Pumpkin patch

Fall is here in Pennsylvania! Time for jeans, flannel, and of course, pumpkins. This past weekend we took a trip to a local orchard to do some pumpkin picking. It was a lot of fun and we’re planning on going to another orchard soon to do some apple picking and have fun at their fall festival.

Our daughter loved it. She picked up just about every pumpkin she saw and tried to put them all in our wagon. We had to explain that we couldn’t take all of them because we didn’t have room and we needed to leave some for everyone else. So we gave her a task of finding the biggest, orangest pumpkin she could find. That seemed to work in keeping her from picking up all of them.

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Upgrades to my brew kettle

I recently purchased a larger kettle for brewing. Today I added a few accessories to make it more functional. With this upgrade and my new mash tun, I’m finally where I want to be with my small home brewing setup. 

Here’s the adventure in pictures.

The brew pot with ball valve and thermometer
Measuring where to drill
Points measured. Top one is thermometer, bottom is ball valve
I used a nail to punch a divot so the drill bit didnt wander
I realized after this I should start with a small bit for a pilot hole
Thermometer pieces together, the wall of the pot goes between the two silicone gaskets
Thermometer threaded awaiting tightening
Ball valve construction
Finished and tightened
Testing for leaks. Both holes had slow drips.
Added more teflon tape and some small adjustments to fix the leaks and it’s finished!

Some things I learned for next time:

  • Use a masonry bit to drill the pilot hole. I killed three regular drill bits trying to cut through the stainless steel.
  • WD-40 is not the best option for drilling oil, but it does help.
  • Put more weight on the drill than you think. If I could have sat on it I would have.
  • Make the ball valve as low as possible. I probably could’ve dropped it another 1/2″ lower and still had a good seal. 
  • Use the Teflon tape liberally. I had leaks at both holes that were fixed with 10-15 more wraps of tape. 

I’m really looking forward to using this on my next brew day. Now I can see the temperature at a glance. I also don’t have to lift 3-5 gallons of liquid and try to dump it through a funnel into my fermenter.

It should go a lot smoother.

My $15 Mash Tun

After a stroke of luck in which I spotted an old cooler on the side of the highway, I finally have the last piece to complete my all-grain home brewing system. Some people order stainless steel ball valves and pieces which aren’t favorable to a budget. With a trip to Lowe’s I was able to convert it into a cheap 52 quart mash tun.

For those that aren’t homebrewers, a mash tun is a piece of equipment used in grain brewing. It’s a vessel used to convert the starches found in crushed grain into fermentable sugars. The mashing process involves steeping the malted grains in hot water which allows enzymes to break down the complex starches into simple sugars. These sugars are what the yeast can then ferment into alcohol.

Up until now I have been brewing exclusively with malt extract. This is basically just condensed, pre-mashed mixture in powder or syrup form. But now I can do my own mashing. My co-worker Derek Springer equated extract brewing vs. all-grain brewing is like the difference between making boxed mac and cheese with the cheese powder vs. cooking it from scratch.

The project started when I was driving down the highway to meet my wife for lunch. I spotted a cooler on the side of the road, and it was still there on my way back home. So I stopped and picked it up.

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It’s a little beat up and dirty, but it holds water without any leaks! Now I have the most expensive piece of the build, but it’s free.

The first step was to remove the drain plug so I knew what size tubing I needed to get. It was on there tight, but easy enough to remove with pliers.

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Next was a trip to the hardware store. I’ve read a few blog posts with other DIY builds so I had a general idea of what I needed. 20 minutes of standing in the aisle trying different sized tubing and fittings, and I had all the supplies.

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  • 1/2″ OD x 3/8″ ID vinyl tubing – about 5 to 10 feet
  • 3/8″ OD x 1/4″ ID vinyl tubing – 12 to 15 inches
  • 1/2″ threaded PVC valve
  • (2) 3/8″ hose barb with 1/2″ fitting
  • 1/2″ x 12″ stainless steel braided water hose
  • (4) 1/2″ stainless steel hose clamps – not pictured
  • Teflon tape

The hardest and most time-consuming part of the build was cutting the ends off the braided hose. Due to my lack of power tools (and where the hell did my hacksaw go?!) I was forced to use a utility knife.

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Tip for anyone building your own: be careful of these steel braid ends. If they fray they are very sharp. I stabbed my fingers at least 8 times working with it.

Sliding the tubing out of the mesh was another challenge. It kind of reacts like a Chinese finger trap when you pull on it. I found the easiest thing to do was to get it wet and twist as I pulled it out with the pliers. It’s definitely a slow process.

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After the tubing was out of the mesh, I realized the 1/2″ OD vinyl tubing would be just a tad too big to slide in easily. Luckily I had some 3/8″ tubing that I was able to use.

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Alternatively, you could leave the mesh braid hollow, but I wanted to give it some reinforcement to keep it from potentially crushing under the weight of the grain. Depending on the recipe, it can use upwards of 20 pounds of grain (and more!). Add to that the pressure of a few gallons of water and you can see why I might be concerned.

So I took my 3/8″ tubing and drilled holes on all sides about 1/4″ apart. The idea was to make it porous and allow water to penetrate, but keep it structured enough.

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Next was sliding the perforated vinyl hose into the mesh braid and clamp everything together. I used a hose clamp to keep the braid and tubing attached, and another to fasten the 3/8″ hose to the 1/2″ hose.

On the other end of the mesh braid I folded it over on itself and crimped it a few times to close it up.

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Then I cut about a 6 or 8 inch length of the 1/2″ hose and put it through the cooler drain hole. It was about 1/16″ too small in diameter, so I wrapped the teflon tape around it to create a water tight seal.

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Now that the inside of the build was done, I just needed to attach the ball valve. I wrapped some teflon tape around each of the hose barb threads and threaded them on to the valve.

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All that’s left to do for the build now is attaching the input of the valve to the hose, and adding some more hose to the output. I cut about a 5 foot length of the vinyl hose so I could be sure it would reach into my boil kettle.

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It’s done! I’ll probably go back and add a couple hose clamps to each end of the ball valve just to make sure it’s secure.

Then the moment of truth came — time to test for leaks!

I took the whole thing outside and filled it about 3/4 full of water. Then it sat for 45 minutes to make sure everything was water tight under pressure.

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It worked pretty great. No leaks and it drained beautifully. There was a small drip around the cooler drain hole when I started moving the valve around to open the flow. It should be an easy fix with just adding more teflon tape.

Overall I’m happy with how it turned out. And for $15 total cost it’s hard to beat. Now I can’t wait until my next brew day when I can use it for my first full all-grain batch!

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Back to back to back bottling

This week has been a marathon of beer and cider bottling. It wasn’t really planned this way, and I’m kind of happy I won’t be bottling again for at least two weeks.

Tuesday: cleaning

In the homebrewing world, cleanliness is the absolute most important aspect. I knew I would be bottling about two cases between the beer and cider so I pulled out some bottles to clean.

Most of them are recycled commercial beer bottles, which means they still had labels on them. Removing them was as simple as filling the sink with hot water, mixing in some OxyClean, and letting them soak for a few hours while I went back to work.

The majority of the labels slid right off as I pulled the bottle out of the water. A few were still stuck on and didn’t budge. Those went into the recycling can.

So now I had two cases of clean bottles ready to receive their beverage.

Thursday: Raspberry Apple Cider

Thursday morning I decided to sweeten a hard apple cider with raspberry juice. The plain cider was a little too dry for my taste.

After some calculations, and re-calculations and re-calculations, I figured out how much juice I would need to get the cider to a sweet 1.015 hydrometer reading. Then I mixed the cider and juice and bottled.

By adding juice to the cider, I added way more fermentable sugar than a typical bottle needs to carbonate. In order to stop the in-bottle fermentation and carbonation, I needed to kill the yeast via pasteurization. If I just let it go without monitoring, the bottles would explode.

Thursday was kind of stressful.

Friday: Blonde Ale

I have a blonde ale that has been in the primary fermenter for a little over two weeks. I wanted to give it a good 2-3 weeks in the bottles to have ready by my birthday to share.

This was my first batch where I made more than a single gallon. Because of this, some of the process was new. It probably took about twice as long as it should. I’m hoping with practice I can dial it in and bring the time down significantly.

I felt a little flustered during the entire prep since I wasn’t sure exactly what I should do next. But the actual bottling (and cleanup, of course) was standard.

Monday: Hard Cider

After bottling on Thursday, I decided to try making more hard cider with the same yeast by simply putting more cider on top of it in the fermenter. So I bottled the raspberry cider, and instead of cleaning the jug, I just poured more cider in to ferment again.

With this cider, the plan was to not let it ferment all the way. This way it would be more of a sweet cider and still retain a good amount of the apple flavor. I checked it a couple times and today it was where I wanted it to be.

So again, I got all the bottling equipment out and bottled it up. I’m using the same technique of monitoring the carbonation level with a plastic bottle. Since I’m effectively stopping fermentation halfway, it will continue to ferment in the bottle. And I definitely don’t want bottle bombs.

So that was my week in homebrewing. I have a pale ale fermenting right now that will probably be ready for bottling in a couple days, but I’m just going to let it sit for a while longer.