In October of 2010, I was contacted by Brew Your Own magazine and asked to write an article for inclusion in their publication. The text was supposed to be brief (I forget how many words) and was to describe why I built my home beer brewing system, some of the basic construction methods that went into its design, and a favorite recipe of mine. The article went back and forth between Brew Your Own and me until we arrived at the final version below. Unfortunately, after the article was completed and submitted, Brew Your Own magazine never contacted me again even after a couple e-mail attempts to the same contact who requested the article. Obviously the article was never printed so I thought it would be fun to share it here since so much time was spent writing it. Enjoy!
In 2013, a very nice representative of BYO magazine contacted me because they saw this post and wondered if I was still interested in publishing this article in their magazine. For obvious reasons I declined. The entirety of the article, however, will remain on this site for my website visitors.
Powers Home Beer Brewing System
In the nine years that the website depicting my home beer brewing system has been active, I have been asked many questions concerning various aspects of its operation. Inquiries have ranged from questions about sealing and leakage and accuracy of the mash tank temperature to major wiring decision explanations. This system has been duplicated and revised by countless home brewers over the years and the number one question I am continually asked is, “How much did it cost to build?” However, in all this time, no one has ever asked me why I decided to create such a complicated brewing system until now.
It is indisputable that one can easily create a fantastic full-mash beer using a number of simpler methods. In fact, I brewed many amazing beers in my kitchen in Tacoma, Washington utilizing buckets, gravity feed, and a stove during the 4 years prior to building this brewing system. It is hard to believe this endeavor began with a simple extract-based beer brewing kit Christmas gift from my wife. That simple kit quickly escalated into partial-mash and then full-mash beer brewing. When I undertook this semi-automated brewery project, however, it wasn’t necessarily to create “better” beer, but to create a system that allowed me to repeatedly create a “consistent” beer and to force me to learn more about the idiosyncrasies of the mashing process. I needed to take my brewing knowledge to the next level and I was striving to accurately produce consistently repeatable recipes by having strict control over the mash parameters. In fact, I even created a beer brewing calculator on my website (http://powersbrewery.com/) tailored specifically to this type of beer brewing setup in order to help achieve this goal. I am currently settled in at a brew house efficiency of approximately 77% and fairly regularly brew 10 gallon batches of Stouts, India Pale Ales, and Irish Reds. The frequency of my brewing schedule has been somewhat restricted in the last couple years, however, due to the birth of my two children who will, hopefully, one day become my brewing apprentices.
My home beer brewing system has undergone much iteration over the years in order to arrive at its current state. I wanted a brewery with a small footprint and due to the ceiling height in my basement and my continually degrading back, a pump based system was going to be a necessity. Utilizing a March 809HS pump in the system for only one or two back-saving liquid transfer operations seemed hard to justify so I decided to investigate mash circulation concepts. I decided upon a modified version of a Heat Exchange Recirculating Mash System (HERMS) in order to minimize wort scorching problems commonly associated with Recirculating Infusion Mash Systems (RIMS). Additionally, I opted to have the mash only circulate during step-mashing or when increasing or maintaining the current mash temperature is needed in order to minimize possible hot side aeration risks introduced by wort agitation. In order to allow the semi-automated temperature-controlled mash circulation, the integration of electronic temperature controls and float switches into the system was necessary.
Once I had decided upon the type of brewing system I wanted to design, the first order of business was to create a stand. I originally had a friend who was going to help weld a simple steel stand for me but his work obligations made finding the time impossible and my enthusiasm for the project demanded an immediate solution. Since I repair brass musical instruments for a living, I am skilled at soldering tubing together and so I decided to fabricate a stand out of ½” rigid copper pipe that was braced in such a way as to allow it to remain stable and solid. The design utilizes eight 90 degree fittings, 34 “T” fittings, and 48 feet of ½” rigid copper tubing. When attaching items to the stand, I used 1″ allen head cap screws. I drilled a hole through the item and completely through the copper pipe. I then tapped the hole for the appropriate cap screw I was using. After the screw went through the object and through the copper pipe, I put a nylon lined lock nut on the other side to make sure it could never back out on its own. The entire stand was cleaned and coated with lacquer to protect it. I have pictures on my website of me sitting on it to prove its rigidity and there has never been a problem in the six years of the system’s operation. Over the years, several people have created variations of this design and have even added side shelves.
I decided I wanted to incorporate a water manifold into the stand’s design in order to distribute water from a single source. I built it using commonly available plumbing fittings and valves and attached it to the stand using “U” bolts. With a twist of the farthest ball valve, water is sent to a carbon filtration unit which is bolted to a plate at the rear of the copper stand and then to a copper hook that hangs on the edge of the Boil Kettle. The second valve sends water to the immersion cooling coil submersed in the Boil Kettle and the third valve goes to a hose for general purpose use during the brewing process.
I purchased two 10 gallon coolers from a major warehouse grocery chain to use for the mash and hot liquor tanks. I removed the standard spigots and carefully used a hole saw and Dremel tool to modify the holes in the side of each one in order to install a double threaded bulkhead with a large gasket which I obtained from an aquarium supply company. I attached chrome plated threaded ball valves with hose quick disconnects to the outside of each cooler bulkhead to control outward liquid flow.
I incorporated a simple domed stainless steel screen into the bottom of the mash tank which is connected to a hose that runs to a threaded nipple attached to the inside of the bulkhead. This allows wort to pass through the screen and out through the ball valve during circulation and sparging while keeping the grain bed relatively undisturbed. The lid of the tank was carefully drilled in the center to receive a Qest coupler that had the pipe stops ground out with a Dremel tool. This allowed a very clean way to pass a copper pipe through the lid of the cooler. I built a simple “H” shaped copper return manifold/sparge head out of 45 degree copper fittings, “T” fittings, and ½” rigid copper pipe and attached it to a longer copper pipe that could slide through the coupler in the lid. A simple collar and set-screw keep the manifold from slipping deep into the tank and therefore makes it completely height adjustable. Attached to the return manifold is a simple float switch that controls sparge water flow by toggling a March 809HS pump which I mounted to the copper brewing stand using Beer, Beer, and More Beer’s pump mounting bracket. The exposed end of the return manifold has a hose quick disconnect to allow for multiple brewing configurations as well as cleaning. Additionally, a hole was drilled in the cooler lid to receive the long stainless steel thermowell which houses the temperature probe that runs to one of the Ranco Electronic Temperature Control units which monitors mash temperature and controls the March 809HS pump’s operation during mash circulation.
One of the interesting features of the hot liquor tank construction is the incorporation of a 1500 watt, 120 volt, hot water heater element. I drilled a small pilot hole in the center of the bottom of the tank and then used this as a guide for the large hole saw I used to remove the outer cooler wall. I manually removed the cooler insulation that remained and then very carefully used a 1” hole saw to cut a hole in the inner cooler wall that was just large enough to receive the hot water heater element. The tight fit and the rubber gasket that accompanied the element create a great leak-free seal which requires no additional sealant. I routed the element’s power cable between the cooler walls and exited it out the side wall. It is very important to ground the hot water heater element and this was accomplished using a large copper washer sandwiched in the assembly that was soldered to a grounding wire. The exposed electrical connections were covered with a PVC end cap to add further safety and to avoid contact with the copper stand’s shelves. Because I chose to incorporate the HERMS heat exchange coil into the hot liquor tank, the cooler lid was drilled to allow two Qest couplers to be inserted. Next, 50 feet of 3/8” copper was bent around a CO2 tank in order to form the circulatory heat exchange coil. The two free ends were passed through the Qest couplers and quick disconnects were attached to allow connection of various hoses. A bathroom vent motor has been zip tied to the cooler lid against a small rubber pad to aid in dampening vibrations. The motor’s shaft has been attached to a homemade impeller which passes through the cooler lid and is comprised of a brass rod which has been silver soldered to a piece of bent and shaped copper that has been balanced using a metal lathe. The use of the impeller greatly improves the heat exchange during mash circulation and helps alleviate tank stratification. A thermowell has been included in the lid and its temperature probe passes to a Ranco ETC which turns on the bathroom vent motor and impeller along with the hot water tank element in order to maintain hot liquor tank temperature.
The boil kettle is made by Polarware and has a notched lid to accommodate the system’s immersion chiller and filtered water hook. I have attached a ball valve and hose quick disconnect to the kettle’s lower threaded insert and I used a 1/2″ npt male to 1/4″ compression fitting to put a temperature probe through the upper threaded insert. I then added a couple o-rings to seal the temperature probe which is connected to a kitchen timer that reads temperatures, gives temperature based alerts, and serves multiple brewery timing operations. I removed the stainless steel braided cover from a washer hose and clamped it to a copper “T” fitting to use as a hops screen. This is attached to the inside of the kettle’s spigot and travels around the entire inside perimeter of the brew kettle. This is a great addition as I almost exclusively use whole hops in my recipes and this screen helps alleviate clogging issues during kettle draining. About a year after the system’s creation, I decided to utilize electricity in the form of submersible hot water heater elements (heat sticks) for the boil kettle in order to allow the system to be used inside without carbon monoxide inhalation risks. I currently only use my propane burner as a stand for the boil kettle although it does allow the occasional outdoor brewing foray.
For me, the cost and time spent designing and tweaking the system were additional enjoyable aspects of this great hobby that kept me interested and allowed me to research and learn more about different beer production techniques. Often the journey is as much fun as arriving at the destination and creating this brewing system is no exception. For those who are dying to know the answer to the number one question mentioned earlier, my wife tells me I spent close to $900 building this system but that includes ruining several Rubbermaid coolers and also upgrading their size after about a year of use to up the system’s capacity from 5 to 10 gallons. A thrifty shopper, however, could certainly build the system for less.
Powers Irish Red Ale
This is one of my all-time favorite original recipes that always receives a great response from tasters.
5 Gallon Recipe (OG 1.048)
77% Brew House Efficiency
13 IBU’s (Daniels Calculation Method)
- 10 pounds British two-row pale Malt
- .25 pounds British Roasted Barley
- .5 pounds Melanoidin Malt
- 1.2 ounces Kent Goldings Hops (30 min)
- 1 teaspoon Irish Moss (10 min)
- 1 vial White Labs Irish Ale Yeast
153 degrees for 60 minutes
168 degrees for 10 minutes
Step By Step
Mash grains at 153°F for 60 minutes. If possible, raise mash temperature to 170°F for an additional 10 minutes to denature enzymes. Lauter slowly and collect a pre-boil liquid volume of 6.9 gallons. Bring wort to a full boil. After 30 minutes, add 1.2 ounces Kent Goldings hops. For the last 10 minutes of the boil, add 1 teaspoon of Irish Moss to aid in creating a clearer final product. Cool wort to 70°F and transfer to primary fermenter. Aerate and add 1 vial of White Labs Irish Ale Yeast. After primary fermentation has subsided, transfer to secondary for one week. Rack to bottles or kegs, carbonate, and enjoy a very easy drinking session beer!