The Session #132: Talking about homebrewing

The SessionThis month’s edition of The Session is hosted by yours truly, and I’ve asked folks to start a conversation about homebrewing: “the good, the bad, your experiences, ideas, (mis)conceptions, or whatever else suits you!” I’ll be compiling links to all the participating posts next week, to give everyone who wants to participate time to write up their contribution this weekend. So, thinking about homebrewing…

Currently I’m the president of the local homebrew club here in Bend, Central Oregon Homebrewers Organization (COHO), which I noted the other day involves a good amount of evangelism and education. And by “education” I don’t just mean me educating others, but the other way around too—I’ve learned quite a lot just by being a member of the club and seeing how other people brew!

One of the monthly activities the club sponsors is a group brew day at a member’s house. Anyone can volunteer to host a group brew, and the club pays for ingredients (up to a certain amount) for 10 gallons of beer—five for the member to keep, and five for the club to share. Everyone is welcome to attend a group brew (even non-members), and we encourage others to bring their brew systems over (assuming they are portable) and brew a beer as well.

(In fact, there is a group brew this weekend that we’ll be attending!)

It’s a terrific method to get direct exposure to how other homebrewers work, and learn about different systems. I’ve hosted a group brew, and my own system looks fairly low-tech when compared to others I’ve seen:

Homebrew systems: my own batch sparge setup
I brew all-grain, with a batch sparge method. It’s compact and easy to set up and break down.

The great thing about these group brews and about the club in general, is we see all levels of brewing taking place, and even the most experienced brewers tend to learn something new.

And frankly, it amazes me the complexity of some of these advanced systems that people are brewing on at home—I’ve seen less sophisticated setups at (very small) professional breweries!

So I thought I would share pictures of a number of these systems from the club. Of course my own setup is right there above. It’s simple and flexible enough that I can easily brew an extract beer, partial mash, or all-grain (via batch sparging). It’s gravity fed, so I don’t have any pumps and piping to worry about. I haven’t figured out quite how yet, but I could do a decoction mash with this setup, and if I wanted to convert to traditional fly sparging at some point, I just add another tank and tier.

Here are some of the other systems, techniques, and equipment we have in the club:

Homebrew systems: simple extract
Extract Brewing: This isn’t from a club brew, but we’ve done extract with the club.
Homebrew Systems: Brew in a bag
Brew in a Bag: Simple setup, intriguing idea. You brew an all-grain batch with the grains in a bag that you lift out at the end of the mash.
Homebrew Systems: Brew stand
A good example of a member’s brew stand, ideal for a gravity-fed system. This particular set up is also batch sparge.
Homebrew Systems: Homemade wort chiller
This and the next two pictures are of an improvised combination of immersion and plate chiller. Brilliant and worked like a charm.

Homebrew Systems: Improvised wort chiller

Homebrew Systems: Improvised wort chiller

Homebrew Systems: Three-vessel brew stand
A three-vessel brew stand with a built-in electrical panel to control ignition and pumps. Note the conical fermenter behind it.
Homebrew Systesms: HERMS
I believe this is a HERMS (Heat Exchanger Recirculating Mash System) system.
Homebrew Systems: Hop spider
This “hop spider” immersed in the boiling wort keeps your hops contained for easier cleanup.
Homebrew Systems: Three vessel system
A three vessel system equipped with pumps in such as way that very little moving of vessels is needed.
Homebrew System: Three vessel
Another three vessel system, built in such a way that it can be hooked up to a vehicle and towed as a trailer for portability.
Homebrew Systems: Grainfather
A Grainfather all-in-one system, a cool setup if you don’t have a lot of space.
Homebrew Systems: BoilerMaker
A Blichmann BoilerMaker, similar in concept to the Grainfather but quite a bit bigger!
Homebrew Systems: Conical fermenter
Homebrew-sized conical fermenter! Quite a bit more advanced than (my) carboys.

There is definitely an element of “system envy” at some of the group brews, but there are always tradeoffs. Fly sparging takes longer than batch sparging, for instance; and in general, the more advanced the system, the more cleaning you will have to do.

The systems and equipment that impress me the most—I mean sure, those three vessel automated stands are pretty impressive, but—are the ones that have been what you might call hacked, or jury-rigged, or improvised. It speaks to ingenuity and inventiveness and problem solving, and for me makes it all more accessible, less intimidating.

So: Do you homebrew? Are you a member of your local club? If you don’t have a local club, have you considered starting one?

I can guarantee that not only is it a great social experience—and yes, you get to drink beers you would find nowhere else—but you’ll learn much more about beer and brewing than you imagine.

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