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

Having taken a look at how brewpubs make beer and the equipment they use, it is time to explore the options in setting up a home brewery. There are many differences between even the smallest pub system and what is feasible in a private home. Size matters. Brewpubs typically make beer in batches ranging from 217 to 465 U.S. gallons (7 to 15 U.S. barrels). Their equipment usually is a mix of custom- built brewing vessels (e.g., the mash/lauter tun) and general industrial and commercial equipment sized and specified for its intended use (e.g., sanitary pumps, glycol chiller). Homebrewers make 5- to 15-gallon batches, mostly using equipment that has been built from scratch or modified to serve a role never foreseen by the manufacturer.

Sometimes you run across a pub or even a small micro that has been put together in this way. The common term for such operations is “Frankenbrewery.” That may not sound kind, but — if the beer is good — it could be taken as a compliment. After all, the main point of the Frankenstein story is that the monster lived. Likewise, the (successful) Frankenbrewery works. For a homebrewer, the term is definitely a compliment. Engineering a system is quite an accomplishment, even if it is backyard, patchwork engineering. By contrast, the ready-made rack systems seem, to some homebrewers, to take half the fun out of it. For certain, they require that you adapt yourself to them, rather than the other way around.

Okay, let’s break it down. If we’re going to build a brewery, what do we need?

For some homebrewers it’s part of the garage, or the deck, or the cellar, or the kitchen, or some other room of the house. Some brave renters manage to make beer in studio apartments. Generally, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The first decision to be made, assuming you have a choice, is whether to brew (that is, create and boil your wort) indoors or out. The primary benefits that come with brewing outdoors are flexibility in layout and getting the heat and smell out of the house. For indoor brewing, the main positives are comfort and consistency. Outdoor brewing means being hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The fluctuating ambient temperatures can also lead to process problems, especially in very cold weather. Insulation requirements for a mash/lauter tun, for example, are much different in 10°F weather than they are in 90°F weather. On the other hand, indoor brewing raises ventilation issues, and it imposes a significant load on the air conditioner in hot weather. All told, in a climate like my home state of Tennessee’s, the best option is to brew outdoors most of the year but to move all or most of the brewing operation indoors in the winter.

The spousal dimension of this decision is outside the scope of this book.

HOW DOES YOUR SPACE STACK UP?

You can set up a home brewery practically anywhere, but not all spots are created equal.

  • Having a cool cellar is an advantage.
  • Having a garage is an advantage.
  • Having a backyard, patio, or deck is an advantage.
  • A floor drain in your brewery and/or kegging area is a big advantage.
  • Tempered air (heating and cooling) in your fermenting area is a big advantage.
  • Having a place indoors for a second refrigerator is a necessity.
  • Lack of ventilation in your brewing space is an obstacle that must be overcome.

Utilities

Just like a pub brewer, the home brewer has to consider the available utilities in putting together a brewery. The time to do this is before you start spending money on equipment.

Water and Sewer

The quality of your water supply is obviously a major issue, and I discuss water treatment in a later chapter. When it comes to sewer, a city connection is preferable because yeast slurry and cleaning chemicals are major trouble for a septic tank. I’ll give some general guidelines for dealing with septic tanks, but you should also consult your septic service company or other experienced homebrewers in your area. Remember, this comes from somebody who has never had to deal with a septic tank.

In practice, city treatment systems are a lot more resistant to shock simply because of their size. However, commercial breweries, even small brewpubs, are finding themselves under increasing scrutiny from environmental authorities.

One thing you need to consider when setting up your brewery is how you are going to get your spent cleaning solutions and sanitizers to the drain. These things cannot be dumped on your lawn. In my case, a fair amount of the lifting and carrying I do is hauling liquid waste to the kitchen sink. I wish my house had a drain cleanout or some other point of access closer to the deck where I do my brewing. In fact, the main reason I have not set up my brewery in the garage is that it has no floor drain, and neither does the driveway.

SUGGESTIONS FOR HOMEBREWERS WITH SEPTIC TANKS

  • Minimize your use of chemicals. Don’t mix up 5 gallons of sanitizer when 1 gallon will do.
  • Keep wastewater temperatures and volumes reasonable.
  • Don’t send spent grains or trub (kettle residue) down the drain. Compost them or take them to the landfill.
  • If possible, consider a miniature version of the most primitive sort of wastewater pretreatment, a holding tank. This could be a 55-gallon or smaller drum where all your liquid brewery waste goes. It offers a place where it can cool down and, if necessary, be neutralized with washing soda or citric acid (depending on its pH) before being sent down the drain.
  • Yeast is a living thing and its biological oxygen demand (BOD) is so high that, even if you use a holding tank, it can play havoc in a septic system. You should kill it before sending it down the drain. However, killing yeast with a chemical sanitizer is problematic. Unless you have a microscope and some training, it is hard to check on whether you have given a sufficient dose for sufficient time. Heat is the better method. Mix the slurry with an equal volume of water in an appropriately sized nonstick pot, heat it to 180°F, and hold there for half an hour, stirring occasionally. Boiling is fine but may make cleanup harder.
  • Clean your septic tank regularly.

Electricity

If you have 230-volt service to your home you have options. By adding a circuit or two you could go with electric heating for your brewery vessels. This is convenient and clean, with no carbon monoxide issues, making it possible to brew indoors year-round — although you still need to look at ventilation for the steam from your kettle. Ongoing electrical costs are higher than for natural gas but (depending on local rates) probably lower than propane. And up-front costs for new circuitry can be high, if you have to hire an electrician to do the work.

All this refers to making or buying a custom brew kettle and perhaps other vessels with a high-wattage, low-heat-density heating element. Electric kitchen stoves have a bad reputation for kettle boiling. However, a modern conventional electric range usually has at least one 8-inch element rated at 2,000 watts, and theoretically this is enough power to boil a 5-gallon batch of wort. For some ranges, a special “canning element” of even higher wattage is available. By comparison, many 10-gallon electric brew kettles are fitted with a 3,500-watt element, for a batch twice the size. The problem is heat transfer. In an electric kettle, the heater element is mounted directly in the wall and is surrounded by the wort, whereas the heat from a stove element must be carried by conduction through the kettle bottom.

Suffice it to say, electric stoves can work for 5-gallon batches, if you have the right sort of kettle. The best is a stockpot with a flat bottom, either all aluminum or stainless with a layer of aluminum encapsulated. My own brew kettle, while far from ideal, fits this description, and I have been able to boil 6 gallons of water in it on my kitchen stove. It takes quite a while to reach boiling point, though.

I have no direct experience with ceramic cooktops, but from the few stories I have heard, it seems that the key once again is good contact with the heating surface and good conduction. It may work, but you need a high-wattage element.

So far we have gone into the use of electricity, but we also need to look at it from the opposite viewpoint: is electricity really needed in a brewery? The answer is: not for heating. If you work by daylight, you can brew outdoors or in a shed without any electric service at hand. Whether you should is another matter.  Later on this week we will discuss Natural Gas or Propane.

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