Monday, December 2, 2013

How to build an inexpensive stir plate

Pitching the right amount of yeast is undoubtably one of the more important aspects of brewing good beer, and the most effective way to make a healthy yeast starter is by using a stir plate. You can easily buy a stir plate, but the cheapest units that I've ever seen run about $45. Although $45 is not an enormous amount of money, you can easily build your own for as little as $10 (if not cheaper), and it is a really fun DIY project! Here I'll show you how I built mine so you can build one too!

Let's start with the parts you'll need:

  • A wooden cigar box (you can usually get them for very cheap, if not for free, from you local cigar store)
  • 12v DC computer fan (I used an 90mm one, but use one that fits nicely in your cigar box)
  • Variable computer fan speed controller or potentiometer (I got one this one)
  • Bottle cap
  • 12 AC adapter (I had one lying around from an old router)
  • A neodymium magnet from an old hard drive, also called a "rare earth magnet." If you don't have an old hard drive laying around, ask friends, check with computer recycling centers, and call your local dump to find one.
  • Electrical tape
  • Strong glue or epoxy (I used "Amazing Goop" household glue)
  • A non-magnetic spacer that fits in a bottle cap (I used felt pads that go underneath furniture, but you can use anything really; get creative!)
  • Four #6-32 x 2” machine screws
  • Twelve #6-32 machine screw nuts
  • Twelve #6 metal washers
  • Four 1⁄4” flat neoprene washers
  • A drill

*In order to make a yeast starter, you will need a 2L Erlenmeyer Flask (I purchased this one from my local brew store) and a magnetic stir bar (I got mine from here). I do not cover using these items or how to make a yeast starter in this post, but you can easily find out how in the forums of and at

Alright, now let's start building our stir plate!

1) First, start by removing the magnet from the hard drive. Use this helpful blog tutorial to learn how to do this. Please be careful when handling neodymium magnets, as they are incredibly strong and you can easily pinch a finger between the magnet and a metal surface. After you've fully removed the magnet from its bracket, you'll have a magnet that looks like this:

2) Next, you will want to get your fan ready. First, cut off the connector end of the fan, right at the base of the connector, so you are left with the long black and red wires coming from the fan. If your fan has a yellow wire on it as well, you can cut it off completely. After that, glue your spacer on top of the fan blade. The point of the spacer is to provide distance between the brushless motor inside the fan and the magnet that you will later affix onto it. If you simply place the magnet directly onto the fan without a spacer, the magnet will prevent the fan motor from operating properly.

3) Once your spacer is glued onto the fan, go ahead and glue the bottle cap onto the spacer. Next, position the magnet onto the bottle cap, but do not glue it down yet. Take your AC adaptor, cut off the end of the adapter, and then carefully separate the two wires. You will notice that one of the wires is marked, usually with a white or grey lines - this is the active wire. The other wire is the passive wire. Splice the active wire to the red wire on the fan, and the passive wire to the black wire on the fan. Plug in the AC adaptor to an outlet to ensure that it operates. Now for the tricky part: finding best position for the magnet. Try to get the magnet centered onto the bottle cap as best as you can, then plug in the AC adaptor. You will see how centered your magnet is based on how much the fan wobbles. Keep moving the magnet around on the bottle cap until your fan can spin with as little wobble as possible (a little bit of wobble is okay, but if you have too much, your stir plate will dance across the floor). Then use a permanent marker and trace the outline of the magnet onto the bottle cap and then glue the magnet down. Separate the AC adapter from the fan, and allow ample time for the glue to set.

4) Now we will affix the fan to the inside of the cigar box. Start by centering the fan on top of the cigar box and marking where each mounting hole is; use these to guide where you will drill. Drill your four holes for your #6-32 machine screws into the lid. Once you drill your holes, use the phillips head bit on your drill to create an indentation (also called countersinking) so your screws can lay flush with the top of the box. See the two pictures below for an example.

Screws are flush with the lid

5) Put the neoprene washers flush on the inside of the lid, followed by a metal washer, and then a nut. The result should look like this:

6) Add a nut followed by a washer on each screw, then place the fan on the screws with the magnet pointing towards the inside of the lid. Adjust the spacing of the magnet from the lid using the screws in order to ensure that there is about 3/16" space between the magnet and the inside of the cigar box lid. Once you've done this, add a washer and nut to the end of each screw to secure the fan in place. The result will look something like this:

7) Drill a small hole on one of the sides of the box and feed the cable of the AC adapter through the hole:

8) Separate the potentiometer from the metal plating on the fan speed controller. You will be left with a little knob and some wires. Cut off the connector ends from the fan speed controller (if there is a yellow cable, cut it off completely), and then splice it between the fan and the AC adaptor. The potentiometer will regulate the voltage traveling between the AC adapter and the fan. Make sure that all cables are connected properly, and then wrap the exposed wires in plenty of electrical tape.

9) Drill a hole in the side of your cigar box that is large enough to fit the potentiometer knob through, then glue it in place; allow adequate time for the glue to dry. Use more electrical tape to band the wire bundles together to make everything look nice and neat:

10) Plug in the AC adapter and ensure that everything works properly. The potentiometer should control the fan speed and the box shouldn't wobble while it is on. If you'd like, you can drill a series of small holes along the bottom sides of the box to allow for airflow. If all is as it should be, then revel in your craftsmanship and make a kick-ass yeast starter!

Friday, April 19, 2013

So you wanna learn to brew? Here's the gear that you need to get started!

Okay, so you've decided that it would be totally awesome to brew your own beer, but where do you start? The sheer amount of brewing information on the internet can be overwhelming for someone who is just venturing into the world of beer brewing. When I first started brewing beer, I scoured brewing blogs and books, finding myself neck-deep in complicated procedures and a plethora of acronyms, and I had no idea about what equipment was necessary, what equipment would simply be helpful, and what equipment I wouldn't need at all until I was a very prolific brewer. As such, I have compiled a list (with pictures!) of the equipment that is essential for a beginner brewer to have, as well as some equipment that is very helpful to have, but not necessarily essential. Click on any of the pictures below to enlarge them for better viewing.

Essential Equipment:

Cleaning Solutions:
A large part of brewing any sort of fermented beverage is cleaning! It's imperative that your cleaning products are free of rinsing agents, dyes, harsh chemicals, perfumes, or bleach. As such, I recommend using OxiClean Free (or a market analog) or PBW. If you must use soap, make sure that it too is free of any additives, and be sure to rinse your gear extra well.

Sanitizing Solutions:
Cleaning your equipment is half the battle, and sanitizing it is the other half! Its crucial that you practice strict sanitation practices when brewing fermented beverages, as they can be highly susceptible to infection (especially before the fermentation has taken place). I personally recommend Star San, which has been developed for brewing applications. You can fill a spray bottle with Star San and keep it on hand for quick sanitizing applications.

Fermenting Bucket (or glass carboy):
For your primary fermenter, I personally recommend using a 6 gallon high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bucket. These plastics are marked as a #2 recyclable and are food-grade material. The reason I recommend these over a glass carboy for your primary fermenter is that they are cheaper to purchase, easier to fill after brewing, and much easier to clean after fermentation is complete.

Beer and Wine Triple Scale Hydrometer:
Although one could argue that a hydrometer is not essential to the process of brewing fermented beverages, it is essential if you wish to know the alcohol percentage of your beverage. A hydrometer measures the density of liquids using a measurement called specific gravity. In the case of alcoholic beverages, the more sugar your beverage has in it, the higher the density, and thus the higher the specific gravity. By taking a gravity measurement before and after fermentation takes place, in which the sugars are converted into alcohol (and thus the gravity drops), one can ascertain the amount of sugar that has been converted into alcohol. Not only does this allow one to determine the overall alcohol content of your finished beverage, but also its residual sweetness.

Boil Pot:
In order to boil your wort (i.e., the sweet fermentable liquid that will become your beer), you need to have a decent-sized pot. If you will be doing 5-gallon brews, which is the standard volume for home brewing, I would encourage you to get an 8-gallon pot, or larger. This is because the wort has the propensity to foam a great deal at the beginning of a boil, and if you have a larger pot, you are much less likely to get a boil-over (which is a frustrating mess, to say the least). You want to use only either aluminum or stainless steel, and make sure the pot has decently thick walls (that way your wort will be less likely to scorch). If you wish to use aluminum (which I personally use), make sure you season it prior to your first boil. Just Google "seasoning aluminum stock pot" and you'll find instructions on how to do this.

Long-handled Spoon:
You will need a spoon for stirring your boiling wort and hops, as well as many other times throughout the brew process. I would recommend getting a spoon with at least a 21" long handle, and I would recommend against using plastic or wooden spoons.
Milk Thermometer:
It is very important to know the temperature of your wort at various times throughout the brew process. I'd recommend getting a long-stemmed milk thermometer (like the ones used by baristas), which has a range of at least 60°F (15.6°C) to 190°F (87.8°C).

Airlock and Stopper:
In order for your fermenting wort (or must, if you are brewing wine or cider) to remain free of contaminants, you need an airlock and stopper. The airlock allows the CO2 being generated by the fermentation process to escape while not allowing any other particulates into your fermenter. Fill your airlock with sanitizing solution, as reverse pressure can cause some of the solution to be sucked into your fermenter (this does happen on occasion).

Auto-Siphon and Hose:
Having an auto-siphon is not essential, but having a siphon is, and this is why I encourage everyone to just pay a little extra and get the auto-siphon at the beginning. You will use a siphon during bottling and racking. Auto-siphons are much easier to use and less prone to infection than your standard siphon. Make sure to get a hose that is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long.
Bottle Capper:
There are many styles of cappers, so just choose one that fist you best. This device does exactly what it sounds like it does: it crimps bottle caps onto your bottles.

12 or 22 oz Bottles:
You can buy bottles at a brew store, online, or even on Craigslist (there are many awesome home brewing finds on Craigslist). Also, you can get bottles from recycle bins or have your friends save them. Make sure you clean them out with the cleaning agents discussed above and then sanitize them thoroughly. If you decide to use old beer bottles that have labels on them, you can remove the labels with just a bit of work. I have written a post about how to completely remove labels, which you can find here.


Bottle Caps:
Bottle caps are inexpensive and essential (unless you are using swing-top Grolsch style bottles). You need to buy new caps as you cannot reuse old bottle caps. There are regular caps and CO2 absorbing caps, which cost a bit extra. You do not need to buy CO2 absorbing caps, no matter what the dealer tells you, unless you are bottling from a keg (which you most likely will not be doing as a new home brewer). 

Non-Essential (but EXTREMELY helpful) Equipment:

"How to Brew," by John Palmer:
For anyone who likes to brew beer, whether they are a beginner or an avid brewer, this book will expand their understanding of the science behind the process and help them hone their craft. I recommend buying his book, as it is full of up-to-date information, however you can also view the first edition of his book on his website for free.

Wort Chiller:
There are many kinds of wort chillers out there, but I believe the copper-coil style (pictured here) is the least expensive and most easy-to-use option. It is imperitive that you cool your boiled wort as quickly as possible in order for the cold break to occur. The cold break is a process of "shocking" proteins in the wort so they congeal and settle at the bottom of your brew pot. Either you use a wort chiller, or you can use an ice bath in your bathtub. If you use an ice bath, you will need a substantial amount of ice, and the process can be slow. The wort chiller is a much easier and efficient option.

Large Mesh Strainer:
When pouring your wort from your boil pot into your primary fermenter, you want to keep the hop particulates and protean lees from making it in there as well. You can technically just pour the wort very carefully, while using your brew spoon to hold back the hops, but a large strainer makes the process much easier.

High Pressure Propane Burner:
It is really important that you are able to boil your wort in a quick and efficient manner. You can do this inside if you have a gas stove, but if you have an electric stove, the process can take hours longer. Even if you have a gas stove, I'd recommend investing in a propane burner, as they are much more efficient and will heat your wort much quicker. Be sure to never use these devices inside.

Nylon Mesh Grain Bag:
Having a grain bag is great if you are doing an extract brew, as it will allow you to steep specialty grains (i.e., specific malts that will give your beer more character) in your wort. Also, you can use it to hold fruit, herbs, or vegetables that you want to steep in your beers and wines. You can buy these mesh bags from brew stores, or you can simply buy a paint strainer bag, which is essentially the same thing item but is often sold at a much cheaper cost.

Bottle Filler:
Filling your beer bottles can be a pain without one of these, which is why I recommend them. You attach this filler to the end of your siphon prior to bottling. A spring-loaded valve at the end of the filler stops the fermented beverage from flowing until you press it into the bottom of a bottle, at which point the valve is opened and the bottle fills. Also, this device substantially cuts down the risk of oxidation, which can happen if you splash too much during bottling. Once your beverage is oxidized, it will take on the flavor of wet cardboard within a few months. Understandably, you really want to avoid this from happening, especially if your beverage is one that you wish to keep bottled for more than a month or two. 

Similar to aquarium thermometers, this adhesive thermometer sticks on to your fermenter buckets or carboys and allows the brewer to easily monitor the beverages temperature during fermentation. Monitoring and regulating temperature throughout the fermentation process is essential for high quality brews. You can also open your fermenter and take temperature readings with a thermometer, but this greatly heightens the chances of infection. With the fermometer, you can monitor the temperature accurately enough while never having to open your fermenter.

Wine Thief:
This device allows you to draw samples from your fermented beverage for gravity measurements and quality checks without disturbing it. Furthermore, the tube is thick enough that you can take gravity measurements directly in the wine thief.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How to conduct an all-grain brew (video)

I've recorded my first how-to video! Here I demonstrate how to conduct the mash, sparge, and boil for an all-grain brew. The recipe I am brewing in this video is "Yo' Mama's Magic Mild," and you can find the recipe here. Infinite thanks to my friend Jeremy for recording and editing this video. Expect more how-to videos in the not-so-distant future, so keep checking back!

You can purchase a mash tun and HLT kit much like the one I'm using from the guys at!

"Yo Mamma's Magic Mild," English Mild Ale

I recently realized that I haven't ever posted a recipe for an easy, low-alcohol mild ale. Although it's fun to brew (and drink!) interesting beers, sometimes you just want a working man's drinking beer. The following recipe is for an English Mild Ale. English mild ales are usually darker in color (12-25 SRM), low in bitterness (10-25 IBU's), and not very alcoholic (2.8-4.5 ABV). Also called a "session ale," this style of beer is meant for "drinking sessions," where one can drink a substantial amount of beer without getting too drunk. This is a great beer to have on hand (or on tap) for any day, but especially those hot days where you really don't want to do anything but sit outside, play lawn games, and drink cold home brew. Because of the small grain bill and tiny hop schedule, this beer is incredibly inexpensive to brew (a 5-gallon batch costs around $15 for grain, hops, and yeast at my local brew store).

Yo Mama's Magic Mild
Style: English Mild
Type: All Grain
Calories: 108 (per 12 oz.)
OG: 1.037
FG: 1.009
ABV: 3.67 %
IBU's: 19.34
Batch Size: 5.00 Gal
Boil Time: 60 minutes

Primary: 7 days @ 68.0°F
Secondary: 14 days @ 72.0°F
Bottle/Keg: 14 days @ 40.0°F

Grains & Adjuncts
5.00 lbs Pale Malt (2 Row)
10.00 ozs Caramel/Crystal Malt - 40L
5.00 ozs Chocolate Malt
4.00 ozs Flaked Barley
1 Cup (0.67 lbs) Table Sugar (Sucrose) - added during the last 15 minutes of the boil

0.26 ozs Centennial - 60 mins
0.44 ozs Bravo - 10 mins

White Labs 0051 - California Ale V (I know this is not an English yeast, but I really like using it in this style of beer)

1.00 tsp Irish Moss - added during the last 15 minutes of the boil

Mash Profile
Light Body Infusion 75 min @ 152.0°F
Add 9.28 qt ( 1.50 qt/lb ) water @ 171.8°F

10.1 psi Force Carbonation @ 40.0°F (2.3 Vols)
3.95 oz Corn Sugar - Bottle Carbonation @ 70.0°F

Friday, April 5, 2013

"The Doctor," Coconut Kava Porter

I've been wanting to brew a beer with kava root for quite some time, as I have found that kava root's effects are quite synergistic with alcohol (especially beer). Also, I have had kava drinks with coconut, and thought coconut paired nicely with kava's slightly astringent and earthy taste. A few months ago, I had brewed a great coconut porter, so I figured that it would be a good base recipe to use for a kava beer.

This beer turned out phenomenally! I am so satisfied with it, and my friends have nearly drained the keg! I did not need to use a filter, as the sediment settled enough after 4 hours of soaking, and I was able to rack the beer off of the kava sediment quite easily. The amount of kava in this batch is not overwhelming, and a pint will mellow you out quite nicely, but not kick you on your ass. Kava root and alcohol, although used together for centuries by many cultures, are synergistic and I would not recommend going overboard when drinking this beer. And as with any herbal supplement, I would recommend checking in with your doctor before consuming kava (although most people will be totally fine).

"The Doctor" Kava Coconut Porter
Style: Robust Porter
Type: All Grain
Calories: 177 (per 12 oz.)
OG: 1.056
FG: 1.020
ABV: 4.72 %
IBU's: 42.67
Batch Size: 5.00 Gal
Boil Time: 60 minutes

Primary: 14 days @ 68.0°F  
Secondary: 14 days @ 72.0°F  
Bottle/Keg: 14 days @ 74.0°F

Grains & Adjuncts
8.50 lbs Pale Malt, Maris Otter
2.00 lbs Chocolate Malt
0.75 lbs Caramel/Crystal Malt - 80L
0.50 lbs Cara-Pils/Dextrine Malt

1.30 ozs Northern Brewer - 60 mins
0.75 ozs Goldings, East Kent - 10 mins

Wyeast Labs 1318 - London Ale III

1.00 tsp Irish Moss - last 15 mins of boil
1.00 lb Coconut (toasted) - 14 days Secondary
1.00 lb Kava Root - soaked for 4 hours prior to kegging

Mash Profile
Medium Body Infusion - 60 min @ 154.0°F
Add 17.62 qt ( 1.50 qt/lb ) water @ 174.0°F

10.1 psi Force Carbonation @ 40.0°F

Toast flaked coconut in oven @ 325 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Put coconut into muslin bag, weigh it down with marbles, and add to secondary. Let soak in secondary for 14 days (entire duration of secondary).

I used whole kava root, but you can also use kava chips (do not use kava powder). Break up kava root or chips as much as possible, then smash with a mortar and pestle and place into a double-bagged mesh bag. Add marbles (or other weights) to the outside bag. Rack beer onto kava in a fermenter bucket just prior to transferring to keg, after secondary fermentation is complete. Let sit for 4 hours, then squeeze the bag to extract all of the kava. Do not stir the beer as you will stir up a great deal of sediment, and rack to your keg (or bottles, if you want to bottle condition).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Got spent grains? Here are some things you can make with them!

While brewing with a friend the other day, our conversation meandered to how many breweries provide their spent grains to farmers for animal feed. My friend had the idea that his dogs might really like the spent grains, and by doing a quick Google search, he found that many people make dog food and biscuits out of spent grains. Later that evening as I was dumping out the spent grains into the garbage (we don't have a compost at our new place, sadly), I found myself thinking about the various ways that I could potentially consume spent grains, thus lessening the amount that I throw away.

I have found quite a few recipes on the internet for spent grain breads, cookies, breakfast bars, and much more. Below I've listed some of the most well-reviewed and tasty sounding recipes for your enjoyment! Some of these recipes call for using wet spent grain (be careful to account for the additional moisture in the recipe), and some call for using dried spent grain. Here is how to dry spent grain. Happy baking :)

Spent Grain Recipes for People:

  1. Spent Grain Pizza Dough
  2. Spent Grain Beer Bread (yes, it uses both homebrew and spent grain!)
  3. Spent Grain Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars
  4. Spent Grain Meatloaf
  5. Spent Grain Cheddar Scones
  6. Spent Grain Veggie Burgers 
  7. Spent Grain Beef Burgers
  8. Spent Grain Blueberry Cobbler
  9. Spent Grain Bread Recipe for Bread Machines
  10. Spent Grain Flour (you can use this as a flour substitute for many recipes)
  11. Spent Grain Granola (scroll down to the bottom of the page)
  12. Spent Grain Waffles (needs spent grain flour)
Spent Grain Recipes for Pets:
  1. Spent Grain Dog Biscuits
  2. Spent Grain, Turkey Heart and Gizzard Dog Treats 
  3. Give it to your chickens, birds, or squirrels! Apparently, chickens that eat a lot of spent grains lay fantastic eggs...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Jack's Legacy," Imperial IPA

In Memory of Jack McCorkle, 1988-2012
Jack absolutely loved beer. He loved beer almost as much as he loved music, and few people have been in love with music as much as Jack. Jack didn't just love any beer, however; Jack was devoted to intensely hopped IPA's and Imperial IPA's. The beers he loved most hit around 80-105 IBU's and between 7.5% and 10.5% ABV. When Jack passed away in November of 2012, he left a couple 22 oz beers in his fridge. These beers are a testament to the type of beer he was most drawn to: a Lagunitas "Hop Stoopid" (102 IBUs, 8% ABV) and an Arrogant Bastard Double Bastard Ale ("classified" high IBU level, 11.2% ABV).

Since Jack passed away, I've been trying to think of a way that I could both commemorate and honor his life, love, and friendship. I suddenly realized, what better way to commemorate his life than with a beer that he would love? A friend of mine likes to say that we share "coffee for the mind, beer for the heart, and conversation for the soul." If beer is for the heart, then what more could I ask than for the opportunity to share a little bit of Jack's spirit with other peoples' hearts? That is why I set out to craft this beer recipe, and it is why I will continue to hone this recipe until I get it perfect. What is perfect, you ask? Perfect, in this case, would be a beer that Jack would love deeply and want to drink every day.
Recirculating the wort

The following recipe is for a high gravity, high hopped IIPA. It shouldn't be attempted by the faint-at-heart, by emo kids (do they even still exist anyway?), or by any ninny that can't take a hefty dose of hops and alcohol to the brain. That's the way Jack would want it, so that's how its gonna be. Extra special thanks to my friend and neighbor, +Brendan Callahan, for taking the pictures from brew day.

Since I just brewed this beer, it won't be ready to drink (and thus review) until May 6th, 2013. As I dry hop, keg, and then finally serve this mighty beer, I will update this post with pics and an overall review. If you live in Portland, Oregon (or the surrounding areas), you are welcome to come over and share a pint, as well as experience a little bit of Jack.

Note: this recipe has gone through many versions, and the recipe stated below is the most recent version.

Jack's Legacy IIPA
Style: Imperial IPA
Type: All Grain
Calories: 308 per 12 oz.
OG: 1.096
Adding the bittering hops
FG: 1.016
ABV: 10.39%
IBU's: 102.57
Batch Size: 5.0 Gal
Boil Time: 90 minutes

Primary: 14 days @ 68.0°
Secondary: 14 days @ 72.0°F
Keg: 14 days @ 40.0°F

Grains & Adjuncts
19.00 lbs Pale Malt (2 Row) - UK
1.00 lbs Munich Malt - 20L
Saving spent grain for dog food!
0.50 lbs Caramel/Crystal Malt - 10L
0.50 lbs Caramel/Crystal Malt - 40L
1.00 lbs Sugar, Table (Sucrose) - added during the last 15 mins of boil

1.00 ozs Magnum - 60 mins
1.00 ozs Centennial - 60 mins
0.50 ozs Centennial - 30 mins
0.50 ozs Citra - 30 mins
1.00 ozs Cascade - 10 mins
1.00 ozs Centennial - 10 mins
1.00 ozs Amarillo Gold - 10 mins
1.00 ozs Amarillo Gold - 1 mins
1.00 ozs Cascade - 1 mins
1.00 ozs Cascade - dry hop for 7 days
1.00 ozs Amarillo Gold - dry hop for 7 days
1.00 ozs Centennial - dry hop for 7 days
1.00 ozs Citra - dry hop for 7 days

White Labs 0007 - Dry English Ale
*Because this is such a high-gravity beer, it is important to pitch enough yeast. Either make a two-stage 2L yeast starter or pitch 4 vials of yeast in order to achieve proper attenuation rates.

1.00 tsp Irish Moss - last 15 mins of boil

Mash Profile
Light Body Infusion with Mash Out - 60 min @ 148.0°F
Add 31.5 qt (1.5 qt/lb) water @ 167.2°F
Mash Out - 10 min @ 168°F
Add 16.5 qts water @ 212°F

11.2 psi Force Carbonation 40.0°F (2.4 vols)