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If there is a theme to my personal homebrewing career, I over complicate everything. It is in my personality to over-engineer, and sometimes my solutions are laughable. That said, after letting my brewing lapse for the past year, I am looking for a new start and a solution to two main issues. 

There are two main problems to address: brewing in the summer heat in Central Texas, and chilling wort. Of course, this is less an issue in the winter down here, but if both can be addressed efficiently, brew sessions will be that much better. The goal is to have a comfortable place to brew and have a consistent chilling process regardless of the season.

A New Brew House

I decided to go all electric with a brewery system large enough to mirror volumes from the Brew-Magic, but also with some controls for step mashing, etc. I like the flexibility of brewing 5 to 12-gallon batches. I have also had my eye on the Blichmann kettles for some time and looking at the 10-gallon Blichmann Brew-Easy system was a natural place to start. With the heating energy going directly into the liquor efficiently, I will now avoid blowing a ton of additional heat into my garage, as well as save some money on propane refills.

I had my home electrical system evaluated, upgraded, and added a 30 amp / 240-volt outlet installed. I also added a breaker line specifically to isolate my fermentation freezers. I highly encourage using a qualified, licensed electrician. He found that my garage panel was heavily overloaded and not to code. He also noticed that I had substandard wiring feeding the second panel that was a serious fire hazard. Looking at the wiring in the attic, it was clear that the wire had overheated a few times, scorching the wire’s insulation. We dodged something there.

The Brew-Easy is a two-vessel system, where the MLT (15 gallons) sits on top of the BK (20 gallons). In the BK, the 240V Boil Coil, behaves like a RIMS system (they use the term Kettle RIMS or K-RIMS), heating the wort to the mash rest temperature, while it is being gently pumped over back into the MLT. The MLT outputs wort via gravity into the bottom BK. A 240V Tower of Power controller with pump and flow controls make it all work.

Eventually, I will install Blichmann’s Whirlpool kit as well as the Float Switch (shuts off the coils should the level drop below coil levels if the mash sticks). For now, the entire system works as designed and I have tested with PBW solution, both through the MLT’s AutoSparge, and just running a line over the HLT and circulating. The RipTide upgrade nearly triples the GPM throughput.

I have brewed with the gas version of the Tower of Power before, so had some experience with the system. It is a tried and tested configuration, and while I had (still do) some reservations about the two-vessel, full liquor configuration, I appreciate the general simplicity. There are some modifications that I plan to make to the kettles, but essentially, the Brew-Easy is turn key.

I am not very impressed with the Tower of Power’s software and data cable solution for computerized controls. I don’t have much more to say about this than, it’s clunky and dated. But it does work and allows for some crude step mash automation.

Also, while BeerSmith 3 has Blichmann approved equipment profiles, the limitation on mash size is frustrating, throws volume errors, and will take a bit to figure out. Looks like my mash profiles will need to be tweaked on a recipe basis to (a) keep the mash volume under 15 gallons, and (b) ensure at least 5-6 gallons of wort remain to cover the BK coils, and (c) still have adequate water:grist ratio in the MLT. Moving the full liquor around with proper flow rates is going to be educational.

The Modifications

First order: replace or upgrade the Tower of Power’s noisy old march pump. I have a separate Blichmann RipTide pump that I love. In looking at installing it onto the Tower of Power, it seemed like more trouble than it was worth, and I really didn’t want to cut the cable.

Blichmann sells a RipTide pump head upgrade for the march pump, which I decided to purchase. If you have a Tower of Power, RipTide’s larger head assembly, with the tri-clamp design, requires the pump to stand off further from the tower, which was apparent as soon as I tried to place the tri-clamp. The installation of the new pump head is ridiculously simple. The installation onto the stand is not. I have fat fingers that didn’t want to fit into small spaces. The pump shield added to the nightmare. Still, got it done. FYI – it is really quiet but powerful!

I plan to eventually switch entirely over to tri-clover fittings, but working with a mix of the quick connects and tri-clover will at least get me brewing right away!

From a low oxygen process perspective, I have mash caps (aluminum cake pans) that fit the 15-gallon MLT and 20-gallon BK, and return lines that flow below the wort surfaces. I’ll need to modify the gravity feed from the MLT so that it feeds properly under the cap and wort in the BK, but that is easy enough. I haven’t run diagnostic metabisulfite tests (consumption) to determine O2 uptake, but will do so soon, and figure out a solution to allow me to fully purge the HEX and lines with CO2.

Right now, I am more concerned about quickly getting up to speed on mashing efficiency and any oddities that come with brewing K-RIMS. This may include changes to crush, looking at deltas between the controller temperature and actual in the MLT, etc.

Chilling Overkill

My second challenge is to figure out this chilling issue. I have a couple of options. Get a good immersion chiller, utilize my existing counterflow chiller, or…

I went with “or” when a local cidery advertised their 48-plate HEX for sale on deep-discount. I figured I could flip it to a commercial brewery worst case. When I say deep – I mean, cheaper than a good quality counterflow chiller for home brewing! So now, I own a 300# monster Thermaline HEX. I even installed wheels on it – so it is now barely portable.

I kitted it out with 1 ½ inch tri-clamp fittings and added an elbow that will allow me to have a thermowell on the output, with reducers to work with my ½” tri-clamp gear. I got this all knocked out easily, and using PBW, ran a long and very hot circulation through the HEX. I was blown away by the flow rates. With the Tower controls, I can run slowly at 1/2 GPM or crank it hard and fast. I’ll easily be able to do a slow wort run while cranking the cold side water/glycol mix at 4-5 GPM (see the videos below).

On the cold side, I am connecting a 15-gallon cold water tank, that will contain a 30% glycol solution, inside a fermentation freezer. I should be able to chill to about 28F, which should, by some magic, be adequate to knock down 180F (after whirlpooling) to around 50F with no real issues. Of course, there is no efficient cooling recovery method (like a glycol chiller), so we will see what the actual efficiency is. If I can get the wort down to 60F, it beats my old 95F temps from before! And much less time in the freezer to pitching. The plus side is also that I can use RO water and avoid the encrustations caused by using my 800+ TDS tap water.

Of course, one must ask how much volume the HEX is contributing to losses. My total chilling and hose loss is around  ½ gallon, which can be collected and added into the fermenter or used as a vitality starter. I’ll rebuild my hoses to ensure proper sizing and minimizing loss there. At least I have a system that I can take apart to deep clean and sanitize thoroughly when needed.

A New Start

I am fairly chuffed about the new system and anxious to start brewing on it this weekend! Wish me luck.

PS: I am keeping the Brew-Magic for now. I need to do a thorough deep clean and get a good tarp for it. I may uncover it to do a double brew session occasionally. I am most likely selling my Grandfather kit, although it is useful for mead and smaller batches. Will see.

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The Bru’n Water Spreadsheet is a tool to help manage your mash and water chemistry in your brewery. Over the years, Martin Brungard has made many refinements to the spreadsheet and incorporated highly detailed features. While the spreadsheet and water chemistry can be daunting, once you understand the basics and use the sheet a few times, it becomes straightforward. Do not be intimidated, take the walkthrough!

As a subscriber to Bru’n Water Spreadsheet, I received the newest edition of the spreadsheet at the end of July 2018. It does take time for Martin Brungard to notify everyone, so be patient. Version 5.3 represents a major update and justifies a new top-down walkthrough as there are many changes. Warning, this post will be lengthy! If you are a free version user, you will see how much more flexibility and detail you can obtain by becoming a subscriber.

I am an enthusiastic user of Bru’n Water, not an employee. I believe that you will make better beer with a key understanding of mash chemistry, and Bru’n Water is, in my opinion, simply the very best tool for mash chemistry stoichiometry and mash pH estimation. I highly encourage you to visit https://sites.google.com/site/brunwater/ and make a donation to get the Subscriber Edition.

Why Mash Chemistry? pH meter calibration

Beer is mostly water and water’s constituent -ions (anions and cations) have a large influence on flavor and mouthfeel perceptions in the finished beer. In addition, proper mash pH ensures efficient conversion of starches to sugars and minimizes tannin (polyphenol) extraction that may influence astringency and allows fuller extraction of the desired sugars and flavors from the malt. Beer mashing is a system of organic chemical reactions that are influenced by grain bill, mash pH, and water (or -ion content). We are seeking an optimum that maximizes good flavors and reduces or eliminates off flavors, off aromas, and undesirable mouthfeel which may vary depending on the beer style you are brewing.

Goodmanham Arms Pub, real cask ales!

Historically, regional beer styles most likely evolved from the local water sources, for example, pale hoppy pilsners worked well with the very soft water from Pilz, and darker beers worked naturally with moderately hard or alkaline water sources. There are always exceptions. Be aware that many regional water profiles are unbalanced and do not come from a rational brewer’s perspective. Use a reliable source.

I know many home brewers that balk at my recommendation to use a blank slate of Reverse Osmosis (Ro) or Distilled, De-ionized (DI) water for liquor, as brewing with local water supplies will force the brewer to learn to explore styles that best suite their water. My water sucks, with tremendously high sodium and bicarbonate levels, and I struggled for several years to figure this out. I recommend skipping that frustrating right of passage, but it is a hallmark of a good brewer to know what styles best fit their local water.

I brew exclusively with Reverse Osmosis water at home. I have a high-efficiency, high-flow rate system set to 1:1 exchange; a gallon of good water for a gallon of brine. I capture the very salty alkaline rejection water in a bin and use it to water plants (those that love alkalinity anyway) and for cleaning. Even with 96% filter efficiency, I get a tiny bit of residual -ions that must be augmented with calcium, chloride, and sulfate for brewing. Because the alkalinity of my water is so low, I use far less acid than someone with moderate alkalinity in their waters. I recommend a large carbon block pre-filter to avoid chlorine poisoning your RO stages.

Many brewers have great water for a broad spectrum of beers. Some will blend their existing water to dilute alkalinity or other -ion levels to their preference. How you approach this is a personal choice and you should consider your tolerance for wastewater, investment in a filter system, and the gear needed to measure tiny salt amounts against the expected results.

Sanitation chemistry from your water source must be removed! Most public water providers use chlorine or chloramines to deliver safe and contamination free drinking water to your home. Chlorine and chloramines are safe for human consumption at the regulated dosing rates, however, all chlorine chemistry could ruin your beer in the mash, boil, or fermenter.

This is easily accomplished by using 1 Campden tablet (Sodium Metabisulfite) per 20 gallons, which will dechlorinate the water. Activated Charcoal filters will work for dechlorination of chlorine at a slow flow rate, but the contact times for chloramines require a painfully slow flow rate, and you can still see break through the filter. A common off flavor in homebrew competitions is the presence of chlorophenols, which most often is diagnosed as exposure to chlorine compounds, or a possible contamination of spoilage bacterium, and can bring medicinal, plastic, band-aid like off flavors.

Bru’n Water allows you to input your source water report, grain bill, and generate mash pH estimates, as well as make educated additions of mineral salts, acids, and bases, to optimize your desired flavor and mash pH contributions. It is not automated, but it is a simple matter to make small changes to match a target profile.

You can use this spreadsheet without using a pH meter. To do so is to put a lot of confidence in the Mash pH Estimate, without a confirmation measurement. While I highly recommend using a high-quality pH meter, BWS will get you very close to that optimum mash pH and mineral content. It certainly is better than just ignoring water chemistry all together!

All pH values are given at room temperature.

The Spreadsheet Bru’n Water Spreadsheet, Water Report Input Page

Bru’n Water is a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and now uses macros, which may cause a warning box on opening. Make sure to click “Enable Macros”. If you do not have Excel, consider LibreOffice as a free alternative. If in Excel, you will want to click on the Formulas tab and check-mark the “Enable iterative calculation” box.

For LibreOffice, go to Tools, Options, LibreOffice Calc, Calculations, and check the “Iterative References” box. These actions avoid a warning box when opening the spreadsheet, and ensure proper functionality.

This demonstration uses the Mac version of Office and the screenshots will look a little different than in Windows. The spreadsheet opens in Compatibility mode. Upon opening, I suggest you “Save As” immediately as an “Excel Macro-Enabled Workbook (.xmls)” to work fully native and avoid potential macro issues with compatibility mode. You will still need to enable macros each time the spreadsheet is opened.

Otherwise, we will assume a basic understanding of spreadsheets in general.

Bru’n Water’s workflow is Tab driven. At the bottom of the page you will see the following Tabs which are iteratively used to create a mash water solution:

0. Instructions

1. Water Report Input

2. Sparge Acidification

3. Grain Bill Input

4. Water Adjustment

5. Adjustment Summary

6. Data Manager

Raw Text Summary

Water Knowledge

At the end of this walkthrough, I will highlight some Tips and Tricks.

Tab 0: Instructions

Please read this. It covers the practical functionality of the spreadsheet as well as links to the Bru’n Water Knowledge website. We will essentially follow these steps in order.

Tab 1: Water Report Input

Garbage in = Garbage out. That applies to brewing-water and you need a report that can resolve a balance in cations/anions in milliequivalent per liter (meq/L). I highly recommend that you get a Brewer (W-5A) or Household (W-6) report from Ward Labs, but you may be able to get an averaged report from your local water supply that is adequate. A local report may require some tweaking and estimation and seasonal management as many municipalities blend water sources that vary quite a bit. There are also test kits that will get you within 2% accuracy of a lab report. The benefit is the ability to measure on the fly and address season changes in your water immediately.

If Bru’n Water was a stand-alone application, this tab (and Sparge Acidification) would be the “Preferences” or “Settings” option. Once you have this information input, you will not normally need to return to it. Set it and forget it.

The top half of this page (hint: zoom in on the cells) starts with your anion and cation constituents, those important to brewing. Bru’n Water supports both Metric and US volume standards, and common commercial brewery volumes. Use the drop down to choose your preference. For this walkthrough, we will use Gallons.

It is a good idea to have your water lab tested as close as possible to your brewing scenario – meaning post filtration (activated charcoal, RO, DI) and seasonally if just using your tap water source without a reducing filter of some kind. Using that report, enter the information into the Light Blue cells, paying attention to the notes next to the Sulfate and Nitrate entry.

Here’s my gawd-awful water from outside of Bastrop, Texas. Please go ahead and laugh. I’ll wait.

New Feature: Convert Water Inputs to Boiled Results?

On line-14, you will see this feature, which attempts to estimate the effect of pre-boiling to reduce alkalinity. Clearly, my tap water, which is extremely high in alkalinity might benefit, as boiling causes chalk to precipitate, dramatically reducing alkalinity. However, my water is starved of calcium so I would need to add a calcium salt before boiling to be effective. The user would select a  “Boiling Effectiveness” setting. For this reason, I get no result when I “Click to Convert.” A tooltip (look for the red triangles on cells) is available to help make the choice.

If you pre-boil for low oxygen purposes, this is a useful tool to help determine the resulting alkalinity and the loss of calcium from precipitation of chalk. However, in most cases, you will not be adequately cooling the water to force full precipitation.

On line-17, you will find the Ion Balance Results section. Here we see the math needed to determine if the provided water chemistry balances. Generally, you want the Cation/Anion Difference to be below 0.5, and that field is color-coded to provide a warning. As mine is at 0.43, we can proceed, however, using the tools in the lower section, we may be able to tighten up the water profile. The cell will turn red if out of balance, and your resulting water chemistry will not balance properly.

Under the heading found at lines 26 and 27, I input reported Total Alkalinity as CaCO3, and find that Ward Labs may have incorrectly estimated bicarbonate and carbonate. This is also indicated in the previous area by the TDS, which mismatches my report. I am working from an older Ward Labs report. AJ DeLange has worked with them to correct their estimation resolution, but it is good to double check.

As you can see, the spreadsheet estimates that my bicarbonate and carbonate levels are 602.4 and 5.5 ppm respectively. So if I go back to the top area and make those corrections, you will see the delta..

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YAHBB: Yet another Homebrewing Book (TM). Yes, they keep coming along and I am one of the addicts that absolutely love books of all kinds. I have a large bookshelf, the kind with the glass doors that protect the books from dust and stuff, and now have two full rows dedicated to nothing but brewing literature. The latest is “Methods of Modern Homebrewing: The Comprehensive Guide to Contemporary Craft Beer Brewing”, by Chris Colby. Chris likes really long titles.

Most of my readers know that I live in Bastrop, Texas. So does Chris Colby, and we are friends. My garage brewery is in photos in both of his books. So please consider all of this in my mini-review below, which is probably fairly biased.

We should also hear a few things straight from Chris’s mouth as well, as I sit down with him and talk about what he learned writing this book.

Matt: Chris, let’s start with the most important question. Zombie Apocalypse… what beer is worth braving the undead at the grocery?

Chris: These days, it would be a Pilsner. There are a lot of breweries making great Pilsners in Texas now. If it’s in the fall, I’d stick up on Octoberfest beers.

“Methods of Modern Homebrewing” (MoMH moving forward) picks apart method and presents the reader with options, based on modern approaches. At its heart, MoMH is a tutorial that can take a brand new homebrewer through the increasingly difficult steps required to transition from basic extract brewing to very complex all grain techniques. The really cool thing is that this book can bring value and inspiration to everyone. I wish I had it when I started brewing.

Matt: You cover a range of brewing techniques and concepts. Of these, which do you feel is the best starting point for a new brewer? Why?

Chris: I think a brewer should start with the type of beer he or she wants to brew. If he really wants to be brewing triple decoction bocks, brewing extract English ales as a warmup isn’t going to be cutting it. Know what you want to do and do it. (And of course, understand that if you pick something complex right out of the gate, your learning curve is going to be steeper and bumpier.)

The book itself is well illustrated and features lots of full-color photographs. Tables and side-bars are easy to read, however, the primary text feels a bit small and thin. The paperback format is nice and the pages fall open easily.

Matt: Of the more difficult and obscure brewing methods, which is your favorite and why? What does it do that a simpler or more direct approach cannot?

Chris: This may not qualify as obscure, but I do everything I can to get a good start to fermentation. I make a yeast starter for every beer and aerate with oxygen. At a minimum, I get a predictable start to fermentation in a reasonable time. I also think that I’m more likely to hit a reasonable FG and that the beer is less likely to have unwanted fermentation byproducts. I also think if you take care of fermentation, your beer will condition more quickly compared to a beer that had a slow start and maybe a lagging fermentation. 

One of my big issues with today’s homebrewing culture is that we (myself included) have overly complicated processes to the point they are intimidating to beginners, and every fool is an expert. Chris breaks the approach by the practical presentation of technique and leaning on years of experience in brewing.  He is also a scientist and avoids many of the old brewing myth pitfalls.

There is a small introduction to cover the highlights, but the real value is the featured recipe designed to work best with the technique discussed. Nothing gets wildly out of hand or controversial. You are almost guaranteed to get a good result,  assuming you can follow simple directions. There are lots of recipes at each level, and notes to take it from extract to all grain if you prefer.

Matt: You are also a passionate gardener. How have these passions come together? Are they synergistic and complimentary?

Chris: I grew hops for awhile, until the drought of 2011 wiped them out. I also grew barley a couple times; Robust (a 6-row malting barley) one year and Conlon (a 2-row malting barley) another. My next brewing and gardening combo is going to be catnip IPA. Catnip is a mint, and has an aroma that I think would work with hops well. Northern Brewer is a minty hop, so I think it would pair well with it. And perhaps it’s aroma would compliment some of the fruity New Zealand hops. I’ve already brewed a pale ale to try to get a handle on how much catnip I’d need. As it turns out, a lot more than I’d thought. I couldn’t detect any catnip in my experimental batch. But I have several second year catnip plants growing and tons of seed. I’ll make it happen this year.

“Methods” is a recipe book with about 50 unique beers. It’s a brewing technique book touching nearly every modern brewing technique. It’s even a reference book. I have never really seen a book organized to ease you through a homebrewing career, but this is one that can help you grow into more complicated skills, even decoctions or iterated mashing high gravity beers.

Matt: Other brewing book ideas?

Chris: I’d like to do an ingredients book next. It would cover malts (base and specialty), unmalted grains, hops, yeast water, and other. It would stress the characteristics of the ingredients (esp. what is measured), how to evaluate ingredients, and how to best use them in brewing. I’m going to pitch the book to my publisher this fall.

Bottom line: I bought this book. And was later given a free copy because Chris is a good guy. I gave the copy I bought away to a new homebrewer. You can find it & The Home Brew Bible at Amazon. So yeah, a biased opinion! See?

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