Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Levelling up the Crema Brewery

For those that follow us on Twitter, you've probably noticed that we've come a long way from home-brewing with a big stock pot and some plastic buckets. As we've accumulated more kit and refined our brewing process, we felt it was time to share our experiences with the home-brewing world.

If you've been following our blog for a while, some of you might have seen a post early on where we wrote about our initial foray into home-brewing (if you haven't you can find it here). We brewed on that kit for a while, making minor upgrades along the way but there came a point where we decided that it was time to make things a little easier for ourselves.

In every case, identifying the issues we faced was the start of any problem solving process. So, in a rough chronological order, here's our list:

1) Making a starter by having to swirl the vessel every time you walk past it is boring.
2) Mashing in and sparging by jugging the brewing liquor from a stock pot into the mash tun/sparge arm is a pain in the arm (literally).
3) Knowing how much wort that was in the kettle at any time was very much a 'finger-in-air' method that involved a 'calibrated' brewing stick.
Brewing Stick of Estimation
4) How can we cool our wort quicker?
5) Jugging cooled wort from the kettle to the fermenter, plus struggling with too many hops.

1. Starter Kit

We've included images of how we've upgraded our starter kit so this section will be painlessly short. The bottom line is, if you want to make a decent starter, invest (or build) a stir plate. We went for this one, but I'm sure a bit of internet/E-Bay magic and you could find a cheaper one.We also ordered several conical flasks of varying sizes from 0.5-2L but to be honest, we only really use the 2L one. 
Where we used to make our starters...
So, why make a starter anyway? Most homebrewers, if using wet yeast, will be using either White Labs vials or Wyeast smack packs and despite the claims printed on the packs, it is generally accepted wisdom that they just don't contain enough yeast cells for ideal fermentation (they will ferment the beer but you might find some off-flavours creeping in due to under-pitching). Therefore by making a starter you can grow up yeast cells to the right pitching rate. But why use a stir plate? For yeast cell growth the yeast requires dissolved oxygen to aid reproduction and build healthy cell walls, so using a magnetic stir plate it ensures that lots of oxygen gets dissolved into the starter wort and you get the required level of yeast growth. We use a starter calculator in Beersmith to work out the size of starter depending on how old the yeast pack/vial is (but other calculators are available).

Another tip we've recently learned, make sure the temperature your starter is growing at is within the range for your yeast. We've made a couple with Wyeast 1272 recently (15-22C) when the ambient temperature in the flat has been 25C+ every day. We ended up with some very weird off-flavours in two beers. If, like us, you live somewhere a bit toasty, consider Fermentation Temperature Control (see point 6 below) or start using dry yeast.

2. Our New Hot Liquor Tank

On our old kit, we used to heat all of our brewing liquor in a 30L aluminium stock pot. This meant having to measure out all the water we needed for mashing in and then in a separate, smaller pot, doing the same for our sparge water. That meant when mashing in, one of us had to jug most of the liquor from the pot into the mash tun while the other threw the grain in. The insightful amongst you will realise that this process will take a long time and inevitably the brewing liquor will cool. Which it did. More often than not, we ended up adding boiling water to adjust our mash temperature upwards as we always seemed to be low.

We also had a similar problem when sparging. We use a sparge arm to do our sparging and we found that we had to put a small funnel in the end of the tubing attached to the sparge arm and pour the sparge water into it to make it work right. For whichever of us was holding the tube/funnel up, this wasn't fun over a long, slow sparge. 

So, the problem was simple. How do we heat enough water for both mash and sparge and have an easier transfer to the mash tun? The answer is pretty simple, get a Hot Liquor Tank (HLT) that has temperature control and a ball valve. Sizing is the first step, how much liquor does it need to hold? Working on our previous brews, our liquor requirements were typically in the 30-40L area, so we reckoned a 50L HLT would do us for a while. Having a look around on the internet, the best deal we found was from Home Brew Builder. We emailed Mark with our requirements and he gave us a competitive quote compared to just buying something from EBay or elsewhere on the internet. Plus we got precisely what we wanted.
The Happiness of a Temperature Controlled HLT

Out of all the new things we've bought, this has probably made our brew days so much easier. Measure out all the water into the HLT, set your strike temperature and come back when you're ready to brew. We have a hefty electric element (3kW) that gets us from room temperature up to strike temperature in under 30 minutes and given our propensity to start late on brew days, this is definitely a good thing. Check out the mad sparge arm action in the video below.

3. A New Kettle

Actually, now I come to think about it, the new kettle came before the HLT but it was a lower priority. Our requirements for a new kettle were pretty simple - it needed to hold enough wort for our brews, have a sight glass and tap so we could run off the cooled wort into the fermenter, plus a hop filter to stop it getting jammed up. We looked around and found one the right size with everything we needed at The Malt Miller. We also ordered a Blichmann Brewmometer and had it sent to The Malt Miller, who fitted it for us. This has proved to be an excellent decision, as you can see at a glance if you're close to boiling but also during the hop steep where you can see what temperature you're at to get the most out of the myrcene in those juicy American hops (boiling point of myrcene is 64.4C).

Key Features of the New Kettle
4. Quicker Cooling

As you can see from the bottom left photo just above, we have a pump fitted to our New Kettle. Sadly, this pump has been consigned to the pump graveyard as it failed during a brew day. Why did we even have it I hear you cry! Well, we knew we had to look at a means by which we could cool our wort quicker. Our old chiller developed a fault (water was dripping from the hose connection into the wort - infection city!) and was pretty slow at chilling (1 hour plus). We did some research and came across this article by legendary homebrewer Jamil Zainasheff (aka Mr Malty). This seemed like an interesting home build project but due to the limitations of space in our flat and our lack of tools, we had to shop around to find someone who could build this for us. Fortunately, a very decent chap called Luke at VoFlo was willing to attempt it for us and within a couple of weeks, we had ourselves a shiny new whirlpool immersion chiller.

As we mentioned just above, we originally had a little solar pump we bought from Home Brew Builder. Thanks to a tip from our friend Jon Rowett, we made sure to build a suitable hop filter in addition to the one that was fitted in our kettle.  For this, we purchased some wire mesh, washers and some rather long bolts so as to create a space below the filter where the wort could be drawn out through the fitted wort filter.

Home-made hop filter
With the hop filter made, we were ready to try out the new whirlpool immersion chiller. It's pretty simple in design and largely identical to the one from the Mr Malty website.

We have since dispensed with the solar pump (rest in peace)
Since we've started using it, we've found the whirlpool chiller works really, really well to get the wort down to around 30C in a relatively short period of time (sub 30 minutes). It would probably be quicker if the ambient temperature of our flat wasn't in the 25-30C range (it stays that warm through late spring/summer). The other thing is - you get a cool whirlpool effect as the wort re-enters the kettle against the cold inside of the coil, although it you have a lot of hops (we often do) then the whirlpool struggles to get going properly.

Sadly, the little solar pump we were using for recirculating the wort from the bottom of the kettle back into the whirlpool arm didn't last very long. Even with our two hop filters, particles of varying sizes were getting into the pump and with quite small blades, it quickly jammed up and failed. A pump failing during a brew, especially without a replacement, is a pain but we managed to soldier on without it. We've since replaced it with a much more robust (and terrifying) pump but more on that shortly.

We're probably going to go with iced water with a submersible pump to recirculate through the chiller as our mains water doesn't get that cold in the summer, plus the ambient temperature in our flat doesn't help when you're trying to chill to 16C for pitching.

5. Transferring when you have TOO MANY HOPS!

On our old kit, we had a straight up stock pot with no outlet so we had to use a sanitised jug and a large funnel with a fine filter to transfer the cooled wort to the fermenter. With the advent of a kettle with a ball valve and then a pump, things changed. For a while, we used the little solar pump to move the wort from the kettle through our filter funnel but when the solar pump failed we knew we needed a new solution for both the whirlpool chiller and transfer.
Looks pretty quiet now, yeah?

With some recommendations from various good folk on Twitter, we went for this model of pump from Hop and Grape. Yes, it seems a bit pricey but as we've found, if you want something to work as it should, then expect to pay the cash for it. Skimping will hurt you in the long run. Also feeling flush that month, we also bought a Blichmann Hop Rocket despite the fact that the Blichmann blurb says that you *can't* use it in a recirculating whirlpool system.

We've done a few brews on this new set up now and despite a few initial teething problems (unclamped hose out of the pump into a reducing adapter came off during recirculation - cue hilarious spraying of HOT wort over kitchen), it's working well. The set up is a bit Heath-Robinson but it works. We make sure that we don't overfill the Hop Rocket so the hop bed doesn't stick and it filters everything quite nicely. At some point when we brew something that doesn't need hops in the Hop Rocket, I guess we'll use rice hulls or some such.

Now for something even more terrifying...

So far, we've only made a couple of brews on this set and sadly due to fermentation issues with the starters we made them with (see point 1 above), they didn't turn out right. However, we have an American IPA in the fermenter right now that was made with rehydrated US-05 yeast and when I sampled it last week, it tasted like delicious hop juice. I think this could be an exciting beer.

As a side note, due to the hilarious wort spraying incident, we had to modify our recirculation set up to use a Hozelock connection to connect the output from the pump to the recirculation arm. No more shonky connections under pressure. What it did mean is that we had to get a spray nozzle to connect to the output of the pump, so when we pump the cooled wort from the kettle to the fermenter it gets REALLY aerated. So much so that for our first batch using it, the foam was nearly out of the top of the new conical. I guess it acts like a spray ball and I'm a firm believer in mad aeration of your cooled wort as it means happy yeast and a clean fermentation.


We've had our fermentation temperature control sorted for a while now after a few disastrous brews last year when we didn't take into account our flat's ambient temperature (25-30C) in the summer months. We decided that we'd had enough of trying to run some form of swamp cooler in our mash tun to keep fermentation temperature under control (it's just TOO hot in this flat), so we invested in a new fridge that met our height and width requirements. Yes, we could have got a cheapo second hand-one but we probably would have struggled to get one the right size plus you've no comeback if it only lasts a couple of weeks.

We built our own temperature controller from a STC-1000, which took about week or so to source all the parts and the tools to build it. We're currently using a black lamp that you'd use in a vivarium to do the heating but we might replace it with a heating tube you'd use in an airing cupboard as the lamp has caused a little bit of damage to the inside of the fridge (this freaked us out one night when it warped a shelf inside the fridge door, which fell out of its frame, making a bit of a racket and waking us with a start).

The Chamber of Fermentation!

The inside and a preview of a future blog post...
This has really helped our brews. It's probably the one thing over everything else that we have that has aided getting the best flavours in our beers and is the one thing we would strongly advise homebrewers to invest in at the earliest point. It also helps us finish bringing the wort down to pitching temperature if the chiller hasn't been able to do its job, a frequent occurrence in the summer when our mains water doesn't get that cold.

So, that's our current kit. We're still ironing out a few minor niggles here and there to get it working the way we want it to but other than that, it's doing pretty well. Hopefully, we can use it to turn out some cracking beers before we move out of this flat and can upgrade even more...

(This post was written by Chris).

1 comment:

JonR said...

fantastic post Chris. wish i could get my sparge arm to spin like that - it seems to have a "click" in it which means i have to pump liquor at a stupid rate to make the damned thing rotate.

so....you're doing your hop stands at under 64C? i've just started doing them, but doing them at a shade under 80C which seems to be what everyone else does. is this working well for you? satisfactory hop aroma is still something i struggle with. i recently did a hopped-to-hell DIPA which had no discernable aroma whatsoever...