THERMOMETER

picture of 2 thermometers

MASH PADDLE

A thermometer is a piece of equipment that needs very little explanation. However, the temperature of the mash is very important. As little as 2˚ F degrees  up or down can change the body, mouth feel, and perceived sweetness of the final beer.  So accuracy is important. The small analog thermometers that are used to see if meat is cooked thoroughly will not cut it. They are not accurate enough for brewing, nor can you easily see the degrees. A digital one is better, but the cheaper models have a degree of error of more than 2 degrees F and take too long to give a reading. Also the models that have a counter top base with a 3’ probe are also not that accurate and can be ruined by the igniter on a gas range – somehow the spark goes right through the kettle and into the probe ruining the electronics. Yes, it happened to me.

 

It is very nice to have a unit that reads temperature in a few seconds – instant read. Although most inexpensive “instant” thermometers take upwards of 15 seconds to settle. Another desirable trait is that the thermometer can be easily calibrated. To calibrate: add water and ice cubes to a blender and crush it to slush. Put the thermometer probe in the slush and calibrate to 32˚ F (0 C). Some units have a button you press and hold for a few seconds. Others have a screw that can be turned until the temperature reads 32˚ F (0 C). Personally, I use the screw calibration type. It is not possible to calibrate the thermometer at boiling temperatures. The reading fluctuates too fast and as soon as the probe is removed, it cools down.

 

I have tried several thermometers and found one that is not expensive and very accurate: Thermoworks Super-Fast Water-Resistant Digital Pocket Thermometer. This is a great one. It is very fast (3-4 seconds), keeps its calibration, water resistant, and accurate. To make my measurements even more accurate, I made a dual thermometer holder and use 2 of these puppies (see picture to the left).   I find that mash temperatures in the tun range all over the place from side to side and top to bottom. Having 2 thermometers helps me get a much better feel of the average temperature. Also, when a battery runs out or one breaks, I have a backup.

 

 

The mash paddle basically a spoon or paddle with holes or cuts in. Because it is used in the mash, it does not have to be made with a “sanatizable” material. Wood is acceptable and gives me a more genuine and rustic feel during the mash process. It just needs to reach the bottom of the mash tun and be able to break up the “malt balls” in the mash. I had a hard time finding a paddle for my system. They were either to short and small or too huge... so, I made my own. Click here for the DIY Mash Paddle project – coming soon.

MASH TUN

A mash/lauter tun serves two purposes. 1) It holds the grist at a certain temperature until the starches are converted to sugars, and 2) provides a natural filter to separate the wort from the grain. In more advanced circles, a mash tun (container for the grist) is separate from a lauter tun (the filter/strainer). In homebrewing, one container does the job of both.

 

There are two types of mash/lauter tuns: direct heat and infusion.  A direct heated tun is a kettle with a false bottom or screen that can be heated directly over a heat source. It requires that the liquid be circulated in order to keep the temperature consistent and even. Temperatures can be achieved very accurately and change by adding heat. By design it allows the enzymes consistent access to the starches which helps convert quicker and with greater efficiency. However, it requires more expensive equipment.

 

The other tun is an infusion style. It is basically a container that will allow very little temperature change over the mash cycle. The heat is provided by water additions or infusions. This is a simpler setup requiring a kettle to heat water and a picnic cooler large enough to hold the total grist. Occasional stirring is required to keep the enzymes in contact with the starches. Temperature changes require the addition of water at higher temperatures or a device that can gently add heat inside the grist without scorching the grain. Temperature additions are harder to calculate and hot water should not be added all at once to allow gradual temperature adjustments. This helps keep the enzymes happy and keeps them from denaturing. A false bottom or screen is necessary for lautering. This setup is a more affordable option and can be easily built. It can take slightly longer to transform the starches to sugars but still allows for complete conversion. For more information go to the learning center - sparging techniques.

 

BREW POT

brewpot with hop filters and strainer

A brew pot is just a kettle for boiling wort, right? Well there certainly is a lot of discussion around this simple device. From cleaning, to off flavors, hot spots, passivation, drilling, valves, shape, Alzheimer’s as so on. I could discuss each of these but I will try to give the highlights.  The two real discussions here are aluminum or stainless.

 

Aluminum: It is one of the most abundant elements in our earth’s crust. It is light, easy to drill and shape, dissipates heat very well, and cost less than stainless. I began brewing with an aluminum kettle. I chose it because of cost. It was fine for a while, but became hard to clean and some chemicals do not play nice with aluminum. I am not sure, but I believe the acidity of the wort eventually pitted the bottom of that kettle. It was a fine kettle, but it was not meant to last a lifetime. Oh, about Alzheimer's and aluminum: In the 1970’s scientist suspected that there may be a link between aluminum and Alzheimer's disease. Since then studies have not shown a connection between the aluminum products we use and Alzheimer's. Today, very few experts believe there is a relation between the two.

 

Stainless Steel: It is expensive, heavy, not a good conductor of heat (hot spots), hard to drill, and I would not choose anything else. Why? It is designed to last a lifetime, easy to clean and keep shinny, doesn’t easily dent or scratch, and holds up to most chemicals (but not chlorine over a period of time).

Addressing the problems:

  • weight – oh well (10 gal. aluminum kettle = 5lbs / 10 gal. stainless kettle = 15lbs)
  • hot spots – good kettles have a “tri-clad” bottom which contain aluminum, thus solving this problem
  • hard to drill – you may only have to do it once and it can be done

 

I purchased a 10 gallon stainless kettle with graduated gallon marks (shows water level at boiling temperatures). I personally would not go without the etching. If you don’t have etching on you kettle, here is an article for DIY. As for weight: I only have to move it once during my brews – a friend could help. Adding a ball valve at the bottom will save your back.

 

In order to keep a stainless brew pot a lifetime, it is important to take good care of it. Keep it clean, don’t drop it, and do not put cold liquids in a hot kettle. The temperature extremes can cause the metal to warp. Kettles with  a tri-clad bottom are “glued” together. They can separate with very fast and extreme temperature changes. Also, keep it passivated. What is that? Passivation is an invisible protective oxidation layer that makes the stainless steel, stainless. Chlorine will destroy this layer in a few minutes and then pitting can occur.

 

When you first get your stainless kettle, you’ll want to clean it with a degreaser. The process of pressing the stainless uses oil to lubricate this action. The good news is that higher quality stainless has already been cleaned, but cleaning it for first use would not hurt. A good degreaser is Trisodium Phosphate. Hardware stores sell it. Mixing it to a 1:10 or 1:20 ratio should work fine. After all, oil and beer don’t mix or taste good.

 

Next is to use a cleaner like PBW to clean away the degreaser and anything left on the pot. At this point, the stainless is passivated. This process happens instantly after the air touches the metal. However, if you want to be sure, use a product called “Bar Keeper’s Friend”. It contains oxalic acid which encourages the passivation process. BKF also cleans off stubborn stains. It is a must for stainless. Try it on your other pots, pans, and even your ceramic stove tops.

 

There is one more way to keep stainless looking like new. You may notice that the inside of the kettle starts to look dull and cloudy over time. While this is not a problem, it is nice to have like new equipment after years of use. The secret here is white vinegar (acetic acid). It works best when hot, but is adequate at room temperatures. Simply pour a puddle in the pot and let it soak for a few minutes. Give a light scrub with a paper towel and bam, it sparkles. The acidity in the vinegar may encourage passivation in the stainless.

 

RACK CANE

A rack cane is a tube with a “J” curve at one end. It is used to transfer liquids via gravity from one container to another. There are three types of racking canes: plastic, stainless, and self-priming or auto siphoning. All three require tubing to move the liquid. The plastic and stainless steel types work in the same way. Place the rack cane in the liquid you want to move – “J” end up. Fill tubing with liquid, pinch one end of the tubing and attach it to the “J” end of the cane. Release the pinched end and let the liquid flow into the other container. This technique starts a siphon to get the liquid moving. Unless contamination doesn’t matter, never use your mouth to suck and start the siphon. We have a lot of bacteria in our mouths that love to set up shop in wort not to mention you could burn yourself. The stainless cane is used for hot liquids since the plastic would degrade at boiling temperatures. These racking canes can be cumbersome to get started and just about require three hands to use. However, I came up with a solution. In the boating section of your local mega mart, they sell a fuel transfer or primer bulb. Make sure it is new and clean before first use. With clean hands hold the bulb to the end of the tubing attached to the rack cane. Make sure the arrow on the bulb is pointed away from the tube and squeeze several times until the siphon is started. Once the liquid starts to flow on its own, remove the primer bulb and transfer the liquid.

 

The easier rack cane is the auto siphon style. With this one, no liquid is needed in the tubing. Simply place the cane is the liquid, attach the transfer tubing to the cane, and raise and lower the inner tube two times to start the siphon. It is very easy to use. After a while, the inner cane will cause small scratches on the outer tube. It order to maintain sanitation, it will needs to be replaced from time to time. It scratches because it is made of plastic which leads to the next issue. It cannot be used in hot liquids.

 

This is where the ball valve on the kettle comes into play. It can be welded on or a no-weld kit can be used. With the no-weld kit a hole must be drilled at the bottom side of the kettle to accommodate the valve assembly.  It is then screwed together pinching the kettle in between. With the ball valve installed, all that is needed to start a siphon is to turn the handle. The liquid will drain through the valve and tubing until the liquid level reaches the valve’s input point.

 

BOTTLING BUCKET

As equipment goes, this is the simplest of devices. It is a 6+ gallon bucket with a lid and a valve spigot at the bottom. It must be cleaned and sanitized before adding priming sugar and racking the beer into it. This bucket can also double as a container for holding sanitizer and soaking your equipment. Another use is after the wort is cool and before racking into the fermenter, it can hold the chilled wort to allow the cold break to settle (about 30 minutes), thus transferring clearer beer into the fermenter.

FERMENTERS

The fermenter is where beer is born. It is a love-making session between yeast and wort. In fact, as soon as the yeast is pitched, the product technically becomes beer. Like most love-making session, yeast wants to be left alone to reproduce and convert sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is where the fermenter comes into play.

 

Fermenters come in many shapes and materials. Wooden barrels, glass or plastic carboys, stainless steel conical, and the most basic a plastic bucket are various containers available to the homebrewer. The removable lid on the plastic bucket makes it easy to clean, simple to dry hop or add fruit, and a snap to fill and drain. One the negative side: it scratches easily, holds on to flavors and aromas, allows oxygen to penetrate, and has a large head space easily allowing oxygen to get in and out.

 

The standard carboy is a step up due to its shape. It has a large flat bottom and a slim neck making it easier to seal out O2. It can be filled to the neck thus reducing the surface area where oxygen can get in, and can be used to condition beer due to this fact. Plastic carboys are very light and will not shatter, but they can scratch and may be susceptible to oxygen intrusion. Whereas glass is heavy and the risk of breakage and serious injury can occur, but it does not scratch and is impervious to O2.  They both require an accessory handle to easily carry. The plastic carboy handle is designed to hold the total weight of the containers contents. The glass version's handle should not be used with a full carboy. The glass neck is not designed to hold 50+ pounds. Instead there is a nifty device called a carboy hauler. It is made of several straps that encompass the carboy and snaps together. It can take the heavy weight making it safe to move.

 

A carboy brush is needed to clean the inside of the carboy. It has a long metal stem and an “L” shaped brush allowing you to clean the entire inside of the container. A good soak with PBW should be done prior to brushing.

 

 A wooden fermenter is rarely used in homebrewing. Sour beer can benefit from the bacteria inside the wood, but most beers do not.

 

Stainless steel is the top level of fermenter choices. It does not easily scratch, keeps light out, seals very well, is impervious to oxygen, easily cleaned, and usually has a valve at the bottom so no racking is required. They have a large lid making the beer accessible for fruit or dry hopping. Most have a conical (cone shaped) bottom which collects the yeast. This is useful for longer conditioning. The majority of the yeast is buried under the top layer of yeast and keeps it out contact with the beer. For condition over 6 weeks, they have a valve on the very bottom which removes the yeast without having to rack it off the yeast and into another container. Unfortunately, they cost many times more than other fermenter types.

 

Temperature control during fermentation is very important to control the beer’s flavor. Yeast activity can increase the temperature of the beer by up to 10 degrees over room temperature. Once the fermenting beer gets above 75 F (for most yeast strains), other higher and less desirable alcohols are produced, not to mention an abundance of esters. This leads us to the use of the swamp method. In warmer climates, this method will not get the fermenter down to the preferred temperature of 65-70 F, but it is better than letting it run wild. The fermenter is placed in a few inches of water, either in a bath tub or large container and wrapped with a wet towel. As the water evaporates from the towel, the moisture cools down a few degrees. Using a fan to blow on the towel will help the water evaporate quicker and cool a little more. This is the most basic of temperature control methods, but this is the “Necessary” section of “Equipment”.