2015 was a good year…

Now that we are firmly in 2016 and past the days of accidentally continuing to write 2015 on stuff I can reflect back on 2015. It was my second year in Grand Forks North Dakota which has been a challenge as a home brewer that enjoys tasting new beers and discussing beer and brewing. Grand Forks is still only beginning to embrace beers with flavors and the craft brewing scene but it is getting better. We have a new craft brewery in town, the first, and I truly wish them well. The home brewing scene is still very quiet, not much activity or social events. They’re here but not as active as other cities with very active clubs. This next year for me will be dedicated to preparing to move back to Washington state and I am excited about getting “home”. While the unknowns and challenges of the move are a little scary so was the move here in 2013 and it all worked out. Plus I’ll be back to a state with an incredible beer scene…bonus!

2015 was a fun year for home brewing for me. A new home brew shop opened here and I was able to teach some brewing classes. The cold times of the year, and there are many, gave me time to tinker with new brewing projects/ideas and develop some recipes. It was also a year of sharing my random brewing thoughts with you. Visits to this blog exceeded my wildest dreams when I first ventured into the blogging community with over 100,000 visits to this blog so far. This simple little blog about brewing, that I thought I’d “try”, has become something I enjoy and hope others enjoy. The exposure to my brewing life through the blog also transpired into being featured in BYO magazine this last December, which was a huge honor for me. This upcoming year will be a busy one but I will continue to post and share my brewing with you and hopefully continue to do what I planned from the beginning and that is make fellow brewers think about trying new things. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’re still making beer! None of us are experts, we can always learn more from each other and there is nothing wrong with trying something different.

Like Lonnie Mac, creator of the Brutus brewing system as said and very much represents my theory on brewing… “So there we are! Don’t be afraid to try new things man! We are only 10,000 years into beer. There are thousands of years left to go! Things are bound to change!!”

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New build creates new idea for a sight gauge shield

I started building a new single vessel system for brewing small batches and in the process I had an idea I thought I’d share since I couldn’t find anything online like it.

New system? Yep, from the completion of my first single vessel system I had ideas that I wanted to add but after some thought I figured it would be easier to start fresh. My first system, based on the modified Bayou Classic steamer, served me well and made many great beers. The ideas and features I wanted to incorporate in the new system will also allow me to take on the challenge to make a DIY brewing system that has a professional look and features and as inexpensively as possible. Why you might ask after I just posted about “brewing simply”? Well the ideas and features I want still keep small scale brewing simple. Plus my father and brother taught me if you are going to take the time to do something yourself why not do it right, the way you want. Do you need “fancy” add-ons to make good beer at home? Absolutely not, in fact a simple stock pot and plastic bucket fermenters can make great beers but some upgrades can make the brewing process easier and make consistent/repeatable results possible. Most importantly I hope the finished product will show others that you can achieve anything you can think of, from mild to wild, with careful thought, planning and patience. All this and at the same time showing that you don’t need a big work shop and huge collection of tools to do it since 90% of the system build takes place in my kitchen with hand tools so apartment dwellers and home owners alike can achieve this. Small scale home brewers do not have to settle for less, you can have the features 5 gallon and larger systems have. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, anything is possible.

Before starting the new system build I was able to sell my first system which helped fund the new build as well as sharing small batch electric brewing with someone just starting out.

While the completed system is still a little ways from being finished and me revealing it but I will be posting complete details soon. Now to the reason for the post. Many home brewers add sight gauges to their vessels to make determining liquid levels easier and I was no different. Marks on a brewing spoon or a wooden stick are a simple trick but I wanted something that was always in place. For me a sight gauge is an easy way to see liquid levels at glance to see strike water volume as well as pre and post boil levels. Most folks use 1/2″ polycarbonate tubing for their sight gauge and some sort of compression fitting at the bottom for connection to the vessel, my DIY version is the same design. Many of these types of sight gauges are available in a kit form and install easily but the problem I found was marking the tube with volume graduations. With smaller vessels that we use in small batch brewing the sight gauge is usually shorter thus making volume graduations harder to see. I wanted to have 1/4 gallon graduations yet my sight gauge is only 8″ long for a 20 quart stock pot. Most folks put lines on the tube with either a permanent marker or tape but with only 8″ of space and all those lines it didn’t seem like the best option for me. Well the sight gauge just sat plain for awhile until one day when I was at local home improvement store for something unrelated. I was walking down the isle where they have the pieces of steel and aluminum stock and saw some aluminum channel. I had that ah hah moment and stopped to look at it. They have several sizes that are made to put on the edge of plywood for a finished durable edge and one is made for 1/2″ plywood. Wasn’t expensive and it might just work so I got a piece.

After getting home I slipped a piece of the polycarbonate tubing in it and it fit! I cut a piece to length for my vessel sight gauge. To make it fit over the tubing snugly I gave the top and bottom a slight squeeze with pliers and it snapped into place yet it was easy to remove if needed. I thought it gave the sight gauge a more finished look and would provide a place to affix the graduated markings. With the new shield in place I put a piece of tape on the side and began filling the pot with one quart of water at a time. Once the water was visible in the tube I began marking the tape with small line every quart for the 1/4 gallon markings, a longer line for the 1/2 gallon mark, another small line for 3/4 gallon and then a full line for the gallon mark. After filling the pot one quart at a time and finishing the marks on the tape I transferred the tape marks to a piece of paper that was 1/2″ wide and 8″ long. To make it nicer looking I printed out a bunch of hyphens – for the quarter and three quarter gallon marks, double underscores __  for half gallon marks and the gallon number with a hyphen, the number and a hyphen -2-. I cut them out and using tweezers and a glue stick I glued them to the paper strip.

I then put the paper strip in the channel and snapped the new graduated shield on the sight gauge tube. I think it turned out great and allows quick liquid level checks at a glance. Later I found some full clear label sheets from Avery and copied the strip onto the clear label stock, cut it out and stuck in the back of the channel. Not necessary but probably more durable.

Home brewing…simply

At first glance of all my brewing stuff the first thought that comes to mind certainly is not “simple” or “minimalist”. While I admittedly tend to over-engineer things I’m building my ultimate goal is simplifying my brewing process and along with that minimizing the brewing equipment I have.

A few years ago I realized I had a lot of stuff, stuff I didn’t use any longer and thus didn’t need. That began the process of simplifying and downsizing my life. But wait, I have a hobby that could probably be classified as an obsession and it involves a fair amount of different equipment and “stuff”. Like a lot of home brewers I’ve accumulated a collection of fermenters, mash paddles, long brewing spoons, kettles, corny kegs etc. Not sure how it happens to us since, let’s face it, everything you need to brew a batch of beer comes in one of those home brewing starter kits. When I decided to downsize and simplify my life it was about the same time I made the switch to small batch brewing. Small batch brewing fit my drinking style and desire to brew less each time but to brew more often. Small batch brewing itself goes well with the simple lifestyle and the minimalist idea. The problem for me is that overwhelming need to over-engineer everything like I mentioned before. Always a couple brewing equipment projects in the works, parts for those projects laying around. But I have found that trait is now beneficial, over-engineering is getting me to my ultimate goal of simplifying my brewing process. I have focused on creating a small compact, space saving brewing system that fits my own needs. Something that is versatile and efficient. Stay tuned for progress on that build!

While I’m brewing I usually take notes, well okay I always take notes. Often it is a recipe idea for the next batch but just as often it is a collection of ideas to improve my brewing process whether it’s temperature control or how to simplify the cleanup process. Regardless what my thought or idea is I now blend in the requirement of reusing things I already have and making it compact and space saving. A few brew sessions ago I was hanging out in my small brewing space/kitchen during the mash and looking at my accumulation of brewing equipment and started thinking…I use the same few pieces of equipment every brew day so I started boxing up stuff I thought I had to have but never really used. Going to sell it and that will fund ingredients for several future recipes.

Some of my simplifying and downsizing has given me new tools to help improve my beers like using a small dorm refrigerator as a fermentation chamber that I store my 3 gallon Better Bottle fermenters in between brewing batches. Some of the ideas have had multiple benefits like cleaning my brewing system in place with the pump I use to recirculate wort during the mash. Using my immersion wort chiller as HERMS coil. Adding valves to my Better Bottle PET carboys thus eliminating having to have siphoning equipment. Making my electric brewing controller small enough to store inside the brew kettle. Consolidating equipment onto one shelving rack and a small tool cart I can also use as a brewing stand. I use a clear, tight sealing tote for storing some less frequently used items such as extra silicone tubing, spare hydrometer, bottle capper etc so I can easily see what is in the tote without having to dig through it to find stuff.

Whether you are a 1 gallon small batch brewer in a tiny studio apartment or have a large dedicated brewing space and brew 10+ gallon batches you can simplify and still improve your brewing. Simplifying home brewing makes home brewing even more enjoyable.

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.

How to brew and build a brew system on a budget…yes you can.

Am I a cheapskate? Maybe, well not really but I am on a budget and never really enjoy spending more than I need to. Let’s face it brewing and building that dream brew system can set you back some cash. Can you save money by home brewing? Yes, no, sometimes and depends but that isn’t why most of us brew and I’ll leave that argument for someone else to write about. This is just about ways to save money on brewing and building, upgrading or expanding your own brew system.

First let’s talk about brewing. There are a few things you can do to save money on your next batch. Are you a member of a home brewing club? If you are not I would encourage it as it is a great resource for all things home brewing and if you are a member check with the local home brew supply shop to see if they offer any discounts for club members. It is fairly common and it is a great partnership with the shop supporting those in the local brewing community and home brewers supporting local small business. Look for online home brewing suppliers that offer a customer rewards program. That way each purchase builds future discounts, I have used this frequently as the town I’m in does not have a local home brew shop and I’m ordering online anyways. Actually saved 50% on a keg that was on sale by redeeming my accumulated rewards and applying them towards the purchase. If you are ordering ingredients or recipe kits be sure to look at online home brew retailers that offer free or flat-rate shipping as this alone can save you a ton of money. Take advantage of every special offer you can, subscribe to online suppliers’ email newsletters so you will be notified of sales.

Another money saving idea…Try all-grain brewing, if you’ve been thinking about it here is another reason to take the plunge because it is generally cheaper than extract, gives you more control over your beers and is easy. All-grain brewing doesn’t have to require additional equipment if you go with the Brew In A Bag method, basically all you need is a kettle which you probably already have and a fine mesh bag for mashing in that you can make yourself (or nicely ask/bribe a friend or relative who sews) for about $8 with some Swiss Voile sheer fabric or Voile windows sheers which you can get from the big box stores for a few bucks. If you already are an all-grain grain brewer look for group buys on base malts like 2-row or check with the local craft brewery if they can add an additional sack of 2-row on their next order and you can pick it up. Chances are they are getting a bulk price and you frequent their tap room so it’s two brewers supporting each other…you are frequenting their tap room aren’t you? Of course you are.

Trying a completely new recipe? Why not brew a smaller batch the first time through? If it is great beer then you can brew it again in no time and if it’s not so hot then you don’t have 5 or more gallons of it to consume or possibly waste. Also if you find yourself frequently struggling to consume 5 gallons then consider the switch to brewing smaller batches. Many home brewers want to go bigger but many find going smaller is better suited to their lifestyle. Less cost to brew and you can brew more often if you like.

Thinking about starting home brewing but worried about initial equipment investment? Check local or nearby Craigslist ads for brewing stuff, often there is someone leaving the hobby (sad but it happens) or someone just making room for new stuff. Craigslist is also a good source for empty beer bottles in most towns. Just make sure you clean everything really well and it doesn’t hurt to consult a friend who brews to make sure you’re getting things you actually need and it’s a good deal. Also with Craigslist, don’t wait for someone to post a classified for what you are looking for, post a “wanted” classified ad.

Now on to building, upgrading or expanding that brew system or your home brewery…

Number one piece of advise I can give, that I believe in because it has paid off for me over and over, be patient! Normally I blog about my brewing equipment projects or ideas but right now I have a couple on hold because I am patiently looking for the best deal on components. If you can handle a little patience you will find a better price on almost anything you are looking for. Some of the brewing vessels or controllers I have built I have honestly paid less than half of retail price on many of the components because I was patient. I know sometimes it’s hard to wait but if you already have the basics to brew a batch then being patient is a little easier and think of the money you can save. Not impossible to save enough on that new brew kettle or kegging setup by shopping around to literally pay for the ingredients of your next two or three beers.

Along with patience comes research, do some online searching for what you are looking for. Again check Craigslist, look on eBay and with eBay you can save a specific search and it will notify you when matching items are listed. Check Amazon as many times they will have many options for the same item. I found a kettle that was offered as “used” directly from Amazon that was simply an open box return and never used but I saved 40% because I waited and watched the price drop over a couple weeks. Some online home brewing forums have a classified sections so check those. If you belong to a home brewing club ask around for what you are looking for, someone may actually have it or knows someone who does. Consider group purchases with the club members, on things like silicone tubing, if there are enough people looking to get tubing the bulk rolls are a great way to same money for everyone. Talk with members of the club about having a club swap meet. A club I belonged to had these and it was a great opportunity to clean out the closets and even find something you have wanted to get for your brewery.

Prioritize your wish list and start looking for the items at the top of the list but if you happen to come across a great deal on something lower on the list don’t pass it up because many great deals and opportunities don’t come around twice. Prioritizing keeps you focused but checking off an item lower on the list is great because you found it now and saved money. My lists are always changing. One thing I have found with lists and home brewing it allows me to keep track of things I want or need. Lists also help the brewer keep track of ideas that occur during those Ah Ha moments during a brew session or while out shopping for something completely unrelated. On more than one occasion I was looking for something else for everyday life and saw something that generated one of those Ah Ha moments, “hey I can use this or that to make brewing easier or this thing will work better than that product I have wanted for brewing and it’s cheaper”. Write down those ideas, take a picture of that “thing” and go home and patiently research the best price.

Consider going DIY on many aspects of the system or brewery build. With the abundance of information on the internet most brewing DIY projects are easy and money saving. There are many step by step online videos demonstrating different projects. Build your own mash tun, sew your own bag for BIAB brewing, put an electric element in your boil kettle, make your own weldless fittings, make your own brew stand or fermentation chamber. The list goes on and on. What goes naturally with DIY projects is repurposing items for brewing. Wanting to build a new brew stand but cost of materials scaring you away? Repurpose materials, I have seen many brew stands constructed from repurposed metal bed frames, wood from wooden bunk beds and out of kitchen carts. A good source for items that can be reused in brewing is thrift stores and yard sales.  Not uncommon to find a used bed frame for $5 or even free, try getting 10 plus feet of new angle iron for that price. Another example, at work they were throwing away an old heavy-duty 12 gauge three conductor extension cord, I snagged it. Chewed up and abused in places yet after stripping the outer jacket off it still yielded many feet of great heavy gauge wire for wiring my control panel.

Another source for brewing related stuff is restaurant supply stores, many of them buy out restaurants that are closing and you can often find great deals on kettles, stainless tables, carts, mixing spoons etc.

Same as when shopping for brewing ingredients, look at online retailers offering customer rewards programs, free or flat-rate shipping and look for sale and clearance items.

Let’s face it most of us cannot drop a ton of money on anything, especially a hobby, without it affecting our personal budgets so shop smart. Ultimately the more you save the more you can brew.

Wow, all I can say is thank you readers!

To all you that have visited my little blog again or for the first time I would like to thank you. I was amazed at the number of visits to my blog today. This blogging is all new to me but I see it as a great way to share what I’ve learned through my home brewing and my experimenting with different techniques and equipment. I hope that each of you can take away something to help you with your home brewing.

Keep checking back as there will be more posts coming and I am continuing to work on the new small batch system. I’m also working on a post about the growing small batch brewing following.

Again thank you.

Cheers

The volume measurement sensor enclosure for the BrewTroller

Well after finishing, what I guess you call, the mini 120V hybrid PID BrewTroller controller I had to keep going since I was on a roll. When I decided to integrate the basic BrewTroller BX1 board into my system so I could begin to see how I can exploit all it’s features. Well one of those features is it’s ability to measure volumes in a vessel using pressure sensors. Volume measurement is not only convenient it helps improve brewhouse efficiency through the ability to accurately determine strike water volume, pre-boil and post-boil volumes. Volume measurement is achieved by using pressure sensors and a vertical small diameter tube mounted in the vessel with the end of the tube as close to the bottom as possible. When height of the liquid increases in a vessel the pressure also increases in the tube as the liquid rises in it. The tube is connected to the sensor with flexible tubing. The sensor sends a signal to the BrewTroller and it is interpreted by the BrewTroller software. After entering a few reference calibration points in the BrewTroller software it is very accurate. One problem is when temperatures in the vessel decrease a vacuum can be created in the tube but if a steady stream of low pressure air is fed into the tube the interference is eliminated. This is accomplished by using a small air pump like those used for aquariums. The diagram below, from Open Control Systems, shows how a “bubbler” system is setup.

Courtesy of ocsys.com

Courtesy of ocsys.com

The volume sensor tube in my kettle

The volume sensor tube in my kettle

Armed with this knowledge, and a couple free scale sensors, I was ready to build the sensor enclosure. I decided to do a remote enclosure for the volume measurement components for a couple reasons. First of all there is no way it would fit in my latest creation and secondly the motor on the pump could cause EMI interference with the BrewTroller itself when in the same enclosure and sharing the same power supply. An added benefit is if I’m not using the BrewTroller I can just disconnect the sensor setup and if I ever built another BrewTroller control panel I would already have the volume measurement part ready to go. Having two sensors gives me the flexibility of monitoring volumes in two vessels when brewing two vessel Brutus 20 style.

First obstacle was what to use for an enclosure? Well since everything else in my system is compact it was obvious I would need to keep this project the same. Luckily the local Radio Shack had a plastic project box for $6.00 that is 6″ x 4″ x 2″, perfect. Next was the air pump and even the smallest aquarium air pump would be too large for the small project box. Well we had a dead Keurig coffee maker and I knew they had an air pump of some sort. Score! After tearing it apart there was a small 12V air pump and a bunch of small silicone tubing in the thing. Easiest way to power the air pump and keep things compact was just to use an AC wall adapter I had laying around. The sensors would get their 5V power through the data cable from the BrewTroller. I had the panel jacks for the power and data cable connections as well as a power switch for the pump. The data cable was four conductor cable from a dead computer keyboard. The only other thing I needed was a couple small tees and valves for the air lines and a quick trip to the pet store solved that. The valves allow you to adjust the flow of air going to the stainless tubes in the vessels to a slow flow of only a few bubbles a second.

The assembly was very straightforward after a couple quick mockups. I did decide to use some quick disconnect fittings, I found on eBay, for the tubing that will go from the box to the vessels to keep things cleaner and easier to store when not being used. The only difficult part of the build was constructing the cable that goes between the sensor enclosure and the BrewTroller control panel. The 4-pin mini XLR connectors have tiny solder connections that are embedded in a not so heat resistant plastic and they are very close together. After some very careful soldering it was done and everything worked as it should, the BrewTroller detected the sensors and the air pump worked great.

As soon as I finish some work to the kettles it will be time to brew a batch and try everything out. Meanwhile a brew day on the previous system is definitely in order since the beer reserves are running low.

Thanks for stopping by and checking out my blog and as always I hope, somewhere within in my posts, there is something that makes you think, encourages you to try something different and makes you want to come back for more. Be sure and follow me if you would like to receive notifications of new post by me.

Cheers

The crazy things a home brewer will try….

Well it all started out as an idea of replacing the 120V brewing controller I have been using with my small batch electric BIAB kettle. Not that there was anything wrong with my old controller, I was just thinking of adding a new feature to the new controller. Not long ago Auber Instruments introduced a new digital solid state power regulator for boil control. This new boil controller offers home brewers something never available to them before and for a reasonable price with simple connection to a standard zero crossing SSR. The two big advertised benefits are…

  • More uniform power output. Finer power control.
  • The rotary nub is easier to adjust than the small keys on a PID.

Well since I wanted to add something new to the new controller this sounded like what I was looking for. Simple device with great benefits that I wanted to try. In the beginning of the “idea” I figured I go from the original 6″ x 6″ x 4″ enclosure to a 8″ x 8″ x 4″ enclosure. Made sense since the original enclosure was a tight fit and I was going to add another device that was basically the same size as a PID. This is where all normal thinking and common sense just flew out the window. I started thinking “well I do like the smaller enclosure I’ve been using”. Hey I have a small brewing system, brew small batches and don’t have a lot of space…and the rationalization worked, I was staying with the same 6″ x 6″ x 4″ enclosure. A little careful planning and it would work, yeah keep telling yourself that Kevin. Heck the new boil controller only requires a 120V AC power connection and has a standard DC SSR output. My plan was to simply copy the layout of the old setup, cram the boil controller in there and then connect the SSR output from both the PID and the boil controller to an on/on DPDT switch with the switch output to the SSR so I can just flip the switch, when it comes time to begin the boil, to the new digital boil controller.

I picked up the new enclosure and started laying out where the components would need to go. In the process of the layout I was digging through my bins of parts and found my BrewTroller parts! Okay fair warning, this is where my sanity became questionable. I’ve had the basic BrewTroller BX1 board and always wanted to start playing with it to see what its capabilities are and see how I can integrate into my brewing but kept putting it off. The BrewTroller system is very powerful yet fairly easy setup but I still had reservations since I would have to throw together some sort of enclosure, another SSR, wiring, outlets etc, basically duplicating everything I already have. What if something happened on the inaugural brew? Then what? Well I warned you…why not integrate the BrewTroller into the new controller? BrewTroller has the same DC SSR trigger for the heating element  as the PID and boil controller and I already figured out how to simply select the SSR output with a switch…so why not? Add another on/on DPDT switch to select between PID and BrewTroller, something goes wrong just swap the temperature probe to the RTD one for the PID in the wort recirculation path, flip the switch and your back to brewing! So now you’re thinking “this is where he comes to his senses and decides to go with the bigger enclosure” nope. The original single PID design was a tight fit, then I decided to add another PID-sized device to same size box and now I’m adding additional connections, switches, the BrewTroller circuit board and the dial encoder control and LCD display for the BrewTroller. Ok now I’m beginning question my own sanity but the project now became a personal challenge, can I make it fit?

Well now I had to figure out how to make it fit and get a few components I didn’t have. After some online searching I found the components I needed without breaking the bank since I have a tight budget for this hobby. After a lot of measuring and doing many, many mockups and dry fit of components I had a good idea of how it had to be laid out. I began cutting the holes in the enclosure for everything. Now I got stalled, I wanted to make this look nice and well made but cutting an opening for the BrewTroller LCD display with the Dremel wasn’t good enough. I wanted to have that trimmed out nicely instead of my attempt to cut a perfect rectangular opening in the enclosure lid, problem is no one makes a bezel for the 20×4 lcd display. Tons for the 16×2 LCDs but I couldn’t find anything for the larger 20×4 display. Finally after several weeks of searching the web I found a small company that actually makes the bezel I was looking for and it was less than $5. Then it happened, I remembered that the BrewTroller requires 12V DC power. Initially I had moment of reason and was going to use an external AC wall adapter with a power jack on the enclosure for the 12V but noooo I couldn’t do it. Already packed box but there was a small corner I could fit a small power supply. Back to searching the web and finally found a 12V 2.1 amp power supply that was only 1″ wide and 2-3/4″ long, it will fit! Since I was now mounting a power supply in the enclosure that will generate some heat, as will everything else in there, and the BrewTroller is basically a computer so I needed to add a fan. I had a small 12V 40mm laptop fan that fit on the side and I added a vent hole on the bottom to exhaust the warm air.

Now I began to become intimidated by the pending assembly. I knew it would not be a one day project but even with that common sense twist on the project it just kind of sat in the kitchen for a few weeks. The holidays were approaching so it sat more but then my son went home to visit family over the holidays and it got a little boring sitting around the house. That combined with days of below zero weather coming it was time to start. I started with the goal of installing and connecting certain components each session but quickly realized I had to plan the placement of each wire and the exact order everything would have to be installed in. This was vital in making it work because once one thing was installed I might not be able to access other items, good example is the BrewTroller board. The BrewTroller was going to be mounted under the PID and you can see the green circuit board in some of the pictures of the early stages of assembly. One I installed the PID I would not have any access to the BrewTroller. Each component was installed and tested before moving on to the next item. The 12V DC wiring had to be tested before moving on to the 120V AC wiring, which really was difficult due to the lack of flexibility of the wires themselves. Tiny tools, hemostats, needle nose pliers and reading glasses became my friends. An example of the painstaking planning and tight quarters is one night it literally took 40 minutes to install four wires for the element and pump outlets. Well after that night I had to take a break from working on it for a couple days. I was working 2-3 hours a session for several days and it was nerve-wracking. Finally the last session was on my weekend off and I knocked it out and everything worked!! I couldn’t believe it because to be honest there were several times I didn’t think I could pull it off.

After a few programming issues with the BrewTroller, that wasn’t too difficult to figure out, it was working just as it should. Looking forward to brewing with it soon.

To summarize what is in the tiny box…PID, Auber Instrument digital boil controller, 25A Crydom SSR, external SSR heatsink, 20A 120V duplex outlet for pump and kettle element, RTD temp probe connector for PID, pump and PID power switch, PID/Boil controller selector switch, PID/BrewTroller selector switch, master power switch, BrewTroller power switch, fuse holder for PID protection, BrewTroller BX1 board, BrewTroller dial encoder, 20×4 BrewTroller LCD display, BrewTroller 12V alarm buzzer, BrewTroller 1-wire temp probe connector, BrewTroller volume measurement sensor connector (more about this coming soon), 12V DC 2.1 amp power supply board, 12V fan and exhaust vent, two-position terminal block for 12V power connections, Mini USB connection for BrewTroller program uploading.

I have been building brewing controllers for a while now and tinkering with electronics since I was a kid and when people ask for advice I always say “whatever size enclosure you are think of, go bigger” well I guess I should listen to myself sometimes. Will I do it again? No way! No really…as he walks away smiling.

Cheers!

Brewing indoors and brew day ventilation.

We’ve all been there, started our boil and everything is going smoothly and then drip…drip…drip. Yep the dreaded condensation from boiling liquid indoors. It’s on the walls, ceilings, kitchen cabinets…everywhere. It’s worse in the cold weather as the outside walls are cooler than the inside air. Since switching to electric brewing and moving brew day indoors it was the only downside to brew day. For some time I simply conceded that wiping down the kitchen cabinets, ceiling and walls was part of brew day clean up and tried to make myself feel better by telling myself “look how clean the kitchen is now!” Didn’t work, still hated that side of brew day.

Well we know that when we are doing our boil we are boiling off anywhere from 3/4 of a gallon to 2 gallons of liquid depending on your batch size and equipment. We also know that evaporated liquid has to go somewhere and cool surfaces is where it ends up. How do we deal with it? Well one could raise the temperature of the room 2-3 degrees above the temperature of the boiling wort to prevent condensation but wait, room temp of 212+ degrees then we die. Scratch that. The solution…ventilate ventilate ventilate!

Being a renter and the last two places I have lived did not have range hoods and one didn’t even have a window that opened so ventilation was a challenge. How much ventilation are we talking? Simply put a lot. Everyone’s ventilation requirements are going to vary so there is no steadfast rule other than err on the side more is better. Most range hoods are inadequate when you are talking the amount of liquid we are boiling off. Some range hoods don’t even vent to the outside of the building instead they suck up the smelly food fumes and blow them out the front of the hood…not sure of the purpose of these at all. Opening a window or door usually isn’t enough either and for it to work you have to have another window or door open to create a draft. Well here in North Dakota where we routinely have winter temps in the -10 to -45 degree range having a bunch of open windows and doors doesn’t make for a comfortable brew day either. I have tried using one of those window fans that has two small fans and it didn’t really do much. Next I tried a bigger box fan in the window with a little better results but still was wiping down the kitchen. I looked at the amount of air these fans are rated to move and compared them to typical range hoods which I knew didn’t work well either and they ranged in the 100-500 CFM capacity. I started looking at other types of fans with higher CFM ratings and they either where huge or very expensive. Plus there was the question of how to mount them and since I rent I want something that is going to be usable in different settings. Well after countless hours searching the web and eBay I found it.

Dayton axial fans. These industrial fans are readily available online and with deep discounts on eBay. They are available in 120V as well as 220V. The model to look for will be the 10″ version and typically are rated at 665 CFM.$_1-2

I found two of them with the grilles for $45 each shipped. To mount them you can simply get a piece of plywood from a home improvement store that is cut to fit your window that you will be brewing close too. Most Lowes and Home Depots will cut boards to size for you and often have smaller pieces. You will need to cut the circle for the fan to mount over yourself or trade a couple home brews with someone who has a jig saw. If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated brew room then a more permanent mounting can be created. For me, I had a hunk of used 1/2″ thick cutting board that was close enough to the size of my kitchen window so all needed to do was mark and cut the circular holes and screw the fans to the board. To wire the pair of fans you can simply use a power cord salvaged from something and wire them in series or get a switch. You can use a outdoor outlet box to house the switch and wiring and then screw it to the board. I had a small plastic project box left over from another project and I picked up a three step ceiling fan pull switch from Lowes for $5. It allows me to turn on each fan individually or both together.

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How does it work? Great, no more wiping down the kitchen. I run both fans at same time for 1330 CFM! Yet even with both fans running it is relatively quiet. I have it in the window above my sink which is close to where I brew. I open the window place the fan in the opening and close the window onto the board to hold it in place. There is a little condensation that forms on the fan grilles while they run, when outside temp are cold, but a quick swipe of a rag every once and awhile through the boil takes care of that. After the boil is done I give the fans a quick wipe down with a rag and done! In the winter the short hour during the boil while the fans are running hasn’t made much of a difference in room temp but has made a big difference in humidity. For around $100 it has been a great investment and a huge savings over anything else that moves that kind of air.

Remember this is for electric brewing. If you want to brew on a propane burner please brew outside for safety sake or consult with a professional regarding required ventilation based on the BTU rating of your gas burner as well as local fire codes. Brewing should be fun, never deadly.

Cheers

It’s been too long but the brewing fun never stops

Well it has been way too long since my last post and I sincerely apologize. Life has been busy but I have been able to brew some, including a very tasty DIPA, and enjoy some great craft beers. For awhile I got caught up in a couple Facebook home brewing pages that seemed great but quickly became ugly with a small number of very opinionated and sometimes downright rude individuals that ruined what should have been a great online community of home brewers for a lot of us. Social media is becoming a great sharing and learning platform for home brewers and a way to further expand the hobby and I highly recommend brewers to checkout the different Facebook groups and home brewing forums. Granted whenever you get a group of people together there are going to differing opinions but I encourage home brewers to be open minded and respectful of others opinions and practices. None of us know everything and all of us can learn something and many things just don’t work for everyone and that is ok. The great thing about home brewing is that we don’t have to conform to style guidelines or the common practices of brewing, we can just have fun with it. In the end we’re still making beer and how great is that? Well it’s time to move on and focus on life and brewing.

My continued focus is small batch brewing because it just works for me. I’m the sole drinker in my household, not much of a local home brewing community to share with and it provides me the opportunity to brew more often while keeping a manageable amount of various home brewed beers on hand. Small batch brewing (less than 5 gallons) is also a great avenue for anyone with limited space. The one thing that is a big bonus with small batch brewing is that it opens the possibility of brewing with 120V heat sources and some amount of automation that fits with just about any home brewer’s style and or comfort level. Being an avid do-it-yourself kind of guy, with tendencies to over-engineer things, the mind has been working overtime coming up with ideas and projects that fit with my brewing style. For me half of the enjoyment of home brewing is the process and the DIY aspect of home brewing. I have been trying to design a relatively inexpensive (I’m an admitted bargain hunter) 120V based compact, space saving and versatile system that will allow me the flexibility to brew any beer anywhere I live and by any method that will make the process more efficient. Will I ever achieve that? Not really sure but I’m having fun in the process.

The latest project for me is perfecting my small batch electric single vessel system. While I really like my 24 quart Bayou Classic kettle with the custom stainless mesh basket I wanted to refine it some and add in some additional capabilities. It had respectable heating times but I figured I could do more, more to improve my brewing process.

I had the opportunity to pick up a used heavy-duty stainless 24 quart commercial stock pot with an encapsulated tri-ply bottom for cheap so I snagged it. Heck one can’t have too many brew kettles can they? Well maybe you can but I’m sure a support group is out there for me so it’s all good. A few months earlier I also grabbed a couple 120V 1500W Heet-O-Matic elements for a “couldn’t pass it up” price, figuring there had to be something I could use them for and now there is. I had a couple 1-1/2” triclamp ferrules welded into the new kettle and drilled and tapped a couple triclamp end caps for the 1” NPT elements and the 120V 3000W brew kettle was born. The nice thing about the Heet-O-Matic elements is that they are stainless, have wiring covers and built-in thermostatic controls. Plugging each element in an outlet on separate circuits it was an easy way to get more heating capability and still use 120V. That is something anyone considering going to an electric system should consider. Most homes and apartments have at least two separate circuits in the kitchen and they are most likely GFCI protected and 20 amps. Almost like they were designed for home brewers like myself and not just someone with too many trendy kitchen appliances. Fine temperature control I currently plug one element into my PID controller and then when it’s boil time I just plug them into separate outlets. A new controller is in the works to control both elements. More on that later.

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One other thing I wanted to redesign was my wort cooling method. I have been using an immersion chiller and it has done a pretty good job but with a heating element sticking across the bottom of the kettle it never was completely submerged. I also had to stir the wort to get quicker cooling times. Well after a lot of thought and looking at what other people are doing I decided to incorporate a chiller coil in the kettle lid and a whirlpool tube to recirculate the wort around the chiller coil all while being able to keep the kettle closed up during chilling. I was able to locate a very reasonably priced small stainless coil of 3/8” tubing off of eBay that fit between the kettle wall and the heating element so more of the chiller was actually in contact with the wort. Using compression fittings and some Blichmann Quick-Connect hose fittings I was set. Even though it is slightly smaller than my original immersion chiller it performs better when combined with whirlpool effect of the wort recirculation and when brew day is done it lives in the kettle. Saving space and when you live in a small home/apartment that is a great bonus. Another added bonus is that it can be used as HERMS coil to regulate mash temp in a separate mash tun.

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The long, cold winter is here in Grand Forks and I’ll have plenty of time on my hands to do more work on things and brew. Stay tuned as I will continue to share as the kettle build progresses (I’m not done yet) and work on the two new control panels which are in the works. Here are a couple teaser shots…

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Remember you don’t need a “fancy” system to brew great beer or spend a ton of money doing it but certain improvements in your equipment and processes can make brewing easier. Also to all you apartment dwellers thinking you can’t brew in your small space I’m telling you yes you can. You can do all-grain and you can have just as nice of a system as those with dedicated brewing rooms, it’s all dependent on how far you want to take it but small space brewers shouldn’t feel held back by their living arrangements.
Cheers.