Perfection in Five

I’ve been slowly progressing through what I call my “Perfection in Five” series. I haven’t been brewing the same recipes often enough to really dial them in.  By that I mean I haven’t defined a repeatable recipe and process.  Perfection in Five challenges me to produce one perfected recipe within five brewing sessions.

For years I’ve been brewing 10 gallon batches per session.  As I’m sure I’ve said before, it takes the same amount of time to brew five gallons as it does 10, so why not brew 10?  If I make a good beer, I want to drink it and I want other people to try it, so it works out well.  But if I don’t think the beer is good… well… it sticks around too long and becomes a burden.  Since Perfection in Five is an experiment that was meant to be completed quickly, I didn’t want a bunch of beer hanging around, so I decided that five gallon batches made the most sense.

Except I disposed of all of my “small batch” equipment when making room for my new equipment.

I’ve invested in a system where even a 10 gallon batch is small, so trying to produce five gallons really is asking too much.  I understand now that I want the option to scale back, so I decided to buy an industrial 10 gallon Igloo cooler for a mash tun.  This cooler is designed to keep water cold for a few days at a time, which tickles my fancy for mashing in a near-freezing garage.  My assumption is that it will do just as good of a job insulating a hot mash as it would a cold drink.  Yes, temperature control is a fetish.

I wanted another control for this experiment to be the ingredients, so I put together the recipe and calculated how much of everything I would need to produce five 5-gallon batches.  I gathered up enough grain and hops so that every run of my experiment would use the same batches of those ingredients.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough yeast available at my LHBS, so the control is slightly less controlled in that I will be using two different batches of the same yeast.

This is going to be fun for me, and it’s a great time of year to brew the German pils style I’m trying to duplicate with this recipe.

Blichmann Boilermaker Kettles

Boilermaker kettles are another recent addition to my pilot system.  The only models I don’t now own are the 10 and 15 gallon models (and a 15 gallon might be on my list in the near future).  At first I was disappointed with the gauge of the stainless steel used.  For cooking, I appreciate a “sandwich” bottom that consists of alternating layers of stainless and copper that help even out heat distribution.  For the price paid that’s what I expected, but it’s not an option with Blichmann.  So far, though, I haven’t seen any evidence I should miss it.  I’ve experienced no scorching or temperature control problems.

Each kettle comes with a lid, a Blichmann Brewmometer, a port for the thermometer, a Blichmann ball valve, a drain tube, a graduated sight glass protected by a metal surround, a cleaning tool for the sight glass, two allen wrenches for maintenance, and a metal heat deflector (to keep the thermometer cool).

The graduations for the sight glass are actually stamped into one side of the metal protector.  For better visibility, I’d like to see them stamped onto both sides, because on more than one occasion I’ve had to twist and contort to sight my liquid levels.  I have not yet tested the accuracy of these graduations, but I have reason to believe that they are not as accurate as I’d hope.  The cleaning tool for the sight glass is thoughtfully included, as is the allen wrench you’ll need to open the tube.

Update:  I performed an evaporation test with the 20 gallon kettle and as I filled it gallon by gallon, I watched how the water level compared to the graduations stamped into the sight glass surround.  Much to my surprise, it was very accurate!  Half-full at ten gallons the level of the meniscus was only slightly off from the graduation marker. Later I poured the leftover water into a 30 gallon kettle and the results were just as accurate.  Way to go, Blichmann!

Speaking of thoughtful, the kettle’s handles are mounted so that the ball valve and thermometer are not in your way while you’re carrying it.  The lid can hang conveniently on one of the handles, so it’s out of your way but still easy to grab when it’s time to lid up.

The Brewmometer seems to be well made and is graduated with markings that are specific to the brewing process (protein rest, mash, sparge, etc.).  It can be angled for easy viewing from different positions, but I’ve found that the process of adjusting the angle can also adjust the reading.  Truth be told, I don’t rely on these thermometers for more than just a rough swag.  As a matter of fact, I’ve removed them from some of my kettles and installed a Brewmometer plug to take its place.  You can easily calibrate these thermometers, and there’s no good reason not to use them except that I’m a data whore who likes my temps in digital, and preferably log-able, form.

An option when ordering is to have a hole drilled for the Auto Sparge, another Blichmann product I’ll discuss in a different post.  If you own a step drill bit of the right size, paying them to drill the hole is completely unnecessary, and in retrospect, I do wish I’d just bought a bit instead of paying for the service.  When you place your order, you can select one of six different locations around the perimeter of the pot for the hole.

The false bottom is  a single stainless sheet that’s been stamped to create thin, bi-plane, semi-circular slots through which the sweet wort can drain.  It has three pegs welded to the underside to keep it propped up off the bottom, and works in conjunction with the stepped design of the bottom of the kettle.  It’s been mostly effective for barley, but it seemed to be less so for wheat and rice hulls which kept coming out in circulation.  They can be kind of a pain to clean if you have to scrub them by hand because of the dozens of coin-sized surfaces to tend to.

You can buy a false bottom for any kettle size, but you really only need to buy one for your mash tun because they are not recommended for the boil kettle.  For the boil, Blichmann suggests using their Hop Blocker, which I will also discuss in a future post.

As with many mash tuns, the drain valve sits far above the actual bottom of the kettle, so if you don’t want to leave a couple gallons of liquid behind, you need a drain tube to get you down to just off the bottom.  The Blichmann tube works as two pieces: The weldless port that’s mounted into the hole at the bottom of the kettle, and the tube that inserts into it.  I was super-impressed with how effective it is, as only a quart is left behind in an ideal drainage situation.  To work effectively, though, you must maintain a siphon into the next vessel.

The truth is, the Boilermaker kettles don’t strike me as Blichmann’s best products.  They are designed intelligently and work well, I’m just not sure they’re worth the price. If you already have metal drill bits and are comfortable using them to create holes in a stainless kettle, you can probably get similar pots and weldless connections for less money.

What I think makes these worth their cost is Blichmann’s commitment to the quality of its products.  When I found that one of my kettles came with a welding flaw, I sent pics to Blichmann support and they responded with a replacement kettle and a pre-paid return label.  It cost me nothing to return and left me with no down time waiting for a replacement.

I’ve said it before: Blichmann products are not cheap to buy, but their quality and customer service are worth the price.  I’ve gotten nothing but great support from them when I’ve asked for it.  John Blichmann himself has answered almost all of my emails personally.  To me, there is value when the owner of a company takes the time to interact with his customers.