Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making My Own Beer, Part 1

I only really started to like beer about five or six years ago. Throughout the first half of my twenties, I could hardly stand drinking mass produced, commercial beer and I spent most of my time ordering mixed drinks. Sadly, I didn't know what I was missing.

Thankfully I discovered there were good beers on the market and have spent the last few years enjoying them. Hey, I'm no expert, but I know what I like and what I don't like. Haven't seen any of my beer reviews? Watch them now:

I can't say when I first got interested in brewing my own beer, but it's been at least two years. After reading, lusting, dreaming, forgetting, rediscovering and repeating, I've finally took my first step. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I need to ramble on first about some stuff that you'll likely find boring. It's what I do.

Now, there seems to be a million different ways to make your own beer, but if everyone agrees on only one thing, it's the need to maintain a consistent fermentation temperature. I'm an ale guy and ale yeast like temperatures somewhere in the 60's. Given our thermally inefficient apartment, it's hard to maintain a consistent 72°, let alone 64°.

Thus a fermentation chiller has been a necessity - and therefore a major hurdle - in my quest to brew beer. There are friendly folks all over the intertubes with dozens of DIY fermentation chillers, most notably the Son of Fermentation Chiller designed by Ken Schwartz.

Your basic fermentation chiller is a foam box with two compartments. One for your fermenting proto-beer and one for some ice. Slap a home thermostat together with a small PC fan to circulate the cold air from the ice chamber with the warmer air from the fermentation chamber and viola!

Seems like everyone in the home brew community has made at least one DIY brewing device. And one of the main tenants of home brewers is thrift, with many of them pointing out their chillers cost mere pennies - or around $75 - built with free or inexpensive pieces and parts that require only "simple" and "minor" electrical modification. Sadly, most of the stuff I've read or watched is a little fast and loose for my skill level.

Something about hacking together a home thermostat, a 12v DC power adapter and a computer fan, sticking that into a foam box and then plugging it into the wall has been intimidating. I never was very good at wiring up electronics and getting M to sign off on what could result in the apartment going up in a ball of fire just wasn't going to happen.

Call me a coward, but I love my wife and I really like my guitars, computers and HD TV. I'm really not ready to risk them for some home made beer. And I'm pretty sure that a flaming box of foam in my front closet is probably cause for eviction and definitely negates my renters insurance.

And so I dreamed. Every few months I'd get the itch, reread a bunch of blogs, brew journals and chiller schematics looking for a safe, reliable way of not burning down our home. I've almost bought a thermostat down at Home Depot three times, most recently just a last weekend.

Thankfully, I've found a much more reasonable, reliable and, yes, expensive solution. Sure, I might be spitting in the face of the DIY ethic, but whatever. I want to brew beer, not build the cheapest box to do it in. If I'm going to take this up as a serious hobby, I want to focus on making the tastiest beer I can, not saving a few bucks on one of the most crucial parts of the process.

So, here's what I ordered:

Coolerguys Programmable Thermal Fan Controller with LED Display for $34.95 from Cooler Guys

Waterproof Thermal Probe for $2.95 from Cooler Guys

COOLER MASTER R4-S2S-124K-GP 120mm Case Fan for $14.99 from NewEgg

OKGEAR PA-AD-UL 12V/5V AC/DC Power adapter w/ 4pin molex connector for $12.99 from NewEgg

Link Depot 12" Power Supply 3 Pin Fan Extension Cable Model POW-12-EXT - Quantity 4 for $1.99 each from NewEgg

The grand total was $92.41 - and yes, I still have a number of pieces left to purchase at Home Depot. I'm estimating anther $40 or $50 worth of construction materials, raising my total expenses upwards of $150. Still, I have a safe, reliable temperature control solution that should outlast my first and second fermentation chillers.

And so begins my journey towards delicious home brew. When the parts arrive in the next week, I'll test my easy-to-construct circuit and if everything is green, hard core construction will being in early November.