked inside of the wort chiller with a small flashlight, I found that the inside coil was coated with beerstone, which was acting as insulation against heat transfer and causing a major contamination risk. Unfortunately, the strong acids that would have been required to remove the beerstone would also eat away at my copper chiller, so that was not an option.

My solution was to chill the wort inside of my fermenter using a JaDeD King Cobra, an angle drill with an external speed controller, and a Jaybird Whirlpool Paddle. The coils on the King Cobra are very low profile, so they sit perfectly in the fermenter’s cone, and are fully submerged even when I brew 5-gallon (19-L) batches. The whirlpool created by the drill and paddle make the immersion chiller work just like a counterflow chiller, without having to worry about what’s hiding inside of it. The coils of the King Cobra are held apart by spacers, which allows for fantastic circulation around them. I can cool 10.5 gallons (40 L) of wort from 200 to 70 °F (93 to 21 °C) in just under 5 minutes using 50 °F (10 °C) tap water.

I built a rig to hold the drill in place using angle irons, angle brackets, and some scraps of 2×4. The drill is held steady with a couple of spring clamps. My rig rests on the top edges of my fermentation chamber, but adding a couple of perpendicular 2×4 scrap boards to the bottom ends would allow it to sit on the rim of the fermenter. 

To bring the project to the next level, I made a dust cover out of an aluminum pizza pan to protect against airborne contaminants. The only things that need to be sanitized are the fermenter, chiller, whirlpool paddle, and optional dust cover. No need to sanitize transfer hoses or valves as long as the wort is above 170 °F (77 °C) during transfer.

Graduated Copper Sight Glass

Brock Ayers •West Bend, Wisconsin

Most of my components were purchased from bargainfittings.com. I bought a weldless thermometer sight gauge kit from them and added the copper pipe to it to have volume markings. The kit came with everything I needed to install the weldless bulkhead and polycarbonate tube. The website has the directions for adding the kit to a kettle/keggle. I followed the steps and added it to my 15-gallon (57-L) keggle, but couldn’t figure out how to make permanent volume markings on it. That is until I saw a 1⁄2-in. copper pipe I had on my workbench from a previous project. I fit the pipe over the poly tubing, and it fit perfectly!

I cut a narrow slit in the pipe the long way and tried to keep it as even and straight as I could. I then slid the pipe over the poly tube and began filling my keggle a half gallon (1.9 L) at a time, marking each half-gallon (1.9 L) mark with a Sharpie. After getting the marks all made, I had a homebrew to think about the best way to cut the slits in for the volume markings. I took a die grinder and made even cuts at every Sharpie mark. I then sanded the whole pipe including deburring all the cuts. I then wet sanded the pipe to polish it a little. Next, I slid it down over the poly tubing and admired the work. 

I will make another one in a little while and refine the look a little more. A few modifications I may make would be using a hacksaw to make the volume marks so they are more precise and neater looking. Also, I would make the 1⁄2-gallon (1.9-L) cuts shorter than the full gallon (3.8 L) cuts to be able to distinguish them easier. I’ve also thought about seeing if I can etch the copper using salt water and a 9V battery to etch numbers at every full gallon mark in the pipe. I also plan on adding a thermometer to the end of the stainless tee as well.

All in all it was a good project, definitely serves a purpose, and will be better with version 1.2!

Homebrewery Tap Signs

Mark Osbourne • Arnold’s Cove, Newfoundland

I’m sure I’m not alone out there when I say that what started out as a simple idea to make some cheap drinkable beer quickly turned into a hobby intended on making good-quality homebrewed beer, and that then became an obsession with making the highest-quality beer. The simple beginnings of pots and pans on the kitchen stove, then propane burners and Igloo coolers in the garage, to what has now become PID controllers, pH meters, and microscopes in my homebrewery.

The science behind creating beer is quite complex, with an almost endless number of variables contributing to the final product. Temperature control, wort pH, and yeast pitching rates and viability are all crucial elements that are made easier to control with more advanced equipment. However, as important as science is in brewing I believe that the art is equally important. “Craft” beer was born out of this artisanal spirit and creative genius. All you have to do is walk into any craft brewery and look at the brightly painted tap signs for an imperial hefeweizen aged on tequila and chipotles to see evidence of that.

As homebrewers, we have the freedom of endless creativity. In fact, I spend as much time dreaming up names and creating labels for beer as I do with the science part. A fun little “upgrade” that you can add to your homebrewery if you keg your homebrews is tap signs. My design is pretty simple; basically all you need is a few pieces of board, a couple small eyehooks and J-hooks for each sign, and some chalkboard paint. I used pre-primed flat profile 1×3 MDF molding because it was already primed and the chalkboard paint would adhere well to it and make a good writing surface. You can cut your boards to whatever dimensions suit your area, give them a couple of coats of chalkboard paint (spray paint works really well), put an eye hook on each end of the top of the board, and a J-hook on the bottom of each end and you’re done! You can stack as many of these as you like. I find chalk markers work really well on the boards as they allow for cleaner lines on the artwork and they are a lot less messy and wipe off well with just water.

You can now get creative with your beer names and artwork — the only limit is your own imagination!

Simplistic Motorized Grain Mill

Ed Elliott • Mountain Top, Pennsylvania

I have been brewing all-grain for about 10 years and, as I get older, I find it more tedious and cumbersome to mill grain with my hand drill. Squatting down in a catcher’s stance and hunching over for 5–10 minutes to mill the grain just wasn’t as exciting as it used to be. I had seen other homebrewers (and professionals) motorize their grain mills utilizing a 120v motor, pulley, and belt. While they work great, it just seemed like a lot of work to get the milling speed correct. Plus, guarding the pulley and belt to make it safe seemed like a hassle. I thought, “What if I could use the same drill I had been using to mill my grain, just wired to a dimmer switch?”  I went to work designing, measuring, and ultimately building my milling station out of scraps I had around the house from previous projects.

I cut the cord from the drill in half and wired it to a household dimmer switch, which is then wired to the plug that goes in the wall outlet. The dimmer switch is great for controlling the speed of the mill. I mounted the mill itself on a hinged plate, which allows me to tip the mill forward and clean the grain dust out of the chute. I made the chute from some duct work that I picked up at the local hardware store (the only things that I purchased for the build). The chute funnels the crushed grain into an HDPE 15-gallon (57-L) tote. Finally, the entire station is mounted on swivel wheels, so it is easy to move around on brew day. 

I am very happy with the way this project worked out. Future plans are to stain and polyurethane all of the wood, as well as build a larger hopper.

Simple But Effective Pump Switch

Adam Daniels • Winfield, Indiana

I was reading a homebrew pump article on BYO’s website (https://byo.com/project/build-a-better-homebrew-pump/) where a foot-switch is used to turn the pump on and off (the footswitch is a great idea!). But I have found that a simple power strip with its built-in switch is a simple and effective alternative. I hang the power strip off of a drawer so it stays up high to avoid spills. Plus, it’s easier to turn the pump on and off when it’s up closer to eye level.

Brewhaus Upgrade

Jacob Burnham • Bremerton, Washington

While growth is a complicated topic that eventually rears its ugly head in the commercial brewing world, homebrewers not only have a choice whether or not to expand their hobby, but can do so for a relatively cheap price. Everybody has their own story of their homebrewery evolution, and for me that path started on the stovetop at my college apartment. I progressed to a living space on the second level of my landlord’s house, where I performed the boil in the back yard below (and carried boiling wort up the stairs to my sink to use my immersion chiller).

I finally bought a house and, after two years of making do in the garage, I graduated and bought myself a Brew-shed. With no room in the house, I had to get creative so I claimed a corner of the back yard, dug out the existing tree (which you can see in the “before” picture at the bottom of this page), and bought a 12 ft. x 8 ft. (3.7 m x 2.4 m) Yardline Shed. Similar type sheds can be found on display in the parking lots of Home Depot, Lowes, and other home improvement stores. These sheds are spacious, have overhead storage, and a variety of package options (painting and caulking are up to you).

Now with a dedicated brew space, the next thing I needed to figure out was getting power to it. I dug a trench from outside of my house breaker panel and down to the shed, where I installed a separate small breaker panel and wired up some electrical outlets and lighting. It only took 1 boil session in the dirt outside the shed to know that I couldn’t wait any longer for the final piece: A deck (which I also constructed to 12 ft. x 8 ft./ 3.7 m x 2.4 m).

Inside of the shed I’ve added storage shelves, a conditioning mini fridge, beer fridge, work table, my motorized grain mill, and a receiver/speakers. The shed can also accommodate my brewstand and still have plenty of room to work.

Stainless Steel Hop Spider

Justin King • Huron, Ohio

I came upon an article on BYO’s website for building a hop spider (https://byo.com/project/build-a-hop-spider-projects) while I was researching an issue with excessive trub and hop material after the boil and transferring to primary. I tried whirlpooling and a shorter pick-up tube to limit some of these issues. However, if I was brewing a large IPA or DIPA, hop additions can only be coned in a whirlpool so high. I noticed the PVC flange that was used in the article looked warped on the sides and it made me wonder if there was a better way. I wasn’t sure if the warping was caused from drilling the PVC flange or if it was from the heat of the boil. Also, PVC is rated to 140 °F (60 °C) and the steam for a boil could top that. So I started researching alternatives.

After recently installing a new garbage disposal, I decided the best alternative would be a stainless steel garbage disposal flange. It would be durable and easy to clean. I found one online for about $13, 3⁄8-in. x 10-in. stainless steel, carriage bolts at the local hardware store for $6, and I already had hex nuts around the house. The length of the carriage bolt depends mainly on how large of a boil kettle you are using. In addition, a hose clamp large enough for the exterior of the flange and your choice of hop bags (I use a nylon paint bag) are needed.

Kettle Souring Keg

Mick Spencer • Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Many homebrewers who make Berliner weisse and other “lactic acid” sour beers sour the wort in their brew kettles prior to boiling and subsequent clean yeast fermentation. While this works, it has two disadvantages. First, it’s difficult to exclude oxygen, which can result in undesirable bacteria or wild yeast growing along with the Lactobacillus bacteria pitched. Second, with most brew kettles it’s difficult to maintain a desired temperature for the Lactobacillus to work, e.g. 95 °F (35 °C) for Lactobacillus plantarum or 115 °F (46 °C) for other Lactobacillus species. This can adversely affect both the time required for souring and the purity of the culture.

With these challenges in mind, I decided to dedicate a Cornelius-type keg for use as a souring “kettle.” The oxygen exclusion challenge is easily solved by purging the wort-filled keg with CO2, the same way a keg of finished beer can be purged. The temperature control challenge is solved by wrapping the keg with one or two “ferm-wrap” type heating elements and controlling them with one of the many fermentation temperature control units available. And to ensure a good temperature reading for the controller, I converted the keg’s liquid dip tube into a thermowell by having my friend, Dave Naugle, cut off about half of its length and solder a stainless steel slug (about 1⁄4-in. diameter) into the end. The converted dip tube is installed as normal (including its O-ring), but the liquid side post is then mounted without its poppet, leaving the thermowell open for the controller’s probe and wire to come through the top of the post and down to the bottom of the thermowell. With pure Lactobacillus souring there’s usually no need to relieve any pressure (thus no airlock), but a pressure gauge can be used on the gas post to monitor internal pressure if desired. If unwanted pressure does build for any reason, the keg can be manually “burped” via the pressure relief valve in its lid.

Lastly, to keep the heat wrap(s) from having to work too hard, I built a “Lacto Lounge” out of styrofoam sheeting and construction adhesive. The result is a styrofoam box that can be placed over the whole thing to hold in some of the heat, like a mini-fermentation chamber.