Brewing with a Friend… or Adopta’Brewer™

Mike prepping to batch sparge

One of the joys of home brewing is sharing the results with friends, and even better, making new friends through the experience. Just over a year ago, a new home was built across the street, and I took some beer over to introduce ourselves. He realized just how deeply I was into the hobby/obsession with the tour of the garage brewery! I invited Mike to come and help brew, delighted as he dove in and has become a good brewing assistant. I have been very appreciative of my brewing mentors, both commercial brewers and accomplished home brewers from the Austin Zealots. It is nice to pass along the knowledge.

So it is common to get a text Friday evening to ask, “Are we brewing tomorrow?” And in just a few brewing sessions, he has come around to understanding the basics. Mike is an engineer, and the attention to detail serves him very well! I think he was sold on brewing when we kegged up the first batch we brewed together – a light Belgian Blonde ale – and served it at their housewarming party for about 40 people, paired up with spicy crawfish boil. It was a major hit and a nice treat on an otherwise very hot evening. 10 gallons tapped out in about 2 hours.

Mike is an Auburn alum, and a big supporter of the Packers and Saints. Saturdays and Sundays are somewhat sacred, so brewing is an early venture to be finished in time for the game. And Mike’s further investment in a dual-tap tower kegerator keeps the beer flowing for the friends and neighbors that swing by for the games.  In most cases, Mike will get a corny from whatever is ready to serve. The real challenge is that Mike’s friends can quickly kill a keg or two.

He decided he needed to learn to brew with his own system AND wanted to do all-grain. Brought a tear to my eye! This was also a great way for me to pass along some spare gear, and we put together a short list of needs. Ultimately, he headed to the new SoCo Homebrew shop in South Austin, and walked out with a much lighter wallet, a pretty nice cooler/kettle combo with fermenter and a first recipe. He will inherit some carboys and various spare parts. Mike also repurposed a refrigerator that now does duty as a fermenter.

Two weeks ago, Sunday, was the inaugural run. I had one of my mentors over brewing with me on the Brew-Magic, and Mike wandered over with tables and gear and setup outside my garage. Having Neil, from ScottishBrewing.com, brewing with me was a real blessing. Things got very chaotic at times, and Neil was able to swap in and out helping between our brew and Mike’s. There was an invasion of Packers fans, all sitting around drinking beer and laughing, and then came the Saints fans.

All in all, the day went very well until I was showing Mike how to batch sparge. His mashtun is a cooler with a false bottom, and I didn’t check before mash in how the hoses were connected and I knocked loose a hose from the false bottom’s nipple. I ended up dumping the mash into a homer bucket while we reconnected the hoses and secured them with hose clamps. Dumped the mash back in, a quick stir, a rest, vorlauf and finally ran off the last of the wort into the kettle. Emergency averted… cool heads prevailed, and this guy felt pretty dumb for causing the problem!

The saison Neil and I brewed went into the fermenter just as Mike’s boil was nearing an end. He used my immersion chiller, cooled the wort and we knocked out to the fermention bucket, making great pains to aerate the wort. He also shook the fermenter for about 5 minutes. I got amusing and frantic texts about when to pitch the yeast that evening. It all worked out. He was so excited to see bubbles in the airlock!

Tomorrow we check FG, and will have him check again on Friday. Will also be the first taste of the near finished beer! If all is good, will give him tips on force carbonating and preparing the beer for serving by Sunday. It’s a session IPA – so should be good to go and quite fresh. Might even dry hop in the keg for an extra kick.

So an introduction to brewing, returning to my roots on a cooler mashtun and helping someone enthusiastically jump into the hobby has been very cathartic. In hindsight, I wish I had a mentor that could have gotten me past so many stupid little mistakes early on. Keeping things simple, and seeing that you don’t need advanced gear to make great beer is refreshing.

Postlude: I intentionally didn’t take Mike through the gravity readings, mash pH or thermometer calibration. I pre-calculated his water requirements and we brewed with my RO water and salts. He bought a single vial of WLP001, and we didn’t make a starter. The hope was to remove variables and confusing metrics that ‘might’ cause disappointment. We will focus on efficiency and other topics as we brew together more. The goal is that Mike and his son-in-law can brew together and I am confident that will happen very soon!

Now I need to figure out a gift for the virgin brewer… mash paddle?

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Update: Last night we checked gravity. Shockingly low at 1.002, with an expected FG at 1.012, especially when he missed his volumes by about a 1/2 gallon. Not sure why WLP001 super attenuated, but the sample was very tasty, dry, no off flavors, no DMS or diacetyl that I could pick out. Checking again tonight for stability – then will force carb for the weekend.

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Low Pressure CO2 Regulator Build

Low Pressure Regulator and Gauge

So from the Big Badda Boom event, I decided I need to build something to help prevent over-pressuring and make it idiot proof. In my discussion with SSBrewTech, they make a recommendation to build a connector with a 5 PSI pressure gauge. This allows you to adjust the pressure from a CO2 bottle regulator with more precision, where a 0-60 PSI gauge doesn’t provide the resolution necessary. In their bulletin on pressurized transfers, SSBrewTech provide a parts list on the back of the page to build such a device. I decided to add a regulator body to the design as extra insurance against another BOOM, restricting the possible pressure into the vessel.

I already had a 1 ½” Tri-clamp fitting, but with an elbow and barb, so decided to work with that. I bought all of the parts listed in the link below and created a regulator that guarantees no more than 5 PSI is being added. The system quick connects to my bottle through a flare fitting – same fitting I use with kegging.

There are practical uses for a low pressure regulator. This allows me to keep my bottle regulator around 10-12 PSI for most normal applications. With the inline regulator, I am assured that I will not over pressure my conicals again, whether pushing beer for kegging or topping up headspace while cold crashing. Using TCs ensures that I can apply it to both SSBrewTech Chronicals and my MoreBeer conical.

1 1/2" Tri-Clamp with elbow barb

When kegging, I now have a quick way to attach to the gas post of a corny, pressurize and purge, and then quickly move the bottle to the conical to push the beer into corny (PRV released of course). At about 3 PSI, I can closed-transfer into a keg in just a few minutes and still not worry about contact with O2!

A couple of notes. The regulator uses 1/8” connections for gauges. The gauge I bought was ¼” so I had to add an adapter into the mix. You may be able to find the right gauge without the adapter. This gauge is fairly heavy, relative to the rest of the parts. I used a 8” length of silicon hose to tie the regulator/gauge to the TC nipple, which means this will hang free to the side of the conical. I will need to be careful it doesn’t get hit very hard. The one-way valve on the right is not necessary, just don’t want to lose it off the bottle. Those are handy for force carbing. Shop around. I decided to grab all of this off Amazon for convenience sake – but you can save a portion of the costs by looking elsewhere!

I tested the regulator by pressurizing my MoreBeer conical to 5 PSI and backing off. I was able to easily set the pressure to 3 PSI, adequate for most transfers. The regulator dial locks into place, so I can leave it in that configuration as long as required. I then tested it on the ½ BBL Chronical and it works great!

Parts List from Amazon (Smile for Charity!)

http://smile.amazon.com/registry/wishlist/1MUVSR5YHM830

5 PSI Pressure Regulator Body

Low Pressure Gauge, 5 PSI

½” Barb to ¼” MPT Fitting

Half Union, ¼” Flare to ¼” MPT

¼’ Female NPT to 1/8” Male NPT

Gas Line Pipe Thread Tape

The total was about $85

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Big Badda Boom – Pressure is Dangerous!

SS Brewing Technology 1/2 BBL Chronicals

Shiny new Chronicals awaiting a good cleaning and passivation.

So this was going to be an article on how I expanded my fermentation capability by 1 BBL, and with an explanation on why I chose the solution and vendor. It will turn into a severe WARNING to everyone that pressure, even as low as the pressure we use with corny kegs, is dangerous! So what does this have to do with fermentation? So please pause for a few words about safety!

It takes very little pressure, released suddenly to harm someone. A little Google searching can illustrate the dangers of steam pressure in a sanke keg. This can be fatal. I am afraid that we as homebrewers so often get comfortable and lazy about handling the pressure for kegging that we forget how dangerous it can be.

A week ago, I dry hopped a batch of American Brown ale. At the time, I also attached a pressure valve that allows me to measure the pressure and add additional Co2 when needed. I also use CO2 to transfer from conicals into kegs. Earlier this week, I tasted and decided to cold crash. Since I had put the PRV on, I added a few pounds of CO2 pressure and let the freezer and controller do its thing.  This morning, I went to check gravity and clarity of the Brown ale, and when I opened the sample valve, air sucked in backwards causing bubbling. I panicked, not wanting 11 gallons of oxidized ale. So I grabbed my Co2 tank, connected it and opened the valve. The pressure set immediately.

The next few seconds were sheer terror and panic. The little PRV valve on the lid of this conical whistled (you can see it below, a button on the lid). Then there was a weird creaking noise, like twisting metal. And then BOOM. My hair blew back and next thing you know, lid is crooked and the gasket hangs over the side. I grabbed the bottle of Co2 and shut it off…. I then realized I had the pressure set at about 15-20 PSI to seal the lid on some cornys I had filled earlier in the week. I didn’t verify and adjust down the pressure before connecting to the conical – and the lid system failed.

Chronical Lid Clips

Spring Steel clamps lock the lid when the Spring Latch is closed. With the silicon gasket in the lid, creates a tight seal.

Failed in a good way however. The conical lid design was such that the clamps that hold the lid deformed, yet they held the lid on, while decompressing. Yeah those little clips on the lid in the picture above! I grabbed the lid, cleaned it and the gasket and reseated as quickly as possible. I then discovered that the clamps are wrecked – and sit limp. They will not hold any pressure on the lid. I am fine by the way – just a bit disappointed that I made such a stupid mistake!

So – I expanded my fermentation space, essentially tripling my controlled fermentation capacity. I have been using a MoreBeer Ultimate Conical for the past couple of years. I love it, but it can be difficult to clean, and just does not keep up with cooler ferments in my hot Texas garage. So I have been mulling over other options. A good friend in the Zealots has a full size walk-in cooler and two temperature controlled ‘chambers’ or closets that utilize the cool air from the walk-in. I would love the walk-in, but don’t need it, and decided after a lot of looking to buy 2 upright freezers and conical fermenters. This weighed against the costs of buying two more Ultimates seemed like a bargain.

Chronical installed in freezer

The Chronical in Fridgedaire 20.5 cubic foot freezer. Plenty of room for a carboy or a Brewbucket on the side!

Please understand I have nothing against buckets or carboys and use them often, especially for sour beer and experiments. Conicals have many features that are attractive, including easy racking and sampling. I looked at a number of suppliers and locked onto SS Brewing Technologies pretty quickly. The feedback I have seen on their Brew Bucket has been pretty good, and the fact that the ½ BBL Chronical used tri-clamp fittings was a bonus. I have collected a few parts over the years and 1 ½ TC elements from the Ultimate could be used with these. I pulled the trigger on two beautiful Chronical Half Barrel Fermenters. As a bonus, the new homebrew supply said they could order them and gave me a good deal compared to purchasing online. While I waited, I hit up Lowes and found a sale was on – and purchased 2 20.5 cubic foot freezers.

Freezers came and were installed side by side. I even left the protective plastic on them. Hooked up the Johnson digital controllers and waited. It took an extra couple of days, but the fermenters arrived and I picked them up. Next day, went through the cleaning and passivization process and installed them into my freezers. I can also fit a full size 6 gallon carboy next to these bad boys – bonus! Later that weekend, I brewed the hoppy American Brown ale mentioned above.

I sent off an email to the SS Brewing folks. I admitted that I over-pressured a vessel and wrecked the lid hooks. I am blown away by their response. By the time this is posted, I expect that I will be a guinea pig on replacing those hooks. I got a call from the mechanical designer and we talked through what happened in detail…

SS Brewing Technology products are both well-made and sensibly priced. When you compare to similar products and price points, there is little to criticize. I buy high-end gear and this stuff is comparable in quality to anything out there from Blichmann or MoreBeer. The steel is bright and shiny, but there are flaws, as there will always be, where you can see welds or a small scratch. You will need to passivate and clean before filling them – but easy enough. The flexibility of the racking arm and the dump valve, and using my existing TC components is a big asset. I highly recommend their products.

Now – back to today’s lesson – ALWAYS check the pressure of your tank before you connect it to any vessel! PERIOD!  Looking forward to tomorrow – time to fill the other fermenter! 

This weekend, happy to report that both fermenters are full and chugging away.

– – – Addendum – – –

I failed to mention that while cleaning out the fermenter, I was able to carefully bend back the lid clamps. They are spring steel and take a bit of patience. Use pliers, but wrap the teeth with a soft cloth. First I bent the top of the clamps back to a 90 degree angle to the longer legs, and then added a little bit of a bow or curl inward to the legs, working from the middle. As you do this – it may twist a bit – but you can twist the clamp opposite carefully and it should return true. I tested each on on the lid without the silicon gasket in place to ensure a snug fit when the spring clamp was lowered.

Happily – the lid and clamps, with the gasket are holding a seal and 12 gallons of IPA is happily fermenting!

Restored Lid Clips, after bending back into shape.

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