How Not To Build A Brewery

The eagled eyed amongst you, will have noticed that there hasn’t been much homebrew activity on the blog lately. There’s reason for that…

I last brewed in August 2015 which seems like an awfully long time ago. Things didn’t quite go to plan and the element in my main boiler burnt out, welding the plug into the socket. As I ran a three vessel setup, I just switched to using my HLT as the boiler and the brew continued.

Ecokegs waiting to be processed

Shortly thereafter, I was asked by the company I worked for at the time, to brew some beer for a couple of events. Great, I thought, the chance to foist a range of new wave hoppy beer on an unsuspecting workforce. So I readily agreed.

There were two small problems though. Firstly, I agreed to produce about 100 litres of beer, four different styles, bottled in 330ml bottles. Even if I repaired my knackered boiler, I wouldn’t be able to get 25 litres into the fermentor, let alone out of it. I needed to upgrade.

Secondly, I had about three weeks to upgrade the brewery and brew all four beers. Essentially I was going to have to rebuild the brewery and then brew four evenings on the trot and cross my fingers that they’d all ferment out in time and condition in the bottle. It was always going to be a stretch, but I had a plan.

Insulating the mash tun

As always, there was an elephant in the room, money, or lack there of. I never seem to have any, so there was no way of throwing vast wads of it at The Malt Miller or Brew Builder in exchange for some ready to go stainless steel.

As I would have to do this on the cheap, I decided to use Ecokeg outer shells. I’d been using them to ferment my cider in, as they’re made from food grade plastic. With some simple modification, they can hold 55 litres, or there about. I wouldn’t be the first to use them for brewing beer either, they seemed like the ideal solution.

Modifying a workbench to see if I can fit the Ecokegs on it

Luckily, I know Yvan, of Jolly Good Beer fame. So I soon had a stack of Ecokegs sitting in the garden needing modified. He’d even managed to find one that didn’t have the usual holes in the bottom, so I earmarked that one to be the mash tun.

I should also thank James of The Axiom Brewing Co, for all the hints and tips he gave me. Especially about where to get and how to modify, immersion heater elements, for use in the HLT and boiler. Shame I couldn’t make them fit the Ecokegs. Due to all the lumps and bumps, and the size of the element flanges, there was nowhere they would fit.

Trying to find the locations for all the fixings

I should really have worked this out before modifying the elements, but there you go. So more thanks are due to Steve Flack, another local home-brewer, who had a couple of Brew Builder 3KW LWD elements going spare at a good price. These fitted, just. It would probably have been a lot easier, and cheaper, to fit a couple of 2.4KW kettle elements and be done with it.

As it turned out, one of the elements was faulty, it leaked through the base and into the shroud cover; ever so slightly deadly. This was a set back, but not insurmountable, as the other element worked fine. Brew Builder was excellent and changed the element without quibble, even after it got lost in the post on its way back to them.

A modified immersion heater element

As the inside of an Ecokeg is rather lumpy, I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy an off the shelf false bottom for use in the mash tun. I also didn’t fancy trying to bend some pipe into a circle to make a manifold. So instead, I bought a large grain bag, the kind used for BIAB. This seemed like a simple solution to the problem.

As well as bag for the grain, I also needed a way of filtering the hops in the boiler. I really wanted to switch from whole hops to pellets, but knew I’d need something other than my existing hops strainer. I contacted The Malt Miller to ask about their bazooka filter:

Long story short, I ended up buying two of the MattMill Läuterhexe, one for the mash tun and one for the boiler. They didn’t quite fit into the grove at the bottom of the Ecokegs, and while I could have shortened them to fit, I decided not to. I’d like to go stainless one day, and would rather they fit the stainless pots properly.

The faulty element; drip, drip, drip...

The Läuterhexe came with a ½” Tee, a large nitrile washer and a ½” to 1″ male to female connector. The connector wasn’t stainless, but I had no time, or money, to swap it out for a stainless equivalent. The female side of the connector just so happened to be the perfect size for those cheap black plastic taps, that you normal see on a fermentor.

As the connector wasn’t deep enough to engage the washer around the tap, I butchered some swing top bottle washers to fit into the base of the connector. This all looked liked it had worked, but it turns out that under pressure, the butchered washers were rolling into the tap. Cue a lot of mopping up, and the industrial application of plumbers PTFE tape.

Läuterhexe and 3KW LWD element fitted to the boiler

Time has a habit of slipping away, there always other stuff to do. I ended up blocking a weekend out and taking the Monday off work to try and get it all finished in time. I nearly made it, but just missed my self imposed cut off time. Which is probably just as well, as I was knackered from three long days of head scratching, chopping, drilling, screwing and running around local shops trying to find missing parts.

The extra time did give me the opportunity to pop to a local electrical wholesaler and pick up one of those IP66 weatherproof outdoor switches. I’d been controlling the pump by either putting the plug into, or pulling the plug out of, an extension reel. It didn’t feel that safe, with the cables all over the shed floor and me with wet hands.

This was not supposed to happen

After work on the last day I could possibly start, I filled the boiler up with water, added the water treatment and turned the element on. While waiting for that to hit strike temperature, I wired the pump up the the switch. Hoses all in place to recirculate into the boiler and avoid hot sports, I flicked the switch and blew all the electrics.

Not only had I tripped the consumer unit in the shed, but I’d taken down one of the downstairs rings as well. The extension and kitchen were in darkness and all the appliances were off. I tried flicking the RCDs in the main consumer unit back on, but they were immediately tripping out again, even though the shed was still off.

A bodged together extractor hood for the boiler

It was at this point, that I realised that the shed, even though it’s got a 63A RCD in its consumer unit, comes into the house via one of our external garden sockets. Rather than then going straight to the consumer unit, it goes though a switched fused spur connection unit. To say that the fascia was hot, would have been a gross understatement. I’m surprised it wasn’t melting.

I popped the fuse holder and disposed of the slightly charred 13A fuse. I then went back to the main consumer unit tried flicking the RCD back on. Rather than restoring power to half of the downstairs, it proceeded to blow all the downstairs RCDs. While my daughter enquired why the telly had gone off, I ran around the downstairs like a headless chicken screaming FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!

Not the ideal pump configuration

In the end, out of sheer desperation, I just slammed the fuse holder back into place, without a new fuse in it. The RCDs appeared happy with this development and power was restored. The switched fused spur connection unit remains fuseless to this day. Needless to say, the brew was scrubbed.

Fast forward to February 2017 and not much has changed, the shed is still without power. The shed roof felt has failed and needs replacing; so all the equipment is gathering dust, while being dripped on every time it rains. There’s 39KG of malt, still sealed in their plastic bags, stored on the shed floor in large cardboard boxes and a whole freezer shelf is taken up with sliver vac packed hop pouches.

¾" Camlock fittings

While it’s all a bit depressing, it’s not for want of trying. We’ve contacted loads of electricians, but they either don’t show up to have a look, or they wont give us a quote once they’d had a look.

So I’ve decided enough is enough, it’s time to get back to brewing. For the last month or so, I’ve been meticulously planning a new three vessel stainless brew house. I’ve even taken delivery of various stainless fixtures and fittings and have more on the way. One way or another, I will be brewing again this year.

While I’m dolling out thanks, I really need to thank Bert Kenward more than anyone else. Without Bert’s generosity, (pumps, plate chiller, fermentors, fixings, thermocouples etc, etc) this whole upgrading endeavour wouldn’t be possible. Thanks Bert!