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.

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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.

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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!


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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!

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The secret behind my Electric Brewstick

I get strange looks at my brewclub when I mention Brew-in-a-Bag.  No one knows what it is.  One guy in the club came up to me last Saturday and asked me about my "Brew-in-a-Curtain".  My mention of using a voile curtain panel earlier in the week must have stuck with him....or maybe he was just ribbing me.... if being a BIAB'er is not strange enough, I also do not use a propane burner as my heat source.  Instead I use a heatstick.  Not many in my brewclub know what that is either, so I'm basically the red-headed step-child in these parts of the brewing world!

Believe me, I'm trying to evangelize the BIAB method to all of my co-brewers, but I think my best chance at winning converts is with the extract brewers who are eyeing up the move to All-Grain brewing, but that's another topic for another day.

Today and tomorrow, I'm going to uncover the secrets inside my electric brewstick and the controller electronics that drive it.  Most of my design is based on concepts from two sites:
1. How to Build an Electric Hombreweing Heatstick page (thanks Tom), and
2. The Electric Brewery (thanks Kal)

They each went to great lengths to layout in detail how to build an electric-based brewing solution and did a great job.

Along with these sites, I also spent hours scouring the Homebrewtalk website as well to see what others had done and how.  The innovative ideas and willingness to share them is incredible among homebrewers!

My version (shown below) takes "elements" of both Kal's and Tom's designs to make what I feel works best for me as a single-vessel hardcore Brew-in-a-Bag'er.

 Here are my thoughts on how I settled on my final design:

1.  The first design (shown below) is a handheld brewstick made from standard plumbing parts and an 2000 Watt electric water heater element. 

I like this handheld design because it keeps the brewstick separate from the pot/keggle.  Other designs have the element mounted in the bottom of the pot.  I was not sure how easy it would be to clean the keggle with the heater element permanently mounted in the pot so I decided to go handheld.

Also, I use a garden hose to spray off my pot both inside and out, and I was concerned that somehow eventually water would find its way into the electrical/mounting box, and that's never a good thing.

Finally, if I ever wanted to use a different pot, a handheld design gives me that flexibility without the need to drill a mounting hole and worry about leaks.

This design allows the user to simply plug in the heatstick to a standard outlet (with an appropriately sized breaker!) to get things heating/boiling.  A temperature control was not part of this design, so the user simply plugs and unplugs the brewstick as needed to attain/maintain temperature.

2.  The second design (shown below) uses a 5500W (240VAC) Camco water heater element mounted through the side of the pot with a waterproof box on the outside to protect the electrical connections.

 Now this baby will get your water up to temperature quickly (it's more than twice the wattage of the other design), but does require a bit of engineering on the electrical side to make sure that you have enough current available to run it full blast.  I calculated that I'd need about 23 Amps at 240VAC.  This requires 10AWG wire, and a 30Amp double pole GFCI breaker in your panel.   This is no place to skimp on cost.  Get a double-pole GFCI breaker and install it!  It could save your life if you ever have a ground fault in your system.

(Disclaimer:  I am not a licensed electrician, and cannot assume any liability should you damage your house wiring, cause a fire, or worse, injure or kill yourself if you copy any of these designs.  Consult a qualified electrician if you don't know your way around electricity and AC wiring)

The element I used is similar to the one shown, but without the curves.  It is an ultra-low watt density (ULWD) element, meaning that it will not burn out as quickly if you plug it in without water around it.

I decided that it was worth the extra hassle and cost of having my local electrician install a 240VAC outlet in my shop, and a double-pole 30Amp GFCI breaker in my panel in order to allow use of a heating element that would quickly get my water/wort up to strike/boil temperature in a reasonable timeframe.

To get my heatstick to lay fairly flat on the bottom of my pot, I tried to find out if these Camco elements are bendable.  After a few emails with Camco, I decided to give bending a try, but to keep the bends gentle based on their recommendation.  I ended up with what you see below, and it's been doing fine for the last 6 months and about 6 batches.
It sits nicely on the bottom of the pot, and with the 2 sections of the element spread apart, it stays balanced pretty well.

Incidentally, the handheld design I reference above uses J-B Weld to seal around the water heater element, as well as the electrical connections inside.  I used it also, but did not use enough initially, and had to re-seal it by using more J-B Weld to get a complete seal.  Since then, it's worked great.  I've read a few online discussions about the safety of J-B Weld.  It is supposed to be non-toxic, and can survive 500 Deg F.  I've never had a problem with it flavoring my beer either.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss the control box I have built to regulate the temperature in my BIAB setup.

Until then.....cheers!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why AL is my new pal

I thought I had the perfect brew setup.  I had a converted keg that served as my single vessel BIAB solution.  My electric heatstick system was working flawlessly, and my homemade voile bag was getting the job done.  My plate chiller worked great, and I had fine-tuned my process to get my hot wort down to pitching temperature with an in-line thermometer assembly.  Life was PERFECT!

Then it happened....I saw it on one day 2 weeks ago....a 10 Gallon aluminum stock pot for just $41.  Did I need it?  No, but man it sure was tempting.  I was getting tired of lugging that big old keg around that weighs 20+ pounds.  Not only was it a bear empty, but with 7.5 gallons of water in it there was little chance I could lift it to the top of my brew stand.  And clean up would be a more reaching way down in that keg trying to loosen that nasty hot break, or hops that was seemingly welded to the sides.

So I took the plunge and bought one.  Two weeks later it had made its way across this great country by land from California.  Upon opening it, I was amazed and disappointed all at once.  It was light as a feather, and nice and shiny-new, but the advertisement had said it came with a steamer basket which was curiously missing.  I was hoping that the basket would give me a way to pull my bag of grains out without too much squeezing.  No luck...I'm corresponding with the company now to see what went wrong.

In no time I had drilled a hole for the ball valve and verified that my voile bag should fit.  There was no reason not to give her a try the next day, as I had just bought grains to brew up a New Glarus Spotted Cow clone.

Here is how the set up looks during mash, not a whole lot different from before, but with the pot being shorter and wider, it's a bit easier to keep an eye on things.

Hit my temps dead on with my high tech electric brewstick with digital controller.
152F for 60 mins, and 170 mashout for 10.  I drew a few quarts of wort out of the bottom and recirculated it into the bag several times to keep the temperature even.  No need for a $150 March pump!  Thanks Bob Stempski!

With the mash finished and the bag drained, the boil begins:

And when it's time to drain the pot, my plate chiller is clamped just under the table surface:

I recently started using some leftover voile to serve as a filter of the wort as it goes into the funnel/fermenter.  This also helps aerate the wort.  The hot break and hops that make it into the voile will actually clog it up, so having a large piece allows me to slide it around as this happens.

Cleanup was a dream also.  Just a quick brushing and rinsing, and I'm ready for next time.

I did have to modify my siphon tube afterwards by adding an extra copper piece so that it extends to the edge of the pot.

The only other change I need to make is to start with about a half-gallon more water.  The larger diameter of this pot allowed more boil-off and I only ended up with 4.5 gallons of wort.  I had been starting with about 7.4 Gallons, and will now need about 8 gallons.

I use Beersmith, and I had to go into the Equipment section and play around with the numbers to get it right.

So until I find a new way to improve things, I think my setup is perfect.

If anyone has questions, please feel free to post them below.  I have been thinking of making a few videos to discuss my process/setup so let me know if that would be of interest, or if you have other topics you'd like me to take a shot at.

Until next time....cheers!

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Keeping BIAB The Way It Should Be - Simple

One of the problems with being an engineer is that you always want to find a new way to tinker with things, whether that means adding technology to your home, automating something, or just replacing older technology (i.e. replacing halogen lights with LEDs) to save money.

It's because of this tendency that I don't think I'll ever be able to make a living doing something mundane, no matter how much money it makes me.  This carries over into my brewing as well.  The beauty and simplicity of the Brew in a Bag method runs counter to all of the high-tech complexity that gets my enginerdy juices flowing.

I keep trying to find ways to improve the BIAB process, but all of them add complexity that is unneeded.

After all, isn't the big advantage of BIAB is that it's SIMPLER than the traditional all-grain method(s)?

Could it be that there is nothing to be improved with the Brew in A Bag method?  Say it ain't so!

Here are some of the "problems" I want to solve that I've realized don't really need solving:

1.   Maintaining uniform temperature during mashing is difficult
      In my quest for a cool high-tech system, I added a digital temperature controller to my heatstick so that
my mash temperature would be automagically maintained.  Here's a diagram showing it:

Surprise!  The grain bag might as well be a brick wall.  It does such a good job of insulating the interior of the grain bag, that putting the temperature probe in the grain will keep the (digitally controlled) heatstick on for a good long time; long enough to kill any enzymatic activity on the outer edges of the bag.

But alas, if you put the temperature probe at the bottom of the vessel near your heat source, you really have no idea what temperature the grain is at.  So the lesson here is that while a digital temperature controller is nice to have, you really don't need it during mashing if you simply:
        a.  Heat your water to slightly above mash temperature
        b.  Add your grains and stir well
        c.  Wrap your vessel with a blanket or sleeping bag.

It's that simple....the temperature of your grain should remain very close to the desired mash temperature, and if you need to adjust it upward, just apply some heat (propane or heatstick), drain a few quarts out of the bottom and pour it into the grain bag.

BobBrews illustrates this on his site at:
Thanks Bob!

2.   Too much wort is left in the grain bag after mashing

     In an effort to maximize my efficiency, I started thinking about how to get more of the wort to drain out of the bag.  Earlier, I posted that I was going to test my theory that the weight of the grain bag causes inward forces on the grain which inhibits the drainage of wort from the bag.

I asked the community for feedback and got some great responses.  You can read them here.

The consensus in the brewing community seems to be that the amount of wort lost (undrained/absorbed) in the grain is less with BIAB than in Single Infusion Mashing (.6 liter/kg versus 1 liter/kg of grain), so the mash efficiency contribution from this factor should favor BIAB. 

Two things play into this.  The grain bag provides a porous surface over a majority of the grain allowing wort to drain out.  This compares to a much smaller surface (typically the bottom of the grain bed) in a mash tun/cooler.  And secondly, the inward squeezing force the bag applies to the grains, combined with intentional squeezing many BIAB'ers do pushes more of the wort out.  This squeezing does not happen when using a cooler/rigid mash tun.

I am still contemplating the negative side effects of squeezing.  I'm not talking about tannins here, as pH and temperature are the causes of tannin release.  I'm talking about the compaction of the grains that happens during squeezing that might trap wort in the grain much like a stuck sparge.

I think there may be ways to get slightly more of the wort out, but this just adds complexity and the big advantage of our beloved BIAB method is that it is SIMPLE.  So keep it simple by hanging the bag and letting it drain, or spin it around to squeeze even more out.  You'll still be ahead of the game compared to the alternatives.

3.   Grain needs to be finely crushed to hit OG number

If the grain is finely crushed, more surface area is exposed to the water, and the enzymatic conversion of the malt starches to sugars will happen more completely.  But the downside is that the smaller particle sizes of the grains allow them to be compacted into a less porous glob, trapping that precious wort inside.  From what I've read and my personal experience, the crush should crack the grain into several pieces and separate the hull, but there is really no need to overdo it and end up with dust, as it will either end up at the bottom of your vessel, or contribute to poor bag drainage.

Keep it simple and use the crush as done by your local brewshop.

Until next time...cheers!

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Monday, June 11, 2012

The satisfaction of brewing

 Well, my oldest son got married to his wonderful and beautiful new wife this Saturday here in Maryland.  My contribution guessed it....3 kegs of homebrew:  2 of a Blue Moon clone, and 1 of Yuengling clone (my first lager).

I had it all brewed in plenty of time, but struggled to figure out how to serve it.  I did not want picnic taps strewn about a table, so I copied an idea I found on (referred to as a it), and came up with this:

It's a simple box made from leftover laminated shelving.  I sanded it to rough up the surface so the spray paint would stick.  The drip tray is a plastic heat vent from Home Depot ($6 I think).  I trimmed down the height of the sides that go into the duct, and then cut a piece of leftover flashing to size and caulked it in place on the bottom. It needs to be deeper for next time...another project!  Since my son is in the Air Force, I thought the F-16 tap handles would be a nice touch. These are die-cast and came from Toys R Us ($15 each).

To clean out the fittings and beer line, I dismantled it a bit, but here are some other looks at it:

The wedding was awesome, and we all had a great time.  I received several compliments on the beer.  One guy who talked to me has been brewing for 7 years, and he could not believe I only had 1 year under my belt.  He loved the Blue Moon clone as did his wife.  He has been using extract kits, and I took the opportunity to evangelize about BIAB.  Maybe he'll find this blog and go "single vessel"!

I had some concerns about the Yuengling lager clone, as I mistakenly put it in to my refrigerator to begin lagering before all of the fermenting had completely stopped.  When I first tasted it, there was a real butterscotch aftertaste.  My local brewshop owner, Tom suggested that I simply take it out of the frig for several days and let the yeast eat up the byproducts causing the off-flavor.  Sure enough, that really helped to clean it up, and I got compliments on it as well.

 So today I'm relishing the satisfaction of having watched my son begin his married life and basking in the warmth of knowing my beer was a success for the big event.

Oh yeah....and only one of the two kegs of Blue Moon clone was consumed, so I've got a full one back here at home for me!

Cheers all!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Maximizing wort extraction from BIAB

One of my frustrations with the BIAB method is that once mashing is complete, I feel that too much of the wort remains in the bag.  And even though a "stuck sparge" is supposed to be impossible with BIAB, there sure does seem to be too much sweet wort trapped in the grain bag that is unaffected by gravity while it hangs above my keggle.

I've tried spinning the bag to squeeze wort out, and I've put the grain bag in a collander on my keggle and tried to push on it and squeeze as much out as possible without burning my hands.  With either of these methods I can usually hit my numbers, but I'd like to figure out a way to avoid all the squeezing, pressing, etc.

I referred back to John Plamer's How to Brew book to try and get a scientific explanation of the sparging/lautering.  Appendix F of the book discusses the fluid dynamics of water through a traditional cooler mash tun grain bed.  In this case, the grain bed is only being affected by the downward force of gravity.  There is no lateral force on the sides of the grain bed, so the flow resistance is determined solely by the weight of the sparge water flowing through it, and the weight of the grain bed itself.

For BIAB method however, the grain bed/bag is also subjected to the lateral pressures of the grain bag itself, which push the grain particle closer together, increasing the flow resistance for the wort.

To prevent this, I plan to use a cake rack (or similar) to prevent the bag from collapsing around the grain bed as the bag is pulled from the vessel.  I have not determined if placing the rack inside the bag or under the bag is best.

I'm hoping to try this in the next week when I brew up a Gumballhead clone.  I'll report back my findings.

In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts on this and any other ideas you have to allow wort to flow more freely from the bag.


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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

General tips for the beginning brewer

I'm going to deviate from my BIAB slant today to share a few important general tips that will move you into the major leagues of brewing quickly, and keep your beer from having that "homebrew" taste.

Several of my early batches were "good", but still had that slight off-flavor that is not objectionable, but you notice.  All of your friends and family will tell you it's good beer, but you can still see that look on their face after they take the first sip that tells you they're only being half-truthful.  They can tell it's homebrew.

Here are a few things that, if you pay attention to will make your beer much better.

1.  Fermenting temperature - Many beginning homebrewers think that sitting their carboy or plastic bucket in the corner of the living room or a closet with a towel over it is good enough.  WRONG!  I did this initially, but finally realized that it was too warm there.  My wife and daughter really like the house warm in the winter, and I'm forced to crank the heat up to 75 Deg F.  While the yeast will survive at 75 deg with no problem, at this temperature the yeast are in overdrive, and produce a several by-products that will affect the taste of your beer.  If you want learn the nitty-gritty about what the yeast produce, check out the Yeast book on my Recommended Books page.

Even if you keep your thermostat at a lower temperature, you'd be surprised at how much variation there can be. I significantly improved my beers by setting up a water bath system as shown below.

What you're looking at is (aside from a 6 gallon carboy full of Blue Moon wheat clone) a plastic storage bin filled with water, with a 300W aquarium heater (similar to a Fluval E 300-Watt Electronic Heater ) and submersible pump (like this one: Active Aqua Submersible Water Pump 160 GPH ).  The heater is on the left with the green end cap.  The pump can't be seen but is attached to the rear wall of the bin.  Also floating around in there is a thermometer that I monitor temperature with.  The black straps you see are my Brew Hauler (The Brew Hauler - Carboy Carrier ).  I have this sitting in my shop which stays at around 55-65 degrees F.

There are other heaters available, but make sure that the one you pick is adjustable down to 68 degrees F or lower.  I chose a 300 W heater based on a formula in Chapter 4 of the Yeast book mentioned above.  The beauty of this set up is that the heater will keep the water at the proper temperature and the pump keeps the water circulating so that the temperature is even throughout.

Temperature variations in your fermenter will affect the yeast in a bad way.  You want to keep a constant temperature, and I have had good success with this arrangement.

2.  Yeast Starters - One of the big things I learned by reading the Yeast book is the importance of pitching the correct amount of yeast.  You need to have enough yeast introduced into your wort so that it moves from the Lag phase to the Exponential Growth phase within 15 hours.  In most cases, this means that you'll need to make a starter, as the number of yeast cells contained in your dry yeast packet, or liquid yeast vial is not going to be enough.  In general, the rule for calculating yeast cell counts is

(1 million) X (milliliters of wort) X (degrees Plato of the wort)

(I've taken this formula from the Yeast book mentioned above)

In some cases, the yeast cell count in the packet or vial you purchase can be less than half of the optimal cell count needed to get your wort fermenting properly in the desired timeframe.

Making a yeast starter is the solution, as it is simple and prevents the yeast from making high levels of diacetyl and acetaldehyde which contribute off-flavors to your beer.

I will not get into the process of making a yeast starter here, as there are numerous well-done explanations of the process including this one by John Palmer from his book How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time.

While these tips are not specific to Brewing in a Bag, I wanted to share my thoughts here, as it took me longer than it should have to figure these things out.  I hope these help you get to the major leagues of homebrewing quickly!

Until next time....Cheers!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Electric heating system

In this post, I'll lay out the details of the electric (heatstick) based system that I have been using.  As I mentioned in my previous post, an electric system was what I settled on after considering a propane system.

There seems to be some trepidation in the brewing community regarding systems that involve water and electricity, and with good reason.  If you don't have your system properly designed and installed it could mean a nasty shock at the least, and death at worst.  Without a good understanding of electricity, putting together an electric heating system is a daunting task, and is probably one reason why propane is more popular, at least for now.

Since my background is in electrical engineering, I was somewhat less intimidated with this approach, although I have to admit that I still had to do a lot of reading to convince myself that I wanted to embark on this path.  I had seen several sites that described a heatstick constructed of a water heater element attached to several standard 1-1/2" drain pipe components.  Most used 120VAC elements which was convenient for plugging into a standard outlet.  I was more interested in a higher wattage element that would be capable of quickly bringing 5-10 gallons of water up to mash temperature (~150 Degrees F) in a reasonable time (10-15minutes).  These higher wattage elements required 220VAC, similar to what your electric clothes dryer needs, meaning that I'd need to have a 220VAC outlet installed where I wanted to brew (my basement shop and my garage).  Also, I wanted a way to vary the heatstick output so I needed a way to either vary the voltage or the duty-cycle.  I chose the latter after reading a thread on that detailed how a Pulse-Wave Modulator circuit board from Bakatronics could be used to turn on and off a solid-state relay (you'll want this heatsink too) to control the heatstick.  The picture below shows a box from HomeDepot that I used to mount the circuit board and the solid stat relay.

Without going into all the details, I ended up with the system shown below, which (with one exception) has serverd me well in the last 6 months of brewing.
You'll notice that I decided to bend the water heater element 90degress so that it lays on the bottom of my keggle.  I emailed Camco before I did this and got this response:
The element sheath is made from Incoloy 840 and the interior is filled with a highly compacted ceramic powder. Bending an element creates gaps in the ceramic that cause high temperature spots. A tighter bend radius gives larger gaps. The larger the gaps are, the higher the temperature will be. High temperatures will reduce the life of the element. If the bend is too tight the element will crack. Too address the difficulties, we use specialized bending equipment and compression dies that we have developed just for these elements.
I don’t recommend bending the element, but if you can't find a way around it, use the largest bend radius possible.

The heatstick is placed into my keggle as shown below
In order to keep the grain bag from being burned by the heatstick, I settled on a 10" stainless steel vegetable steamer to act as a false bottom in the keg as shown below

As you can see from the photo below, I used some stainless steel bolts to serve as feet that hold the steamer several inches off the bottom of the keggle

I've recently purchased a digital temperature controller that I plan on using to control the heatstick in lieu of the PWM circuit board I now use.  More details on that to follow.

In my next post, I'll discuss a few important tips for beginning homebrewers that I learned about the hard way including temperature control of the fermenter, and proper yeast pitching.

Until long for now.....

Saturday, April 21, 2012

How I came up with my setup

Today's post will give you an idea of the system I've settled on for BIAB and why.  I spent a fair amount of time reading and researching numerous equipment configurations that were discussed on the forums.  It took me several months to decide what I wanted, but the key requirements I ended up with were:

  1. Electric-powered system.
  2. Stainless-steel vessel that could hold entire water volume.
  3. Plate chiller for cooling the wort.
 Let's walk through my reasoning for each.

1.  Electric-powered system.  When we started making extract kits, we used our stove to boil 2.5 gallons or so of water.  No big deal.  An electric stove or gas will work.  Moving to All-Grain requires 6+ gallons of water to be heated.  To heat this much takes more heat than your stove is able to provide, so the most popular solution is to get a propane burner/stand and move the operation outdoors.

For me, the thought of having to lug propane tanks around was not attractive.  Also, propane offered no way to brew indoors during the winter months.  Add to that my general fear of gas leaks/explosions and propane quickly was ruled out.  Plugging something into an outlet with no worry of running out of fuel made it easy for me to decide on an electric brewery!

2.  Stainless steel vessel - Here, I have to admit that stainless is not a requirement.  At the time I made my decision on stainless I had read about the possibility that aluminum vessels could impart a bad taste to the beer.  Since then, my son has used an aluminum pot with no issues so if I were to do it over again I may opt for an aluminum brew pot.  As it turned out, I found a keg for sale on Craigslist and purchased it.  Having a 15 gallon vessel is nice since it allows me to brew a double batch in one session.  It's nothing fancy, but here is my keggle.  I do want to give a plug to Bargain, as they have great pricing on all that you need to convert a keg into a brewing vessel.  That's a weldless bulkhead kit of theirs installed at the base.

3.  Plate Chiller for cooling the wort - I had attended several group brews with my brew club and saw both the copper coil type wort chillers and the plate chillers in action.  Most guys were using the copper tubing type, but I was looking for something smaller than a big coil of copper tubing.  I was told that the plate chillers were pretty expensive, but I found a nice on at Keg Cowboy for a reasonable price and decided to go with it.  I have not regretted this decision as it quickly cools the wort down to pitching temperature once you get the wort flow and cold water flow right. I made the mistake of ordering it with standard hose fittings instead of quick-connects, so after a few brews I made the trip to Wal-mart and bought/installed them myself.

My next post will detail how I constructed the electric heating system for my electric brewery.  Stay tuned!

And please feel free to post a comment and/or questions regarding the setup.  Thanks!