What I learned about brew systems at “Big Brew”

On May 3 I was in the parking lot of Maryland Homebrew with a lot of other brewers, participating in their annual “Big Brew” event.

I’ve been doing all-grain brewing for quite a while now, but I have a fairly simple set-up, as did many of the Big Brew participants. But you know homebrewers — they’re a creative lot. People had some pretty fancy rigs. One guy even had the Ruby Street setup.

I spent some time looking at all the different brewers’ gear to get a sense of the benefits of different configurations and methods, and afterwards I tried to come up with a generic diagram of “best practices” for a fancy all-grain brewing rig. Here’s the diagram. Descriptions of all the components are provided below. You can click on the image for a larger version.

Greg Krehbiel's diagram of a generic all-grain brewing system

There are five main pieces of equipment.

  • The hot liquor tun
  • The mash tun
  • The kettle
  • The pump and
  • The wort chiller

There are also two sources of heat, lots of hoses, the frame you put it all on, etc. I’ll explain all that as necessary.

Hot liquor tun — This is where you heat up your strike and sparge water. You can just leave it at that — a simple pot to heat water in — but some people add a coil inside the hot liquor tun to recirculate wort through the hot water. This is helpful to manage the temperature of your mash, but it also helps in getting very clear wort into the boiling kettle because as you re-circulate your mash water, the grains in the mash tun form a very effective filter. It’s like a really long vorlauf.

Mash tun — Many home brewers make a mash tun out of one of those orange or yellow picnic coolers — like the ones you see strapped to the back of a construction truck with bungee cords. But sometimes it’s a metal pot, a converted keg, or something along those lines. The spigot to draw liquid out of the mash tun has to have a filter of some type. Some mash tuns have a false bottom, some have a kettle screen or equivalent, and some have both.

Kettle — This is where you boil the wort, of course. Some kettles are quite fancy, with built in thermometers and glass water gauges, and some are quite simple. Here’s a 20 gallon boilermaker brewpot.

Greg Krehbiel's Beginner's Guide to All-Grain Brewing

If you’re feeling intimidated, don’t worry. You don’t have to do all this stuff to try all-grain brewing. In fact, I often wonder if it’s worth the trouble. I have a very simple system and don’t fuss with half the things these guys try to manage, and my beer comes out pretty well. If you want to read about the basics of all-grain brewing, try my Beginner’s Guide to All-Grain Brewing. It will take the intimidation out of the process.

You don’t have to create a micro-industrial process in your garage to brew beer at home. Still, this stuff is pretty interesting, and if you’re going to have a hobby anyway ….

Systems like the one I’ve diagrammed here rely on a series of hoses and a pump to move liquids from place to place. There are gravity fed systems that use a stand like this one, that don’t require a pump, but for this post I’m going to focus on systems that use a pump.

All the “ins” and “outs” in my diagram need to be connected with appropriate tubing. Silicon tubing is best. The connections are diagrammed above, but I’ll explain them as I walk through the process.

Starting from the beginning, you’ll fill the hot liquor tun with your strike water and heat it to the appropriate temperature. (Just pour the water in the top. The “in” on the hot liquor tun — #1 — is for the recirculating coil, not for the strike water.) The water comes out of the hot liquor tun through #3 above (yellow). That spigot is connected via tubing to #3 on the in (left) side of the pump. #4 on the right (out) side of the pump is connected to the #4 (green) on the mash tun.

Note that extra little diagram involving #2. There are two lines that need to go in to #4. One from the pump and one from #2.

Those gray lines in my diagram on each side of the pump are valves. You start with all the valves closed. To transfer the hot water to the mash tun you’ll open valve 3 and valve 4. (Note that homebrew pumps often need to be primed, so it’s possible you’ll need an exhaust option on the right side of the pump.) Once you’ve transferred the strike water to the mash tun you close those valves.

As I mentioned, some brewers like to circulate the wort through the grains in the mash tun, and through a coil in the hot liquor tun. You can adjust the temperature of your mash by changing the temperature of the water in the hot liquor tun.

To recirculate the wort in the mash, you have to add more water to the hot liquor tun and bring it up to the right temperature. Then you let the wort out of #5 (blue) to #5 on the pump, then out of #1 on the right (out) side of the pump to #1 (grey) at the “in” side of the coil in the hot liquor tun. A hose then runs from #2 (red) to #4 (green) to make a continuous flow. (Note again that little diagram involving #2 and #4. You’ll need to adjust that valve to get the flow from #2 to #4.)

To transfer wort to the brew kettle you connect #5 (blue) through the pump to #6 (pink).

To cool the wort you connect #7 (light purple) through the pump to #8 (dark red), then from #9 (brown) to your fermenter.

I’ve been through this diagram a couple times and I’m pretty sure it all works, but look it over yourself and see what you think. If you see any problems, let me know.

Again, this is all very cool, and I’m half-tempted to create a rig like this myself, but — as one of my fellow brewers reminded me on Saturday — you can make excellent all-grain beer on your kitchen stove with a Papazian-style “zapap” lauter tun. There’s no need to make it complicated. But if the bug bites, I hope this diagram and explanation helps.

3 Thoughts on “What I learned about brew systems at “Big Brew”

  1. Looks like there is a lot of swapping of lines to the pump. And of course making sure the ins and outs are correct. I watched someone do this at a recent brew and found it confusing – mostly because I was barely paying attention and drinking all day. He brewed a 10 gallon batch with no lifting. Pretty sweet. It would take a few sober batches and a laminated chart to get it. Once it became routine you get back to drinking and brewing – kind of like driving. Who said that?

    How does that Blichmann BrewEasy™ system work with only 2 kettles?

  2. No, the lines would be permanent. You’d be switching the valves on and off.

    I’m pretty sure that blichmann system just recirculates water through the mash tun continuously until the target gravity is reached. Imagine putting all your mash and sparge water in the kettle, heating it to your target temperature, then just cycling it all through the malt for an hour. When the mash is done you drain everything to the kettle and boil.

    It sounds pretty simple. I don’t know if it’s a good idea. If I had a pump I would try it.

  3. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be too hard to experiment with the Blickmann “easy” method. You’d put your kettle on the burner and add the entire water volume — strike water plus sparge water. Then you’d heat it to your strike temperature.

    At the same time you’d put your mash tun above the brew kettle with hose that goes back to the brew kettle. It would be set to very slowly drain into the brew kettle.

    Then you’d transfer liquid from the kettle to the mash tun. Of course this would be easier with a pump, but for testing purposes you could just drain off two quarts at a time and pour it into the mash tun.

    For the next hour you’d be slowly bleeding off progressively more sugar-endowed liquid into the kettle and recirculating it into the mash tun. When the hour is done you’d drain everything into the kettle and start the boil.

    That, I think, is basically how the blichmann system works.

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