reader question: system 2.0

Reader and friend Keith C. hit me with this Russian novel of a question – slash – very enviable first-world homebrewer problem, and I’m recruiting you citizens to chime in with your answers in the comments section. Let’s dig in:

I’ve had a basic pieced-together all-grain system for about 5 years and next year my wife has basically said I can drop up to $3,500 on any system/gear I want/need. This was great at first but after looking at a few options I’ve become paralyzed with fear and choices. I usually give up looking and just consider sticking with my same old system – but I don’t want to do that.

I was going to ask how you like your top tier system – with non-blichmann pots, etc — as well as your burner/pump setup (number of burners, number of pumps, placement of levels). Is there anything you would change? I’ve found some old BTV footage when you brew on that system and you do discuss it a bit (pumping sparge water from boil kettle up to HLT). Basically just wanted to know if you can tell me what your system is – what you have/use, etc…and if you would tweak anything. Or — what system you would suggest to someone in my position. I really don’t wanna look like a douche with a bright shiny wacked out system that I have trouble using. I’ve basically ruled out temp control…and I like the manual aspect of brewing. I’ve never used pumps – but figure that would be a good choice. Do you use a pump to recirc your mash or do you just fly sparge? How do you chill? Do you have any temp control issues with your mash tun – or do you just goose the burner a bit to keep it at temp?

I guess I should also add that I’m leaning toward the Blichmann Top Tier with 2 or 3 burners — and maybe those new megapots from NB. I would like to do 10 gallons batches. Do you recommend 15 or 20 gallons pots for 10 gallon batches. Or do you find you like different sized for kettle, MT, and HLT?

My current setup is basically that of Don-O’s – i.e., cooler for MT – 10 gallon pot – burner – chill wort with coil – ferment in cooler with ice bottles.

First, let me congratulate you on being a lucky dude.

Secondly, I’m going to hyperlink this older post which walks through my itemized setup, with photos. That, and the comment section below, contain detailed answers to a number of your questions.

Third, lightning round for a couple of the specific questions:

  • I do use a pump to recirc the mash and transfer it from MLT to boiler
  • Sparging – I fly sparge, but it’s still punk rock

Fourth, what would I change? That’s tough to answer … my assemblage of gear has been pieced together over many years, so if I suddenly had to start over from scratch, I’m sure it would look a bit different, but barring a custom-built room or outbuilding, I think I’d keep the ergonomics and layout pretty similar. MoreBeer has been making sculptures forever, the Sabcos have been around a while too, and the Ruby Street systems seem nice as well.

Fifth, one item of unsolicited advice: earmark some of that budget for a chest freezer and external overriding thermostat. Your yeast cells will thank you by pooping out beer of increased deliciousness.

I hope that’s helpful – please let us know how the shopping goes!

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30 thoughts on “reader question: system 2.0

  1. That is an enviable position to be in, though I can understand why it would be very hard to pull the trigger on going a certain direction. There is so much personal preference involved in this that I don’t even think my opinion of what kind of system is worth much, but I did want to comment about saving some of the budget for temperature control. That is what I was thinking as I read the post and then Mike commented on it as well. That has been the investment that I made that showed the most improvement to the finished product. When you think about it, getting the wort into the fermenter is really only the beginning of the beer being made. So for what it’s worth, that is usually my one piece of advice that I feel comfortable giving. Hopefully you update when you get your new system going.

  2. Totally agree with MIke’s assessment! As much as a really nice rig is to brewing (and a Top Tier is on my short list when it is upgrade time), a chest freezer and temp controller for a Ferm Chamber is the greatest thing any homebrewer can do to upgrade their brewing!

  3. I brew all-grain using essentially the “Don-O” MT system that you talk about. About a year ago I received a Blichmann floor burner (which could be bolted to a tiered system in the future) and it is a great upgrade–I smile every time I fire it up. I will second having a place to control fermentation temps. Commandeering a full-size refrigerator and a chest freezer–plus temp controllers–to control fermentation temps. even during Georgia summers has been the best thing I have done for reproducibility and quality in my beers.

  4. I recently built my ideal future-proof system and am very happy with it. It’s a single tier, two pump, two burner HERMS with HLT temp automation in the form of an inline RTD sensor and a standing-pilot furnace valve. My layout is essentially a copy of Kal’s Electric Brewer, except not electric and built on a stand with casters. The stand is bolted together using strut channel – meaning it can be built with common tools, including wrenches and a reciprocating saw. The kettles are 20/15/15 BK/MLT/HLT from Stout Tanks. The burners are Blichmann floor burners. The control panel was designed in Visio and wired up on my kitchen table. The pumps are Chuggers. I use a chillus convolutus because I can run hop pellets through it during whirlpool without it clogging. All connections are tri-clamp, because that’s what Stout Tanks have on them.

    I chose a single-tier, pump-driven system because I don’t like lifting, moving full pots, or climbing ladders. My wife brews as well, and she likes doing those things even less than I do. If you’re set on using gravity or you need to go vertical to save on footprint, a single-tier setup isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to entertain the idea of a BRUTUS 10 type layout, I can say there’s little I’d change about my setup, except maybe to add an input to the top of the HLT and BK so I don’t have to drape hoses over the top of the kettle when lautering and recirculating the hot liquor.

    I have yet to fully document my system, but you can read a bit about it here:

    http://www.whenyeastattack.com/2014/01/04/back-to-bloggin/

    • Just to add to what everyone else is saying – I too feel that fermentation temperature control is far more important than the equipment you use to make wort. I nice brew setup is wonderful to have, but if you have to choose between the two, fermentation should come first. I built this a few years back:

      http://www.whenyeastattack.com/gear-fermentation-chamber-build/

      and I’m happy with it. If I were building it today I’d probably use a temp controler from Auber instead of the Love Controller. The Auber devices are less expensive and their customer service is more geared towards consumers (vs. Dwyer who deal in invoices / contracts / etc.)

      I got by with a picnic cooler MLT and a camp burner for a while – and made some really good beer on that system. I love my new rig, but if I had to choose between it and the ability to control ferm temps, I’d choose the latter.

  5. First, let me say, I don’t have a Top Tier or any fancy kettle or mash tun. I use a cooler and a basic pot and burner. That being said, my beer turns out quite good (I think so and I’m told the same by others). The two things I would say have had the biggest impact are my external temperature controlled fridge for fermentation and my flask/stirplate (homemade, but works well) for yeast propagation. In my opinion, the right amount of yeast and temperature control will make the biggest difference in the results.

    The other piece of equipment that I think is with the investment, if there’s money in the budget, is a keg system. Life is better with beer on tap.

    And I agree with MD, you’re a lucky dude.

    -Matt

  6. Looking backward and prioritizing from what I use and the order in which I would spend money, if I had it to do all over: I like lagers and most of my batches are 10 gallons, so I use a fermentation chest freezer set at 50 F and a lagering chest freezer set at 34F, both with external digital thermostats (this way I can always have lagers at different stages of readiness). I also use fermenter wrap heaters (2) with external thermostats and thermowell lids on buckets for precise ale temp control. Those things are valuable items, because they allow me to control both lager and ale temperatures year round (combined with a couple wash tubs that I fill with water, if swamp cooling is necessary for ales). A decent grain mill (allowing you to dial in your crush) and Vittle Vaults large enough for the storage of full sacks of grain are nice, too.

    A mash tun is secondary in importance – I use a keggle with false bottom and valve (if I had it to do over again, I would skip the mounted thermometer and just use a Thermapen – it is more accurate and allows you to test the mash temp at many spots). Next would be the whirlpool immersion chiller with March pump (it chills so much faster than with merely the IC alone and it seems much easier to clean than the plate or CFC chillers). Electric bucket heaters with simple timers to set and heat strike water and sparge water (I batch sparge) – you can fill your mash tun and HLT the night before and set the timers, so you have hot strike water ready when you begin the day and hot sparge water by the time the mash is done. A refractometer for quick brew day readings and a lab grade final gravity hydrometer (I broke mine, so be careful – they are fragile – and I don’t mean Italian!)

    Last in line would be the brew stand. I use a hand-made 2 tier welded by a friend, but with the March pump, it is entirely unnecessary to have . A sturdy table for the Mash Tun and a few buckets to move wort from Mash Tun to boil kettle is how I would roll, even with the pump, so my pump is used only at the end of the boil for the recirc.

    Congrats in having the money to burn. My items have been accumulated over years – a Sabco or similar rig and the RIMS/HERMS systems all seem cool, but I can’t seem to justify it to SWMBO quite yet.

    • Thanks….do you find there is more heat loss in SS mash tuns than in coolers? If so, is it enough to worry about insulating the MT (I’d rather not if I don’t have too) — or can you just goose the burner under the MT a bit if the temp drops (if there’s a burner there)?

      • In my experience, I get less heat loss with my SS MT than with my cooler. There are several factors that will play a role in holding mash temps, but I have better results with SS.

        As for the heat, you can turn on the gas and recirculate with your new pump 😉 if you want to, but normally, I just let it ride. A few degree drop over an hour is not going to make much of a difference.

  7. To calm your nerves, you have to take this step by step. Going from a cooler MT setup to being able to spend $3500 is a HUGE step that most other people would have a problems with.

    Aside from fermentation control, I think the first step you need to take is upgrading your pots. In the long run, quality pots are going to last longer and allow for some wiggle room in the upgrading process. If you are looking at 10 gallon batches, I would do 20 gallon MT and Kettle with a 15 gallon HLT. It seems like a lot of extra space, but it will come in handy when you make a Barley Wine or an RIS.

    Second, and probably at the same time as the pots, would be a pump. For a 10 gallon batch, that is a lot of liquid to move by hand and even more dangerous when it is hot.

    As far as chilling goes, I went from immersion to whirlpool chiller to plate. I’m extremely happy with my plate chiller. I good back flush, a PBW soak, and a once a year bake with a flush and that thing works like a champ. I have never had any issues with my plate chiller.

    Since you have the money, you may also want to pick up some burners as well. I like the Blichmann. You can buy them as a floor burner to test and acclimate yourself to new equipment as you add the pieces and if you decide to go with a top tier, you can put them on.

    Getting to “your” system takes time (for me at least). As you add new pieces or upgrade, you learn little things about what you do and don’t like and make future purchases based on those experiences. If possible, spread that money out over some time and add piece by piece, learning and making note of how it is all working together. Only then can you really decide what you would like your setup to be like.

  8. Wow, that letter sounds like I wrote it. Except for the part about the wife letting me spend $3500.00. I am currently looking into the freezer with temp controller upgrade. I believe I can get away with this without too much collateral damage. Thanks, great info as always!

    • My wife would probably justify this purchase with “an idle mind is a playground for satan.” Also — she drinks the shit out of my beer.

  9. Thanks for the initial feedback and info on your individual systems. It really helps… I do have temp control fermentation — BUT, it’s done in a cooler with ice bottles going in and out all day (and I can only ferm one beer at a time). It is actually quite effective – even for lagers. I am a stay at home dad so I can do this — but as you can imagine it’s a huge pain in my face, and I long for the day I no longer need to do this step. Thus is chest freezer with temp control is certainly a great idea. I also do have a kegerator with dual taps I’ve been running for about 5 years. I would love to grab another for the ability to have a third keg and possibly a nitro blend. It is mainly the brewing gear itself I that desperatly needs an upgrade. My brewdays are much harder than they need to be given my current setup — and I’d really like to brew 10 gallons batches. I make what I think is above average beer – I have won a few medals locally, even though I’m not big into competitions. My issue is that I’ve been braking my back to do it the past 5 years.

    I guess let me throw this out there too — if $ was not an issue, would you:
    a) buy a Blichmann top tier, use some of the gear you have, buy the rest (e.g., couple new megapots / mash tun / pump / chiller, etc…as time goes on) *I am likely leaning this way…
    b) buy the complete Blickmann top tier with matching pots, pumps, chiller, etc…(I can’t see doing this…I’d feel like a douche)
    c) go with a complete morebeer sculpture (very very tempting…but just seems way too pricey when everything comes together, but still considering it…)
    http://morebeer.com/products/10-gallon-gravity-brewsculpture-deluxe.html
    *I realize there are other opions (e.g., rig up a sculpture, etc…) but these are kinda the options I’ve narrowed it down to.
    Thanks!
    kc

    • MoreBeer does make nice things. You could get the entire Blichmann setup for a couple thousand less than a MoreBeer sculpture (depending on model).

      To be honest, if I had the money, I would do option B. The Top Tier is modular and very configurable and their pots are awesome. Yes, there are other, less expensive options out there, but they make quality products and I love the items I have purchased from them.

      And stop saying you’d feel like a douche. The Blichmann line of products are not cheap, but they are quality, easy to use tools that can really help you up your game. I don’t want this to sound like a Blichmann plug, but that is what I would be buying if I had the money. You have to stop thinking about this being all shiny and feeling like a douche. This is a lifetime investment. Purchase the nice things now and you won’t have to worry about replacing it in the future.

      • I deserve that… I think I’ve seen too many youtube videos of guys with the complete blichmann rig set up next to their pool brewing their first beer. I will revisit this option.

  10. My opinion: because you already have a brewing system that makes above average beer, start from the end and build your system backwards. Get your kegging system in place first (which is sounds like you have already). Then get what you need to ferment the beer perfectly (including transferring into the kegs without picking up oxygen). My suggestion is an ultimate conical from morebeer ($1895). I really like the idea of going with an ultimate conical because it allows you to track the fermentation of your beer, effortlessly hold the proper fermentation temps, and cold crash your beer all in one vessel. Spend another 70 bucks on a counter pressure bottle filler.
    Then, wait a few more years to update your brewing system. Good luck and happy brewing.

  11. After a ton of research, mostly looking at Morebeer and Blichmann, I had the guys out at Brewstands.com weld me my system two years ago. I’m super happy with it. They FedEx’ed it to me in NH. When I picked it up at the FedEx center, three guys from the bowels of the warehouse came out to drool over it with me. I’m all gravity-fed, so I don’t have any pumps installed. But, as I’m getting older, I may want to add pumps to avoid lifting so much. Definitely worth a look.

  12. Much agreed on the chest freezer/temp control. My keeper has a collar with taps (a la the Billy Brew plan, which was easy to follow and not bollocks up if you’re mild to moderately handy) and a temp control for the chamber to cool things to serving/secondary temp. I have had good luck using a heater wrap on the carboy (I use the electric fermentation heater from NB . . . probably available everywhere), taping a probe from a second controller to the carboy with foam tape, and then wrapping the carboy in a layer of foil bubble wrap/radiant barrier. Been able to serve at 40-45 and keep a fermentation going at ~60 with that.

    Cheers!

  13. Just had something very similar happen to me (Wife opened up the floodgates). I bought the Top Tier system with 2 burners and a utility shelf, 8 Gallon MLT from homebrewstuff.com, 8 Gallon Megapot, and steelhead pump. I continue to use my immersion chiller because the thought of cleaning a plate chiller makes me a little nervous. I use a 10 gallon rubbermaid cooler as my hot water tank since I have a pump to move from the boil kettle. The thing to remember when building this unit is to mentally walk through your brewing process and ensure you cover all of your logistical needs. Enjoy the Top Tier system.

  14. Alot of folks have chimed in here but I thought I’d throw in my two cents. My system kinda resembles Bryan Adams Badass Brewery: indoor basement, powerful ventilation, natural gas, converted half barrels, two march pumps, plate chiller, ferm chamber, kegging.

    But anyway, If I were you, and I had the open checkbook, I would create a system identical to the Kal Electric Brewery. If you didn’t want to screw with the PID/ Temp Control stuff, you could just set it on a single tier stand and use burners.

    But spending the $70 on a Johnson Controller and a used chest freezer has worked out very well. And, pumps are the best thing that I ever, dont skimp on them.

  15. Have you looked into the Stout Kettles? I have a Stout BK and a MT on the way, They are way more solid than the Blichmann. The metal on the Blichmann is thin and dents, as well as the ports are not welded in (I have heard people say they can be fussy/leak ?). The Stout Kettles have cleaner connections (tri-clamps) than the treaded ones of More Beer and Blichmann. I do have a Blichmann burner and it works great.

    -Mike D (a different Mike D)

  16. I have recently gathered the material needed to brew in my basement. I got much of my material (countertop, range hood, exhaust, lighting,utility sinks, etc), from habitat for humanity. I used the 2 kettles I already had and silver soldered triclamp fittings for electric elements from brewhardware.com. I wanted to go simple for heating control, so I bought a DIY element control from stilldragon.com. The element controller is basically a rheostat knob. I will eventually upgrade to a PID controlled system, but I wanted to start cheap to see if I liked it. All I can say is that I love having all my brewing stuff in one area and don’t have to let the weather influence my day. I can still cap off my triclamp fittings and take my kettles outside if I want.
    PS – I stared with chest freezers off of craigslist for temp control.

  17. So what exactly does a “punk rock” fly sparge look like? I fly sparge as well but I’m pretty sure my method is no where near as effective as it should be. Basically I just try to keep the liquid level just above the grain bed and keep the flow fairly slow. Thinking about some sort of arm or actual system, but also thinking that might be overrated.

    • It’s very fast with three chords. (I’ve also heard it, or something very like it, described on forums as flatch sparging – a blend of fly and batch).

      For a few years after I started AG brewing, I used to use one of the rotating sparge arms, and I used to try to make the duration of the runoff last at least 45 minutes as proscribed by the literature of the day. Over time it got reduced to a hose gently draining sparge liquor right into the MLT and running off in about 20 minutes, give or take. On my current system, that gives me the same or better efficiency as I used to yield with an arm and a longer runoff time. YMMV as always.

      • So more of a Ramones kinda Punk Rock instead of a Rancid or Social D sort of thing. I have a tendency to get stuck by running to fast. I will have to try this new (to me) Flatch sparge, while rocking some old school.

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