Figuring Out Which Bits Go Where (a.k.a. Kit Creation, Part 2)

**April 2014 note: This post is so long that I needed a shower and a nap after re-reading it.  Too late for some; but for newcomers, consider yourselves warned…**

Kitting-up for homebrewing is like trying to understand how sex works before you actually do it.  You can collect together all the parts, and even have a vague understanding of where they’re supposed to go – but until you actually do it for the first time, you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.  It’s all flailing arms and awkward tongues.

But after that first clumsy crack at coitus, you’re an overnight pro: you figure out that that goes there, and that you do this with that thing.  Your performance may not be worthy of an episode of Game of Thrones, but it’s at least an approximation; and the end result is, arguably, the same – regardless of points for style.

To bring this analogy home to roost, I’m earnestly hoping (slash praying) that the same rule-of-thumb applies to the pile of stuff that is accumulating in the corner of my garage.  ‘Cos right now, it just looks like a bunch of flailing arms.


Over the past few weeks I’ve been putting my money where my mouth is – and actually buying the stuff I’m going to need to pull this Brew Hui quest off.  Those playing at home (ha!) will recall (ha! ha!) that I’ve got $400 to spend – which would easily buy me this if New Zealand was the 51st U.S. State.  Or if Northern Brewer shipped to New Zealand.  And shipping was free.

Since none of those things are true, there’s a good chance that I’m living in Dream Land by believing I can put together something that resembles an all-grain brewery for Four Hundred Bucks.  But as Randy Pausch said, brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something; and it’s pretty clear that to scale this particular brick wall, I’m going to have to improvise.

In an ideal homebrewing setup, you should really have three brewing vessels at your disposal: 1) a hot liquor tank (basically the thing that holds hot water for use later… ‘liquor’ just means ‘water’ in this case);  2) a mash tun (where the grain is steeped in hot-ish water to extract all the sugars); and 3) a brew kettle, where all the delicious ‘wort’ (the sugar-water that comes out of the mash tun) can be boiled-up with hops, crash-cooled and then biffed into a fermenter with some yeast.  Wait two weeks, and Bingo-Bango, you’ve got beer.

The Hot Liquor Tank

As far as the hot liquor tank is concerned, I reckon I might be able to make-do with a pretty huckery one – i.e. an old chilly bin (or ‘chully bun’, to those readers from West Auckland) that is sitting un-used in my garage.  I reckon that it will work just fine, provided I employ a sparging technique called ‘batch sparging’ – a process which involves draining the mash tun after an hour or so, and then filling it up with water again to extract the last of the sugars (which differs from its sister process, called ‘continuous sparging’, a process more ‘efficient’ but commensurately more complicated).

So by not having to spend my shekels on a hot liquor tank, I’m left with just two vessels that I need to acquire – the mash tun and the brew kettle.

The Mash Tun

The mash tun should be an insulated vessel – since it needs to be able to maintain the temperature of your mash for around an hour, so that the grain can be transformed into a sticky, fermentable state.  For this reason, brewers often use a chilly bin – since the insulated walls are perfect for keeping that temperature nice and steady.  Square bins are often used – but it’s been said (by people like The Homebrew Messiah John Palmer) that round vessels are the best option for extracting the most ‘efficiency’ from your brew as possible.

(Here, ‘efficiency’ refers to the percentage of the available sugars that were extracted from the grain – and from what I gather, it’s often used as a metric for the quality of a brewing setup.  Apparently 75% efficiency is pretty-darn outstanding – but as with my High School years, I think I’ll be happy with a C-Minus in this regard).

While an insulated round vessel (like a water cooler) would be ideal, I realised pretty early-on that I just don’t have the funds to grab one – the large ones that are suitable for brewing are relatively rare in New Zealand, and as such can cost north of $150 (to either buy locally or import).  And with that realisation came my first Dumb Idea of the Brew Hui project.

To explain the Dumb Idea, I need to jump ahead and talk about the brew kettle.

The Brew Kettle

The kettle is easy: it’s just a big ol’ stock pot, sizeable enough to take the complete volume of wort and then some (since boiling liquid obviously results in evaporation).  The best brew kettles have a nice thick wall, because this helps the temperature to remain consistent and prevents ‘hot-spots’ from developing (which could cause scalding of the wort during the boil, and introduce all kinds of burnt flavours – think: Yeastie Boys Rex Attitude, but y’know, gross).

Of course, the best brew kettles (of a decent size) are commensurately expensive – with the cheapest that I could find being around $170.  Not to harp-on about it – but I just don’t have that kind of money.  Choosing the cheaper alternative (which I did) involved a big step-down in the thickness of the stainless steel – from around 8mm down to 0.8mm.  Since my kettle is made of ten-times thinner material than the decent kettles, I’m going to have to be acutely aware of the associated problems and keep a vigilant eye on the boil.  But at $50 for a 45L kettle (from TradeMe, of course), I did save myself a wad of cash.

Which brings us back to the mash tun.

Erm…The Mash Tun, Again

The way I figured it (I should really stop figurin’; it only ends in turmoil), a stock pot would make a pretty-damn-good mash tun.  For a start, it’s round; and while it’s not insulated, I’ve got a big pile of blankets that I could use to compensate for the lack of insulation.  Besides, I once saw a picture of Kelly Ryan stirring mash in a re-commissioned keg that was encased in almost-identical blankets – and he’s one of the Four Horseman of the Hopocalypse.  So if it’s good enough for Kelly, then it’s good enough for me.

(**Casually ignores fact that Kelly is actually an accomplished brewer, not a noob jackass**)

So rather than just getting one 45L stock pot to act as a brew kettle, I put in an order for two – and spent the entire car ride over to the pick-up address congratulating myself on being the planniest planner in all of Planville.

Unfortunately, the parade was cut-short within seconds of seeing the pots – because as it turns out, 0.8mm is reeeeeeallllly thin.  I mean tinfoil thin.  As I walked my brew kettle and soon-to-be mash tun into their new home in my garage – trying desperately not to dent them by looking at them the wrong way – my wife caught my forlorn expression and came to see what was wrong.  I put on a brave face, even mentioning that the thin vessel wall would make it super-easy to drill through and install the valve I’d need to drain wort from the mash tun into the brew kettle (Bright Side of Life, etc).  But deep-down, I realised that I was actively cutting a corner that I probably shouldn’t have.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt from reading about guys like Stu McKinlay, Luke Nicholas and Jo Wood, it’s that you don’t create amazing beers by cutting corners.  Compromise is the enemy of good beer; it’s the reason that a loyal Lion Red drinker of some-dozen years couldn’t tell you what it actually tastes like.  But under the circumstances – i.e. $400 to spend, and a whole lot of equipment to buy – I really don’t see that I had any other alternative.

(Other than Brew-In-A-Bag.  But no matter what anyone says, it’s just not the same…)

In the next post, I’ll cover much-rosier matters – because I have the enviable privilege of securing the services of my exceptionally-talented carpenter (and fit-as-a-fiddle Octogenarian) Papa to help me make a mash ‘paddle’.  As a result of Papa’s involvement, I have no doubt that the paddle – basically a big stirring spoon for grain – will be the most professionally-built piece of kit in my arsenal.

Of course, we’ll share a beer after the hard work is done – and I seriously can’t wait.  It’s true, you know: good beer – or the pursuit of it – really does bring people together.

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