Mobile Beer Lab: Staying organized and portable

To stay organized with all your miscellaneous testing equipment, a brewer’s mobile lab is the perfect solution. Photos by Amy Todd

I try to keep my brewing equipment clean and organized, but that doesn’t always happen. Clean, yes . . . organized, no. When it comes to quality control tests while homebrewing, it can be easy to skip over a step because you just don’t want to look for that packet of pH buffer solution you swore you left tucked away next to your pH meter and you don’t need a fresh calibration to make beer. You can absolutely make beer without a hydrometer or pH meter. You definitely don’t need a microscope. But for those of you who do want to calculate your efficiency and compare it to the last batch, or test your mash pH and make water adjustments, or dial in that pitch rate on the dregs you propped up from a bottle of Orval, you’re the ones who need to know where the pH meter and buffer solution are. Sure these aren’t necessary, but isn’t it fun to know exactly what’s going on in your beer?

While some homebrewers are lucky enough to have all of their brewing, fermentation, and packaging equipment all located in one spot in their house, many of us don’t have that convenience. Maybe brew day occurs in the garage, while fermentation happens in the hallway closet, and bottling takes place in the basement . . . stuff can easily get lost in the shuffle. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a testing toolbox?

For a process dependent on living organisms to achieve a desired outcome, the more you know about your beer, the more in control of the brewing process and final result you can be. But if our equipment isn’t in an organized, easy to access location, even the best of us might not use it.

That’s the great part about DIY, you can customize it to fit your exact needs.

Once my kids get a little older hopefully they’ll enjoy investigating tiny life forms under my microscope, but for now it’s just used for brewing. Because of the awkward shape and fragility of it, my microscope was stored in my office. I wanted a safe place to keep it where it was easily accessible with the rest of my brewing equipment, precariously stacked in the basement next to the laundry.

I started looking online at microscope cases. Some were just made out of canvas, that wasn’t quite what I was looking for, some looked really old and bulky, then I found a simple wooden box with a door and a handle. Perfect. But, wouldn’t it be nice if it could also fit all of my lab supplies? Then I could keep everything together. I decided to make my own combined microscope case and mobile lab.

For this project I enlisted the help of my grandfather. He’s the one who first taught me how to brew and got me spiraling onto this trajectory. He also comes with lots of power tools and a knack for building things.

My microscope case/mobile lab is designed to hold a microscope, hydrometer, thermometer, pH meter, notebook, and miscellaneous lab equipment. Yours may just be for your hydrometer and pH meter, or maybe you have other fragile brewing equipment you want to keep in a safe place, like an Erlenmeyer flask and stir plate for a yeast starter. That’s the great part about DIY, you can customize it to fit your exact needs.

Tools and Material

  • ½-in. x 2 ft. x 4 ft. (12.5 mm x 61 cm x 122 cm) board
  • 1/4-in. x 2 ft. x 4 ft. (6.4 mm x 61 cm x 122 cm) board
  • Wood screws
  • Carrying case handle
  • (2) Cabinet hinges
  • Drawer knob
  • Magnetic door catch
  • Velcro or other fasteners
  • Drill
  • Circular wood saw
  • Hacksaw – for shortening screws

1. Measure Your Needs

I got out everything that I wanted to put in my mobile lab. I have an old extract bucket that I use for miscellaneous cell counting supplies so I made sure that would fit in there with the microscope. I wanted things to fit in snugly, but didn’t want to have to cram them in either. My inside dimensions were 14.5 in. (37 cm) long, by 9 in. (23 cm) wide and 14 in. (36 cm) tall, which left me with some wiggle room for adding items I’d undoubtedly forget about.

2. Purchase Supplies

I made a quick trip to the hardware store to pick out wood, screws, hinges, a magnetic door clasp, a doorknob, and a carrying handle. I picked relatively thin wood so that the case wouldn’t be too heavy and bulky. I picked ½-in. (12.5-mm) thick boards of wood for the top, bottom, and side pieces, and ¼-in. (6.4-mm) thickness for the front (door) and back faces. The 2 ft. x 4 ft. (61 cm x 122 cm) board dimensions meant there would be plenty of extra wood in case of any measuring or cutting mistakes. Since I chose thinner wood boards we did run into some issues with the screws being too long, but nothing a hacksaw couldn’t take care of.

3. Measure Twice, Cut Once

The dimensions I measured were for the inside so we had to adjust a little for that when measuring the height and length. Width wasn’t a problem since we put the sides on the outside of the frame. We used an L-square, measuring tape, and pencil to draw straight lines and 90° corners. I wanted the case to open on the long side so that I could see and access everything when I opened it so we saved the sides for last and cut the top, bottom, and end pieces out of the ½ in. 2 ft. x 4 ft. (12.5 mm x 61 cm x 122 cm) board first. We clamped the wood on a workbench and my grandfather used a circular saw to cut along the markings.

4. Build the Frame

Once the wood was cut we lined up the end and top sections at a 90° angle. I held the wood while my grandfather drilled holes for the screws. Once the screws were in place we added the bottom, then the other end piece leaving us with a square frame. We built the frame before cutting the side pieces to make sure everything lined up. We traced the square frame onto the ¼-in. (6.4 mm) board instead of measuring. After cutting we set the frame on its side, placed the back panel on top, drilled holes, then screwed the back wall into place.

5. Add the Handle and Door

Next we marked where the carrying handle would go. We added the handle before the door to make sure we had room to maneuver the drill. The screws the handle came with were a little too long so those needed to be cut down before attaching the handle.

With the frame on its side again we attached two sets of hinges to the right side of the case for the door. Again we ended up with screws that were too long for the wood and went through to the other side. More hacksaw work to cut those down.

Finally we attached a doorknob and magnetic door catch to keep the door closed. This involved screwing the magnetic base to the inside left of the case, flush with the edge. The strike plate was screwed into the door and a knob screwed onto the excess sticking out the other end. I purchased shorter screws than the ones that came with the knob, which was made for a drawer.

6. Secure Everything in Place

I stuck sticky back Velcro to the inside of the case to hang items and secure others in place. I went with long strips to make it adjustable as my mobile lab evolves and I can always add more as needed. I tell myself that I will eventually get around to sanding and staining my mobile lab, but for now I’m happy with the results.

There are many other options you could choose from, including building compartments or different straps to secure the tools in the box, but the simple goal is to stay organized, while maintaining the freedom to move your lab around to where you need it.

Issue: January-February 2020