Hopback, a shiny new toy in the brewery

Stout Tanks 1.5 Gallon Hopback

Stout Tanks 1.5 Gallon Hopback

For a while I have been looking for a solution to limit the amount of hop and hot break material that may get trapped in my plate chiller. I use a Chill Wizard system, from Sabco, which integrates a pump, a plate chiller, inline oxygen stone and thermometer into a handy little stand. I have few complaints, but have experienced hops blocking up the plates, which can be messy to fix, and a real PITA on brew day. A hopback is a traditional tool that functions both to add hop aroma and flavor, while acting as a filter at knockout.

I have looked at smaller systems, such as the Blichmann HopRocket, but it is pricey, and would require new connectors and such to integrate. It is also small, and for big hop flavor, I expect to use several ounces of whole leaf hops in the hopback. When I saw the one from Stout Tanks, and the great pricing, I pulled the trigger. The hopback is a heavy and solidly made. The inside is smooth with the two outer ports. The lid seals airtight with a silicon gasket and the lid clamps you see in the photo. It also comes with the 1 1/2″ TC clamps, gaskets and 1 1/2 ” TC to 3/8″ hose barbs. You will need to thoroughly clean and passivate it before use.

Hopback in prep

I decided to give this a test run, without really doing much research. I installed this on my kettle as a grant, letting boiling wort gravity feed into the hopback from the upper inlet, and drain to the Chill Wizard pump from the lower outlet. This worked – sort of – I constantly pulled wort to fast and emptied it. So the grant concept went out of the window. The air in the hopback also caused the pump to cavitate randomly and knockout went at a crawl. It was clear I need to modify the position of the hopback. As for the test batch, the saison was cast over about 2 ounces of whole Tettnang hops in a strainer bag (as recommended). I think there was a strong contribution to the aroma and flavor of the saison.

From pump to the upper inlet, from the lower outlet to the plate chiller and valve.

From pump to the upper inlet, from the lower outlet to the plate chiller and valve.

Test batch number two was based on my house APA recipe, with minor modifications to the grain bill (lighter color), and big changes to the hop schedule. 50% of the bittering went in as FWH, and the rest were a short 10 minute addition of 1 ounce each of Zythos and Calypso (pellets), and onto 4 total ounces of whole hop Columbus and Bravo. Yes, I got everything backward, but on purpose. I built a new set of hoses with the 1 1/2″ barbs to allow the hopback to sit between the pump and the plate chiller and valve.

Hot Hop Soup

I then opened the hopback, with the hops in place, and allowed it to gravity fill with boiling wort. Once it was nearly full, I stopped the flow and carefully sealed the device. The configuration was from the kettle, through the pump, into the upper inlet, across the swollen bag of hops, out of the bottom outlet and into the valve and plate chiller. With the exception of a giant air burp back into the boil kettle (when I figured to open and fill the hopback) – this worked flawlessly. With the hopback sealed up tight, I am hoping that the wonderful oils and aromas from the hops will be carried through into the fermenter. Time will tell.

EDIT: After talking through this with a friend, it makes more sense that the wort flows into the bottom and out the top – this manages the air pressure more efficiently, even though the pump is in front of the hopback. Will make that adjustment next brew to see if there is any difference.

The wort is amazingly bright. Of course, cold break still forms in the plate chiller and will make it into the fermenter. There seems to be no good way around this problem, and I am thinking about replacing the plate chiller with a convoluted counter-flow chiller, while still using the Chill Wizard stand. With the chilly weather we have had recently, I was able to knock out in less than 10 minutes and chill to about 70F.

If this recipe (and I have strong doubts about the hop schedule) works out – I plan to brew a comparison batch with just a hop stand to compare. I might also rig something that allow me to split a batch to compare directly. While I typically bitter my APAs to around 60, I restrained this to around 45. I also adjusted my hop’s bittering AA based on age. I keep all of my hops in a freezer in vacuum bags – but some of the hops age poorly.

I will need to measure to figure out the losses for the hopback. The hoses are a bit longer, and the 4 ounces of hops will soak up some wort. Also – I am sure there is a bit of wort left in the hopback. In Beersmith, I added these hops as whirlpool/stand with a 5 minute contribution – I suspect that will need to be shorter for a more accurate count. The IBU contribution is really likely minimal. Of course, once the device is sealed up – the aroma is trapped!

So – will check back in when this beer is finished in a few weeks with some tasting notes. If it is good – will post the recipe!


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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?

– – –

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!)


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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