Home brewed beer can not only be "as good" as commercially made beer but sometimes even better. Many home brewers use extracts to create their beer, but the best beer is frequently made from all grain. This approach can get complicated with pumps, multiple vessels and gas powered burners. Electric brewing can change this.
After years of brewing beer in the cold garage using a gravity fed 3 vessel propane powered brewery, I thought it was time to simplify and start brewing indoors where it was warmer. While some electric brewers go with complicated recirculating pumps, PID controllers and digital temperature displays, I wanted a simpler (less expensive) way to brew electrically. The result is a one vessel, manually controlled brewery that uses a beer brewing method referred to as "Brew in a bag" or BIAB for short.
This brewery is easy to use, fast heating, small sized and a snap to clean up. It sets up on the washing machine in the laundry room and stores easily on a shelf. I love this adorable little brewery and will not be returning to the cold days in the garage any day soon.
Want to make one? Let's get the parts we need.
Step 1: Shopping List
1) Kettle ($35-$155)
At my local restaurant supply store (like Cash and Carry), I found large inexpensive ($35) ten gallon aluminum kettles and for another $8 at that store, you can get a much needed round streamer rack to keep the grain bag off the heating element. These aluminum kettles do not have a pre-installed spigot, so I decided to go with
a new 10 gallon stainless steel kettle with a basket and pre-installed stainless steel spigot.
While this option is significantly more expensive than the aluminum choice, I think it will be very durable and a better quality brewery. If you plan on brewing 10 gallons at a time, purchase a 15 or 20 gallon pot. After years of brewing 10 gallon batches, I'm fine with 5 gallon batches. I suppose a very careful brewer could brew up to about 8 gallons in a 10 gallon pot, but the risk of boil over is significant and one to be avoided.
Unfortunately, you still need to drill one more hole in the kettle for the heating element and it is a large hole. For that you really should use a knockout hole punch.
2) Knockout hole punch. ($25-$85)
The hole for the heating element needs to be exactly 1.25 inches in diameter and there isn't much room for a sloppy hole made with a step drill or hole saw. Unfortunately, the only tool that does this kind of a hole well is a knockout hole punch. This tool has three parts: the punch, the die and the draw stud. The punch and die are positioned on either side of the kettle and by screwing the draw stud down, the punch and die are pulled together which knocks out an absolutely perfect hole. Unfortunately, this tool costs about $85. There are cheaper versions at stores like Harbor Freight, but the reviews of those tools are so bad that I went ahead and bought the real "Greenlee" version and resold it on eBay for the majority of my investment after using the tool twice. (you need one more hole of this size later in the construction)
3) Heating element ($23)
This seems to be the heating element that everyone over at BIABrewer recommends. I got it. It works great.
4) Heating element controller ($250 or less)
Some folks have a lot more skill with creating their own electronics than I do. If "pulse width modulation" and "Replace C1 with a 2.2uF capacitor to lower the frequency" makes any sense to you, then you can probably save a bunch of money by making your own controller. I won't pretend I know how to do that.
Instead, I purchased this controller which is designed to be plug and play into a standard NEMA10-30 240V electric dryer outlet. It is the most expensive item in the brewery and could probably be replaced with a simple on/off switch but the dial on this unit allows me to keep the kettle at exactly the right temperature.
5) Washer, locknut and o ring kit (under $20 for the basics):
You will need thislarge washer/shim (item number 96853A253) I couldn't find it at my helpful hardware place so I think you'll need to buy it online. I had trouble linking to this part directly, so just type the number into the search box.
Also needed is this locknut and o ring kit. If you want a side pickup or need to add a weldless bulkhead kit or spigot to an aluminum kettle, this is a good place to buy them.
6) Electrical box, covers, and cable (all found at local hardware store.. under $30 total)
Single gang weatherproof electrical box
Weather proof cover
Stainless steel electrical cover
NEMA 10-30 Plug and cable for 240V dryer.
7) 2-1/4 inch hole saw
2-1/4 bimetal hole saw, if you don't already have one. Drill press is nice when using this saw.
8) Whirlpool/ side pickup
This fitting kit is a nice way to drain almost all the wort from the kettle. Include it with your order for the locknut and O ring.
9) Nice thermometer
I love this thermometer. The probe is waterproof, there is a timer and you can set an alarm when you reach a particular temperature. Top it off with a magnetic back and you have the best brewing thermometer ever. Optional, of course.
Let's build. Click "Next".
Step 2: Prepare Electrical Box Part 1
Hole in electrical box
Using the instructions I found here, I drilled a 2-1/4 inch hole using the bimetal hole saw (and a drill press) into the bottom of the electrical junction box. While you may drill a corner of the ground attachment, make sure that area is fully usable to attach the ground wire.
Aluminum drills pretty easily so this hole is not the challenging one. It also is not of a critical size so a hole punch is not essential.
I sanded the back of the electrical box so the JB Weld would adhere better. Some people use round electrical cable, but I used flat dryer cable, so I had to create a flat hole in the side of the electrical box for the wire feed. Two round holes and a Dremel to cut the flat slot. Not my proudest moment but with a little silicone sealant and a cable clamp JB welded to the side, I'm confident it is safe and secure.
Step 3: Prepare Electrical Box Part 2
Now that the electrical box has a large hole in it, we need to prepare a thin cover for that hole with a precise 1-1/4 inch hole to accept the heating element.
Use the knockout punch to cut a precise 1-1/4 inch hole in the stainless steel cover plate. I also flattened this plate with a hammer so it would glue well to the electrical box.
Apply JB Weld to the back of the electrical box and center the 1-1/4 inch hole in the larger 2-1/4 inch hole you cut in the last step.
While JB Weld is amazing stuff, you can ensure the integrity of the bond by putting a pop rivet in each corner for a solid adhesion.
Step 4: Hole in Kettle
Decide where you want the hole in your kettle for the electrical box. It should not interfere with the drain tube or be too high or low. If it is too high, the basket will hit the element and if it is too low the kettle will not sit flat because the junction box will be lower than the bottom of the kettle. Choose carefully as you only get one chance at punching a hole through your expensive kettle.
When you have decided on the , drill a pilot hole for the draw stud of the knockout punch. I used a step drill. Stainless is best drilled with some oil (I just used 10W30 oil but you could use cutting oil) and a slow speed. If you hit the center of your hole with a punch or nail, this can help keep the drill bit from scooting around.
Once the pilot hole is drilled, use the knockout punch for a beautiful 1-1/4 inch hole in your kettle.
After your JB Weld has completely set, you are ready to assemble the heating element and electrical box.
Insert the element through the electrical box, then put on the O-ring and spacer washer. I added a little silicone caulk at the base of the element on the exterior of the kettle for added leaking insurance. Push the heating element through the hole in the kettle and tighten the locknut down.
The diagram should illustrate how the silicone O-ring and stainless shim are on the exterior of the kettle before the flattened cover plate.
More guidance and diagrams available here.
Step 6: Final Connections
Attach the two hot wires (both 120V) to the element and the ground wire. You can see in the photo where the silicone caulk squeezed through. Not a bad idea to check continuity from the kettle wall to the ground spade of the electrical plug to ensure good contacts throughout.
Install your pickup tube and everything should look like the second photo.
Step 7: Ready to Brew!
Fill your kettle to the 6 gallon mark and check for leaks everywhere. If everything remains dry, screw the electrical cover in place and plug the element into the controller. Flip the switch and see how fast things heat up. I found 6 gallons of cold water could be brought to strike temperature (170 degrees) in under 15 minutes and all the way to a boil in just a few minutes more. The power of this heating element is impressive. I find I can brew 5 gallons of beer from cold water to pitching yeast in under 3 hours which is significantly faster than my propane system. Cleanup is easier too since there is only one pot to clean. The electric controller, basket, bag and most other items all fit inside for easy storage as shown in the last photo.
I won't go into detail of how to brew with this set up as that is well explained elsewhere. Here is the short version:
1) Pour 7 gallons cold water into the kettle, add pH stabilizer and water chemistry if desired.
2) Turn heating element on full- bring to about 156 degrees. This should take 15 minutes or so.
3) Turn off the heating element.
4) Add your grains. A standard pale ale might have 8 pounds malted barley and a pound or so of a crystal malt.
5) Stir thoroughly and check your temperature. 147-153 is my usual goal.
6) Set a timer for 60 minutes. You might wrap a blanket around the kettle, but I usually find only a 2 degree drop over the hour.
7) Pull the grain out and let it drain into the kettle. I have a pulley set up for this, but you could just put a couple rulers under the basket to let it drain.
8) Return the kettle to full boil and add bittering hops. Adjust heating element to a low rolling boil.
9) After 45 minutes, add flavoring hops.
10) After 15 minutes, add aroma hops and turn off heating element.
11) Use the cooling method of your choice to drop the temperature of the beer to less than 80 degrees. I use a counterflow chiller while some use immersion chillers or plate chillers. The simplest (and slowest) is to just let the covered beer cool on its own.
12) Add yeast, ferment for 2 weeks and either bottle or keg.
Any large fine mesh grain bag will will do and there are people online (such as http://www.bagbrewer.com) who custom make these bags. If you do not want to use a basket to hold the bag above the element, you can simply turn off the element, drop the grain bag, and then turn the element back on after mashing.
I have brewed beer using extracts, on a home stove and on a 3 tier propane system. Nothing compares to the simplicity, small size and ease of use of this system. I will not be going back to the days of cleaning 3 vessels, pumps, hoses and 5-6 hour brew days!