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Gearhead: The Brewer’s Toolbox

In this edition of Gearhead, John M. Verive zooms in on the arsenal of less specialized, more humdrum (and often more beloved) tools that brewers use every day.

John M. Verive Mar 22, 2021 - 13 min read

Gearhead: The Brewer’s Toolbox Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

From mash tuns to bottling lines and just about every piece of gear in between, Gearhead has mainly zeroed in on the machines that help us make beer. However, there is an arsenal of less specialized, more humdrum tools that brewers use every day.

For this edition, John M. Verive asked more than a dozen brewers, assistant brewers, and cellar staff about which go-to tools and gadgets help them get through a long brew day.

The Basics

That big flathead screwdriver

With possibly infinite uses, it seems that every brewery has a favorite screwdriver kicking around—but nobody can ever seem to find it. So, it’s probably best to have at least two or three.

The mechanic’s tool kit

“Brewing is a mechanical job that requires a full set of tools, and brewers have to know how to use them,” says Van Havig from Portland’s Gigantic Brewing. The common recommendation is a full set of hand tools, including drivers and sockets in both metric and SAE. These don’t get used every day, but when you need an 8mm socket to get a pump up and running, the full kit is nice to have. These don’t have to be the best-quality tools you can find either; an inexpensive Harbor Freight set does the job most of the time.

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Specialized hand tools

There are a few other hand tools that will find daily use in the brewery. Several brewers named ring pliers, channel-lock pliers, and DIN wrenches—DIN stands for Deutsches Institute for Normung, for German-standard fittings—as the kinds of everyday useful tools that no brewery should be without. The question of what to spend money on, and where to save on lower-quality tools, is never easy. Building the perfect toolkit is a lifetime pursuit for any craftsman.

Veteran Chicago brewer John Laffler of Off Color Brewing says he usually gets by on Harbor Freight tools, but he now loves and proselytizes his Knipex Cobra channel-lock pliers. “They’re worth the money because they work better,” he says, citing the German engineering and unique jaw design. As for ring pliers, they’re an easy tool to skip, since you can do the job with a couple of picks and some elbow grease—but even a budget-priced pair will save you time and aggravation.

Hammers, mallets, and baseball bats

Sometimes, only a liberal application of kinetic force will fix a problem in the brewery, and a selection of hammers and mallets will often earn appreciation in the toolbox.

Curiously, one of the most mentioned jobs that requires hitting something repeatedly is opening a bag of rice hulls, which are used to help prevent stuck mashes. The rice hulls come compacted in 50-pound bags, and getting them out of the bag can be tricky. Some brewers like to use a rubber mallet to bash the bricks of compacted hulls into pieces. Others prefer the cathartic joys of a miniature baseball bat. Some brewers even have specialized tools for the job—more on those later.

Power tools

Brewers love a problem because then they get to be the ones who solve it, and sometimes the best solution is a power tool. From drill drivers to Sawzalls, a set of quality power tools will always be welcome—especially when cordless and fully charged. The disc grinder is a particular favorite, and as Havig says—partly in jest, we think—“once you know what a grinder can do, you start using it to solve all the problems in a brewery.”

Flexzilla hose

Hoses are critical infrastructure in a brewery, but it isn’t just the heavy-duty hose that carries beer from vessel to vessel. Much water gets sprayed around the brewery.

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Off Color’s Laffler says he had a Goldilocks problem with the typical 5/8-inch hose that is common in breweries. It was either the high-end stuff from Brewers Supply Group (BSG), which he says is heavy and rigid enough to be difficult to work with, or the typical “Lowe’s garden hose” that can’t stand up to the rigors of a brewhouse. The “obnoxious lime green” Flexzilla brand caught his eye, and he hasn’t looked at another hose since. That was five years ago; he’s added more to the brewery but hasn’t had to replace one yet. Besides their durability, Laffler says, they’re flexible, they coil easily, and they’re hard to kink—not to mention, they’re eminently visible from across the brewery. “I can see five from where I’m standing right now,” he says.

The knife

All the brewers with whom I spoke carry a pocketknife (or multitool) on the job. Some were brand- and style-agnostic, while many had specific preferences for manufacturers and blade geometry. The majority of brewers prefer a standard pocketknife, with a few outliers preferring the folding utility knife because of its replaceable blades. The general consensus is for good quality but low cost, and Kershaw was the most mentioned brand because of the quality, durability, and bright colors of the Kershaw knives on top of the American brand’s great customer service.

The Leatherman brand of multitools also was well regarded by the brewers, with many eschewing a standard pocketknife altogether for the flexibility of the Leatherman. The Skeletool is the favored model because of its pocket clip (and easy-access bottle opener). Fellow Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® columnist and homebrewer Drew Beechum says the Leatherman is a particularly efficient tool for homebrewers because it can replace a bunch of individual tools in the home-brewery toolbox. “It’s always there and always ready to do what needs doing.”

Taking Measurements

Gravity readings

Every brewery needs some redundant methods of taking initial gravity readings of their wort. While hydrometers are still the go-tos for taking post-fermentation measurements, digital densitometers and refractometers are popular for the initial gravity readings. From the $400 Anton Paar EasyDens to the $150 Milwaukee Instruments Digital Refractometer, there are various options for brewers looking for easy, push-button gravity readings. None of the brewers were brand particular on the typical glass-bulb hydrometers; the main suggestion was to have backups because the fragile instruments are basically considered consumables in the brewery.

Multimeter

A basic electrician’s multimeter is an indispensable diagnostic tool that can save time and aggravation when something goes wrong with a pump or other equipment. It can be the difference between having a service tech come to the brewery or just solving the problem with a phone call to customer support.

Mash thermometers

Standard kit for breweries—and often integrated into brewhouse systems—the thermowells and fixed thermometers give reasonable indications of mash temperature, but thick mashes in particular are prone to hot and cool pockets that can lead to misleading readings. “It’s hard to be exact with mash temperature,” says Doug Dozark of Florida’s Cycle Brewing. “It’s a hard knob to turn, and I’ve stopped stressing about it.” There is a solution for brewers looking to get a truer read on their tricky mashes: a handheld probe thermometer popular among big-stout brewers, built by REOTEMP Instruments in San Diego. With a probe up to eight feet long, the Handheld Mash Tun Thermometer can take readings in the trickiest spots of even the biggest tuns.

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pH meter

Digital pH meters with replaceable probes tend to be inexpensive, but you get what you pay for—the accuracy and usability of the cheapest options mean they’re not worth the trouble. The models from Milwaukee Instruments are oft-recommended, ranging from handhelds for less than $100 to bench-top lab units for a few hundred dollars. The key features to look for are replaceable probes and a straightforward calibration process.

Zahm CO2 tester

The Zahm & Nagel SS-60 is nobody’s favorite tool, but it’s near-ubiquity in breweries and long lead times for buying units speak to how useful this specialized device is. The stainless-steel cylinder measures the amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in liquid, a critical variable when packaging beer. The $1,500 device requires calibration and a fiddly process (and a whole lot of shaking) to actually get a reading, but brewers view the other common options as either cheap junk or much more expensive electronic solutions. The Zahm just works, and it’s “bombproof,” two highly regarded traits for brewery tools.

Specialty Solutions

Two 55-gallon drums, cut in half

While some brewers use brute force when dealing with bags of compacted rice hulls (see Hammers, above), others have a method that requires no kinetic force, using the bottom halves of two 55-gallon drums. Mathew Gilbert from Levante Brewing in West Chester, Pennsylvania, explains: “Cut two plastic drums in half, so [each half is] about two feet tall, then take the rice-hull bale and place it into one of the halves. Starting from the bottom of the rice-hull bale, cut upward, halfway up the bale, then cut the bale in half perpendicular to the first cut. Detach the other rice-hull bale half and place it into the other drum half.” They use a metal scoop to dole out the hulls and break up any remaining clumps.

Peeling and juicing

Citrus zest and juice have become frequent additives, but processing bushels of fruit is as labor-intensive as it is tedious. A rotating peeler that strips off a ribbon of peel with a hand crank or motor is a brewery’s force-multiplier, while a quality manual bench-top citrus press will outlast any electric version when you’re working with case after case of citrus.

The one-cent solution

A standard U.S. penny is just the right size to fit into a beer nut, says Gigantic’s Van Havig. Drop a gasket in afterwards, and you’ve got a makeshift way to close a tavern head. It’s such a simple solution that Havig has penny-capped beer nuts squirreled away around the brewery. This solution is also related to his favorite bar trick: dropping a copper penny into a beer that smells too sulfury. “Sulfur binds to the copper,” he says. “Drop a penny into a sulfury beer, and you won’t taste the sulfur again.” It’s a handy quality-assurance tool when faced with sulfur aromas. In the brewery, they also use a short length of copper pipe to neutralize that sulfur character in lager beers. “We put a 1.5-foot length of copper pipe in-line whenever we rack lager as cheap insurance,” he says. They clean the pipe with acid afterward, which removes any oxidized sulfur and sanitizes the pipe for next time.

Sealing hop bags

Dan Juhnke from New Origin Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina, has a two-pronged trick for keeping half-empty bags of hops fresh: a travel-size clothing iron and a bottle of nitrogen. The $25 Sunbeam iron can quickly seal the mylar hop bags, and the nitrogen helps to prevent oxidation while the hops are stored. Juhnke suggests almost fully sealing the mylar bag, leaving enough of a gap to insert the hose from the nitrogen regulator to purge before finishing the seal.

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