Lifestyles

A Spirited Boil

Cigar Weekly contributing editor Todd Crandall (sevenmag) shares his experiences of building some home brewing equipment with his friend Nick Assad.

Whenever my friend Nick and I get together, things are usually getting built, repaired or modified in some way. We’ve replaced carburetors on jeeps and Harleys, added onto his house, and barely escaped serious injury and death a few times during some of our weekend soirées. Of course, a few adult malted beverages are consumed along the way. So it would seem a natural progression that at some point the plans for brewing some beer and building the gear necessary would emerge.
 

Now admittedly, I’m nothing more than a weekend warrior when it comes to welding. But I do pretty well with all the other power tools it takes for a project like this one. Nick, on the other hand, is more than capable of doing the whole project alone (and for the most part he did). He does, after all, live on the premises that houses our new brewery. I've just come over and helped whenever I could.

We built a gravity-fed system that worked well enough. But after some trial runs, we made the decision to go a different route. A 6-foot tower with 15 gallons of scalding hot water and a lit propane burner on the top was a textbook example of a disaster waiting for a place to happen. Mix in the consumption of a beer or twelve during an afternoon of brewing, and we decided this might be a decent opportunity to exercise good adult decision-making for the first time in a long while. I’m not knocking gravity-fed systems in general here - I can guarantee you there’s a ton of great home brew coming out of them. I can also guarantee you that there are as many variations of these as there are people using them. I’ve even heard of a guy that heats his water up on top of his fridge, feeds it down to the mash tun on the kitchen counter and then has it go to the boil kettle on the floor. I don’t think Mrs. Mag would go for that, and I’m not about to find out either.

Our first brewing rig...  This one is gravity-fed.
 

Nick started looking for some ideas as to how to go about building a more horizontal system that needed a little less attention during the whole process. He stumbled over the Brutus 10 - a homebuilt, fully automated homebrew system available on the Internet - and set about putting together all the parts needed for building a clone. Both of us are horrible scavengers, so it was almost fun searching for the materials that could be recycled or reassigned in some way, including stainless square tubing, wire and cable, switches and control boxes. Some of these pieces Nick found as scrap laying on the floor of a welding shop, buried under the scrap left over from a dozen previous jobs. I picked up some parts from the scrap pile of a few new buildings I’d been working in. It’s just amazing how much money and time you can save if you’re not afraid to ask or rummage through left over materials. Some stuff had to be bought, like burners, temp controllers, and food-grade pumps.

Now, once we had enough of the hardware to get started, it was down to work. Nick welded up the frame out of the stainless square tubing.

The frame Nick welded for the base of our new, automated brewing rig

He used part of the frame as a manifold for the gas, so all we had to do was drill and thread in the fittings for the three propane burners (instead of piping all three separately). After they were installed in the frame, we added one more gas fitting for the supply. Later, a solenoid-actuated valve was added to the first two burners so we would have more control over the temperature in those two kettles. Once we had those installed into the frame, it was on to the wiring and the controls. We fished the wire inside the frame and attached a weatherproof box. Two Love Controls temp controllers were used to control two of the burners, and we installed bypass switches so, if need be, we could just turn them on or off. Also in the box were switches for the two food grade pumps that move the wort and water from one kettle to another. One of the reasons we ditched the gravity-feed system was the ease of brewing and the ability to do infusion mashing when there are some pumps. To be honest, installing the pumps might have been the easiest part of the whole job. Simple switching, a stainless ball valve on each, quick connect hose couplers and some good silicone hoses were all that it took. Nick did weld a stainless heat shield over the top of them, for obvious reasons. But outside of that, it was a simple and clean fit.

The burners installed into the frame

 

A view of the control panel...  This is the real brain of the whole operation.
 
There was nothing left to do after the pumps went in but to start making some beer. We started out with a brown ale and an IPA. Both were terrific. Then we did a Scottish 80 Shilling - that one was nothing short of spectacular. It’s the kind of beer that I envisioned making someday after tons of practice. But now I know we can do it whenever supplies start to run low. We’ve brewed every 2nd weekend since the brewery was finished (we still haven’t named our brewery yet), and we can easily do 10 gallons in about 4 hours - that's starting from a dry grain bill all the way to the carboy. If we actually were to put in an honest days work, we could turn out 20 gallons. Problem is, all that homebrew that’s already in the kegs tends to slow down work considerably.

 

 The pumps really make this rig easy to use and make beer easy to make.

I’ll be perfectly honest here. On a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, this task is going to fall easily in the range of 9 to 10. If you’re lucky and have a friend like Nick that can do all this - and you can bring some skills along as well - it’s more than worth the effort. The biggest problem we have now is deciding what to brew, what to smoke while we’re brewing, and trying to convince the wives that we’re actually saving money on the beer budget in the long run .

Nick and the brewery.

 

Todd Crandall is a husband, a father, a self-proclaimed Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. He’s been a lover of the leaf since the mid 80s, and a lover of ales and American whiskies for even longer. Todd is a former professional water skier. But he had to get a real job, so he’s been a telecommunications technician for the last 24 years.