Friday, February 10, 2012

First trainwreck for the new kegs

Breaking in new equipment is a lot like finding a hooker on Craigslist. You know what they look like, but have no idea what kind of wacky shit you're going to run into.

Readers of the blog know I am in the process of totally revamping my brew system. Gone will be the cooler mash tun and old coffee pot hot liquor tank. The end plan is to roll with a 10 gallon 3 keg system in which I am able to perfectly control the temperature of my beer from the moment I dough in until I drink it. Of course, after having an only semi-successful brew day it makes me wax poetic for my cooler because I know how it works.
Taking my kegs, I measured a 10 inch hole in the top and drew out my cut mark with a piece of string and a marker. I also went to a restaurant supply store and purchased a huge stainless steel cookie sheet for $8. I drew a 10 inch circle on that also.
After I had depressurized the kegs I took all of this to a local welding shop and had them make the cuts with a plasma torch because I had heard this would produce a smoother cut than using an dremel or angle grinder. Don't fool yourself. Smoother is a relative term and it still took quite a bit of grinding in order to make the edges not jagged and sharp. This cost about $35.
I decided I needed to clean my kegs. The inside was filled with soot and slag from the cutting process and the outside had a bunch of old stickers and glue residue. So I put a wire brush on my angle grinder and polished the outside of the kegs. This turned out to be a huge mistake. The wire brush generated just enough heat to melt the sticker glue, but not enough to burn it off. It just smeared all this shit around and made everything sticky. I ended up having to scrub them again with GooGone in order to get the black shit off. Then I had to buff everything again in order to get them to shine.
Constructing a false bottom for the mash tun took a little bit of work. I took my 10 inch cookie sheet piece and a dremel to cut one small slit, just big enough for the hook on a paint can opener. Then I used the angle grinder to shape the piece until it dropped perfectly into the concave keg bottom. I drilled one hole in the center of the false bottom big enough for your drop tube and then about a billion little holes to act as the screen. Then I used the wire brush to shine it up.
After drilling and installing the spouts I came to a realization. The fundamental problem with making a kettle out of a keg is the bottom of the keg is concave. So you have to put the spout up where you would be leaving a couple of gallons of wort in the kettle. That shit is unacceptable! The easy fix is to use a bent piece of copper tubing and an $8 compression fitting. This works fine for the mash tun but there are a few issues to be aware of with your boil kettle. After the boil I turned on the valve to run my wort through my plate chiller and the I ended up with about a cup in the carboy before my drop tube sucked up a big wad of hops and clogged the shit out of the plate chiller. Yaaaaayyyyy!
So I had to take everything apart, blow out the clog and re-sanitize. While I was doing this I stirred the boil kettle a little to get a better whirlpool in order to try to keep the trub out of the damn way. It worked better the second time.
There are experts out there who advise changing one item on your brewing system, getting used to the change, and then changing something else. Of course, I am changing everything at once. Balls to the wall. I tried to test it out by filling all my kegs with water to see how things would flow but there is, honestly, no way to test the operation without brewing a batch.
So this is something I did right. I had some legitimate concerns about possible mash efficiency. If I failed to extract enough sugars, or titanically fail as it turned out, it could severely impact the IBUs of my finished beer. Therefore, I needed to pick a recipe which was more malt focused but had a sliding scale of success. I chose to do a Scottish ale because the recipe difference between a wee heavy and a /60 shilling is basically just amount of grain. I ended up getting only about 50 percent efficiency so it is a lot closer to a thin /60 shilling than anything else. Not the worst beer I have ever made, but not something I am super excited about.
Instead of installing a dial thermometer in my mash tun I opted to instead put in a thermowell. The plan is to eventually use my Johnson two way switch temperature controller to run the pump for the HERMS system. This led to to the big fail of brew day. I had mashed in just a touch hot and poured some cold water in my mash to regulate the temp. Nothing happened so I added some more. Then a little more. Suddenly the reading on thermometer dropped 10 degrees. I tried adding back some boiling water but by this time my mash was so thin I couldn't really do anything beside put the lid back on and go drink a beer.
Before the next brewday I plan on putting together a few more pieces of the brew system. I want to get a burner and I have already finished my HERMS coil. Also, I have put a screen around the drop tube on my boil kettle and now I know the temp controller only takes a reading every 20 seconds or so.


Charter Oak Brewing Co said...

We enjoy reading about all the beers and beer stories this blog reports on. We are in the planning stages for a new brewery in Northeastern USA called Charter Oak Brewing Company LLC and our business plan is to grow to over 25,000BBL within 5 years.
The breweries and stories you report on, allow for much encouragement.
A True Legend!

Caitlyn said...

Wow! Really awesome blog. Im an incredibly amateur homebrewer (still in my mr. beer kit phase working on mastering that). Are there any kit type things a little less simple and basic than mr. beer?

Justin said...

It depends on how much money you have. If you want to drop $100 pick up the basic brewing kit from I would get the one with the glass carboy. It should have everything you need to get started.