Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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Brewing Beer – Building your home brewery parts list

Well we have arrived at an interesting question of gas or propane..no...not the same thing.

Propane is the usual source of heat for home breweries. No installation required. Just buy a burner — they usually come with a hose and regulator — and pick up a tank at the nearest home goods store. Propane burners are expensive to operate, however. If your home has natural gas, you should look into the possibility of retrofitting your burner with a natural gas orifice and tapping into your natural gas line. This is pretty straightforward if you brew in the garage and your water heater is located there or in an adjacent utility room.

The biggest problem with propane is the need for ventilation. Carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke, and it’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that propane burners can be safely used only outdoors. If you put your brewery in a garage or shed, then at a minimum the doors and windows need to be fully open when the burner is running. In some sheds this still might not be enough. A good-sized fan to pull air through the brewery space is a wise investment.

I have read stories of homebrewers who have managed to brew with propane indoors without killing themselves, but they all seem to have taken extraordinary measures to ensure adequate ventilation (and perhaps had some extraordinary luck as well). I strongly caution AGAINST such a setup.

Gas kitchen stoves are a reasonable alternative to propane for a 5-gallon brewery; in my view, if indoor brewing is feasible otherwise, then there is every reason to take advantage of your gas stove. It may be possible to set the kettle over two burners, which almost doubles the heat and makes for a vigorous boil.

Now that we have the fuel part out of the way lets get down to it.

Equipment for the Draft Beer System

As promised, I am starting with the thing most homebrewers think of last. Build your draft beer system first, and you will be happy you did

YOUR SHOPPING LIST SHOULD READ:

  1. Refrigerator
  2. CO2 cylinder
  3. 5-gallon stainless steel premix soda kegs, often called Cornelius kegs, or Cornies
  4. CO2 gas pressure regulator, usually just called a regulator
  5. Gas fittings and hoses
  6. Beer fittings and hoses
  7. Beer faucet(s)

1. Refrigerator

The usual choice for a refrigerator is a moderately sized, conventional design with the freezer mounted above the refrigerator section, which is better for beer because it gives more square feet of floor space. This type of refrigerator will hold at least four kegs, or two kegs plus a pail or carboy.

It is a good idea to remove the vegetable bins and make a sturdier floor with some lumber and plywood. The other modification you need to make is to drill a hole in one side or the other for the gas hose to pass through. Measure the gas hose diameter carefully and try to make the hole just big enough. The hole should be up fairly high on the wall, and toward the front. Drill a pilot hole first — ½ inch is good. Then drill the hole to size using a step bit on the outside (if it is sheet metal) and a Forstner bit on the inside (which is almost certainly plastic).

I think I can hear some objections, and, yes, there is peril here. If at all possible, you need to find service diagrams for your refrigerator and make sure that the refrigerant (Freon) lines do not run in the side wall of your appliance. If they do, be sure to figure out exactly where (the manufacturer’s website should help). In most refrigerators the Freon runs in the back, but there are lots of exceptions. I was unable to find drawings for my secondhand Hotpoint, and, after a lot of fear and procrastination, I decided to give it a shot anyway. I just pierced the outer skin with the pilot bit and then poked around with it trying to feel for any obstacles. I lucked out, finding none, but obviously there are no guarantees. The alternative is to keep the gas cylinder inside the refrigerator, which is a waste of precious cold space.

Many homebrewers use a chest freezer with an auxiliary thermostat for their second, or even their first, refrigerator. These provide more bang for the buck (i.e., more keg capacity for the price).

For lager brewing, you need a dedicated second refrigerator fitted with an auxiliary thermostat. The built-in unit cannot be set much higher than 40°F, and primary fermentation temperatures for lager are normally 46 to 53°F. There are several types of thermostats available from homebrew supply shops, one of the cheapest being the classic Johnson Controls dial unit. The newer digital models, although more expensive, are much easier to work with, especially at the beginning.

2. CO2 Cylinder

The carbon dioxide cylinder is a straightforward item. You can get nice shiny aluminum ones from your local welding or homebrew supply shop, or you can save a little by getting a reconditioned steel model on the Internet. Aluminum is preferable because of the weight. A more important decision is the size. I think a 10-pounder is about as big as you will want to carry any distance.

3. CO2 Gas Pressure Regulator

The regulator is an important piece of gear, so it is worth getting a decent one. Secondhand is fine, but make sure you get a model made for carbon dioxide. Every type of gas has its own cylinder with its own fittings, and while adapters are available, by the time you have bought an adapter and changed out the gauges for ones with a suitable pressure range, you will not be ahead in money.  A word of caution to this tale. 1. Watch your feet and shins when you carry your cylinder. 2. Never leave a CO2 cylinder in a car in the sun. Even in mild weather, it can get hot enough to elevate the internal pressure and blow the safety valve. You’ll find out when you open the door. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Be sure your regulator is fitted with a hose nipple, a shutoff valve, and a check valve. The latter is a one-way valve that serves as the last line of defense should beer back up into the gas line. It is possible to clean out and rebuild a soaked regulator, but it’s a hassle and the parts are not widely available. Your draft beer system will be down while you wait for them. The best source I know of is Foxx Equipment in Kansas City, but they do not sell retail. You can find the right kit in their online catalog and have your local shop order it for you.

Speaking of gauges, I think dual-gauge regulators are worth the extra cost. The second gauge reads the primary side pressure, that is, the pressure in the cylinder, which gives you a warning when the gas is getting low. Be aware, though, that carbon dioxide is held in liquid form. Only when the cylinder is nearly empty does the last of the liquid evaporate, and only then does the pressure begin to drop. Bottom line: When you see the needle drop out of the green zone, don’t procrastinate. Get your cylinder down to the welders’ supply or wherever you refill right away.

4. 5-Gallon Stainless Steel Soda Kegs

Soda kegs are widely available at a great variety of prices. Some Internet vendors offer them for half the price you will see in most homebrew supply stores. Generally the cheapest ones have no guarantee, or at most the seller may claim to have pressure-tested it. On the other hand, if you decide to pay more for a reconditioned unit, find out what that word means. The usual process is to replace the plug O-rings (the plugs are the fittings that the gas and liquid couplers fit on to) and the large O-ring that seals the lid. The more expensive pieces — the poppet valves in the plugs, and the pressure relief valve in the lid — usually are not replaced unless they leak. Short of buying new, which is very expensive, any choice you make is something of a gamble.

The two styles of kegs are pin-lock and ball-lock, so called for the way the coupler attaches to the plug. They are also called Coke and Pepsi kegs, because Coca-Cola uses the pin-lock style, while everybody else, including Pepsi-Cola, uses the ball-lock. I prefer the pin-lock, but they are much harder to find on the used market and often command higher prices. Ball-lock kegs are made by several companies, and the key working parts, including the plugs and poppet valves, are not interchangeable between different makers. So if you buy used kegs and find that one has a leak, be sure to take the defective part to the homebrew supply shop with you to match it.

Some beginning brewers worry about their beer being tainted by the “soda-pop smell” of the keg. In practice, a good overnight soak in a cleaning solution (I use Five Star PBW at 3 ounces per 5 gallons), followed by a thorough rinse, is all I have found necessary to deal with any slight residual odor. It’s only the rubber parts that can absorb odors, and there is not much rubber in a keg. The biggest piece by far is the large lid O-ring, which in a worst-case scenario is not that expensive to replace.

5. Gas Fittings and Hoses

Gas fittings, hoses, and couplers are fairly easy to find; the same places that sell cylinders and regulators carry them. They can get expensive, especially if you go in for brass or stainless quick-disconnects. I recommend the plastic disconnects for those places where you feel they would be helpful.

I put it together so that I could disconnect my cylinder and use it in other locations without having to open the refrigerator and disconnect the gas line from the keg. Note that the gas line is clear, thick-walled vinyl. I prefer a clear gas line because, if I ever screw up and get beer in the line, I want to be able to see it. However, the thin-walled stuff usually found at hardware stores and homebrew supply places is not sturdy enough for gas. The hose at welding supply places is usually colored. If you want clear, you may have to have some ordered from Foxx or another beverage specialist.

6. Beer Faucet and Hoses

The beer faucet and dispense line is pretty simple also. You should attach 5 to 6 feet of 316-inch-inside-diameter vinyl tubing to your liquid coupler. As with gas hose, you need the thick-walled stuff — 716-inch outside-diameter in this case. This will give the correct flow rate and balance for dispensing your beer without foaming. Gas pressure on the keg should be 12 to 15 PSI. Less is not better.

One problem with 316-inch line is that it is hard to push over the ¼-inch hose barbs found on many couplers. The easiest way to get it to fit is to (1) soak the end of the vinyl tubing in very hot water — at least 140°F; and (2) wipe the hose barb with a thin coating of Petrol-Gel, which is a sanitary food-grade petroleum jelly. Then just push them together. You probably won’t need a hose clamp, but I suggest one for peace of mind. For other hose-barb connections, including all gas ones, hose clamps are definitely required.

For a start, you can just use a “cobra head” faucet attached to the end of your beer line. This means you have to open the fridge every time you want to pull a beer, so many people go for a more elaborate setup by drilling a hole through the refrigerator door and then fitting a shank and a regular draft beer tap. If you do this, be sure to install a drip tray as well.

There are lots of kits for sale through homebrew supply houses and other outlets that offer most or all of the components necessary to build a home draft system, including the shank and beer faucet. The best ones include nearly everything except the refrigerator. They are worth investigating and may prove to be a bargain compared with buying every component individually.

Final advice: before you start buying, get a look at a working draft system if you can. The equipment is simple and low-tech, but you need to understand a little about the fittings and how it all works before you start laying down your money.  That method is simple, go to a pub brewery and ask the manager to take a look at the set up surely he could be persuaded to glance at the origin of the beer.

 

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