Well after sitting by itself for a month and a half, my Blichmann TopTier stand finally saw some action on a brew day. At the last minute, I decided to brew my Black Stone Stout (for the fifth time). This would be the fourth time I’ve brewed the stout in a year. If you remember, my previous two batches (brewed in August and October of 2010) did not turn out as I would have liked them to. The January, 2010 batch was pretty good and actually won its category in a beer competition (view the post). With that said, I wanted to try to figure out if my fermentation temperature was the culprit of the slight off flavor. This brew session had similar weather conditions and fermentation temperature (in my house) is pretty close to what it was last January.
The day started out as normal; my starter was sat out, brew station setup, equipment sanitized, etc… I had rolled the TopTier out of the garage and onto my driveway. All I had to do was spend 5 minutes leveling it up and it was ready to go. I had not run a “trial” batch through the system so it was all going to be new to me. Would I be happy with the setup, would there be any game-stopping issues, what could go wrong…let’s find out!
My 10:00 am start time was postponed a bit by a little laziness and thinking through the day’s processes in my head. I still had the looming problem of “How am I going to chill the wort?” Arranging a potential gravity fed chilling solution took a little time. I will say the a pump is within sight since it didn’t work quite as planned; as you’ll read later in the post.
Ok, so on to the day… The Hot Liquor Tun was filled up with the strike water and the large banjo burner was fired. I hit my strike temp in a few minutes with the very powerful Blichmann burner. The 3.75 gallons heated up to ~170 in about 15 minutes. This was a nice ‘upgrade’ and improvement over my previous burner. So far, things are looking are looking ok. The powerful burner has given a great first impression to me.
I do need to add one thing to paragraph above. There was a “minor enhancement” needed while I heated the strike water. The wind really kicked up (dropping the air temp quite a bit) and the gusts had a negative impact on my flame. It did not knock the flame out, but I didn’t want to chance it. So, I used my noggin and created this “Hi-tech” windscreen out of aluminum foil. Blichmann, if you want to patent this design you can send me a complimentary ‘utility shelf’ and I’ll release it to you! It worked like a champ! However, my hacked version is far from a scalable solution, but it worked in a pinch. In all seriousness, Blichmann or someone else could fabricate a stainless steel wind shield that could be used in a windy situation or to protect a cooler-style mash tun.
Once I had hit my strike temp (of 170), it was time to drain the HLT into the mash tun. I had the “genius” idea to remove the brass barbed piece from my valve in an attempt to speed up the filling of the mash tun. Opening the valve sent a stream of 170 degree water dangerously close to a buddy of mine. Performing a Matrix-like move, he was able to dodge the stream. After the initial burst of water it flowed nicely into the mash tun. It filled up pretty quickly and I put the lid on to heat it up before adding my grain (doughing in). At this very moment, my digital thermometer decided to flip out and display a reading that was 25 degrees low! After a brief panic I reverted to my analog model and I boiled an additional gallon of water, just in case the temp was too low in the mash tun.
The mash tun temp was a couple degrees shy of my target after I doughed in, but it was still in the acceptable range. I decided to go with the temp I had with hopes things would settle and I’d be on target. If the temp is too high or low, it can have an effect on your beer. I put the top on the tun and the rest period of an hour began.
I usually try to time it just right, so I can sample a few home brews and get a bite to eat during the mash’s rest period (usually 90 or 90 minutes).
Roughly 30 minutes into my mashing time, the snow began to fall. When I started it was mostly sunny and about 45 degrees and NO wind. Now, we had a crazy blizzard like blast of snow and wind. Before I heated up the water used for sparging, we pulled the mash tun and kettles off the stand and rolled it into the garage. This is one other really nice feature of this stand, on-demand mobility!
With the stand moved inside and re-leveled, it was time to heat up my sparging water and rinse the sugar from the grain. This is where my stand’s configuration would shine or whether it would need adjustments… If you haven’t read my previous post, I have set my stand up to use gravity. The stand did ok, but I may tweak things a bit for the next batch.
I use a “fly-sparging” method now where you drain your heated sparge water from the HLT into the mash tun at the same rate as you drain the wort from the mash tun into the brew kettle. Keeping a one inch “blanket” of water on the grain bed (in the mash tun) helps ensure a nice, even flow of water through the bed. This takes a little bit of fidgeting with the valves but once it’s set, you’re good to go.
As you can see by the picture at the left, things are a touch close here… Looking back on things, I probably should have attached a hose to this fitting and filled up the brew kettle from the bottom vs. dripping it in. I’ve heard a little talk and debate about hot-side aeration (adding oxygen to the wort) before the boil. One side says the boil will remove any oxidation, the other side says not. We’ll see if this oxygen-inducing ‘drip’ method will have and adverse effect on my beer.
I’ll skip the boil kettle step since there were no surprises and nothing new (other than a burner on a tier). Moving on to the chilling step… I’m still at odds on how to integrate my chiller onto the TopTier stand. So, for now what I did was to continue to use gravity. The brew kettle is set pretty low on the stand and my driveway’s slope isn’t that steep. Chilling this batch would take a little time and I wasn’t happy with the way it turned out. I had stretched the fermenting bucket about 15 feet from the brew kettle. While technically there isn’t or wasn’t anything wrong with doing it this way, it was a big inconvenience for both time and functionality. The chill process took me about 30 – 40 minutes, which is quite a bit longer than I’m used to. I could chill a batch in about 10 minutes or less with my old setup… Looks like I have some re-engineering to do.
All-in-all, the day was a success and I really like this new stand. I hope to modify a few things before I brew my next batch.
I don’t feel like I can accurately review this stand since it was the inaugural brew. However, I will say these few things about the stand.
- This stand is very sturdy. It didn’t even sway the slightest during the entire brew session.
- Setup is simple. I did get the opportunity to do this twice during the day… which leads me to #3.
- Mobility! If you get caught in the middle of a rain storm / blizzard, just pull the kettle, MLT, & HLT off and roll it under some cover.
- The burners are work horses! They are super powerful and quiet. You can actually hear yourself talk.
- The construction quality is top notch!
Here is the entire image set for the day: