Category Archives: Homebrew Tips

Grain Mill Adjustments

If you crack your own grains (and I recommend you do- see my opinion why), here are a couple of tidbits I’ll pass on that I learned the hard way.  They both have to do with roller adjustment.  When I first got my grain mill, the instructions suggested getting a set of feeler gauges to set/adjust the roller gap to, in order to define your grain crush.  I thought this was a superfluous detail and I would just eyeball it.  I found after my first setting was too large that it was actually quite hard to tell by eye if the gap was the right size to crack the barley husk without pulverizing it to dust.

Really the only way to tell was to run a batch of grains through and look at what was coming out the other side.  If too much or not enough, adjust accordingly.  Making these adjustments by eye was quite tedious as I would continually overshoot or undershoot my mark.  In the end, my efforts to try to simplify things by skipping the feeler gauges was actually making it harder for me.  So I bought a set and figured out what seemed to be the right setting.

Feeler gage for grain mill

In the process of these adjustments, I got burned by the lock nuts on the adjustable roller.  The mill was set up with a dial on both ends of one roller to dial it in closer or further away from the other roller.  Then it had two locking screws to turn in tight to keep the roller in position.  Stupidly, these locking screws have a nut threaded onto them, that cause you to bottom out your tightening screw against the nut and not actually be locking the roller into position.  I found this out after seeing a batch of kernels go through and not actually get crushed properly.

Roller adjustment locking screws on grain mill

I have no idea the intended purpose of these nuts.  I had initially thought they were to keep your adjustment screws from backing out once you locked them in, but that’s not the case.  They way they’re set up, they only function to prevent you from fully locking your adjustable roller into place, but don’t prevent your roller from backing out and increasing the gap as you grind.  So word of advice, just back these nuts way off and get them out of your way so you don’t get burned like I did.

The Benefit of Cracking Your Own Grains

About a year ago, I decided to buy a grain mill and crack my own grains.  I figured if I tried to explain it to anyone they’d think I was crazy spending $100 for a grain mill to add another labor step to my brew day preparation when the homebrew shop would do it for free.  At the time I did it because I was feverishly trying to sort out my grain conversion efficiency.  I had a particular batch that had a low conversion efficiency, and after inspecting the spent grain after mashing I noticed a lot of the kernels were still intact, and hadn’t even been cracked.  I decided if I really wanted to be in control of what was going on, I couldn’t be victim to whether or not my grains were fully cracked coming from the homebrew shop.

Ever since making that decision, I’ve felt it was money well spent as I felt more in control of the whole process (which is partly what drives us all to move from extract to all-grain to begin with).  While cracking a batch of grain recently for a Scotch Ale, I would crack the grains and inspect to make sure I was getting a good crush- cracking all/most of the hulls but not turning things to powder.  All was going well as I worked through Munich, White Wheat, and Smoked Wheat.  But when I went through the Golden Promise, I found that maybe only 50-60% of the kernels were cracked.

Large number of uncracked grains

I adjusted the roller to do a finer crush and re-processed it all.  In hindsight, if I was smart, I would crush all of a given grain in a bucket then then after inspecting the crush move it over to the brewday grain bucket.  But in this case, having not learned that lesson yet, my half-cracked Golden Promise sat on top of the rest of my nicely crushed other grains.  Having no option but to crush it all again on the finer setting, it all went back through the mill.  I got a nice crack on the Golden Promise, but a lot of the other got broken up into very small bits.  Grains After Re-Cracking on Finer SettingI added some rice hulls to help avoid a stuck mash with such a fine crush and was prepared for brew day.  Rice Hulls Added Due to Finer Crush

Had this batch come through my LHBS, I’m sure it would’ve all been run through a fixed roller setting and I’d be stuck with low conversion efficiency.

While cracking this batch of grains, I found another reason cracking your own grains is worthwhile.  Frequently while going through this Wheat Chaff in Uncracked Graingrain processing you find little bits of bonus grain bits that you can filter out (grain stock other than the kernel), but this time I found an unknown hop pellet sitting in my package of grains.  Hop Pellet Found in Grain Prior to CrackingI have no idea what type it was, how old it was, etc.  I just know I was glad I found it and it didn’t get ground up to be a bonus/mystery flavor in my Scotch Ale.  Making a small 2.5 gallon batch that was also low in IBU, one hop pellet could make a noticeable difference.

Don’t be Fooled by Heat Plumes

Dont be fooled by heat plumes in mashIf you’re doing a multi-temperature mash by adding heat to your mash tun, you need to be wary of heat plumes fooling your thermometer.  I have an 8 gallon pot with a false bottom that I use for my mash tun.  When I do a multi-temperature mash, I monitor the temperature of the grain/water mash as I’m adding heat.  Occasionally I’ve been thrown into a panic as my temperature seemingly shot past my target temperature.

However, if you’re not running some sort of recirculation pump you need to be wise to these tricks and give your mash a stir to ensure the hot water at the bottom gets mixed in to the entire mash instead of just finding an escape route to the top past your thermometer probe.

Similarly, when first mashing in your grain to your hot water, you need to give it about 5-10 minutes to totally equalize and balance out the temperature between grains and water before trying to adjust temperature up or down.  I’ve had situations where it was location of the thermometer probe giving me an inaccurate temperature, or sometimes just simply giving things a chance to fully mix and stabilize.

Make Your Brew Day a Family Event

One side this homebrewing hobby that can be both a blessing and a curse is the amount of time needed on brew day or preparation for brew day.  Of course this time alone can be a great escape from the stresses of life.  And sitting outside on a nice summer day watching my wort boil and listening to the birds sing I find downright magical.

But telling the kids, “Not now, I’m busy” can make even the most solitude-loving individual feel guilty.  So facing a giant mass of equipment I needed to clean on Saturday afternoon in preparation for a Sunday brew day, I came up with a brilliant idea.

I conscripted the young helping hands I had at home, telling them I’d pay them $5/hour to help me clean my brew equipment.  It was a win-win.  The kids were thrilled to be earning some money to spend on whatever they wanted, they helped me get through cleaning day faster, and instead of this work being alone non-family time we were hanging out having fun listening to music and talking.  Luckily, the kids weren’t up on child labor laws and the concept of minimum wage, so I think I’ll pursue this again in the future sometime.

Boys Cleaning Brewing Equipment

Careful not to Spray Your Walls with Yeast Starter

While doing a yeast starter a while back, I had a strange phenomenon happen to me that caught me off-guard.  Doing a 2L starter in a glass 1/2 gallon carboy, I shake it up about every hour to ensure I am getting good aeration.  While doing this, it builds up pressure as I have the cap screwed on tightly so as not to leak anything.  After it settles down, I loosen the lid a bit and let it vent some of the built-up pressure (and get another dose of oxygen for the fermentation).

During this process, of course the yeast foam wants to rush out as Careful when shaking starteryou relieve the pressure, so you have to screw the lid back on again before you lose anything out the lid.  So this day while venting through the lid, I had a slow steady stream of pressurized air going out, watching the foam raise higher in the jug.  Right when it was near the lid, I screwed it down tighter only to find it suddenly rush out and foam out of the carboy.

After this happened a couple of times, I figured out what was going on with the physics of it.  By letting it establish a steady flow rate, when I started tightening the lid I was decreasing the area it had to flow through, which made the flow speed up.  Same phenomenon as a garden hose when you start to bend it over to pinch the flow.

So next time around, I’ll either not let the foam get too close to the lid before tightening the lid down, or not let it build up a steady flow stream by venting for a period of time.

Different Propane Regulators

There are different types of LP regulators out there, and some function differently.  I stumbled across this on brew day as I was using my new propane burner.  It came with its own regulator and it looked slightly different than my old one.  I didn’t think much of it and just used the new hose/regulator with the new burner.  But I found the function of the adjustable knob on it was different.

Propane Regulators

Instead of being an open/close valve (with variable opening amount in between), it actually adjusted the pressure regulation.

Adjustable Pressure, No Flow Valve
Adjustable Pressure, No Flow Valve

This wasn’t intuitive at first and I was frustrated by the fact that I now had to turn the knob in the opposite direction I was used to.  Bigger flame on pressure regulator meant turning the knob clockwise.

However on my old regulator that was a flow control valve, the pressure was fixed (at 10 psi) and my flow control valve opened by turning counterclockwise.

Fixed Pressure, Adjustable Flow Valve
Fixed Pressure, Adjustable Flow Valve

After getting my brain used to turning the knob in the opposite direction, the other issue I found was turning the flame off took a lot more turns of the knob, and it felt somewhat disconcerting that the flame went out before the knob was fully turned all the way it could go.

Not realizing that the new one with the pressure regulator adjustment gave me greater gas flow capability (adjusts up to 30 psi), I switched to the other one that I was more familiar with.  But when I went to boil the wort, I didn’t get any speedier boil than with my older/smaller burner.  So in the end, I switched the lines again.

In the end, it’s worth understanding the function of the adjustments on your propane line because just because the fitting on the burner is the same and the propane tank is the same, what you put in between can have an effect on how well you can use your burner.

When Plastic Hoses Heat Up, They Get Loose

After having a major disaster where I dumped a bunch of garden hose water into what otherwise would’ve been an awesome IPA, I made a couple changes to my equipment.  I changed the fittings on my wort chiller from a simple worm screw clamp solution on a smooth copper tube to a compression fitting mating to the copper coil, and then the plastic hose was press fit over a barbed fitting.  In addition to that, I modified the copper tubing routing so this fitting no longer would stay inside the boil pot, but instead would overhang the outside edge of the boil kettle.

The connection seemed like a super-robust solution as I checked it out when I made the change.  It wasn’t until I did my dual brew day batch where I was chilling two batches with this one wort chiller that I found a new issue.  The hot end of my wort chiller (the output side after it goes through the hot wort) had the hose sliding off just with the tug of gravity.  Luckily it was toward the end of the chilling phase so the hose was starting too cool down, shrink, and no longer slide off.

So in the future it’ll be belts & suspenders, and those barbed fittings will also get hose clamps on top of it….

Always Have a Spare

About a week ago, I was preparing for my homebrew day (actually a dual homebrew day, doing 2 batches simultaneously), and I was in & out of the house gathering equipment for my brew day outside.  While re-positioning cars in the driveway to clear my brew space, something crunched in my back pocket.  I pulled out my BIC lighter and found that it was not very pocket-durable when you sit on it.

Spare Lighter

Luckily, I had bought the lighters as a 2-pack way back when, so I tossed the broken one aside and got my backup.  I briefly thought about what a disaster it would’ve been had I not had a spare.  My intricate schedule of balancing two different brews, my smack-pack yeast warming in the house, my crushed grain waiting in buckets in the basement, …  I would’ve had to scramble off to the store to buy another lighter, and screwed up my whole schedule for the day.

I was reminded that I had already taken precautions on my propane tanks, and I always keep 2 tanks
Spare Propane Tank on hand for brew day.  Years ago, I ran out of propane in the midst of my boil and that really sucked.  Much worse than it would’ve been had I not had a spare BIC lighter.  It reminded me that I needed to do a bit of an equipment review and figure out which items would be a true disaster if I sat on them or something on brew day and didn’t have a spare…

Check Your Grains for Crush

I switched to all-grain brewing because I was trying to have more options/control of my brews and I wanted a better tasting beer.  My day job as an engineer makes me particular about process details and wanting to be able to repeat successful recipes/brew days or look at detailed notes and figure out where things went astray if I end up with less than expected results.

One of the first details I started chasing when I switched over from extract to all-grain was conversion efficiency, or getting all the extractable sugars out of the grains and into my wort.  After honing in on a few common aspects and correcting them, I started studying the grains to get clues of how to further improve repeatability in conversion efficiency.

Looking at a batch of spent grain in my mash tun after ending up with a much lower OG that predicted, I noticed a lot of my grain kernels were still whole/uncracked.  Since the husk doesn’t dissolve in water, if you don’t get it cracked before you mash, all those sugars stay trapped inside and don’t dissolve into your wort.  And this is a possible reason for lower than expected OG.

Most homebrew shops will crack your grain for you for free, and if you’re like me, you assume they know what they’re doing and don’t bother looking at the grain.  But the reality is it goes beyond knowing what you’re doing, and gets into the mundane aspects of your workday.  If a particular grain needs a smaller roller spacing to get the husks cracked, or if over time they’ve drifted apart, the only way you know if you’ve got a good crush is looking at the product on the other end of the mill and checking it.  If it’s not crushed enough, you have to adjust the roller spacing tighter and run it through again.  If you’re an employee in a homebrew shop filling lots of orders, you might assume the guy before you set it up right and not really look at it- just grind and bag.

After finding a low OG and seeing a batch of spent grain after mashing that looked like this, with a large number of whole, intact grains-Grains not crushed post boilGrains not crushed post boil I decided I wanted to take matters into my own hands and buy my own mill.  Not everyone wants to fork out $100 to do that.  But if you don’t, you really should take care to examine your grain BEFORE you brew.  Seeing it after mashing like I did, you’re too late to do anything about it.

However, if you see it before mashing, like this- Grains milled but not enough pre boilGrains milled but not enough pre boilyou can adjust and correct it.  You also do this check immediately after milling the grain.  I learned the hard way that checking it the moments before I was about to add it to the mash tun left me scrambling to run inside and re-mill, and trying not to let the water overheat or cool off that was at my strike temperature.

Chilling Your Beer in the Winter- Using a Pre-Chiller

As I posted over the summer (Making a Pre-Chiller), I was struggling to quickly cool my beer since the warmer weather meant warmer tap water flowing through my wort chiller.  So I made a pre-chiller.  But as it turns out, this handy pre-chiller also helps you cool your beer faster in the wintertime, too.  Brewing in 32 degree weather, it felt silly to fill the pre-chiller cooler with ice water.  But by removing the pre-chiller from the cooler and leaving it in the air, it became a way to chill the house water down by simply letting it sit in the air and the copper tubing to try to pull the house water down closer to 32 degrees.  So the pre-chiller helps speed the cool-down period both when brewing in the heat of the summer, and in the cold of the winter.How to make a pre chiller 2 How to make a pre chiller