Archive for September, 2012

September 27, 2012

The eternal upgrade…

It wasn’t planned to be like this.  Just a little bit of fun I thought.  Make some beer, it might even be drinkable.  Of course I wouldn’t be content just throwing some kits together, been there, done that, back in my university days.  No, I need to go full out, do it “properly”.  So I did.  And it was drinkable.  Very much so.  With only limited time available I couldn’t really brew enough.

I know, I thought.  I could expand this.  Make bigger batches, so for pretty much the same amount of time brewing I could get maybe twice as much beer.  I reckon there are a few improvements to make too that will speed things up.  I forget how long ago I decided all this, because it seems like forever that I’ve been working on this expansion plan.  But maybe, just maybe, the end is in sight.*

Having decided to scale up I (sensibly?) chose to set the capacity higher than I need, to prevent having to go through another expansion later (yes, in hindsight, definitely a sensible decision!), while being flexible enough to use at maybe half of capacity quite comfortably.  OK, I thought.  Break it down into simple steps.  One thing at a time, introduce the new equipment into the existing setup item by item, keeping the capability to brew so it won’t matter if it doesn’t all happen at once – after all, time is limited.

I wanted to start with the chiller.  Cooling the boiled wort in the existing copper** took an age, and was a clear candidate for making more efficient.  The problem was there was no way I’d be able to connect any sort of “in line” chiller to the outlet.  There was nothing else for it – the new copper had to come first.  I didn’t realise at the time that this sort of knock-on effect would become a common theme.  So, I got a nice big vessel for the new copper.  A few bits of plumbing, new tools (again, this became a common theme – every job brings with it a new piece of equipment necessary to complete the work), a few peripherals including a mighty gas burner, and hey presto, a nice big boil capacity of 100l+.

Having done this the chiller was now essential rather than desirable, as the old one wouldn’t fit in the new boiler.  So before I could brew anything using this brand new copper that had taken up the available brewing time for the past couple of months I had to make that too.  The first attempt was a bit disasterous but it eventually got there with the Mark II.  At last I could brew again.  Ahhh……

I’m still happy that fitting a sight glass to the copper was the right idea – it gives a good indication of level and I can read the volume off easily.  But at the point the copper was first brought into use with the rest of the existing kit I discovered that the volume at which the liquid first comes into sight is just a little greater volume than I can squeeze out of the current mash tun!  That volume is fine for the finished setup, I won’t be going lower than that, but it means there’s a lot of guesswork in the meantime and the existing mash tun and hot liquor tank (HLT) would have to be stretched to capacity.  Of course that means the output is more than previously, so the fermentation vessels would have to be stretched somewhat too.

Next on the list was the HLT.  In hindsight this should have come first but no matter.  Another of those knock-on effects came into play though.  No point having a nice big HLT unless I had something to stand it on.  Fortunately I decided to put some effort into the design of the stand because once I’d committed to building this it would drive the shape of the rest of the brewery, and space is at a premium.  A van-load of steel later, and after a session with a powerful saw (fortunately borrowed rather than purchased) and a couple of false starts, the nice new stand was in place.  The HLT conversion was relatively easy using the experience, and some of the surplus parts, I’d got from building the copper, and so relatively quickly it took its place on the upper level of the stand.  I say relatively quickly, but by now we were months on from the original decision to start this upgrade.  This wasn’t helped by the increasingly obvious need to fit out the whole space and with a few cupboards acquired second-hand, this work had to slot in around the brewery build too.  All the while, the few brews that could be squeezed in had to take place in the middle of a worksite, which was (and still is) trying to say the least.

Two main jobs remained – the mash tun, and the fermenters.  The latter would be easy to convert – just a tap to be added – but the problem was the bigger barrels wouldn’t fit into my crude temperature-controlled space.  And there was little point scaling up the mash tun until I had a big enough fermenter to transfer into.  Nothing for it then, a new temperature-controlled cupboard needed to come first.  Space was a problem now, so another delivery of some steel and another loan of the saw dealt with that.  The base of a nice new double cupboard was then topped with a wooden frame, insulated, and to date one of the doors has been fitted.  The other side will have to wait, but it isn’t a priorty anymore. 

Now the electronics side of things kicked in.  Lots of research and planning, several tactical purchases, more research and rethinking, more purchases, and finally I reach the point with a fancy little box of electrical wizardry that should, subject to a thorough test in the next week or so, allow me to keep the fermentation at the right temperature, and cool down to very low levels to improve the output and expand the brewing styles  I can dabble in.

So, finally, that leaves the mash tun.  I bought the vessel for this months and months ago, but it has just been sitting there getting in the way ever since while I sorted all the other jobs out.  All the fittings were bought ages ago too, and finally (with yet another new tool purchase) I managed to get the drain hole drilled out ready to fit it all together.  All it needs now is a bit of time to fit everything, seal joints etc.  Oh. And it needs a false bottom.  I’ve been dithering about this for months.  I know what I need to do, it’s just a question of doing it.  Buy an expensive piece of perforated steel, tools to cut it, various fittings, and put the effort in.  Finally, I’ve come to a conclusion though.  Cheat.  Get someone else to do it, because by the time I’ve paid for everything I need it isn’t going to work out much cheaper struggling to do it myself.  I can even get a better spec (thicker steel primarily) that way.  So, one false bottom finally ordered and the mash tun can be brought into use.  Except I planned it with a recirculation system which will help to keep the temperature constant and even allow stepping up of temperatures semi-automatically.  Overkill?  Maybe, but it is what I decided on.  So, back to the electronics, another raid on eBay, and subject to postage times from China for a few key bits, another fancy gizmo will be concocted to control the mash temperature.

So then we’re finished.  Potentially in the next few weeks.  Certainly ready for a big brewday in November.

Well, I say finished.  There’s a sparge arm needed.  And the pipework from copper to chiller to fermenter needs sorting out properly.  As does the plumbing supply into the building.  And the fitting of the sink.  And the permanent electrics.  And the other half of the fermenting cupboard.

And when I’ve done all that I’m sure there’ll be some other jobs that need doing…

Even so, it is quite exciting to be within sight of getting all the main jobs out of the way and to soon be able to spend a bit more time brewing and a lot less time building things.  It’s been much more than 12 months in the making, so far, and I’ve a new-found appreciation of all the different skills you need in order to make the capability to make beer, and I can’t wait to start using it properly.  Hopefully just in time for it to become the pilot plant for a slightly larger setup, but that’s another story of which more another time!

Having started this blog with the intention of recording progress on the brewery I thought it was about time I stopped getting sidetracked with other beer-related issues and actually wrote about the brewery for once.  So there you are, you now know as much as me about it!  Hopefully the next update will be rather sooner, and will be a positive report on the first “full” use of the new kit.  Fingers crossed…

* Strictly speaking, the end will never be in sight.  I quickly learnt that there’s always one more change, one more improvement, no matter how finished you thought you were!

** That’s the boiler, if you didn’t already know that

September 8, 2012

What’s right?

Saturday evening. Early, to be fair. Standing in a pub in Birmingham that I rate highly most days. Enjoying good ale. But some bloke (or some woman with a really masculine voice!) is treating us to Oasis tracks “a capella”. I’d like to refer you to my previous post but it is clearly too late for parental influence.

It has stopped again. Hopefully either the friends of the drunken contralto, or the staff of the bar, have restored order.

My point, if I have one, is that antisocial behaviour can be subtle but controllable.  Grown-ups can be as guilty as children. Either can make the pub a delightful place. I don’t feel delighted tonight.

But then, as I step down from the soapbox, the thought. How many times was that me? It’s easy to be critical.

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September 7, 2012

Pubs and children

It’s amazing how quickly time flies by.  It’s already nearly a week since I got home from a very enjoyable family holiday in Cornwall.  Obviously any holiday with a three-year old involved is going to involve a lot of child-friendly activities, and this one was no exception.  But a family holiday is also about just getting the rare chance to spend a bit more time together, and to me it is very important that it is a holiday for everyone, so in my case that means dragging the family to a few of the local pubs and hopefully getting to try a few beers that are not readily available back home or even better completely new to me.

As I’m generally doing the driving on our holidays, this rather limits the opportunities for me, but lunchtimes and evening meals are always good times for a half pint or two along with a bite to eat, and are actually reasonable value compared to .  All it takes is to find somewhere serving food that is child-tolerant.  But it also ideally has to be the kind of pub I want to have a drink in, so as not to squander what is a fairly limited opportunity.  I’m not a fan of the chains of “family pubs” that more often that not have a play area and hordes of screaming kids, and at best a pretty bland and uninspiring selection of ale.

We were very fortunate on this holiday to be able to go into a few very good pubs who were more than happy for us to take a young child in with us, and their menus generally catered well for children’s meals.  Dragging a hungry child in and out of pubs until you find a suitable one isn’t the best strategy, and so there were a couple of occasions where we had to go with the safe option – though actually the two Wetherspoons pubs we fell back on at these times actually were up there with the best in terms of the beers I had so everyone was happy.  A tolerant attitude to families with children meant I could visit the kind of pubs I would choose to go to on my own, or with friends.  Brewpubs like the Driftwood Spars at Trevaunance Cove and the Blue Anchor at Helston.  Friendly local places like the London Inn at Summerscourt or the Ship Inn at Looe.  And lots more.  And the first two mentioned were perfectly welcoming even when we were there just for a drink, not even for a meal.

Of course there is the whole argument about how children shouldn’t be allowed in pubs, they are places for adults, but pubs also need to attract as many customers as they can and I’m pretty sure we justified the tolerance of the places we went into by taking with us a good-mannered child who knows how to behave in a place that is for grown-ups.  I know we did in fact, because of the comments we got at the end of many of our visits.  But then, over the past four years we’ve taken our daughter into pubs and restaurants and taught her that she needs to regulate her behaviour.  When she was very young there were a couple of occasions where we had to take her out of somewhere because she was playing up, but the lesson quickly worked and we get the benefit now by having much more freedom to take her with us to the kind of places we want to go while we’re on holiday together.

My only complaint really, is that it is quite difficult to know how a particular pub feels about you going in with children.  One of my sources of information about pubs while out and about, the Good Beer Guide, indicates if a pub has a dedicated Family Room, but unless it happens to be mentioned in the general description places that are happy for you to take children into the main parts of the pub aren’t identified.  Even pubs’ own websites don’t always make it clear (although the presence of children’s options on an online menu is a good clue sometimes!) and we had to go into a few places in the hope that it would be alright – fortunately either a children’s menu or a quick check with the staff quickly clarified that.

So, publicans. Make it easy for me to identify you as somewhere that is happy to allow well-behaved children and I’ll be more than happy to give you my custom (if your beer selection appeals too, of course!).  Don’t tolerate bad behaviour though – that spoils it for the rest of us.  The pub isn’t a creche but there is no reason why it should be out of bounds to families.