Brewing is a joint effort between my husband, Dave, and me. He started brewing before I did, but I would either help or watch and gradually got into it myself. Who knew that so many years later, I’d get so into brewing that I’d end up writing for Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®?
I can’t take much credit for the system itself—Dave is pretty amazing and came up with the whole thing on his own and built it in an afternoon. I had no idea what he was even doing. He called me into the garage, said something like, “Behold!” took a sip of his beer, and I couldn’t do much else but blink in astonishment.
Here’s what we’ve got…
What We Like to Brew
I mostly brew stouts and saisons. But I’m up for adventure—if I see something I want to try, I go for it. Worst case, I hate it and pour it. Dave brews mostly IPAs, APAs, and wheat beers—but his “flagship beer” is his jalapeño cream ale.
How Often We Brew
If it were up to us, we’d brew every few weeks! We try to brew once a month, but lately it’s been more like every six or eight weeks, give or take.
Our Brewing System Evolution
When we were first dating nineteen years ago, I bought Dave a True Brew kit out of a catalog for Christmas (yes, we are so old), and we still have quite a few of the parts from it! Those suckers are built to last. I wasn’t much into beer back then, but I would help or watch. We were living on the eastern plains of Colorado and had to drive a few hours to the closest homebrew shop because the Internet wasn’t much of a thing at that time, and there weren’t a whole lot of homebrew shops online.
We moved to the Front Range of Colorado, which opened up many new possibilities for us and put us closer to homebrew shops. For the next several years we brewed partial-grain brews but had access to specialty grains, equipment, and friends who brewed. We upgraded piece by piece, until a friend introduced us to all-grain brewing using a grain bag in an Igloo cooler in 5-gallon batches.
We found a guy locally who makes ½ barrel keggels so we decided it was time to make the move to all-grain, and suddenly, we were all in! We bought a propane heater and were using a three-tier gravity system with a table saw and whatever other tables were free, as you can see pictured below.
Our Brewing System Today
The table saw and other tables weren’t cutting it with the gravity. We were having to do a lot more lifting work than we needed to, so Dave built a three-tier gravity system on wheels, which is pictured below. Instead of moving propane tanks between the strike water and boil tanks, there is a dedicated propane tank for each—this is nice because if we run out of propane, we have a backup, or we have an extra burner to work with if we need it.
The stand is great because instead of having to store all the brew gear in various parts of the garage, basement or wherever, we can store it all on the cart. Dave installed hooks and shelves so that everything we need is right on the cart and we never have to look for everything (pictured below). The wheels on the cart make it easy to roll into place for brewing, cleaning, and storage, and they have brakes so we don’t have to chase it down the street! The whole thing rolls into its spot in the garage and has a 2 x 6' footprint, and that's the extent of our storage space. It’s coated with charcoal grill heat paint for fireproofing, and we touch it up every year or two.
The strike water kettle is heated with propane, but you can read about how we start the brew day in this article. This farmer’s tank heater is an awesome way to save time and propane, and it’s changed a lot about how we start our brew day. Each of the keggels has reinforced vinyl tubing with quick connect fittings.
Next, the water goes into the mash tun, which is a keggel wrapped in a thermal heating blanket (I call it a space jacket, but that’s not the technical term for it!). The thermal material is also cut out and placed on top and bottom so that heat is retained. There’s a false bottom built into the mash tun, with a ball valve so we can do a nice vorlauf before it goes into the boil kettle. You’ll also note that each of the keggels has a built-in dial thermometer—those are new this year (pictured below), after going through several chefs’ digital Bluetooth thermometers! It’s nice being able to see at a glance what temperature the mash is at without having to open the lid and risk the temperature going down.
And finally, the boil kettle is a keggel on a propane tank that’s got a heat shield. We’ve recently added a stainless-steel hops basket, which is useful for hops and for spices and other adjuncts. We also upgraded from a 25-foot wort chiller to a 50-foot wort chiller, below, so we’re now able to cool a 10-gallon batch in about 10 minutes.
Recently, we purchased a Cereal Killer grain mill, pictured below, so we could buy grains we use more often in larger quantities. It comes with a hand crank, but we hook it up to our electric drill and it powers right through! The mill allows us to adjust the size crush we want as well, which is nice.
What We Will Add Next
Sight glasses for all three keggels and a shop sink for the garage.
Our Dream System
Ruby Street Fusion ½ barrel all electric system. It’s gorgeous for one, but much like our current system, it’s portable and easy to clean. Another plus is that it’s already built so we don’t have to completely build another one! As much as we love our system, it takes freaking forever to clean when we’re done brewing. I also like the idea of not having to use a ladder to get up and down—the extra layer of safety will be nice.
One Item We Can’t Live Without
Dave: None, 20 years of experience and being very cheap has taught me to purchase only what I need or what makes me more efficient.
Libby: Definitely the bucket heater.
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Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s online class Hot Rod Your Kettles and Mash Tun is the perfect introduction to building out your badass homebrew system.