BeerSmith software is a must have! I use it religiously. For only $28, this is about the most inexpensive piece of equipment that you'll use every time you brew. Sure you could learn chemistry, do your own calculations, look on the internet for individual calculators, or just throw all your ingredients together and hope for the best, or have BeerSmith do most of the work for you. What makes BeerSmith unique as calculators go is that it calculates the results using your own equipment and efficiencies. They also offer a mobile version that integrates very well with the desktop version. They offer a 21 day free trial. There are other software packages out there, but I have been very happy with this one.
Brewer's Friend is another good site for brewing software. It is web or app based. Some segments are free and others require a yearly fee - $9.99. Like BeerSmith, this software is a one stop for your whole brew session.
If you just need a brewing calculator, I like the app "Brewzor" free calculator. It doesn't plan out your brew day, but it is good for calculations.
BYO magazine has a brew day calculator that looks nice and easy to use. It is also free and the magazine is excellent!
If you are having trouble achieving a boil, you might try a hot stick (sometimes known as a bucket heater). A hot stick is simply a 110 volt water heater element attached to the end of a “stick”. I use a 1500 watt and a 2000 watt. It is used to heat up larger volumes of water/wort when an alternative heat source is under powered or nonexistent. It is not the safest choice for heating liquids, but with a few considerations it can be “safe enough”. One slight drawback is that making an extremely light colored beer may not be possible (not much different than using a blow torch style turkey fryer) although, I have made several light colored beers, including a Berliner Weisse, without a problem. This wort darkening is due to the Milliard Effect: when sugars react with amino acids causing the wort to darken which adds, usually desirable, flavors. And if you make medium pale colored beers or darker, this can be a desirable effect. Caramelization can also be a factor. This is when sugars react with sugars at temperatures above 220 F. This process typically takes place during a serious reduction when the wort becomes thicker and syrupy. However, the heat stick creates a great deal of heat at the element, so caramelization is possible if reduced a great deal. Other than that it is a wonderful device that can drastically shorten your brew day.
One cool trick I have learned is that the heat stick helps “break” the foam that causes boil over. When the wort begins to boil, I raise both heating elements to the top half of the liquid. This causes the bubbles to be more violent on the surface. As long as I can see a break in the foam it tends to not boil over. I have to turn the heat sticks on and off to control the foam, but in 1-2 minutes it settles back into the boil and I am on my way.
It may sound the cons outweigh the pros. In reality, I would not go without this tool. The first time I brewed, it took almost 3 hours in the kettle to get a 60 minute boil. It took over an hour to get 5+ gallons of wort to boil and it barely boiled. My reduction was in the range of 3-4% per hour! It should be in the 8-15% range. With two heat sticks and my stove burner, I can bring 8 gallons of wort from mash temperature to a boil in about 20 minutes. I can maintain a rolling boil with 14-15% reduction with only one heat stick and the stove burner on medium.
Now about safety: this device should only be used with the element submerged in liquid (do not use in syrup). Without liquid to keep it cool, the element can burn up. It should only be connected to a GFCI outlet. The fuse breaker is not enough. A breaker is designed to protect the wiring and the building. A GFCI is designed to protect people. If a heat stick starts to trigger the GFCI then it is time to replace it. Also, due to the high current draw, only one can be used on a circuit. I run an extension cable from my bathroom GFCI in order to use both at the same time. An on/off switch is a necessity. It would be very difficult and potentially dangerous to plug and unplug the cord during use.
You could purchase one online, but I would not use these in the mash. The malt could get stuck on the protective shield and add a bad burnt malt flavor to the beer – yum! Besides, these units are about 1000 watts and will take longer to create a boil.
Side note: there is a simple way to figure out the power needs of any device. Electricity has 3 forms: amps, volts and watts. To use an imperfect hose analogy: volts is the diameter of the hose, amps is the pressure or speed of the water moving in the hose, and wattage is the water that comes out the end of the hose. These are all related. One affects another so if you have any two of the numbers you can easily figure out the third. The equation is: Amps x Volts = Watts. We know the volts because home electricity is typically 110+/- volts (in the US). Most devices list either their amps or wattage. If it is 15 amps for instance, then 15a x 110v = 1650 watts. If the device lists the wattage say 2200, then 2200w / 110v = 20amps. I am no electrician and there are other factors to consider, but in general a 1500 watt element can work on a 15 amp circuit. A 2000 watt element can work on a 20 amp circuit.
The pH (“potential of hydrogen” or “power of hydrogen”) of a substance is an indication of how many hydrogen ions it forms in a certain volume of water. Acids (a pH of 1-7) and alkalis (a pH of 7-14) [7 being neutral] are chemicals that dissolve in water to form ions (which are atoms with too few or too many electrons). Acids dissolve in water to form positively charged hydrogens ions (H+). An alkali dissolves in water to form negatively charged hydroxide ions (OH-).
A pH meter measures the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. The actual probe is a glass electrode connected to an electronic meter that measures and displays the pH reading. It basically measures the voltage produced by a solution whose pH we are testing with the voltage of a known solution (potassium chloride in the glass probe with a pH of 7). It compares the voltage between the two and deduces the pH.
I have a Milwaukee MW100. It has two point calibrations: one at 7.0 and another at 4.01. I believe it to be more accurate than the one point calibration models. It does not have ATC (automatic temperature compensation). So my samples need to be tested around room temperature. To get the most accurate reading, the sample should be taken at 77 F (25 C). Some meters have ATC (Automatic Temperature Compensation) and compensate for the sample’s temperature. It will read the room temperatures pH at various temperatures. So a mash sample taken at 150 F degrees on a non-ATC meter would read 4.9, the ATC model at 150 F would read 5.2.
There are additional items needed for your pH meter. Purchase the calibration solution(s) (i.e. 4.01 and 7), storage solution - though you can use the 4.01 solution when storing the probe for no more than a few weeks – and optionally probe cleaning fluid. I admit that I have not used the cleaning solution. I try not to use the probe in thick or messy solutions and I rinse it with water immediately after using.
When calibrating you should start with the 7.0 solution first, then rinse off the probe with water, and then calibrate to the 4.01 solution. The probe should never be allowed to dry out. This can shorten its life. When I received mine, it was dry. The instructions said to soak in the storage solution for 24 hours. It has worked fine for 2 years, though it is starting to slow down. Don’t expect the probe to last 3 years.
To get the most life out of the probe:
The refractometer is a sort of replacement for the hydrometer. The difference being that it takes only a few drops of liquid to take a measurement rather than 3-4oz of liquid like the hydrometer. The refractometer is an awesome tool taking only seconds to use. It works by measuring the sugar concentration of a given liquid. The sample is placed on the glass and light passes through the sample and into a kind of prism. It bends the light and gives a reading in Brix. This is useful for estimating the percentage of alcohol in your beer just like the hydrometer.
For simplicity, I purchased one with both SG wort and % Brix readings. To use this tool, simply take a few drops of wort and place them on the glass of the refractometer. Close the lid to disperse the sample, wait 30 seconds (I look immediately), and take gravity reading. However, once yeast has been introduced to wort, the refractometer no longer reads the correct gravity. The alcohol changes the way the light passes through the sample distorting the reading. So why would we use this tool if we do not get a correct reading in actual beer? That is where software comes in handy. BeerSmith has a built in calculator that converts the original gravity, and the altered beer gravity and gives the appropriated reading. For those of you who like free stuff, here is a link to a free calculator.
To get the most out of your refractometer, here are some rules to follow.
In the brewery, cleanliness is vital. Dirt and grime can change flavors, add undesirable aromas, cause valves to leak, and harbor bacteria. When it comes to cleaning there are 2 sides of the brewery: hot side and cold side. The hot side is the mash and boil. The cold side is everything after the boil: cool down to the final bottled product.
The brewery's hot side only requires good cleaning practices. For this I use Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW). This stuff is amazing. With a quick soak, it almost cleans by itself. After the boil I take my kettle outside to dump the trub and hose it off. Much of the residue sticks to the inside of the kettle even after a hard spray. I apply a little PBW mixture and in seconds the grime wipes away. It also removes beer bottle labels with ease. Cover the label with a paper towel, spray on PBW and let it sit for 30 minutes. The labels will come right off. A couple of wipes with the paper towel will remove the remaining glue. Make sure to thoroughly rinse with water after cleaning with PBW.
The cold side of the brewery needs the same cleaning as the hot side and some means of sanitation. [Note: sanitation is the reduction of bacteria and viruses to an insignificant level. Sterilization is the complete elimination of any “bugs”.] Heat is the only way to sterilize an item. Chemicals will sanitize which is good enough for the brewery. Keep in mind that if an item is not clean, it cannot be sanitized.
Idophor is a good product and will sanitize "clean" items in 60 seconds or so. However, it also turns most materials yellow. For this reason, I use Star San. This product degrades the cell walls of undesirables letting the solution in and the low pH kills them. It is clear so it does not color anything and it is very inexpensive when you consider that 6ml concentrate makes 1 gallon of sanitizer. The stated soak time is only 30 seconds, but that should be a minimum. Both Idophor and Star San are “no-rinse” sanitizers. Once they have been applied, do not use water or cloths to dry. Yes, even household water has some bugs in it that could affect beer. For example, if you were to use either sanitizer on a bottle about the receive your beer, simply dump the extra liquid and either air dry or add your beer for bottling. In small amounts they do not affect the final product.
I use spray bottles for both PBW and Star San. The only item I need to soak is my carboy because I cannot get inside of it for manually cleaning. Everything else, I just give a thorough spraying and let it sit.
After brewing several recipes, you will inevitably find one you’d like to repeat. In order to end up with the same beer from the same recipe, consistency is required. This starts with accurately measuring the ingredients. A good weight scale comes in handy.
Every ingredient in beer can be measured by weight – including water. Dry ingredients will have a slight change in weight based on the moisture it contains, but since we are measuring such small amounts, these variables are insignificant and make little noticeable difference in homebrew. However, in a commercial brew house that is using 400 pounds of DME (dry malt extract), and the moisture content varies 5% up or down, then same volume of DME could be off by as much as 40 pounds from low to high.
A human weight scale is not accurate or precise enough for brewing unless you are weighing 50lb sacks. Digital scales that weigh up to 11 pounds are the most popular for homebrewing. These work fine, but you may have to split up the grain or water into separate batches to complete your total weight. I recommend a scale that goes to 30+ pounds. They are about the same size and cost a little more. I use this scale to weigh malt and water. For tiny ingredients like hops, brewing salts, and Irish moss, a gram scale is necessary.
A digital gram scale is small and inexpensive. I recommend one that can be calibrated, usually with a 500 gram weight purchased separately. It should be accurate to 0.1 grams and precise to 0.1 grams. Accuracy is how close to actual weight the scale will read. Precision is how many digits from the decimal point it can display.