About thirteen years ago I met Jack Ferguson. One day not too long afterward I found that Jack was knowledgeable about the brewing process. As is turns out Jack had home brewed in the sixties and has since been collecting gizmos to build the ultimate home brewery. He let me borrow his copy of Dave Lines 'Big Book of Brewing'. That started it all! Take a look and see what has happened since.
I started to design my brewery in February of 1997. I didn't want to build something that would soon be outgrown. Also, I didn't want to spend a lot of time or money building it. I wanted to concentrate on making/drinking beer.
With that in mind I built a three tier gravity fed system. The vessels started life as 1/2 barrel stainless steel kegs. The stand is also fabricated from stainless steel. Many of the materials were donated by friends in the neighborhood. Check out the credits.
When I researched beer making, it looked like RIMS would be cool to play with, although it didn't seem necessary. The stand was designed to be easily adapted for a RIMS setup. My stand had three sections- the bottom level, middle and top. Total height around eight feet! One advantage to RIMS is that you can easily reduce the height by two feet. Very important if you have eight foot ceilings. :) The center section is easily removed for a RIMS setup .
My first brew session took place in June of 1997. I couldn't wait to get that first brew under my belt. I was worried about how many leaks I'd have, how well I could control the mash temperature, adjust the pH and if I would get the dreaded stuck mash. Well it went just fine - sort of. I copied a five gallon recipe and doubled all ingredients for my first ten gallon batch. The result was a low OG beer. It took about three weeks to ferment. I didn't realize the value of oxygenating the freshly pitched wort. Although weak, it tasted great. You could drink it until you were full!
Brew sessions continued until winter with each new brew better than the last. One of the hardest parameters to control was the mash temperature. I could hit the strike temperature easily but steps were always out of control. Earlier experiments using only water showed it was very easy to control the temperature within a tenth degree. During a real mash you're trying to stay within a degree or two of your target with eighty five pounds of a thick oatmeal like mash. The temperature is different everywhere in the mash. When I applied heat to the bottom of the tun, the temperature would rise too fast and kill off the enzymes while temperature near the surface and sides was too low. Finally, with practice I could easily maintain the desired single infusion strike temperature for one and a half hours. Heat was applied for three seconds out of every sixty with a propane fired burner. I reasoned the only way to gain real control of the mash temperature would be to circulate the wort through the mash tun with a pump. A Recirculating Infusion Mash System!
Unfortunately it gets mighty cold here in Syracuse, NY during the winter. Since the brewery is currently in an unheated space I am unable to brew from December to April. This gave me plenty of time to improve the brewery. I purchased a pump and started writing software to control the brewing process.
I found that making beer requires a lot of time. The more tasks that can be automated the better. On the top of my list was controlling the sparge. I decided the easiest way to sense the level was with a probe that reached in from the top of the mash tun. I reasoned that when no liquid was in contact with the probe the measured resistance would be 'high'. When in contact with the wort it would be lowered. Well, it works like a charm. An hour and a half that I now have free. Take a look at my Control Software GUI.
The brews are now very consistent. RIMS allows me to do step mashes and keeps the temperature of the overall mash uniform. The runoffs are very clear into the boiler. The software controls and logs the temperature of the boiler, mash and liquor tuns. A sequencer was added to the software that gets everything up to temperature while I'm away. The night before a brew session I fill the tuns with water, measure the grain and start up the software. When I get up in the morning all I have to do is crush the grain in the mill and pour it into the mash tun. I'm then able to leave for breakfast and enjoy the newspaper.
The sequencer is great because I can set it up to have the mash water at the correct temperature when I get up at 6:00 AM. I don't have to wait around watching things heat up for an hour. I fill the liquor tun with 14.5 Gallons of water, the mash tun with 7.5 and three or four into the boiler. Tap water is run through a charcoal filter to remove chlorine at a rate of one to two gallons per minute. This usually takes about an hour because I overfill this tun or that. Then I drain some out to get he correct amount, but start measuring the grain and drain too much. You get the idea. I need to add some more level sensors and solenoids to control filling the tuns.
At the pump outlet I have two valves. One controls the circulating flow of the mash tun, the other controls the runoff to the boiler. Adding a level sensors to the boiler and solenoids to the pump will allow unattended mash and sparge. Currently I have to open/close the valves at the end of mash-out. This new feature should give me another hour and a half of free time.
Well why stop there? I might as well add a small contraption to drop in pre-measured hops at the correct times. The software already keeps track of the boiler temperature and time. Another temperature sensor and solenoid to regulate cooling water through the counter flow chiller. And, and, .............