I’ll show you mine

Oh, what the search engines will make of that title …

A while back, a reader requested a buyer’s guide-type of piece on equipment – my gear, what I like and don’t like, etc. Here’s to wish fulfillment!

Because I live on disclaimers and hearing myself talk, two things before we start:

1. This is just my stuff, and I’m not here to convince you to buy anything, or to do things my way.

No less a personage than Jamil Zainasheff said to me while watching AHA governing board members and all-around good dudes Justin Crossley and Jake Keeler talk trash over a mash tun:

“You don’t need fancy equipment. If you’re a good brewer, you can make good beer in a pickle bucket. But, if you’re a good brewer and you brew a lot, there is a lot of stuff  that makes brewing more pleasurable and ergonomic, and makes it easier to make good beer consistently.”

I’m paraphrasing a bit, but that’s the gist of it, and I agree. On average, we all tend to start from a common place (5 gallon extract with partial boil) but end up all over the spectrum. And it’s apt to change over a lifetime, with constraints of time, family, space, or what kind of beer you want to make and how you prefer to make it.

2. Speaking of change: this is how I brew now, but it’s not the way I did it in the past, and it’s likely to be different again in the future. It’s been cobbled together piecemeal over the span of … damn, decades now, and it’s named Slave 1, which my wife thinks is in poor taste; but since she couldn’t pick a Mandalorian out of a lineup of Ewoks I think she’s missing the point. Representational bias, I guess.

Blichmann Top Tier
When I was young and single, Mike Fredericksen, one of my personal homebrewing gurus, gave me this advice:

“If there’s a piece of gear you think you might someday want, buy it before you get married.”

I took it to heart and acquired my brew kettles, a mill, keg system, chest freezer, nitro dispense system, and a bunch of other stuff in the years leading up to my wedding. However, there’s an exception to every rule and fortunately for me I married a woman who loves beer, and who actually was the one who encouraged me to pull the trigger on a Top Tier.

IMG_1555

It has two burners, mounted just below waist height on me, east-west and just offset, for a direct-fired MLT and a boiler. The HLT sits on a shelf on the north, and gravity-feeds into the MLT. I have a March 809PLHS pump at the base of the tower on the south – that transfers heated sparge water from the boiler up to the HLT, and also moves wort from MLT to boiler, and from boiler through chiller.

When I was younger and marginally dumber, I did a lot of lifting of heavy and/or scalding-hot and/or heavy, scalding-hot materials in the course of a brew day – this is now obviated.

Pump and plumbing
My brother the electrician helped me put an outlet and on/off switch on the top of the south face to run the pump, which has elbows, polysulfone QDs, and a 1/2″ ball valve on the outflow. Hi-temp 1/2″ ID tubing with matching QDs connect the pump to the valves on the kettles for underletting.

DSC_0286

Kettles
I moved to 10 gallon batches a few years ago because, like I imagine it is for most of you, brewing time can be hard to come by, and this yields 100% more beer in roughly 25% more time.

valve at sacch' rest

I have had my Polarware kettles for a very long time. They predate the Top Tier by many years, and two of them are actually from back in the days before they came with 1/2″ ball valves – my boiler and MLT both have 3/8″ valves that I’ve fitted with 1/2″ barbs to match up with the rest of the plumbing. The HLT and MLT are both 10 gallon kettles, and the boiler is a 15 gallon.

I used to use cooler mash tuns, but I moved to a stainless because I do enough multi-temp mashes that I like the capability of direct-heating the mash instead of continually diluting it and/or running out of capacity with hot water infusions.

DSC_0075

The MLT and boiler both have Blichmann Brewmometers in the MPT ports and Polarware false bottoms inside. False bottom in the boiler because I use at least some whole hops in every batch to keep my plate chiller from clogging.

Mill
Crush isn’t the only factor determining mash efficiency, but it’s a big one, and I really, really, really value the control of setting the gap spacing myself and millling the grist while strike water heats.

I started out with a Schmidling Preset mill – it was pretty much the only game in town back then, and if I hadn’t moved up to 10 gallon batches I might still have it. I upgraded to a Monster MM3 a few years ago and have appreciated the adjustability, three-roller crush, and bigger hopper.

Chiller
Blichmann Therminator. I like it, it has worked great for me for many years. I still have my old immersion chiller that I bust out for the odd smaller-volume BIAB batch.

DSC_0402

I will say that, after using a communal Therminator for a few years, a plate chiller (whatever the model or make) is not a commitment to be taken lightly – the grodiness remaining in the lines after an insufficient cleaning is a sight to behold. It’s a big blind spot in the sanitation process and punishes shortcuts. Mine gets immersed in Star San right before use, then an immediate backflush after use, recirc with PBW, and another backflush before drying and storage.

That’s the rundown on the hot side; thanks for reading this far down the page.

How about you? What’s in your brewhouse?

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51 thoughts on “I’ll show you mine

  1. Dawson, this post is perfectly timed. I’ve got a 15 gallon stainless MLT in an online shopping cart that I’m deciding on. This would replace my 10-gallon Home Depot cooler that I’ve used for the past two years. One question: how tough is it to manage temperature on a direct-fire rig? Do you just heat-n-stir for the entire mash? Or do you use/recommend some kind of insulation? I’m in NH, so the winter experience has to be similar to yours. I’m interested to hear of your practice and advice on the issue.

    Longtime fan, firstime writer.

    Al from NH

    • I dough in with about 1.3 qts/lb of grist and, except in the dead of winter, it’ll hold pretty steady; then I supplement with low heat & stir as needed. A buddy gave me some cool insulative material this winter that I still need to build into a jacket and test out – that’ll be a future post. FWIW, the Polarware kettles (at least the generation that I have) are deep-drawn, so they’re quite thick-walled and heavy, which I think also helps hold the temp.

  2. awesome write up and awesome blog! do you have any tips or tricks to maintaining your mash temp? i direct fire my mlt too and even though i’m only losing a few degrees over the hour mash it drives me nuts. i’ve been trying to bump it back up to temp by firing the burner and recirculating

  3. Ok now that I’m done drooling over the Top Tier… I brew on a turkey frier that has been modified to accept the “wagon wheel” banjo burner, and welded on legs that move it to carboy draining height. The burner supports a 15G Megapot, and I mash in one of those infamous orange coolers. Finally scored a dedicated HLT, and probably going to purchase a Blichmann Burner to fire it in anticipation of a future purchase. Chill with a Jamil-O-Chiller via a March Pump that will serve double duty moving hot liquor to the tun which is supported via a cantilevered shelf on a ladder (with opposing fancy shelf for holding beer and other small brewing tools).

    Nice set up Mr. Dawson. Boba Fett would be proud to pilot such a craft…

  4. 5+ gallon batches. 50 quart Coleman picnic cooler mash tun with braided mesh filter. One 5 gallon aluminum pot for sparge water. One 7.5 gallon aluminum boil pot (doubles as a vessel to heat step/mash out water). I, too, have a supportive spouse who lets me occupy the kitchen for mashing (great in the winter). So I set the mash tun on a kitchen chair in front of the range, fly sparge by siphoning from the pot on the stove, and gravity feed from tun to boil pot. I still have to carry 6.5 gallons of wort a short distance to the deck to boil, but I can handle that two times per brewday. As far as milling goes, I used to use a corona mill until it’s cheaply cast metal broke. So I’m using a fellow homebrew club member’s periodically until I purchase a barley crusher.

  5. I wish I would have received the same advise and purchased my equipment before I got married. Now that we are a family of four, five if you include the dog, the Finance Committee usually has something to say about my purchases. A while back I was listening to Jamil talk about equipment and the one take away that stuck was that the money should be spent on fermentation equipment, then build your home brewery around it. His thought was, you can brew in just about anything but fermentation is where the magic happens and if you don’t have temp control and the proper fermentation environment, you got problems. I also heard a wise man once say, “wine is for farmers, beer is for scientists.” Early in my brewing days I didn’t get it. Now that time has passed and experience gained…I totally get it. If MN passes the new liquor tax I may be forced to move faster on my purchases.

    • I totally agree with fermentation being #1.

      I was one of the many who started to buy stuff being all excited to make my own beer when all of a sudden the guys at the local brew shop asks “so where are you going to ferment your beer?” Ahhhhh?

      If you are just starting out than take the time to read, visit a local brew store and ask question (they might even know someone who would let you brew a batch of beer with them to see the process), read some more and while doing it all start a check list of what you need before you start making a purchase on brew pots. Most people talk up a storm about their brew equipment but rarely mention anything about how or what they use for the fermentation process. I would love to say that I am able to rely on ambient temperatures but living in a desert (AZ) I had to get a chest freezer and a temp controller. Even if you like using ambient temps I would still encourage you to get your own chest freezer converted into a perfectly controlled fermenting chamber because you can literally brew any beer year round and it really didn’t add much added cost to my electric like most people are probably worried about. Home depot has 7 cubic chest freezers on sale for $200 and they last a very long time.

      I’ve got more 2 cents if you want it, just ask!

      • SUPER late to the game on this post, but figured I would chime in anyway. When I got into the hobby not long ago, I had a very specific thing I wanted to do: all grain german lagers. I had brewed three times before with my buddy on his system with him in charge and me just taking orders. But I went out, plopped down some scratch on a kettle, a bag, and step bit. Then I bought 2 freezers, 2 STC temp controllers, and never looked back. So, the bulk of my early investment was been spent on fermentation temp control and lagering chambers. It paid off big, as I have had very few batches that weren’t pretty good, and none that were undrinkable. Temp control is the single biggest thing to get handled as early as possible. My 16th batch was an extract batch. Everything else has been all grain.

  6. I’m still laughing at Slave 1.

    I am at the phase where I’m young and do a lot of lifting. My normal batches are 5 gallon BIAB batches in a 15 gallon Morebeer Heavy Duty Kettle. I’ve got handles on my bag so I can use a ratchet strap to raise the bag to drain instead of lifting it. In the winter I’m forced to carry that full kettle downstairs to chill (with a brewpal) with my immersion chiller. The kettle is big enough for the occasional 10 gallon batch when necessary.

    Otherwise I do Jake Keeler-style 2.5 gallon BIAB stovetop batches in an 8 gallon Morebeer Heavy Duty Kettle and carry that downstairs to chill (my kitchen faucet does not have threads to hook up my chiller). I like the convenience of brewing inside especially during winter and the smaller batch size is great for beers that I want to drink fresh or for brand new recipes that may not turn out to the point where I want to drink/give away 5 gallons.

    I admire some of the more elaborate setups I see online, but you can make great beer with very minimal equipment. You don’t have to invest 10K to have a consistent/repeatable all grain setup, but I’ll admit the way I brew is not the most ergonomical and probably not for everyone.

  7. 6 gallon Al kettle on the turkey fryer burner, BIAB, IC and 3.5 gal batches. I like it basic and I don’t drink a ton of beer so 3.5 gal batches work well for me.

  8. Good run down!
    I got an electric jam maker for HLT (27 liters)
    A Igloo Ice Cube with false bottom for MLT (45 liters)
    And a Blichmann 15 gal boiler with a Blichmann Burner
    Chilling is done with a stainless plate chiller, which is bolted together so I can pull it apart for cleaning.

  9. When I move home to MN from Germany, I would like to get a Top Tier and move to 10 gallon batches. I just have a few questions about your pots. For the 10 gal MLT, how much grain can you comfortably fit in there? With the 15 gal BK, how is it being wider than it is tall? I would think that it could lead to more boil off over the course of the boil, but easily made up by collecting more wort. Since my set up is mostly weldless now, I could strip my other pots and buy the standard Polar Ware kettles and drill my own holes, but was curious about the BK. Also, have you brewed 5 gallon batches on that system? While I would like to do 10 gallon batches for more common things, I would still like the ability to produce 5 gallons for special beers or for some experimenting.

    Thanks for the great post and an insight into your brewing gear.

      • I won’t be moving until next summer (2014), but if you are still around, I will have some things that I won’t be taking back. My keezer (not including hardware) with temperature controller, my fermentation freezer with an additional temperature controller, March 815 pump and POSSIBLY my 220V RIMS control box.

        • I’m an AZ boy now in AUT for good. I’ve got the Wiener Frau, baby and the whole enchilada. I could be interested for sure. I wonder if ÖBB will do Freight? You know you want a whole new rig, all shiny and new. I bet I can make you the right offer…

    • For the 10 gal MLT, how much grain can you comfortably fit in there?

      At 1.3 qt/lb it maxes out at about 23 lbs – the stock false bottom has a lot of foundation space though, so with some hardware modifications it could probably be increased (Personally, I haven’t seen the need, since I don’t usually brew full 10 gallon batches of anything much over bock strength).

      With the 15 gal BK, how is it being wider than it is tall? I would think that it could lead to more boil off over the course of the boil, but easily made up by collecting more wort.

      You got it – the boiloff rate is quite high. Although I should qualify that when I talk about my 10 gallon batches, I aim to have 10 gallons going into kegs after loss to everything: trub, chiller waste, absorption by whole hops, evaporation … so I’m usually aiming to collect closer to 11 gallons post-boil. The geometry of this kettle isn’t what’s currently considered ideal for a boiler, but it’s such a solid piece of gear I haven’t found the dimensions a compelling enough reason to switch it out … but if I ever step up to 15 or 20 gallon batches, it’ll make a good mash tun!

      Also, have you brewed 5 gallon batches on that system?

      Yes, but I shuffle around the vessels and boil in the HLT. I’ve also been known to do the odd BIAB using just one of the 10 gallon vessels.

  10. I have a Keggle with a sightglass, ball valve, and Thermometer. I use a blichmann burner with leg extensions, and use an immersion chiller to chill. I do alot of 5gal BIAB and can do a 10gal when needed. I have a STC-1000 temp controller for fermantation control.

  11. Currently I run a Cooler MLT, Keggle HLT, and Keggle boiler. I have a Bayou Classic and a Blichmann burner w/ extensions. I use a mix mosh of a gravity fed system. I will be purchasing a pump this summer and swapping the MLT & HLT. Once that is done I’ll pretty much be set for what I want. I can do both 10 and 5 gallon batches right now. I just have to be mindful on the larger gravity beers.

  12. Sorry in advance for the length of this post but I get pumped up hearing about what others are doing with their equipment and looking at what I can do with mine. I’m a serious beer-geekazoid obviously. Here’s a little about my system and process.

    I have a single-tier, three-station brew stand with banjo burners at each station. I had help building this from a buddy who welds. I converted three keggles and outfitted them with: 1/2″ ball valves, stainless quick connects, Brewmometers, and I’m adding site glasses this week. The MLT has a false bottom with dip tube, The Boil Kettle has a sock style stainless screen. I’ve added a water filter with garden hose quick connects to my stand for filling my HLT. Otherwise, all movement of liquids is done via a stainless head march pump with 1/2″ silicon hoses equipped with quick connects. I also have a plate chiller with an in line thermometer on the cold side.

    Cleaning and clogging of the plate chiller has been an issue but I like it much more than the old immersion chiller as it saves water and time. I’ve adopted most of the steps you outlined with the addition of doing a boiling wort recirculation (no cold water turned on yet) for 5 mins to sterilize the chiller. Another thing I’ve done to overcome the clogging issue is the use of a half dozen stainless tea balls which I use for my hop additions. Between the tea balls and the sock screen, clogging has no longer been a problem. They are also convenient for organizing your brew day.

    My next project is to add some much needed shielding for my pump (to ensure it stays dry) and a switch to turn if off and on easily. I’m tired of having to plug and unplug the pump to turn it on and off.

    I like to do German style beers via decoction mash. I’m considering a new method with my setup where I would pump out the thin mash liquid from the MLT to my boil kettle to protect the enzymes from denaturing and then I boil the thick mash in my MLT. Once it has boiled I would underlet the MLT thick mash with the thin mash liquid from the Boil Kettle through the ball valve. Do you think this would negatively impact the enzymatic process by doing it in this order? It would definitely save me a lot of time and labor for those decoction brew days.

    I purchased all this stuff over the last couple years. Prior to that I was stove top with a cooler style MLT. I think my wife has been so understanding because she’s happy to get me out of “her” kitchen. 😉

    • FWIW I found that a Thermapen helped immensely on the mash. I used to rely on the Blichmann Brewmometer on my converted keg MLT and it would give false readings on temperature drops that were not occurring (during cold weather brewdays). I use a foil bubble wrap that is designed for higher temp insulation settings as a blanket – foil taped to keep the right shape. Now when I check mash temps during even 90-120 minute mashes, I find that the thermal mass holds the temp well and probably always had. YMMV.

    • I would pump out the thin mash liquid from the MLT to my boil kettle to protect the enzymes from denaturing and then I boil the thick mash in my MLT. Once it has boiled I would underlet the MLT thick mash with the thin mash liquid from the Boil Kettle through the ball valve. Do you think this would negatively impact the enzymatic process by doing it in this order?

      From my understanding and if I grok correctly, it seems like this would work (as long as the thick mash isn’t pumped completely dry). I don’t really have any hands-on advice to give, though, so if you try it please let me know how it works out!

  13. Mike- I pretty much copied your setup a year ago (based on glimpses I got of it during a few BTV episodes), with the exception of my hot liquor tank (10 gal Rubbermaid cooler with stainless ball valve), MLT (10 or 15 gal Blichmann Boilermaker with false bottom- soon be regulated with their Tower of Power), and boil kettle (10 or 15 gal Blichmann Boilermaker fitted with Hop Blocker). 10 gal batches most of the time, unless I’m doing a “test batch” or something I don’t really think I want more than 5 gal of. I call my setup SOB (Shep’s Own Brewery). Brewed a Citra Pale Ale on Sunday, while quaffing several pints of Dunkel (brewed back in January using one of your recipes…sorry, I didn’t have time to do a decoction mash…let the self-flagellation begin…cut to appropriate Terry Gilliam animation clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Ausgezeichnet!

    • Same reason I still have my 15 gallon boiler despite its geometry (see response to Paul, above) – they were what was available to me at the time, and they have worked well enough for me for so long I haven’t felt the need to spend the money to replace them. I’ve worked with stainless QDs on other folks’s systems and they seem great, so maybe someday – although my next big outlay is going to be on the cold side, I think.

  14. Dawson, I saw your comment about gathering all your equipment before you are married. I would agree, but I was already married when I started brewing.

    My advice for others in my situation would be to agree with the wife on a weekly budget for beer. I am at $40 per week. It is auto transferred to my paypal account every Friday. It is a lot easier to argue for $40 per week than $2k per year 🙂

    Once your equipment is paid for, it is super easy to pay for grain and yeast throughout the year.

  15. Dawson, I hope you had a beer or 2 yesterday to celebrate International Star Wars Day – May the 4th be with you. Thanks for the advice.

  16. Here is mine.

    (this one is from national home brewers day, brewing in a parking lot)

    – 2 – 1/2bbl kegs
    – 2 – 2000w 120v elements (all of it is countertop apartment brewing, i just plug into the 2 20amp outlets in the kitchen)
    – False bottoms in both (mash tun obviously, but i use mainly whole hops)
    – Fermentation chamber for the hot summer months (picked up a 52 bottle wine chiller, has a controller on it already and it goes from 45-65*)
    – Chugger pump
    – A large stainless steel mash paddle
    – Immersion chiller (scare of plate chillers
    – Corona mill

    I had most of everything before i got married, but i was not electric, so i made a VERY budget forward electric system (i think the whole electric stuff was around $400? bonus from work) because she is scared of open flames. And she knows i love my brewing.

    No stand because everything is countertop (due to space constraints, everything goes into the small patio storage).

  17. What are your thoughts on temperature controllers?

    We’ve built a wireless temperature controller that we’re trying to launch on Kickstarter: http://kck.st/13kN3yG

    We’ve used it to control fermentation and are currently adapting our rig to use it for managing mashing automatically as well.

  18. Is it easy for you to maintain one mash temp for 60 minutes without an insulated MLT? I have a Top Tier as well with three burners but I’m using a cooler MLT now. I’m building a Keggle MLT and plan on direct firing it to maintain temps but I’m concerned that it’ll be a lot of work. Also, how long does it take you to ramp up between temperatures in mult-step mashes?

    • I typically dough in with about 1.3 qts/lb of grist and, except in the dead of winter, it’ll hold pretty steady; then I supplement with low heat & stir as needed. FWIW, the Polarware kettles (at least the generation that I have) are deep-drawn stainless, so they’re quite thick-walled and heavy, which I think also helps hold the temp; and as Gerald noted further up in this thread, the thermal mass of the mash itself gives some insulation.

      Re: time for temp increases – it varies based on the volume/weight of the mash and the increase in degrees required, but for a “typical” step in a standard-gravity mash for my 10 gallon batches, 10 to 20 minutes is about par.

  19. Any regrets/ problems with using a 10 gallon MLT for your 10 gallon batches? I would like to start a somewhat futureproof setup for eventual 10 gallon batches and would appreciate your input.

    • No. I alluded to previously using a cooler MLT in the post (a couple different sizes of coolers over the years, actually), and even before that, a plastic false bottom in a 6 gallon bucket; so the 10 gallon kettle is actually my 4th generation MLT. Given its capacity, I can get a full 10 gal batch of 1.070-something wort without additional sugars or heroic measures in water:grist ratio, which covers >90% of the beers I brew. Unless and until it makes sense for me to move up to a bigger batch size I don’t plan on replacing it. Hope this helps – have fun building your system!

  20. Pingback: reader question: system 2.0 | the beer engine

  21. Hello MD
    So for the false bottom in your boiler, what are you using to connect the false bottom to the ball valve? Standard silicon high temp tubing? I was thinking of putting a false bottom in my SS mash tun and was concerned the stainless would affect the flavor sitting in the bottom of the mash, and i really like the idea of using the mash tun in my boiler as a filter…

    • Nothing to connect – the ball valve threads onto a little stem that is welded right to the exterior kettle wall, and the outlet for the stem sits below the level of the false bottom. Stainless should be nonreactive with wort & mash …

  22. Got another question for you – I am planning to set my top tier up like your set up with a SS -MT and BK next to each other on burners and then my HLT elevated on a shelf for fly sparging and using a pump to go from my MT to my BK. My question is this – if i am gravity fly sparging with a Blichmann auto sparge, will there be enough wort coming thru the system not to burn up my pump as i am pumping into my BK? Or how do you handle sparking with a pump?

    Thanks as always for all your help!!

    • It should be fine as long as you put a ball valve on the outflow of the pump – that way, during the sparge, you can leave the valve on the MT wide-open and restrict/regulate the flow downstream of the pump, so the pump head stays flooded.

  23. I wanted a Top Tier but last september i started on my brew cart. got a bunch of steel 1″ tubing and welded it all up. I have two Blichmann burners snuggled in the cart to use, i’m about to expand it out and make it longer so I can have an automated system, well maybe not fully auto but with pumps and all. I’m going to expand it by 2″, cover the holes up where the burners are and eagerly await Blichmann’s BoilCoils so I can go all electric. Then I’ll sell off the floor burners.

    I’m in the process of gathering up everything else to make that all happen, pumps, another Boilermaker and all that. It only cost me about $150 in the metal and then I just welded everything up and added wheels to be able to move it easily. it works really well. I just couldn’t handle spending $600 on a tower, granted it is SS and my cart isn’t but I can repair mine easily if something happens to it.

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