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 Therminator and Thrumometer

The Blichmann Therminator was the second investment I made in a Blichmann product, but I’d say it was the most valuable and revolutionary for my brewing process.  For years I used an immersion chiller, and for many of those the chiller was undersized for the 10 gallon batches I was brewing.  The difference was mind-blowing.  I’ll say this:  If you only buy one fancy-schmancy brewing gadget for yourself, make this the one.

The Therminator is a plate chiller.  Cold water circulates across one side of the plates and the hot wort counter-flows across the other side of the plates.  The result is a very effective heat exchanger that can easily cool 11 gallons of hot wort down to 68 degrees F in less than ten minutes and can leave you with all the hot water you need for cleaning up.

When I bought mine, I didn’t choose to include the optional connection accessories, but if I had to do it again I would.  The Blichmann Quick Connectors, which I discussed in another post, are awesome for connecting hoses from the boil kettle to the chiller, and from the chiller to the fermenter.  I’ve never used the back-flush adapter, but I’m not really sure how useful it is.  The spray nozzle on my garden hose fits right over the wort in/out ports, so I just hose it out a few times in each direction, drain it, and store it for the next use.

A regular garden hose will easily connect to the water flowing out of the chiller, but for the flow in it wasn’t as commonsensical.  I went to the local hardware store and bought an adapter that has a female garden hose connection on both sides, each able to rotate independently of the other.  I tighten it on to the chiller first, then connect the hose coming from hose bib in the garage.  If the hot wort is flowing through the chiller at a good clip, you’ll get some extremely hot water that I collect for soaking and rinsing parts and tubes.

I live in an area where the ground water temperature averages about 56 degrees F over the course of the year, which contributes to the efficiency of my system.  The Therminator is so efficient, however, that anyone will benefit. There are relatively easy ways to augment the chilling process to get down to your target, even in places where ground water is much higher in temperature.

You can sanitize the Therminator in one of two ways: Use a sanitizing solution such as StarSan, or boil it in a pot of water.  Originally I soaked mine in StarSan or pumped StarSan through it, but I read somewhere that acid solutions will erode the metals over time.  Accurate or not, that seems reasonable to me, so I’ve gone to boiling The Therminator for at least 15 minutes in my original (now spare) five-gallon boil kettle.  It costs a bit in propane, but I think it will help extend the life of the Therminator.

I used the chiller with a gravity feed for a dozen or so batches and it worked wonderfully.  Because the flow rate drops as the boil kettle drains, I had to regularly alter the cold water flow to maintain the temperature going into the fermenter, but that was really the only drawback.  I will say, though, I really appreciate how a pump accelerates the process and allows me to ignore the cold water flow.

I use whole hops almost exclusively, and in a few situations I’ve had large hop chunks wedge themselves in the chiller, restricting the flow.  Most have come out by “blowing it out” using a garden hose with a trigger nozzle.  There has only been one time where nothing I tried cleared the blockage, including a half-assed attempt to use my air compressor.  Eventually I decided to boil it like I was sanitizing it.  As the water started to boil, the hop plug blew out (not violently, but be careful if you try this!) and I was once again able to run liquids through it.

The Blichmann Thrumometer is a very straightforward product: A solid tube of aluminum with an embedded liquid crystal thermometer.  As wort flows through the tube, the thermometer changes color quickly relative to the temperature of the flow.  A 3/8 inch tube fits nicely over each end, with or without clamps.  It came as a surprise to me that Blichmann offers only this one small bore, but it in retrospect it really hasn’t been an issue.

To sanitize, I soak mine in a StarSan solution for at least five minutes.  I’ve dedicated tubing to the Thrumometer, so I just run the lot into a bucket of sanitizer right before flame out and it’s ready when it’s time to chill.  One end of the tubing connects to a Blichmann 3/8 in. 90 degree connector screwed on to “wort out” of The Therminator, and the other end goes into the fermenter.

The Therminator and Thrumometer are solid investments.  I expect that I’ll have to replace the Thrumometer in time, but it’s already lasted a couple of years and made filling the fermenter much easier.  The Therminator has unquestionably saved me countless hours of time and gallons of water.  I can’t think of a better combination for making a brew day more efficient.

Blichmann Quick Connectors, Auto Sparge and Hop Blocker

I know–it looks like this blog is really just a front for Blichmann Engineering’s PR department, but that’s certainly not the case. I’m writing about the things I’m doing right now, and what I’m doing happens to revolve around Blichmann equipment.  I bought a lot of it recently, and I’m still working through the kinks.

In my previous post, I went over my experiences with the Tower of Power.  I specifically didn’t mention the other Blichmann products that I was using because I wanted to talk about them separately.  The Quick Connectors, Auto Sparge, and Hop Blocker are under review today.

Blichmann Quickconnect Washer

There’s nothing particularly complicated about the Quick Connectors.  Each connector comes with the “nut”, which is a standard 1/2″ female NPT connection.  The outside of the nut, however, is rubberized and ridged, making them comfortable to handle even when hot.  No tools are required to screw them on or off–hand tightening is sufficient.  To keep the connections leak-free, there is a rubber o-ring, or washer, on the inside of the nut.  One of the best benefits of thisdesign, in my opinion, is that it has eliminated my need for teflon tape.  No more scraping off the old crap for cleaning!

The rest of the connector is also stainless.  1/2″ and 3/8″ straight hose barbs, 90-degree elbow options, and a 3/8″ male NPT flare are all available.  I bought a half-dozen of the 1/2″ hose barbs and one of the 3/8″ flares.  Prior to this purchase, I had been using connectors bought from the local hardware store.  They did their job, but they required tools, teflon tape, and were made out of brass, none of which were ideal.

The difference was immediately noticeable: The Quick Connectors can be permanently attached to their hoses because they allow the nut to rotate independently of the hose barb.  The whole kit and caboodle can go into the sanitizing solution without having to fish the connectors off the bottom of the bucket or sanitize them in a different container.

The 3/8″ flare is a huge bonus for beer line cleaning.  I can quickly attach the connector to the pump (did I mention without teflon tape?) and equally quickly attach my beer lines for their 15 minute BLC bath.

The Auto Sparge is the Blichmann answer for simplified sparging.  It mounts to the mash tun through a hole drilled just under the rim of the vessel.  A 1/2″ male NPT connection on the outside of the mash tun allows you to connect the hot liquor tank and/or a recirculation from the mash (see my post about the Tower of Power).  On the inside of the mash tun there is a large adjustable float and a silicon outlet tube that runs through another, smaller float.

The large float is fundamentally the same thing as what you find in your toilet tank–it’s a hollow plastic ball attached to a stainless rod and a brass valve.  When the float comes up, the flow from the outside is restricted.  When it comes down, the flow increases.  Used in conjunction with a flow meter, the Auto Sparge can make the sparging process almost completely touchless, as the flow into the mash tun will automatically match the flow going out.

One complaint about this design is that, when combined with the location of the hole it’s mounted to, there are limitations to how low the volume of the mash can be before the Auto Sparge isn’t effective or efficient anymore.  The issue might be mitigated by a longer stainless rod, but I haven’t yet tried that.

The outlet tube has not worked ideally for me, but I’ve been using a 20 gallon mash tun to brew 11 gallon batches of beer.  With a 15 gallon mash tun, it might work perfectly.  As I’ve used it, the flow tends to be too fast and forceful to leave the top of the grain bed undisturbed.  It creates a crater and a tight recirculation flow that doesn’t really disburse the heated liquid efficiently.  I found myself tending to the top of the grain bed to encourage the flow to be more consistent throughout.  Also, the outlet tube has gotten clogged where it’s constricted by the small float that keeps it on top of the grain bed.

The Hop Blocker is not my favorite piece of equipment, but I’ve been using it regularly.  It looks something like a large tin can with large holes drilled into it from the midline-up, and smaller holes from the midline-down.  It also has a stainless steel “wrap” that can slide up and down the unit via a hook that’s exposed as the kettle drains.

Blichmann says the Hop Blocker is made for filtering pellet hops, and its performance is largely dependent upon whirlpooling to isolate hop material and trub in the center of the kettle before you start the runoff.  As the liquid level in the kettle goes down, you slide the wrap up, exposing the smaller holes at the bottom.  I don’t typically use pellets, but when I do I use a filter bag, so this purchase was not necessarily a logical one for me.  My hope was that it would work even better with whole hops, but that hasn’t been the case.

Over the course of a couple of brewing sessions, in addition to the Hop Blocker, I’ve gone back to stuffing a copper or stainless mesh, like a pot scrubber, under the drain tube as a pre-filter.  This method has proven to keep out most of the larger hop material without having to use a full false bottom.

One of the things I like about Blichmann is that they make equipment that is obviously designed for a specific purpose.  They’ve put thought into their designs, whose form follows their function.  I haven’t even mentioned their ball valves, which are stainless and can be fully disassembled for thorough cleaning.  I had no idea how gunky a ball valve could get until I took one apart after a few uses.