Brew Day From Hell

Yesterday we finished the brew day straight out of hell. We set out to brew a doppelbock to drink in the fall/winter. Little did we know, the 4 hour planned brew day was going to take over 7 hours. To give some of the following text some context, we brew on a 3-vessel HERMS system in our basement. We have 2 pumps, one for water, one for wort. Three wort hoses, MLT to pump, pump to HERMS coil, HERMS coil to sparge arm. Sparge arm is connected to the MLT lid and is made of a bunch of small CPVC pipe glued together with food safe pipe glue. Pipes have small holes drilled throughout for an even distribution of liquid over the mash. I don’t consider us to be novice brewers and we’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past. However, I did not expect to make so many in one brew day. Hopefully you can laugh at our misfortune and learn from one of the worst days we’ve had all year. Without further adieu, our brew day from hell:

Picked up the RO water from the pet shop. They usually fill the buckets up to the top but this time they were a gallon short on each bucket. Wound up paying for the extra that should have been there. Shame on me for not checking. Instead of 12 gallons, I got 10 and had to top up our HLT with tap water which really screwed with my water chemistry calculations.

I hooked up my hoses and turned on my pumps to recirculate the HLT and MLT to let my water get to strike temp. I proceeded to go upstairs in a panic to figure out what the hell to do with my water chemistry. Once I returned, happy with the new additions, I found the MLT sparge arm on the table, not in the MLT, spewing water in all directions, soaking the floor, walls, and table. I lost a gallon of RO in the MLT and had to top up from the HLT. My pH was going to rise if I added diluted RO/tap water since the tap water is fairly alkaline. Luckily the grain I was adding is fairly acidic but the chemistry is all fucked again.

Ok, now that the water fiasco is done with, I can mill my grains. I’m weighing out all my grain and I’m half a lb short on Vienna. No big deal though since I can sub it with half a lb of Munich (which was also in the grain bill). Minor inconvenience but it added insult to injury.

I’m 45 min through my mash, stirring every 5 minutes and monitoring temp to make sure I’m hitting all the rests. Suddenly the pump starts sucking in grain. It sucked in so much that the mash just seemed like water with 3 or 4 lbs of grain mixed in. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what was going on. I started with the sparge arm since the hose going to it was rock solid, indicating built up pressure. I prodded all the holes in the sparge arm and even disassembled a small piece. Still no flow. After massaging every hose for several minutes, I proceeded to beat the lid of my MLT/sparge arm violently against the top of the MLT in a fit of frustration until all the little pieces of glued CPVC broke off into the mash tun. Well, that worked. The large opening in my sparge arm was not ideal but we got flow…

…for about 2 minutes. I spent the next half hour trying to figure out how to get compressed grain out of my hoses. At this point I had all pumps off, the element off, and the mash sitting in the mid 150s. Blowing through the hoses didn’t work so I hooked them up to the sparge water pump in hopes some fresh water can push it out. Nope that didn’t work either. It actually compressed the grain even more. The hoses were solid like a rock. At that point, my brew partner and partner in life, Sarah, got home from work. We hooked up both pumps in series with new hoses and at the output hooked up the suspect hose and turned on both pumps. Success. Like an explosive shit, dirty brown and chunky grain water sprayed so hard into the bin we were trying to contain it all in that most of it wound up on the floor surrounding it. One hose down, 2 to go. The next 2 didn’t come out so easily. I had to milk them like udders and probe the inside of the hose with our thermometer. After what felt like an eternity, we got them both clean.

Ok, I think we can stop mashing. I’m tired, covered in grain, and stickier than the floors of a Nickelodeon studio. We hooked up the hoses to the pump and MLT and prepared to vorlauf. Gave the mash a good stir and switched on the pump. WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING? Clogged. Again. All 3 hoses. Fuck. At this point Sarah had suggested there may be something wrong with the false bottom. Why had we not thought of that before? We dumped the entire mash (grain and CPVC) into a kettle. Lo and behold, the hose connecting the false bottom to the bulkhead fitting was disconnected. Re-connected and poured the mash back into the cooler. Kettle rinsed off. Of course none of this went smoothly and we wound up with more hot wort and grain on the floor/my hands. I can feel you LODO brewers squirming in your seats.

Alright, this nightmare should be over. We expect a mash efficiency hit but the rest of the brew day should go rather smoothly. Or so we thought. We hooked up the hoses to the pump, gave the mash a stir (CPVC and all), and turned on the pump. Success. No problems. Ten minutes later and we are pumping wort into the kettle while pumping sparge water into the MLT. We noticed the mash formed craters and tunnels, presumably due to the CPVC pipes. Great, more mash efficiency hits since we can’t rinse our grain properly. That said, our wort was a beautiful color and crystal clear.

While fiddling with my phone and trying to take my first break since getting home, the kettle managed to fill up half a gallon past our intended volume before I noticed. We had to boil for 90 minutes to get to our high gravity and dark color for the doppelbock but this extra half gallon meant we needed to boil for a half hour longer. With the extra long “mash”, this was turning into a very long brew day. I took the gravity reading with my handy refractometer. Ouch. Ten points below what we needed, even with the extra boil time accounted for. Mash efficiency was at 65% when we accounted for 80% initially.

Luckily nothing had gone wrong during the 2 hour boil. I spent the first hour killing the time with cleaning the MLT, wiping the floors, converting some pin lock kegs to ball lock kegs, and playing a bit of rocket league to relieve the stress. Hop additions and whirlfloc all added according to plan. Once the boil was finished, I noticed we were short on wort by a little over a quarter of a gallon. Not a big deal but at this point it felt like death by a thousand cuts.

I hooked up our inlet and outlet hoses to the immersion wort chiller that had been sanitizing in the boiling wort. Turned on the water at the sink and then went over to the chiller to open the valve. As soon as I opened the valve I was instantly sprayed with high pressure boiling hot water. Braving through the scorching hot lava I managed to shut the valve. I Tightened the suspect hose fitting on the outlet of the chiller with some clamps and flipped the valve open again. I then proceeded to yell in a steamy hot fury as I was, once again, sprayed with boiling water. OK, keep calm. It’s almost over. Just gotta figure out the source of the leak. Unscrewed the hose and found the O-ring in the fitting to be missing. Luckily I had a mini chiller nearby with the same fitting attached. Stole the O-ring off the mini chiller and re-attached it to the suspect fitting. Hose connected, valve on, everything works. The rest of the brew day went as planned. I wound up undershooting my OG by a single point which was a great shock to me. The brew day started at 4PM and I finished up at 11. The fermentor was filled and put into the fridge to cool down to pitching temp. Since this was a lager, I had to chill it overnight. I did not bother cleaning the kettle, the pump, or the hoses. That was going to be a task left for future me.

The next morning I had to wake up early for work. After about 5 hours of terrible sleep, I get up, get ready, and go downstairs to feed the cat and check up on the wort. As I was going down, I missed a step, rolled my ankle, and fell on my ass. Completely done with this fucking week, I limped over to check on the wort. Great, we’re at pitching temp. That means I can pitch all 4L of starter wort to our fermentor. At least that’s what my groggy and pissed off brain was thinking at the time. What I should have done was stuffed the starter wort into a fridge the day before and decanted FOUR FUCKING LITERS OF DME WORT before pitching the yeast. Well, we now have a gallon extra in our fermentor, diluting the taste and gravity down by about 8 points. To make things worse, the wort is almost at the top of the fermentor so I poured a generous amount of ferm-cap into the wort. I spent the rest of the day limping, drinking coffee, writing this stupid post, and worrying about the explosion that might be happening in our fridge. Now I have to find time in the week to glue the sparge arm back together, buy new hose fittings, clean the table, the kettle, the 5L flask, and the potential mess in the fermentation fridge.

So to all of you that have had similar bad days: don’t let things like this discourage you from brewing. Laugh it off, have a homebrew, and remember you are making some great tasting beer. Pray to the brewing gods, don’t forget to gjærkauk, and relax. Cheers! Also fuck AB Inbev.

10 gal Ss Brew Kettle: Brewmaster Edition

First let me say that I am not affiliated with Ss Brewtech nor have they reached out to me for a review. This is an honest review written by a fan of their products. I will try to be as critical as I can. I know this may kill my chances of any potential sponsorship but I rather be honest to people looking for a new kettle.

I knew I wanted this kettle the second I saw it. I love every piece of equipment I have purchased from them thus far and I knew I couldn’t go wrong with this kettle. I had a cooler I was planning to use as my hot liquor tank for the HERMS system I was building. However, I decided I wanted the ability to switch between 10 and 5 gallon batches seamlessly. Our 15 gallon kettle was too wide to submerge our immersion chiller and chilling times took a hit when brewing 5 gallon batches. I was also paranoid the plastic would not be able to take heat emanating from the element. So without further adieu, the 10 gallon Ss Brew Kettle: Brewmaster Edition:

Delivery (2/5)

I pre-ordered this kettle about a month before the initial delivery date (estimated at end of January 2017). I was expecting to have the kettle around the same time I would have completed my 220V electric panel for the HERMS. Then we received this email (TL;DR We fucked up. Shipping out the week of February 12th. Sorry.):

Hi Everybody!

We had a little bit of a hiccup in the schedule.  We now have a relatively certain ship window locked down (barring very unforseen circumstances beyond our direct control) that has these units shipping out to guys the week of the 12th Feb.

Most of our product launches thus far we’ve done pretty good relative to on time departures / shipping.  This one we take a couple week hit from the outside edge of our prior stated window to you (end Jan ’17).

For that we would like to offer up a hearty apology.  Sorry for the fail!!!  We keep hearing from you in email, and we know many of you are super anxious to get your hands on these kettles!   And rest assured we did would we could, and we are doing what we still can do to expedite them on their way to you.

If you are kind of “over it” and have had it with the waiting game on these kettles and you want to pull the cord and just get your money back and move on – we totally get it.   Shoot a reply to support@ssbrewtech.com with your name or order number and the support folks can take care of that for you usually same day.

These ended up being a little tricker to fabricate than your typical kettle – and so we had to hit the pause button a couple of times to make sure they came out right.  And they did – just took a little longer than we (or you!) wanted.

Again sorry for the Ssuckness and the delay!  We take this kind of stuff on the chin, as we are all old school product guys that have been around this block for many decades between us.  We like to get things right AND on time.

Ouch. Sorry Ss Brewtech but there goes a point off the total (-1). It wound up working out in the end since our panel box came in a tad late as well. On February 12th, they sent out another email notifying us that our products are shipping out. Due to the volume of orders, not everyone would be getting shipping notices that day. Fortunately, we were not in that bracket and got our tracking number the next day. However, there goes another point for the poor saps that had to wait even longer (-1). They did a great job staying in communication with their customers so I did appreciate that quite a bit. We wound up receiving the package February 20th, a full month after the promised date.

We thought that was it. No more emails, right? Wrong! Here’s where I’m dinging them hard (-2). On February 28th we received the following email (TL;DR We fucked up again. Some of you got acrylic sight glasses instead of glass. Run a test and let us know.):

IMPORTANT PRODUCT NOTICE BELOW – PLEASE TAKE A MINUTE TO READ THIS

Hi Everybody,

We need to make you aware of an important product issue regarding your BME Brew Kettle(s).

A very small number of the sight glasses on the ball valves for these kettles were inadvertently fitted out with an acrylic material instead of glass.  We know the quantity is very limited because against the entire production batch, there was roughly a 2% incoming inspection failure rate (due to chipping of the glass parts when being cut to length from the glass tubing stock).  And this small number of acrylic tube parts were mixed in as replacements to the inspection failures – which later ended up in finished goods boxes – some of which were shipped out to you all.

Fortunately, the recovery path is pretty quick and painless.  We would like to ask you to simply do a quick temperature test on the sight glass.  Please just disassemble the valve, take out the sight glass tube section, then place sight glass tube into an oven preheated to 325F for roughly 1 minute then see if the part softens or deforms.  98% of you will find that nothing happens and life goes on and you got the right part.   Just re-assemble your valve, and away you go.

2% of you may find you have a part that needs to be replaced.  If that is the case, please just reply to this message (which goes to our support Team – support@ssbrewtech.com) and we’ll arrange to get you a replacement part sent out within the next 7-10 days max.

In the meantime, please do not brew on your kettle until you have performed a temp test on the sight glass to make sure you don’t have an acrylic part in there.

On behalf of the entire Team here, we sincerely apologize for the miss here.  Like any product company worth its salt, the best thing a company can do is communicate quickly, honestly, proactively, and work to get customers back up and running / happy as soon as possible.   That is what we will endeavor to do here!!!

Ssorry again for the hassles everybody!  Please know that this pains us to no end – and not a day goes by we aren’t trying to optimize processes and mitigate against issues like this.

That said, we did like their packaging (+1). They always package their products in two boxes with plenty of extra foam and cardboard support. You can rest assured knowing your kettle comes ding, dent, and scuff free, no matter how rough the journey.

Build Quality (4/5)

Things I dinged them for were spotty welds (-1) and quite a bit of weld dust (-1). The weld dust washed off easily but the welds could have been ground down a bit better. The inside of the kettle, however, is seamless. It’s hard to tell if it was stamped from one piece of sheet metal or welded together. This thing is build like a tank and the rubber handles feel sturdy enough to support all that weight. With 1.2mm 304 Stainless Steel and a 2mm 304 Stainless Steel base, this thing screams high quality (+1). The dip tube, however, feels very flimsy and I’ve found it to wander to different positions during my brew days (-1). The total volume comes out to about 12 gallons which is more than anyone can ask for and certainly more than their competitors can offer on similar 10 gallon kettles.

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Function (10/10)

The part you all have been waiting for. I couldn’t be happier with this kettle. This thing is a monster boiler. It met and exceeded all expectations. The tri-clover fittings are a huge upgrade from the non-brewmaster edition 1/2″ weldless fittings. The extra port for a thermometer or probe is typical of Ss brewtech but keeps them competitive. The groundbreaking and industry first stainless 3-piece ball valve with built-in sight glass is a major victory for Ss Brewtech. The tangential whirlpool inlet removes the need for any additional tubing and cleaning. Each brew day is rewarded with minimal trub/hop debris pickup and a beautiful cone at the center of the domed bottom. I keep forgetting to take a picture since it’s at the end of the brew day and we’re usually several beers in by then. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

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Electric: We drilled a hole into the back of the kettle for our heating element. The lowest we could go is at about the 3 gallon mark. Though this requires us to stir the wort during the boil, it is a minor inconvenience. Boil times are almost instant with the element. We even reduced the power required to boil with this kettle compared to the 15 gallon kettle.

Gas: Ladies and Gentlemen, it is clear that this kettle was build for a propane burner. We have only brewed on gas once so far but we were blown away. We set our regulator at max output and within a few minutes, we had a boil over. The heat is retained within the base so well that you could barely feel the flames while standing right next to it. The domed bottom allowed for a larger surface area to be heated and the slits in the base allowed for more oxygen to reach the flames while keeping out any wind. We reached our desired boil intensity with the regulator set to almost closed. We used the smallest amount of propane during our 60 minute boil than we ever have. The bubbles in the boil were small and in large numbers, indicating a very even boil.

Induction: Not recommended by Ss Brewtech or myself. The domed bottom is ever so slightly higher than the edge of the base, making it impossible to get an induction cooktop to contact the kettle surface.

Price (5/5)

When looking at this kettle, I priced out a normal 10 gallon kettle with the same fittings. If I had purchased a non-brewmaster edition kettle from Ss Brewtech, it would have cost me $189. Add to that the stainless whirlpool tubing, stainless whirlpool elbow, and sight glass and the total would have risen to $250. For $300, you can have the brewmaster edition kettle that already comes with a whirlpool arm welded to the kettle, all tri-clover fittings, an integrated sight glass, domed bottom, wind and thermally protected base, and 2 extra gallons of volume. That’s all for an extra $50. The upgrade to tri-clover alone would have cost that much. Count me in…

Overall impression (Total: 21/25)

I know my score of this product is biased due to the bad delivery that you will likely not experience. However, the delivery impacts my view of how Ss Brewtech does business and it plays a large role in customer satisfaction. I feel my deductions were justified for this reason. Take that information as you will and use it. That said, I am very satisfied with the product itself. This kettle is unique and no other competitor, in my honest opinion, has anything similar out on the market right now. If you’re looking for the ideal kettle to put on a propane burner, this is it. If you are looking for an electric kettle, there may be other products that can serve that purpose better. As a dual gas(mobile) + electric(home) user, I couldn’t be happier. If there is any interest, I could ask a friend to do a side by side test with his Spike Brewing kettle (electric & gas) and possibly a Blichmann (gas) as well.

Motorized Grain Mill

I was hoping to start the new blog off with our NEIPA Hefeweizen experiment but it’s still bottle conditioning. I’m a little too anxious to get something out already so here it is: the first post.

Something we’ve wanted to do for a while was a mobile motorized grain mill. We got sick and tired of balancing the mill over a bucket while holding down the drill and simultaneously pouring in the grains. After several spills and cleanups, we realized this was a task for 2 people. Since building our HERMS, milling the grain has become one of the most time consuming and tedious jobs left to make more ergonomic. We already had the Cereal killer grain mill. All that we needed was some wood, a drill, casters, and a way to control it all.

THE STAND

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After building the mill came the challenge to control the speed. We do not have a tachometer to measure RPM nor can we gauge how much resistance the grain will impart on the drill so we chose to go with a pulse width modulator to manually control the drill speed. Disclaimer: I am not an electrician. Working with electricity is very dangerous. Consult a licensed electrician before proceeding.

THE CONTROLLER

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ACTION SHOTS