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It’s been a little while since I’ve posted anything, and I’ve been meaning to get to this particular topic for a while, but life, work, life, and more work have been getting in the way of my intermittent blogging as of late. And while I have certainly enjoyed Justin’s esoteric, and very random observations, I thought it was high time to get down to brass tacks and break down the the Regular Guy Brewery. Prepare yourself to be blown away.

Are you prepared?

Are you sure?

Double check yourself.

Okay then. Let’s proceed.

So here it is…the Regular Guy Brewery

Fancy shit, right? You know you’re impressed…if not a bit envious. Don’t even lie.

As I have mentioned before, I am a big fan of form over function. It might not be pretty (though we do have ambitions of prettying it up a bit in the relatively near future, more for convenience though, and not as much for aesthetics) but it gets the job done.

So now that you’ve caught a glimpse of the large picture, let me break things down for you a bit more.

The Regular Guy Brewhouse is essentially a Heat Exchanging Recirculating Mash System, HERMS for short.

Whoah. Jargon. That may sound fancy and all, but what does that mean exactly?

I’m glad you asked. It gives me the opportunity to put on my nerd glasses and pocket protector, and get all geeky on you.

In essence, the beer brewing process is a simple matter of extracting fermentable sugars from malted grains. Yeast is eventually added to these sugars, and they in turn will chow down on the sugar, fart out carbon dioxide and pee out alcohol.

The problem though, is that the malted grains don’t just give up their sugars easily. We as brewers have to coax it out of them. The further problem is that not all sugars are fermentable. Only the most basic of sugars will do the job. So to make this happen, we have to get all sciency and stuff.

Enter the enzymes.

I like to think of enzymes as tiny little construction workers who just LOVE DEMOLITION. They totally get off on busting stuff up…especially sugars. I won’t bore you with their names and specifics, but these little guys (with tiny little sledge hammers and sticks of tiny little dynamite) take long chains of sugars and demolish them down to the most basic level.

Sounds cool and all, but there is a trick to all this wonder. Two tricks actually. Time and temperature. To make this demolition/sugar conversion happen, we have to keep our mash (the process by which the enzymes break down the sugars in the grain) at a specific temperature for a certain amount of time.

This is where the mechanics and engineering of brewing come into play.

The core of our brewing system, is our Mash Tun, shown at the right. I know, I know. It’s a cooler. Congratulations on being so observant.

This ten gallon water cooler, purchased at Home Depot (if you couldn’t tell already) is the perfect receptacle for this task. It’s geometry is ideal for brewing (or so i’ve read somewhere) and it is insulated. With little additional modification, this cooler is able to maintain temperatures fairly well for a prolonged period of time.

This is where our mashing is done. To mash, we add a certain amount of water (typically 1.5 qt per 1 pound of grain) that has been heated to 160 degrees or so. We then add our grain to this, called doughing in, and let it sit for an hour or more. For the enzymes to do their work, the water and grain needs to be kept around 153F. The cooler does a pretty good job of this on its own, but not good enough. Heat needs to be added to keep the temperature where we want it at various points during the mashing process.

Some brewers will add additional hot water to the mix to bring the temperature up, others will drain some off, boil it and add it back in. Some will actually heat the mash tun itself. We don’t want to do any of those things. Instead, we choose to heat the mash indirectly, by pumping it out of the bottom of the cooler, through a heat exchanger and back in. Hence the Heat Exchanging Recirculating Mash System.

Why do we do it this way?

First, we do not want to heat the mash directly. This can lead to scorching and off flavors.

Second, recirculating the mash is a good thing. It results in a clearer wort and keeps the temperature throughout the tun more consistent.

Third, it maintains a consistent water/grain grist ratio. I don’t know that this improves anything, but why change something if you don’t have to.

Finally, it’s what works for us. We like it, and that’s good enough.

Here are a few of the tid-bits that help make this system work:

The Hot Liquor Tank and Heat Exchanger

I’m not sure why its called a “liquor tank.” There’s no liquor in it. It’s just water. Though it is hot water. It’s also not much of a “tank” in our case. It’s actually a kettle. So in our case the term “Hot Water Kettle” would probably be much more acccurate. At any rate, that coiled bit of metal in the middle is our heat exchanger. Wort from the bottom of the Mash Tun is pumped through this coil as needed, heated by the hot water, and then pumped back to the top of the mash. We use a 25′ coil of stainless steel, which was originally purchased to be used as an immersion wort chiller. We found that stainless steel does not have the same heat transference qualities as copper, so it made for a really crappy chiller. But we really like it for a heater, as the heating effect is fairly gentle and gradual.

The Mash Tun Drainage Manifold

Constructed using a stainless steel braid (the same kind found on the outside of the water line running to most toilets) this manifold is the key to keeping the grains out of the wort during drainage and recirculation. The loop design helps distribute the drainage, eliminating any channeling through the grains that might occur during drainage. Inside the braid is a stainless steel compression spring, which keeps the loop from compressing and flattening under the weight of the grain. The spring also helps the loop maintain its shape. This design also greatly reduces the amount of dead space at the bottom of the mash tun, meaning that almost every drop of wort can be extracted to the brew kettle.

Our “Mash Paddle”

To ensure that everything is mixed evenly within the mash tun, you have to give it the occasional stir. We wanted to be able to do this without exposing the mash to open air, which can be quite cold and brisk depending upon the time of year which we are brewing. That said, we drilled a hold through the center of the cooler lid, and attached a power drill to a paint stirrer. Every few minutes we give it a bit of a stir, resulting in a more evenly mixed grist and even temperatures throughout the tun. The hoses to the left and right of the drill are our wort return lines. The one on the left is the return from the heat exchanger. The one on the right is the non-heated return, which is useful for times when we want to recirculated the mash without adding additional heat to it.

The Heart of the HERMS

To the right is the one piece of equipment that make this whole system work, our March 809 beer pump. This pump is magnetically impelled and food safe, and without it we would be up shit creek without a paddle. It is a work horse though it can be quite finicky thanks to it’s lack of self-priming. Seriously! Where the hell do these air bubbles even come from?!!!

We are still working out quite a few kinks with our plumbing set up, but we are getting close with this little guy. A few more valves, and I think it will be well tuned machine. At any rate, it is truly the heart of our system, and is capable of pumping wort for hours on end without any complaint.

And the Brains

What good is a heart, if you don’t have brains to tell it what to do. Other than the pump, our Johnson A419 temperature controller is probably the most valuable piece of equipment currently in our HERMS arsenal. Bigger guys, or just those with more money than us, probably utilize some kind of fully automated system that controls everything for them. Not us. We are hands on…with this exception of the A419.

This awesome piece of tech genius is a portable thermostat. We punch in what temperature we want the mash to be at, and it keeps it there. Any time the temperature drops below that point, it kicks on the pump, which pushes wort through the heat exchanger and back into the tun. Once it is back up to temperature, it kicks off. Want to raise the mash temperature? Not a problem. Just raise the set point, and it will do the rest. It has made things so much easier for us, as we no longer have to constantly be removing the cooler lid to check the temp. The probe is in there already, doing its thing.

As an added bonus, the A419 can also be fairly easily reconfigured to maintain the temperature of a refrigerator or freezer so that it will only turn on when the temperature goes above the set point. This will be super handy once we have a few refrigerators to convert into fermentation chambers. Not there yet, but looking forward to getting there.

So, that pretty much sums up the basics of the Regular Guy Brewing HERMS set-up.

Sorry for boring you.

Class dismissed.