Our Brewing System

I have found a great deal of ideas and inspiration for building our all-grain system from other home brewer’s posting details of their systems online.  In the spirit of sharing here’s the details on how our current system is setup and steps we took to address problems along the way.

We started brewing all-grain early in 2014 and since then our brewing system has evolved a great deal from my original vision. The original vision was simple a 15 gallon kettle from Northern Brewer, a 3500w induction burner for heat, and a BIAB bag. Nothing fancy, right out of the gate though things didn’t go as planned.   If it wasn’t for me, Rachel and I would probably still be brewing on that setup.  However, if I find a problem it sticks with me and I just have to solve it.  So our system has evolved over the past year to address a variety of shortcomings.

The kettle from Northern Brewer was back-ordered in the 15g size and I was already nervous about very large mashes for high gravity beers not fitting in the 15g kettle.  In retrospect I realize now I could have simply introduced sparging to the process to get around that. Instead faced with a back-ordered kettle I just went up to the next size. The first batch revealed several problems:

  • A hot spot would develop under the bag at times and the mash required stirring to even out the temperature.
  • The bag bulged outside the edge of the kettle and made a mess when hoisting.
  • A 3500w induction cooker just isn’t enough power to hold a good rolling boil in a kettle this large with the top off completely.
  • It was hard to hold mash temperatures without constantly babysitting the induction burner, even though it has some low wattage settings nearly every single one seemed to be wrong for ‘holding’ temperature. I was never able to work out an amount of wattage that didn’t result in the temperature climbing slowly.

The first problem was ignored for a long time, probably 6 months or so with us just babysitting the kettle constantly and turning the cooker on and off.  Temps would drift up and down in a 3-4 degree range for the whole mash.

Hotspotting under the grain bag was addressed by adding a small 18v DC solar pump to the system to recirculate the wort.  I also started monitoring the temperature though a probe in the re circulation line.  Previously I was monitoring the temperature in the kettle itself with a digital thermometer, but the mash was destroying the probes.  Monitoring the flow allowed me to keep them out of complete exposure to the wort.

To address our bulging bag issue I found an 18g frying basket that fit inside our kettle.  Now when I hoist the bag it’s safely contained within this basket and is much easier to control and handle.  Plus when it’s time to remove and dump the grain bag I have a handy container to carry it to my compost pile.

UC Davis Induction Brew Kettle

UC Davis Induction Brew Kettle

The induction cooker boils just fine, it just needs the lid to be on somewhat in order to allow it to reach and hold a rolling boil.  Inspired by a photo of a UC Davis brewing system that had a partial lid I crafted one of my own.   While I did find some listings for similar copper lids online they were extremely expensive and not the proper size for my kettle.   I ended up purchasing a large stainless steel mixing bowl that matched the diameter of my kettle and then cut several circular holes in the top for vents.

Finally we eventually got extremely tired of how much we had to babysit the system during the mash.  It was tedious and annoying running in and out of the garage where we were brewing to toggle the burner on and off as the mash temperature changed.  The best purchase I think I’ve made for easing my brewing day had to be the RIMs tube from brewinghardware.com.  With it and the mash controller based off the Mash Brick design on aledrinkers.com brewing days have become far easier.

At this point I’m still planning a few upgrades.  I need to come up with proper ventilation in the garage so I don’t have to keep the garage door open during the winter when brewing.  I would also like to improve my insulation situation, right now we have some cumbersome wraps made of bubble insulation (Reflectix) to go around the kettle.  I’m considering wrapping the kettle in wood instead for insulation.