Dreams vs Reality | Craft Beer & Brewing

Dreams vs Reality

Our homebrewing columnist talks about what it would be like to have his dream system, and if it would truly make him happy.

Jester Goldman 9 months ago

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If this hobby was just about having great beer on hand, then my dream setup would be a magical tap that dispensed whatever beer I was in the mood for. I could imagine starting with a refreshing Kolsch, then moving into a couple of hazy IPAs, before finishing up with small splash of West Coast barleywine. It sounds heavenly, but wouldn’t it make homebrewing kind of pointless?

Part of why brewing is so rewarding is the creative challenge. I value the time I’ve spent learning this craft and the effort I put into each batch provides satisfaction beyond the flavor of the beer itself. That miraculous tap would be convenient, but brewing is about more than the final product.

On the other hand, imagine an ideal brewing system. Realistically, it won’t be a Universal Beer Dispenser, but fully automated setups scaled for homebrewing already exist. With a moderate amount of money and hard work, it’s possible to have a system that can step through most of the manual process of brewing, from heating the strike water to handling the mash schedule and running the sparge. With PID controllers and relatively simple software, you can control heating elements, valves, and pumps. You could have a system that could manage temperature control and moving liquid to wherever it needed to go.

That would be an impressive setup, but I wonder if I’d be happy with my reduced role as brewer. Would I still enjoy the process if all I did was choose a recipe, toss in the ingredients, and clean everything up at the end? I have a feeling that it wouldn’t be enough, but some degree of automation still appeals to me.

Trade-Offs

Aside from the convenience of a full-blown automated brewing system, the biggest advantage is that it could be more consistent than a manual process. Controllers are more attentive and precise than humans. They don’t get bored or distracted, so there’s less chance of brew-day surprises. I also like the idea of a streamlined brewing process with increased efficiency.

The most obvious downside is the cost. A ten gallon turnkey electric-based setup with recirculation and automated control can easily run $5-7K. You can cut that down by half if you build it yourself, assuming you have the appropriate skills and a good design. Either way, that money could buy an awful lot of beer (or a first-class beer tour in Europe).

The more subtle price is the inherent detachment of having the system do most of the work. There would still be some satisfaction, but I think each batch would have a little less sweat equity. It’s harder to take pride in your beer if you’re not as engaged in the process. At that point, even if your beer is great, you might take it for granted.

Practical Ideals

What’s the balance point between fine-grained control and the manual craft of brewing? That’s a question that most of us don’t have the budget to worry too much about. For my part, even though a fancy, turnkey pico-brewery would be pretty cool to own, I’ll pass.

But I’m not ready to give up on improving my setup, even though it works well and meets my needs. I currently have a three-tiered, propane-fired system with a pump and support for HERMS recirculation. Rather than focusing on automation to free up my time, I’m more interested in comfort and ease of use. As a result, I’ve been thinking about converting my setup from gas to electrical heating elements. That would let me move indoors, where cold winter temperatures and windy days wouldn’t matter.

I imagine a minimal configuration with two heating elements, one for the hot liquor tank (HLT) and one for the boil kettle, with only one active at any given time. This would let me get by with a simple controller, like Auber Instruments EZboil. I’d continue using my HERMS coil in the HLT, manually controlling the pump to hit and hold my mash temperature.
It’s not a huge difference from what I have now, but I like the idea that the weather wouldn’t determine my brewing schedule. If I did consider automation, I’d want to limit the scope. It would be enough to convert to a RIMS and throw a temperature controller in the mix to make my mashes more consistent.

While my vision isn’t that ambitious, it does support staying engaged with my love of homebrewing. What does your dream brewery look like?

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