Category Archives: Nerd Alert!

Mash Tun Insulation Comparisons

It is a hard truth that you will lose some temperature during your mash.  In my desire to go electric, I recently purchased the BREWER’S EDGE® MASH & BOIL from William’s Brewing.  Without actually even having brewed a batch of beer on it yet, I already got to work figuring out how to insulate it.  I tested various insulation methods on the Mash & Boil, but the relative comparisons should be valid on any mash tun.  A post with a better review of the Mash & Boil and my reasoning for wanting to go electric will come at a later date.

Nerd Alert!

Warning, the material in this post could get a bit nerdy.

WarningSign

Difficulty: level_5

Easy for you

Time Required:

Just a read for you fortunately.  It took me about a week to perform the experiments.

Background:

One of the advantages of an electric brewing system should be accurate temperature control.  With such a new system as the BREWER’S EDGE® MASH & BOIL, there is a lot of discussion about the 6 degree swing in temperature control.  This is pretty well contrasted with much more expensive systems as the Grainfather or PicoBrew Zymatic that may hold temperature within a degree or two.
While I do agree this could and should be safely regulated to a tighter temperature band on the Mash & Boil, I would at least propose that the first line of defense is just to insulate your mash tun so that accurate temperature control is not as critical.  In all reality, this is a turn-key electric brewing system for less than 1/3 the cost of the other systems on the market.
I initially started brewing with a 44 Qt kettle doing 5 gallon batches with a propane burner.  I did notice a decent amount of temperature loss, so I created a thermal wrap to use during the mash.  This was made using some cotton based insulation meant for water heaters.  I did not want to mess with fiberglass based insulation.  When I moved to a 62 Qt kettle and larger batches, I think the larger thermal mass helped maintain temperatures better, but I went ahead and used the same wrap anyway.
With the new system, it had such a different diameter to height ratio, I decided to start from new again.  Since we homebrewers are a thrifty bunch, it usually comes down to whatever we had on hand at the time we needed to create it.  This time for me, however, I had enough time to plan it out and (gasp) actually test it before using it.  As stated before, these results should be applicable to any mash tun that adheres to the laws of thermodynamics.

Insulation methods to test:

Baseline – Stock BREWER’S EDGE® MASH & BOIL kettle

  1. Described as double wall stainless construction
  2. Pros: you don’t have do do anything
  3. Cons: Hypothesis is that this will be the worst performer

Duck brand, cotton enhanced (Non-fiberglass)

  1. Was about $20 when I originally bought it and that is about the going rate at your local hardware store
  2. This was the insulation wrap from my 62Q Bayou Classic kettle
  3. Pros: Fairly inexpensive, relatively easy to find and no special handing required
  4. Cons: A bit dusty when cutting and not as tidy as the Reflectix

Reflectix

      1. It cost me $27 for a 25 foot roll at my local hardware store and is enough for 2 kettles worth
      2. 3 layers from the lip of the kettle to the top of the control box
      3. 3 layers loosely fit on the lid
      4. Pros: Easy to work with, clean look
      5. Cons: Really requires a semi-custom fit for it to perform well
      6. I’ll have a future post with cut dimensions so you can make your own

Cold weather sleeping bag

    1. No link, as these have been in my family for a LONG time
    2. Pros: super quick and most people have them on hand
    3. Cons: If you somehow damage it for brewing, you’ll probably get in trouble with your family

Baseline – Stock BREWER’S EDGE® MASH & BOIL kettle:

024-Insulation_Baseline
Nothing to see here… move along…

Duck brand, cotton enhanced:

024-Insulation_Cotton_Based
 This was the setup from my 62 Qt. Kettle and wasn’t a custom fit for the Mash & Boil.  I wrapped a bungee cord around it to keep it in place.

Reflectix:

024-Insulation_Reflectix
I custom tailored this wrap in 3 layers to fit this kettle.  I wanted to be sure it did a sufficient job of insulating before I finished the edges off with Reflectix tape, hence the reason for the blue painters tape.

Sleeping Bag:

I wrapped the sleeping bag all the way around the kettle once and then had enough length left over to do a sort of “comb over” on the top of it.  I finished it off by holding it on with the bungee cord.
024-Insulation_Sleeping_Bag 

Other methods considered (since I have seen them used), but not tested

  1. Fiberglass water heater insulation (I don’t want fiberglass anywhere near my beer)
  2. Single and double layers of Reflectix to understand the impact
  3. Custom molded expanding foam mold
  4. Red-Hooded sweatshirt

Setup and Test Methodology:

I have not modified the Mash & Boil in any way.  I just used the unit in stock condition and let the temperature controller do it’s thing to get the water up to temperature.  I used exactly 6 gallons of RO water for the experiment.
The kettle was placed in my basement storage room, which maintained a consistent 65 degF throughout the testing.
I had 3 temperature probes in the kettle.  One at 1″ from the bottom, then another 6″ up and another 12″ up.  This was a nice spread for 6 gallons of water.  In reporting temperatures in this experiment  I am only using the temperature sensor at the 6″ height.  The other sensors were a proof of concept for some future testing I plan to carry out.  I did see some stratification in the temperatures over time as the water cooled, but for consistency, I chose the 6″ probe.
To start the each test, I topped off to 6 gallons and set the Mash & Boil to 215 degF and let it ramp up.  As soon as the system was boiling, I turned it off and unplugged it from the wall.  Temperature measurements were taken approximately every minute.  I allowed the temperatures to cool to somewhere around 100 degF or as long as I could stand it.  Absolutely no stirring or opening of the lid occurred during the cool down.
The critical stage in the test was when the water cooled to 155 degF.  At that point, marker would be taken and then compared to the temperature exactly 60 minutes later.  This would be indicative of a typical mash temperature and the relative temperature loss during the mash.  Yes there will be different thermal capacities of a water/grist mix, so to reduce the experiment to just the insulation, straight RO water was used.

Results:

I normalized the cool down datasets so that the start time (t=0) was the same for each configuration at 200 degF.  As a visual reference aid, I placed a line at 155 degF to see what the curves look like near mash temperatures.  One can clearly see here that the baseline configuration with no additional insulation decreases in temperature the most rapidly.  The cotton based insulation is a bit better, then beat by the Reflectix and then the sleeping bag.
024-Mash Tun Insulation - Cooling
This small table places numerical values on the temperature drops through a simulated mash temperature window.  I calculated these temperature drops by taking the very last data point that was greater than 155 degF.  Then I grabbed the next data point that was +60 minutes from that initial point.  The values shown are then the differences between those two temperatures.
024-Mash Tun Insulation - Results Table
To glean even more from the data, I plotted the 4 different configurations only through the mash temperature window.  I normalized these curves so that the start time (t=0) was the same for each configuration at 155 degF The left axis shows the actual temperature reading, while the right axis shows the temperature drop, relative to the 155 degF starting reference temperature.  I also placed a helper line at 155 degF.
If you are to accept the belief that most of the conversion is done within the first 15 minutes of the mash, both the Reflectix and Sleeping Bag insulation methods show a drop of less than 1 degF within the first 15 minutes.
024-Mash Tun Insulation - Mash

Discussion:

My worst fear when starting this experiment would be that there would be little to no measurable difference in the insulation methods.  I was pleasantly surprised when processing the results, there were clear and measurable trends in the data.
None of the installations were optimized, but I think that unless you are really a stickler, the level of care i took on each installation is all the typical brewer would want to mess with on brew day.
Even though the clear winner in this showdown was the sleeping bag, as with almost all of my brewing equipment, I prefer to have it all dedicated to just brewing.  As such, I will go with the Reflectix jacket.  I am not going to pull the sleeping bags out of our closet on brew day.  Not to mention the eventual spillage of wet sticky grain outside of the kettle and the associated clean up of the sleeping bag.  I do plan to finish off the edges of my Reflectix setup so that when it does get messy, I can just spray it off with water.
I could possibly run another test with more layers of Reflectix, and I would suspect you would get closer to the performance of the sleeping bag.  However, in my case, I purchased a 25 foot roll and intend to make 2 sets worth out of the one roll, which gave me 3 layers worth for each.

Conclusion:

Everyone has their own selection criteria when choosing the best equipment for their needs, so I hope you’ll find the information reported in this post useful.

Disclaimer:

William’s Brewing has been set up as an affiliate site, so clicking on links to the Mash and Boil system on this site and in this post will give credit to fermware.com for the referral.  This post and any others, should not be taken as an endorsement of the BREWER’S EDGE® MASH & BOIL, it was simply the test bed for my experiments.  If you found this post helpful and do wish to purchase the BREWER’S EDGE® MASH & BOIL, please click on the links listed on this site and in this post.

Managing Your Brewing Schedule

In order to brew good beer, you need good preparation.  You’ve probably heard a coach, parent or teacher tell you the 5 P’s.
Prior
Preparation
Prevents
Poor
Performance
Or some variation on that theme…
I’ll show you how I plan out my brewing to make best use of my time, equipment and yeast.

Difficulty: level_2

This just requires a quick read and downloading of the Excel file or creating your own.  What you do from here is up to you.  You’ll be able to download my file at the end of this post.

Background:

I really love Gantt charts and how they can help you to be organized. Microsoft Project is either a really good or really bad tool to use (depending on who you ask). I actually like it for projects that I manage at work, but I don’t get into the fine details. I just use it for basic timelines, since it really helps me see the big picture. I started looking at using it for my fermentation schedules, but in brewing, your yeast are on a 24/7 schedule and I was finding all sorts of roadblocks in using 24 hour schedules in Project.

WarningSign

I ultimately decided to go back to my old trusted Excel spreadsheets for this task. This format has served me well for the last two years. I don’t claim that this is the ultimate way to do it, but it might at least serve as inspiration for someone else to create something grander.

Hover or click on each section to learn how I use this sheet.

Conclusions:

Like I said, I hope that this helps a fellow brewer out for mapping out their schedule or inspires another to build on this or create their own.  Happy Brewing!!

Download the spreadsheet by subscribing:

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Beer Description and Basics:

014-Beer Descriptions and Basics

These columns simply denote the batch number, size, name and the yeast to use.  I just added yeast this year so I can manage my yeast more efficiently with re-use and/or racking onto yeast cakes.

Yeast Color Codes:

014-Yeast color codes

I heard on one of the brewing podcasts that you can actually go 8+ generations with really healthy yeast, but since I’m not in any kind of production capacity, I’m usually at the third generation before I’ve reached the end of my step ups.

Dates:

014-Dates

Since I typically brew on Saturdays, I just chose the Saturday date preceding the next week as my column headers.  I then highlight the weekends where we were either out of town, that weekend was off limits to brewing or maybe a weekend for a school break for the kids.

Very Top Row:

014-Top_Row

I didn’t enter any beers for NHC this year, but I did enter some in the Indiana Brewers Cup.  I had a week highlighted for the due date for entries and then the actual awards banquet.

Gantt Chart:

014-Schedule

014-Schedule_Key

This is really the core of my schedule, since it helps manage the timing of your brews along with your equipment capacity. As you can see in my schedule, I typically brew two batches at a time (as mentioned in the ABOUT MY BREWING).  When pairs of three are shown, I’ve started messing with maxing out my kettles with 1.5x the grain bill and reducing the water a little during the mash and boil, so that I get 3 batches (~15 gallons for me) out of one brew session.
Since most of my fermentations just follow a similarly timed schedule, all I do is just cut & paste (CNTL-X & CNTL-V for those like-minded keyboard shortcut preferring keyboard jockeys).  You may notice that I plan to try out the condensed lagering schedule later this year that is getting some attention lately.  Here is a link to Brulosophy’s Lager Method.

Conclusions:

Like I said, I hope that this helps a fellow brewer out for mapping out their schedule or inspires another to build on this or create their own.  Happy Brewing!!

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Refrigerator Conversion Part 6 – Finishing up and other observations

Here are some final thoughts on my refrigerator conversion and other related observations.
If you missed the first post, start here: Part 1: Introduction
That post has a run down of most of the materials, tools and supplies needed for this project.

Difficulty: level_4

This project requires a few inexpensive special tools, but will most likely take an entire weekend, lots of improvisation, some thorough cleaning and the cost of the fridge takes it to level 4.

Posts for this Project:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Clean up
Part 3: Disassembly
Part 4: Door modification
Part 5: Shelf building
Part 6: Finishing up and other observations (this post)

Pros and Cons of other setups I’ve seen:

A/C units to cool down a fermentation chamber

I had serious reservations about the ability of a window air conditioner to maintain 34 degF in a cabinet of sufficient size in the middle of summer, let alone have enough capacity to lower the temperature of your fermenting beer at any reasonable speed

Dorm fridge powered fermentation chamber

I know this seems to be all the rage with fermentation chambers, but again, I didn’t see how it would be able to handle the cooling needs of a chamber of the size that I needed.

Gutting a full size fridge and re-installing those components in a customer insulated chamber

This was my “ultimate” plan from the beginning, but when I planned out the costs of the wood, the insulation and the FRP panels to line the inside, I was close to double or tripel (see what I did there) the cost of the fridge itself.  I then had the realization that if I found a fridge large enough, the capacity of the freezer alone would be enough to serve my needs.

Temperature Controller:

A temperature controller is a MUST for any fermentation cabinet.  My first controller for my keezer was the Ranco ETC-111000 single stage temperature controller.  I’ll have a post about my wiring at some point.

There are plenty of options out there.  For this lagering fridge as well as my other two converted dorm fridges, I actually made a simple Arduino based temperature controller.  There isn’t really anything novel about them, except that I wanted the challenge of designing my own system.  Below is a picture of the controller setup I’ve got on this lagering cabinet that I just built.  Basically the Arduino controller has a temperature probe inside the fridge to detect temperature and it cycles the fridge on and off through a relay box to maintain temperature.  The display on the box shows 3434.  It’s my simplified way of showing a setpoint of 34 degF and a cabinet temperature of 34 degF.

012 - Temperature Controller

Google search for Arduino Temperature Controller

 

I do however have a Raspberry Pi and am looking at going to the BrewPi setup or some derivative.  I really geek out on that stuff and it gets me really excited when I think about that possibility.  Here are some good links:

Official BrewPi

Home Brew Talk thread on using all the BrewPi code, but a standard Arduino

Small Tip for the Newbie

If you are new to temperature control, note that for best results, you need to set your fridge or freezer to maximum cold and let the temperature controller do the rest.  All of these temperature controllers basically power cycle the fridge/freezer on or off to control the temperature.

How to move a fridge from point A to point B:

You’ll hear many times that you can’t lay a fridge on it’s back or it will ruin the compressor.  This is half-true.  You can lay a fridge on it’s back to transport it, BUT when you get it to your house, you just need to get it upright so that the compressor fluid drains back into the compressor before it is powered on again.  I generally just get it to my garage, get it upright again and let it sit overnight.  I’ve done this 4 times with no dead fridges.

As an FYI, we’ve got a 2005 Honda Odyssey and with the middle seats taken out and the back seats folded into the floor, it has fit all 4 of those fridges inside with the tailgate all the way closed.  If you have a trailer, more power to you.

Oh, another important tip.  Remove all of the shelves from the fridge before laying it on it’s side.  All of those things are meant for gravity to hold them in place and when you put the fridge on it’s back, they all usually fall out of their slots.

What I tried to do with another fridge (drilling FAIL):

I was always under the impression that every important mechanical component was either at the back or underneath.  I was proven wrong one time when attempting to install a draw catch latch to a fridge.  I started drilling the pilot hole in the side of the fridge for the screws and the psssssssshhhhhh of the magic refrigerant come blowing out.  RIP fridge.

Simplified explanation of how a refrigerator works:

A refrigerator is simply a mechanical system that removes heat from an insulated cabinet.  That’s as far as I’m going with that.

You may also hear someone tell you that a refrigerator won’t work in a garage.  The reason behind this is that when the ambient temperature gets below the internal temperature of the freezer or close to it, the temperature difference gets closer to zero (T_ambient – T_freezer).  An A/C compressor or refrigerator compressor system relies on a temperature difference to function, so if you take away this difference, it won’t function properly.

Having said that, we live in central Indiana and have 3 refrigerators and one deep freezer in our garage.  We only have a problem with our primary overflow fridge with the ice maker in deep winter, where it doesn’t produce enough ice.  Except during long cold spells (where it can get close to freezing), our garage is usually about 55 degrees in the areas directly adjacent to a living space and in our bump out (furthest away) it is maybe low 40’s.

The more unknown part is that almost all top and bottom refrigerators are essentially a freezer on top that does all the work and bleeds cold air to the refrigerator compartment.  If you get to tearing one apart, you’ll see this.  Also if you’ve ever had a fridge with weak magnetic seals, you may notice that when you slam one of the doors, the other one pops open.  That’s because they are linked.

That’s all folks…Thanks for reading!

 

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