Thursday, February 7, 2019

Ghetto Brew: Affordable advanced brewing! The mash tun.

This is the beginning of a new series on counterbrew about affordable Advanced Brewing.  In this series well try to show you all some common sense affordable methods for advanced home brewing.

Ok... I get it...I've said it before... I understand... you want the shiny bling...the mirror polished stainless $15,000.00 brewing system and the 14 gallon glycol controlled uni-tanks... I get it... really I do.  You've drooled over photos of some basement in some far off state or province that has been turned into a miniature temple of fermentation.   You imagine (wrongly) that if you just had that level of brewing equipment, you would win 5 Ninkasi awards in a row, and the whole world would know of your brewing excellence.

Brewhardware's pre wired rims tube
set up. Just add a pump.
And you can call me a grumpy old curmudgeon... but I don't really want any of that stuff any more. ( Maybe I should say I don't want more of that stuff...In full disclosure I have a gas fired, mirror polished, medical grade welded, 10 gallon recirculating system with a pump, tri-clover valves, built in thermometers, acid etched sight gauges, and false bottoms...I rarely use it. It is in fact in storage right now. Part of it may be at Jakes... I may change it over to a Rims Tube  system in an effort to continue to minimize oxygen ingress with out the use of chemicals.  There is a follow up post on LODO coming soon. )

For the most part I brew small batches on the stove top.  So when I think about a brewing system, I only want easy to clean equipment that improves my final product.   And I want to continue to brew a lot.   Which means small batch.   I want variety.   Which also means small batch.  Basically, I want to brew a lot.  And again that means stove top small batch.

Don't get me wrong I like shinny brewing equipment as much as the next guy.  I've spent literally hundreds of hours over the years drooling over systems.  I am especially attracted to the High Gravity brewing systems, Blichman Engineering, Brausupply, Clawhammer Supply, and especially to Colorado Brewing Systems.  But alas, I have yet to win the lottery.  And even if I did win the lottery, I'm not convinced I would buy one of these systems (see above, I would probably just add a Rims Tube from to my 5 gallon system). Heck, I may add one of those anyway.   But unless I win the lottery, I'm not buying more expensive brew gear.     Especially, when I can make advanced gear at home for a fraction of the cost.  On our brew crew we are very proud of focusing on what really matters, and we can make the equipment we need for advanced home brew mashing.  That's right, I can make great equipment, and you can to. 

Fancy Gear, is no substitue for experience and
knowledge.  No amount of money spent on
equipment can make good beer if you don't
know how to brew!
You see i know the truths...I have read the secret ancient tomes... I possess the ethereal mystical knowledge of the brewing art... and I will share it with you. 
  • Its the brewer not the equipment. 
  • There is no substitute for sanitation,
  • Fermentation is eminently more important than wort production.  
  • Fresh quality ingredients are more important than recipe design. 
  • Simple is usually better
  • Packaging matters, oxygen can ruin finished beer.
  • Brewers make wort yeast makes beer, yeast vitality and health are of paramount importance. 
These are the things that matter.   If you are focused on wort production above all else, your beer will suck, well maybe not suck, but it wont be as good as someone who focused on sanitation, yeast health / vitality, and on fermentation control. 

So how do I go about making great beer on the stove top, or with out spending a fortune?  Well I think I have figured out what will work for me, and I will share it with you in hopes that it will work for you as well.  Or in hopes that it will inspire you to create your own small batch system.   I also have figured out what I can afford, and what any serious brewer can afford.  (in follow up posts I'll be showing you how to make a boil kettle, a fermentation chamber, and a stainless fermenter...affordably.

My goals.  Super easy to clean.  Minor infections are the bane of the home brewing world.   I can not tell you how many times I've tasted a beer that was slightly off.  Still pretty good, but just not everything it should be, not the taste the brewer was trying to produce.  The brewer would swear it was due to stale malt or a change in the recipe, or a slightly different mash temperature...   But you and I both know the real flaw was probably a lack of complete cleaning and sanitation.  Some minor infection didn't ruin the beer but certainly competed for the resources of the desired outcome.  Or there was some weird flavor left over from poor cleaning.  In an effort to keep the system easy to clean I am eliminating pumps and limiting valves.  I know this may sound shocking to you all, but when you think about it you don't really need a pump. Pumps are convenient, pumps are kind of cool. But pumps are also places where minor infections can hide. And I don't know any of the world's great large breweries that use recirculating Mash systems (although they do all use pumps to move wort around). I do know a ton of them that use mash paddles.  The whole point of stirring or recirculating is making the enzymes more effective, enzymes are proteins they only work when in contact with starch.  So stir your mash.  It really doesn't matter if you stir or recirculate.   And please don't give me the clear wort argument.  Numerous studies, prove that (with the exception of light lagers)  crystal clear wort is meaningless.  If you are producing a light lager or a beer that needs clear wort, there is no law that says you can't vorlauf (even when you are doing biab style or no sparge.) 

Other goals for the system are that it hold temperature well, reduce oxygen ingress, and that it will allow me to step mash.   I am generally a no sparge brewer.  And I am often a step mash brewer ( at least with my Belgian Inspired beers).  So I need an easy way to step mash as well.  

For me the best solution is a 5 gallon cooler as a mash tun.   I use a brew bag as a filter, which allows me to crush finer, which means I maintain decent efficiency even with no sparge brewing, usually 76.4% (which I think you would agree is awesome for no sparge in a cooler)

But there is a problem with a cooler mash tun.  You have to open it to stir.  And you have to open it to do an infusion step Mash. Well have no fear brewing nerds, Old Uncle Dave has the solution for you. I'm going to show you all how I modify a cylindrical cooler mash tun in order to accomplish all of the goals set out above.  And you probably own 90% of the tools you'll need.  And the materials you need are cheap at your local big box hardware store.  Here is what you need.
  • A 5 gallon (or 10 gallon) cylindrical mash tun with a screw on lid (they're thinner)
  • 1 1/2" PVC Female Trap Adapter with Nut and Washer, Hub x Socket $2.59
  • a 1 1/2" hole saw.  (any big box hardware store will have this)
  • A large funnel  or better yet Your LHBS
  • A worm clamp - Your LHBS
  • 2' of  1/2" inside diameter silicone tubing - Your LHBS
  • a #10 stopper - Your LHBS
  • A large brew bag, I have lots of these from Wilser, BrewBag, and my LHBS 
  • A stainless steel 8" drip pan as a false bottom ( make sure it is stainless steel not chromium or painted, stainless won't be quite as shiny as chromium)  Any big box will have these. 
So here is the finished mash tun. With the port on top. The port has a mash paddle sticking out of it... with foil wrapped around it.  A waterproof digital thermometer probe goes down into the wort.  My awesome daughter bought me a 13" fast read long probe, so I can take temps at different places in the mash as well through the port.  So far so good.  I'm on my 16th brew with it and it is performing well.  We are getting right at 76% ever time.  If I extend my mash to 90 minutes I get over 80%.  Despite what you have heard; iodine is not a good test of mash conversion, and mash length does matter somewhat.  With apologies to the short and shoddy crowd (who I really enjoy), a 90 minute mash will always create more conversion and fermentability (thinner beer).  Well be posting on using time of mash as a component in excellence soon. 

Here's how it works.  I strike at 12 degrees above my target temperature.   Every 15 minutes i stir...with out opening the lid, that's it.  If I need to step mash I add a funnel with a silicone tube attached and I pour boiling water through the port.  It fits even with the mash paddle in place.

When I am done... I drain into the boil kettle.  Shocking right?  If I'm making a very high gravity beer I have to sparge. When this is the case, I lift the bag, set it into a colander, squeeze/press, and then rinse the grains.  Simple affordable mashing without temperature loss.   You don't need a $5k brewing system, you just need common sense. 

I realize I am kind of a knucklehead, but I think I am right on point with this one...We are focused to much on things that don't really matter.   We are focused on the active part of brewing, we are focused on those halcyon days in the garage with friends brewing beer.   And that is great, but we need to be focused on cleaning, and on making good healthy yeast starters.  (I have some crazy theories about the absolute importance of yeast health that well be tackling soon).  We need to be focused on fermentation temperature control, and proper aeration of wort at yeast pitch.  If you can't make a yeast starter and you want a $1000.00 wort production machine your priorites are wrong.  If you can't control fermentation, and you want a $1000.00 wort production machine, you're nuts.   If you aren't kegging yet... well that comes before fancy wort machines.  If you aren't fermenting in stainless steel, that comes first.  You get where I'm headed here... there's lots to handle before a wort machine.

I'll close by saying, as always, there are no homebrew police, brew how you want to brew.  It is all about having fun making beer.   Cheers!

On our next brew I'll post a picture of the funnel in place during a step mash.