Thursday, July 2, 2015

Clear Beer - Finally!

For several years, I've struggled to understand why my finished beer ends up with a slight haze.  It comes out of the kettle clear as day, but after fermentation, it is no longer clear.   I finally broke down and paid Ward Labs ($40 online) to test my well water.  Here are the results:

To my surprise, my water is very low in all minerals....perfect for a pilsner, but maybe even lacking for that!

I spent several weeks learning more about what was needed and how to adjust my mash water. is an excellent website that includes a Water Chemistry Calculator that is a great start.  It even allows you to enter your own water profile (which optionally can be shared with everyone), and to load that profile along with the desired profile (e.g. - Balanced, Burton, etc.).  You then can tweak the available brewing salt additions to reach the desired levels.

The problem I found with it is that you need to find the right mix of additions by trial and error, and sometimes changing one item, you affect other mineral contents.

I later realized that Beersmith has a Water Profile tool that includes an automatic calculator button.  After entering the desired water profile and your current (starting) water profile, a quick press of the Calculate Best Additions button runs an algorithm that determines the best mix to get very close to the desired profile.

I then entered all of the various ideal water profiles (i.e. balanced, light colored and hoppy, dark and malty, etc.) from Brewer's Friend (these are in the drop down box that's part of the Water Target Selection portion of the Mash Chemistry and Brewing Water Calculator ) into Beersmith.  By starting with my well water profile, and selecting the profile for the beer style I'm brewing, the required additions are calculated with the press of a button!

I've printed these out and keep them handy for brewing.  One wishlist for Beersmith is that the values be shown in tsp.  They are currently shown in grams.

Bottom line is, if you're not paying attention to your water, you're ignoring the ingredient that makes up 95%+ of your beer.  Surprisingly, many homebrewers don't.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Induction Brewing!

My busy life has kept me from posting much in the last months, but I wanted to share a new brewing setup that I am hoping proves to be where I'll end up.

For the last several years, I have used the BIAB method with great success.  My setup includes a 10 Gallon Aluminum pot, and a homemade 4500W heatstick with control box.  It makes great beer, but I've become tired of lugging around the heatstick with the 10 foot cable and box.  It's just not "elegant".

Recently, I came across some posts discussing induction cooktops, and their applicability to brewing.  Since I had always used a 4500W heatstick, I figured I'd need to find something close in wattage to provide enough energy to boil 7+ gallons of wort.

The forums mentioned an Avantco IC3500 (3500W), and also a Max Burton 6530 (3000W) induction cooktop.  I was fortunate enough to find a non-working Max Burton 6530 on ebay for $50, and was able to repair it.

The one catch is that my aluminum pot was not going to work, as induction cookers operating by magnetically inducing a current in the cookware that heats the pot and it's contents.  Aluminum does not work.  A stainless steel pot was needed, but not just any stainless steel will work.  After buying a 10 gallon pot, I realized it was not compatible, so I had to sell it and start over.

The forums mentioned that any pot that a magnet sticks to should work, and Bayou Classic pots had worked for some, so I ordered a 1144 pot (10 gallon pot with steamer basket).

Here's what it looks like...

In these pictures I did not have the steamer basket in, and it was prior to my drilling a hole for my valve.

Here I was just testing how long it took to bring 8 gallons to a boil.  From 60 Deg F to 150 Deg F it took roughly 35 minutes.  From 150 Deg F to boiling was about 20.  I took a temperature every 5 minutes, and it's basically 12 degrees every 5 mins.  (Was hoping to graph the data, but did not get to that yet)

March 2015 - I had started this post in 2014 and am just getting around to publishing it.  Since then, I've used this set up with great success.  My brewing partner has started using induction plates also (he purchased 2 of the Avantco 3500W plates).  I've even become proficient at repairing these, as we've (for various reasons) had a few components blow.

One suggestion I have is to avoid any downward pressure on these cooktops, aside from the weight of the water.  During one of my first brews, I had sat my grain bag on a rack that was across the top of the pot to let it drain.  Then I started pushing down on the bag to try and squeeze more wort out.  Later I found that the glass surface on the plate had cracked.  I repaired it using JB Weld (love that stuff!), but to be safe, I ordered an 18" by 18" Silicone Rubber sheet off ebay ($18) and I now drape that across the heatplate, and under the pot.  It has turned a little brown from the heat, but has not melted (silicon rubber has a melting point of 300 deg F or more, I think). This keeps any liquid that might find its way to the surface of the heatplate from leaking into the unit.  Water and electricity are not a good combination!

As always, let me know if you have any questions.  I will try and post a few more pics of my complete setup as it exists now.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fun with a Spunding Valve

Few if any homebrewers are familar with a spunding valve.  It's actually used commonly in commercial breweries, but only a small subset of homebrewers could consider using it as it requires a fermenter that can withstand 10 PSI or so of internal pressure (such as a Cornelius keg).  Since most of us use carboys or plastic buckets to ferment, a spunding valve is not an option.

A spunding valve is basically a pressure relief valve that is used on commercial bright tanks to carbonate the beer using the CO2 generated during the final stages of fermentation.

An adjustable pressure relief valve is the key to dialing in just the right amount of pressure, while allowing excess pressure to bleed off harmlessly.  This pressurized CO2 yields the same result as connecting a CO2 bottle to your keg....your beer gets carbonated!

Last year, I began fermenting in Cornelius kegs.  I can't recall why, but it was then that I found a thread on one of the homebrew forums describing how to build a spunding valve.  It allows you to get your beer carbonated as fermentation finishes using the CO2 produced by the yeast as it eats away at the last vestiges of sugar in the wort.  Some claim that you can go from pitching yeast, to drinking beer in 10 days on some low gravity beers by using this method.

After a few weeks of thought, and mulling over how to make a functional yet affordable version of a spunding valve I could live with, I ordered what I needed and assembled what you see below.

A standard gray gas fitting with barb is shown at the bottom connected to the keg.  I used hose clamps and a short piece of tubing to connect to a transition fitting that mates with the adjustable pressure valve (black body with round gray knob).  To the left of the valve is a pressure gauge that monitors pressure in the keg.

Cornelius kegs are rated to 140PSI, and they also have a built-in relief valve on the lid (at least mine do), so maintaining 10 PSI does not pose any danger.

The biggest challenge in using these is figuring out when to put them on the keg.  When I pitch the yeast, I remove the Gas In fitting and tube, and force a piece of tubing over the threaded nipple that sticks out of the keg.  The tubing (blowoff tube) feeds into a small jar of water.  If you fill the keg too much with wort, the krausen will push up into the tube and into the jar.  You need to wait until this settles down before putting the spunding valve on, or you'll end up with all of that in your pressure relief valve and gauge..yuck.

BYO has an article written in 2007 by Marc Martin describing the spunding valve and when to attach it.  He says that you should wait until you're within 0.005 of final gravity, but I usually don't wait that long. I just wait for the krausening to calm down, and then set the pressure to 10PSI and stick it on there.

Chris White's book about yeast discusses the effect of pressure on yeast, and he says that you should keep it under 15PSI.  If you set it to 10PSI, you should get good carbonation, and not hurt the yeast too much.  It's worked fine for me.

Once fermentation stops, I rack from one Corny keg to another using a short tube with liquid fittings on each end.  This transfers the beer without exposing it to oxygen (assuming you've purged the target keg with co2 prior too the transfer).  Just make sure you divert the initial burst to another vessel so you don't get all the yeast from the bottom of the fermenter keg into the target keg.

You'll need your CO2 tank handy to help force all of the beer over into the target keg. I usually set my regulator to 5 PSI or so...just enough to push it through the tubing.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments.  I'm writing this with a glass of Merlot sitting next to me, so I may have missed some details!

The bag is the key to BIAB!

Once I realized the benefits of Single Vessel brewing (AKA Brewing in a Bag), I eagerly read as much as I could find regarding this method.  I rushed out to Walmart and purchased a $5 Voile curtain and sewed myself a bag.

Several brews later, and I was hooked.  The technique was beautiful and made great beer!  But then one day, I decided to split my grains among 2 bags....but this time I used the infamous Home Depot 5 Gallon paint strainer bags that are often used for hops additions.  I simply used binder clips to hold each bag around the edge of my brewpot.

Wow!  What a difference.  By splitting the grains into 2 bags, each bag was easier to handle, and actually provided more surface area for the water/wort to contact the grains. 

Additionally, when mashing was finished, lifting each bag out to drain was much easier, and even better, the wort flowed out of the bag much more freely it seemed.  Could it be that the paint strainer bags have a slightly coarser weave than the voile curtain???  Well, my eyes are no longer able to see that level of detail even with glasses, and I sold my microscope/chemistry kit decades ago.  I took some pics with my phone camera, and while blurry, it does appear that the paint strainer bags are significantly coarser in weave than the voile.

So for now, I'm sticking with 2 paint strainer bags and retiring the voile. Actually, the voile bags came in handy this weekend when I harvested my hops.  I just dumped them into a voile bag and hung it next to a fan.  Twenty-four hours later, I had dried hops!

Please let me know if you've tried different types of material for your grain bag, and what your results have been.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Maximizing Wort Extraction From Your Grain Bag - VIDEO

Today's video demonstrates the technique described several posts ago that I use to squeeze the most wort out of my grain bag.  As always, your comments and questions are welcomed.

Check out our brewing shirts 

and other cool stuff here!


Thursday, November 22, 2012

UPDATED: How to End Up With Almost No Trub After Boiling

Last weekend my brew bud Travis and I cooked up a batch of Kilkenny Irish Ale Clone.

All went well.  We had a nice even rolling boil.

We use a 5 gallon paint strainer as a hops bag.  We had clipped it differently than usual, around one half (almost) of the boil kettle and added hops as called for.  Part of the elastic band at the top of the bag was stretched across the middle of the pot.

Here's the strange the boil reached the top of the kettle, it overflowed into the paint strainer bag almost like a waterfall, as the wort in the bag was not bubbling/foaming up.

We were happy that this was keeping the pot from boiling over, but it wasn't until we drained the wort that we saw something amazing.

There was almost no trub or hot break in the bottom of the pot!  Why?  I appears that is was all filtered by the hops bag as the boil push it all up and over the side and into the paint strainer/hops bag.

Is this a good thing?  I'm really not sure, as many feel that some trub/hot break/cold break serves as nutrients for the yeast.  I guess we'll see how the batch turns out and report back!


Update:  Here's a video showing the technique in action:

Update 2: 8-23-13
Well, I found out that this technique can work TOO well!  Last night I brewed a batch of Gumballhead clone (3 Floyds Brewing, Indiana), and maintained a perfect rolling boil for the entire 60 minutes.  I was distracted by a pre-season football game, and did not realize that so much of the trub and break had been caught by the hops bag, that it had clogged it up, and almost no wort was in the pot.  It was all in the hops bag!  I went outside to watch the last minute of the boil, and noticed a burnt odor in the air.  Turns out, my heatstick was at the bottom of the pot steaming away those last few ounces of wort that did not make it into the hops bag.

Fortunately, my heatstick element is an Ultra Low Wattage version that does not burn out if fired outside of water.  I used my long spoon on the inside of the hops bag to clear off the trub and hops to allow it to drain.  The wort was nice and clear, and there was almost no trub in the bottom of the pot.

The remainder of the session went OK, aside from the fact that I had boiled off too much wort, and my OG was about 10 points too high!  I topped off the fermenter with tap water to make 5 gallons, and brought the OG back down to 1.056, pitched the S-05 and had bubbles from the blow off tube this morning!

So, if you do try this method, be aware of the possibility of the hops bag getting clogged.

Check out our brewing shirts 

and other cool stuff here!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Putting the Squeeze on your grain bag

All of us Brew-in-a-Bag fans have experienced it;  when the mash is finished and you want to get all of that sweet, precious wort out of the bag, you start twisting and squeezing the bag for all you're worth.

Trouble is, that grain is still 150degrees or more and your hands can only take that so long.

I've seen several ideas posted to address this, everything from high temperature gloves, to clamping two plates around the bag and tightening the clamps.

After running through several designs for a bag squeezer in my head, I have settled on a solution that uses a caulking gun and a metal bowl along with my current setup to press the grain bag into submission.

Below is a picture of my (as yet untested) idea.

The key component is a standard caulking gun as shown below (less than $10 on Amazon)

After removing the guide ring at the end that normally holds the front of the tube of caulk, I bent the ends of the metal rails to form 1/4 inch tabs that grab under the edge of the colander.  After that, I spread the rails and bent them to allow room for a plate or bowl to be fit inside above the grain bag.

I have not decided what to use below the plunger to press against the grain bag.  I have some stainless steel dog bowls similar to this that could work.

But this round-bottom mixing bowl is cheap and looks like it could work also.

My colander is similar to this one:

If you have a favorite way to get the wort out after mashing, please leave a comment below.  I'm open to new ideas!


Check out our brewing shirts 

and other cool stuff here!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What's inside my Electric Brewstick Controller box?

After deciding to go all-electric for my  BIAB brewing setup, I considered how to control the heatstick.  I wanted something more than an ON/OFF switch. or simply plugging/unplugging the brewstick from the outlet.

Originally, I did not consider a PID as adding a thermocouple into the mix was over-complicating things in my view.  I settled on a design that was detailed in the Homebrewtalk forum and used a small circuit card to control a solid state relay which switched power to the heatstick.

The picture below shows the semi-rat's nest inside my box.  One day I hope to clean it up a bit. My apologies for not having it all prettied up like many of the other projects I have seen detailed.

The first version of this box used the Control Board to turn on the relay every so often based on the setting of the potentiometer (round silver component on far side of box).  By turning the knob on the outside of the box (connected to the potentiometer), I could control whether the heatstick was on for 1 second every 12 seconds, all the way up to 11.5 seconds of every 12 second interval.  The relay switched one of the 2 phases of 120VAC to the heatstick, effectively turning it on and off.

This worked OK during mashing (although still not ideal), but to get my pot up to boil, I needed the heatstick on all the time.

To accomplish this I added the Bypass Switch (shown above) that bypasses the relay, and (when turned ON) keeps the heatstick on continuously.  Once I got to a boil, I turned this off, and went back to the timer (technically a variable duty-cycle) approach circuit to control the heatstick.

Since the heatstick is so powerful (5500W), I could not keep a constant boil using the timer circuit.  The instant the timer switched off the heatstick the boil would stop.  So I decided to buy one of the PIDs so often seen in homebrew projects to see if that would improve the boil as well as the mash temperature control.  Mine was around $20 on ebay and displays temperature in degrees C.

With the PID installed, I was able to control temperature quite nicely by dropping the thermocouple into my pot and setting the digital controller (PID) to the desired temperature.

I no longer need the Controller Board in the box, but have left it there because it provides a 9V voltage source that the PID uses to switch the relay on and off.  I could replace it with a pull-up resistor, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

I did want to mention that I do have a ground wired through the box, and connected to the metal shank of the heatstick.  The other protection that is the most important part of the system is the 2-pole GFCI circuit breaker that I installed in my breaker panel.  This is what will save me if a short happens, as it did already once (my heatstick was not sealed properly with enough J-B weld...had to re-seal problems since.)  GFCI breakers monitor current flow in each circuit (i.e. both phases of 120VAC going to my box/heatstick) and if there is ever a difference (meaning there is a short to ground somewhere in the circuit) of as little as 2-3mA between their currents, the breaker trips.

While the heatstick uses 240VAC, the way this is delivered is via 2 different phases of 120VAC that look like 240VAC to the heatstick.  So, while you'll notice I have a warning sticker on the top of my relay saying 240VAC, it is actually only 120VAC going through the relay.  The other phase of 120 is wired through the box directly to the heatsticks second terminal.  

Below is a functional block diagram of the entire box, including the unused Controller Board.

Here is a picture of the top of the control box.  Of course, I ordered a PID with Celcius readout, and I never did memorize that conversion formula....something like 9/5 times temp plus 32?  or is that minus 32?

Here is the box with associated wiring/connections.  to the right is the thermocouple.  The short white 120V plug at the bottom powers the PID.  The gray 220VAC plug brings power into the box, and the black 10-3 cable coming out the top left is wired into the heatstick.

As I did in my last post, my disclaimer here is that I am not a licensed electrician, and if you are not knowledgeable about electricity/electronics you should consult one.

If anyone wants more details, let me know.

This setup has been working great for me.  I love the fact that I don't have to worry about running out of propane, and I can brew indoors in my basement shop in the winter, or during inclement weather.

I know that the efficiency of a heatstick tops propane burners, as all of the energy from the heatstick goes right into the water.

Thanks again to the entire brewing community for all of the ideas that I've borrowed from to end up with my system!

Check out our brewing shirts 

and other cool stuff here!