Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Building a Birch Kegerator

Recently a friend of mine gave me a small fridge that she was no longer using.  After about 20 years of bottling homebrew I thought it was high time to build a kegerator and start kegging my beer.

I like to incorporate parts of the natural world into my projects when I can.  Living in Fairbanks, Alaska, I am surrounded by birch and spruce forests.  Looking at the birch trees in the yard and in my wood pile I noticed that many were just about the right size for a draft tower.

I selected a piece of birch that was straight, had nice bark, was 3-3 ½ inches in diameter and about 12 inches long.  I bored about a 2 ½ inch diameter hole through the log.  I used a 1 inch spade drill bit to drill out multiple holes from both ends and make a rough bore.  The job would have been much easier with a drill press and a 2-2/12 inch bore.

Once I had the log bored out I decided to coat it with spar varnish to protect the fragile birch bark.  I used a spray can applicator which worked well for the irregular surface of the tower.  I applied numerous coats over several days until I achieved the thickness I was going for.  The spar varnish did have a mild yellowing effect on the bright white birch.  Perhaps gloss polyurethane would have had less yellowing but it would not provide as much protection as the spar varnish.  If I were to do this again I would have applied the varnish before boring the log out.  Clamping the unvarnished log marked the bark a little; this would have been avoided if I had varnished it first.

I bored out a 7/8 inch hole for the tap shank about an inch from the top and dry fit the tap, shank, and elbow.  I needed to use a hand chisel to flatten the inside of the tower so the beer nut could fit well against the inside of the tower.  I also needed to carve out a little extra room for the beer line elbow to fit in.

I wanted the tower to be stable on top of the refrigeration unit.  Commercial towers come with a flange at the bottom to secure them to the base.  I decided to make a base plate for the tower to sit on.  I selected a nice section of 1”x6” pine and cut out and 8 inch section.  I rounded the corners and used a 2 ½ inch hole saw to make a hole for the draft line to pass through into the tower.  I made this hole centered about 1 ½ inches from the back of the plate.  After I had the base plate shaped I applied a natural stain and finished it with spar varnish.

The tower fits over the hole in the base plate and is attached with four 1 ½ inch wood screws.  The holes were predrilled to avoid splitting and for final assembly I applied a bead of silicone to provide a water/airtight seal.

With the tower almost complete it was time to start converting the fridge.  I placed and marked my baseplate location on the top of the fridge.  

The top of my fridge is a plastic plate.  I removed this and using a 2 ½ inch hole saw I drilled a hole through the plastic to match the hole in the baseplate.

I re-attached the fridge top and used it as a guide to drill a hole through the top of the fridge.  Use caution with this, MAKE SURE THE FRIDGE IS UNPLUGED.  I knew there were no refrigeration lines in the top but I did not know where the wiring ran.  I found the center of my hole and drilled a 1/8 inch pilot hole.  Then, I carefully used the hole saw to cut through the outer sheet metal.  I removed the piece of sheet metal and carefully cut away the insulation down to the plastic interior lining.  In my fridge the wiring ran right under my hole and easily could have been cut into.  Since the wiring was in the way I drilled out the plastic inner lining of the fridge using my original pilot hole as a guide.

At this point it was time to re-assemble everything.  I placed the baseplate on the plastic top with some silicone sealant and used ½ inch screws to secure the baseplate to the plastic top. 

Once the plastic top, baseplate, and tower were assembled I used foam backer strips and silicone to fill the gap between the plastic top and the fridge and re-attached the plastic top.

I passed the beerline from the interior of the fridge, up the tower and connected it to the faucet.

To cover the top of the tower I traced the shape of the tower onto a piece of birch bark which I then cut out.  This made a lid to the tower which I finished with spar varnish and attached to the tower four ¼ inch wood screws.

This project was lots of fun and now I’ve got a beautiful kegerator of my own.  It is great to be able to have my homebrew on draft after all those years of bottling.  Next spring when the sap is running I’m going to have to make a birch beer to serve.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brewing in The Great Land

Wow, I've been bad about posting on here!  Life has been busy.  We finally settled into a permanent home last summer in the woods outside of Fairbanks.  Brewing has continued but the yeast ranching has suffered.  Through the spring of 2011 I was brewing out of cultures in the collection.  Since then I've been doing more seat of the pants brewing and not giving myself enough lead time to get a starter made.  For the most part I've been brewing with dried yeast which is much easier to get ahold of here.  There are a couple of places to get yeast but in general the liquid cultures available are wildly expired or obviously have frozen in transit and it isn't worth the price being asked.  I've been having great success with yeasts like S-04, S-05, and Nottingham though.

I finally decided it was time to revive the ranch.  Going through the collection I realized I hadn't re-cultured since 2010!  I sat down a few nights ago with fresh slants and transferred over my old samples.  Low and behold it looks like I am getting good growth on the new media.  Yeast is such a wonderful thing!  I'm sure stressing the yeast by storing it on old media the way I have may cause some selection and drift in my cultures but all yeast changes over time.  Once I get these cultures nice and healthy I am thinking about making some glycol preps to put in the deep freeze so I don't have to worry about them if I get too busy for maintenance of the samples again.

In other news.  The Yorkshire Square is alive and well in Fairbanks.  I've recently brewed several batches in it after sitting dormant for a couple of years and they have come out great.  Brewing in the stone sure is a lot of fun and aesthetically pleasing.  I was a little worried that two winters in the shed with 40 below F weather might have caused some leaks but everything is still ship shape!

Speaking of weather, I've learned to brew in some pretty cold weather.  The month of January this year averaged -27 F in Fairbanks.  I'm lucky at my house, the coldest it got here was -37 F last winter.  For cold weather brewing I've moved my mashtun inside.  I keep my propane burner out on the deck and heat my water and just carry it in to mix into the mash, sparge, etc.  It works pretty well for me except opening and closing the house door with a kettle of hot water in your hands can be a pain in the butt.  I have no problem getting water to temp or keeping a boil going even in pretty cold weather (although I try not to brew below 20 below) but I sure do blow through a lot more propane and I always try to keep a spare bottle around.

I've also finally gotten a kegging system up and running.  Thanks to my friend Erin who gave me an old wine fridge she wasn't using I have room to keep kegs chilled.  I decided to build a custom tower for the kegerator.  I found a nice piece of birch in the yard and drilled it out to make a draft tower.  Attached it to a base and installed a nice Perlick faucet and I've got a great kegerator.  The birch tower was another fun little project like the Yorkshire Square using materials at hand from the local environment.  I'm hoping to use more of the birch on my property to construct a bar at some point.

Speaking of birch I noticed how easy it is to get birch sap when it is running.  I'd love to tap a few trees and boil it down to syrup sometime.  Even more fun than that is the idea of trying to run some sap next spring and see if I can recover any local wild yeasts from it.  My vision is to spend a couple of weeks collecting yeast samples and seeing if I can isolate anything.  I would love to be able to find a yeast that makes good beer from my own trees.  It will be an interesting project.  If I have any success I will be sure to share with anyone who is interested.

Friday, September 3, 2010

North To The Future

Wow!  I've been a little remiss in keeping this blog updated.  Since my last post life has been rather busy.  The good news is that my broken tube of Burton ale yeast plated out with consistent yeast colony growth with no evidence of contamination.  I chose an isolate from the plate and made a new tube and have subsequently used it to brew up a nice ordinary bitter.

In other news, the safari has now moved to Fairbanks, Alaska.  It was a big move from Massachusetts to Alaska but the cultures all made it with flying colors.  Not wanting to deal with crossing international borders with a collection of culture samples to explain I chose to ship them instead.  I had a insulated shipper that all of my various cultures (including the various Saccharomyces cerevisiae, my sour dough culture, and a kombucha culture) packed nicely into with some ice packs.  I dropped them off at the post-office and sent them off first class mail to some friends in Fairbanks.  I was very pleased when I found out that everything arrived intact and alive.

Having the yeast ranch in Alaska should prove very useful since yeast prices are somewhat higher here and the selection of yeasts available in town is limited.  Shipping from the lower 48 can be pricey and slow and there is more of a concern with viability on arrival.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Well, sometimes you drop a tube....or it rolls out of the egg shelf of your fridge!  Anyway my slant of WLP 023 Burton Ale decided to explode on contact with my kitchen floor.  On a lot of my strains I have duplicates as back-ups.  Not for Burton Ale.

So after plucking the cat hair of the remains of the slant I decided to try a little isolation experiment.  I got out one of my blank plates and grabbed a sample of the end of the tube agar.  I streaked it out on the plate.....should be interesting to see what grows up.  If I did a good job streaking it out I should be able to isolate individual microbes on the plate.  Clearly my sample was contaminated, hopefully this will let me re-isolate my yeast strain from any of the riff-raff microbes milling about my kitchen.  I think the biggest problem will be trying to differentiate one yeast strain from another.  My assumption is that despite the contamination the dominant growth on the plate should be the Burton Ale Strain and I should be able to pluck off a representative colony.......We'll see

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Squaring" things up

I am happy to report that the nano "Yorkshire Square" performed fabulously for it's inaugural fermentation.  I decided to use WLP 0023 "Thames Valley" yeast to inoculate this fermenter with.  Being an open fermentation I was looking for a true "top cropping" yeast to provide a good biological cover to the fermenting wort.  I also wanted a yeast with lots of character which I thought would be fitting for beer being produced in this fermenter.

Boy, I was not disappointed.  This yeast took off quick!  The once the krausen started rising I could almost see it rising before my eyes.  Certainly there were noticible differences as I checked it every hour.  I thought the most interesting point was fairly early on as the krausen really began to take off in what I called the merangue phase.  It really looked like a merangue on a pie!  It was right around this phase when there was enough anaerobic metabolism going on that the carbon dioxide was able to snuff out a flame.

The fermenter holds 6.5 gallons, apparently I whould have built it bigger (actually that was as big as my materials would allow).  Five gallons of wort went into the fermenter and the krausen rose right up to the top and even overflowed a bit!

I've done a lot of fermentations in my house but I've never done one that was quite odiferous as this one.  Almost as soon as that fermenation started it was the first smell you noticed when you entered the house.  I think being open made a huge difference in terms of the amount of gas and aromas wafting out of the fermenter.  I'm really curious to see if there is any noticeable impact on the flavor and aroma of the final product versus a carboy fermented version.  We did do a group brew so 20 gallons of wort were produced for 4 different fermentations.  Unfortunately I didn't think to have anyone else use the WLP 0023 yeast so we could have a comparison of fermenter effects.

I did have to rack the beer out of the fermenter before it completed it's primary fermentation.  The big aroma and foaming over krausen aren't big features people are looking for when you are trying to sell your house and have an open house.  It was definitely most of the way through the primary and seemed to finish out just fine in the carboy.  Next time I hope to be able to let this ferment out all the way in the square.  Actually I'd really like to try doing a mild and send it either straight to the bottle or cask to be drank within just a few weeks of fermentation.

This time around it was a big brown ale with an original gravity of 1.064 and a final gravity of 1.020.  Going into the bottle it was tasting pretty good.  Can't wait to taste this one once it's carbonated.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Yay Stirplates and Yorkshire Squares!

Life has been busy for me lately so I haven't had much time to keep up with the blog.  We've got a big group brew coming up this weekend so I am building up some starters for people to use.  In the process I've inadvertently done a little non-scientific experiment.  A couple of my friends would like to brew with Whitbread ale yeast so I made up two 50 ml starters (about 1.040).  I grabbed my Whitbread Ale plate and plucked 2 colonies of the plate, one for each starter.  One batch went on my stir plate, the other sat on the counter.....48 hours later here are the results:
Notice the starter on the stir plate is nice and cloudy vs the counter top beaker which has a clear wort with only a small colony propagating on the bottom.


After removing the Erlenmeyer flask from the stir plate and allowing the yeast to settle the difference is quite noticeable.  Look at the nice layer of yeast cells in the Erlenmeyer vs the small colony in the beaker.

I don't have a microscope at home to do yeast counts but there is visibly more yeast in my starter on the stir plate.  I have a second stir plate I built sitting in the basement with a loose connection.  I really need to get that one back in operation so I can run multiple stir plates at the same time.

One of the things that has been keeping me busy is brewing gadget product.  I've begun to get interested in open fermentation and have been thinking about giving it a try.  I've always thought Yorkshire Square ferementers were pretty cool and I decided to build my own mini (or perhaps nano) Yorkshire Square.

There is a large cache of old slate pavers at my parents house that used to make up a walk to their front door (about 20 years ago).  These stones have been patiently waiting to be put to good use for quite some time now and conveniently are about the size I needed for this project.  So 5 slabs of slate, an inexpensive tile saw purchased on Craig's List, some food grade silicone, and some scrap poplar that was lying around and before you know it I have a new 6.5 gal fermenter.

Weighing in over 50 pounds empty it may not be the most practical piece of brewing equipment but it sure is nice to look at.  I have a starter of Burton Ale yeast brewing up to be used in my first batch in the fermenter.  Given the number of small cracks and crevices in the stone I assume it will never be sanitized the way a glass carboy can.  I am planning to pitch a very large starter to the first batch hoping to innoculate all these small places where microbes might hide.  I've picked the Burton Ale yeast for it's flavor profile as well as its reputation as a good top cropper, a trait which seems important in an open fermentation.  The wort for this first fermentation will be from a split batch with the other batches being closed.  It should be interesting to see what sort of differences (if any) there are between fermenter types.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Lasso Activity, Basic Brewing Radio, and Kombucha!

Life is good at the Ranch!  I recently brewed a big American IPA full of Simco and Amarillo hops and lots of late additions which is somewhat out of character for my usual brewing habits.  I figured if I was going for a big classic American IPA I should use a classic yeast.  So Wyeast 1056 - American Ale into the fermenter and into the ranch.  What a great yeast, it ripped through my IPA with an 88% apparent attenuation in less than a week and that was with a pretty bad underpitch on my part.  I'm happy to have this one on hand and will probably be brewing with it frequently. 

I also lassoed a sample of Wyeast 3068 - Weihstephan Weizen from my friend before he pitched it into a weizen he brewed.  I don't brew or drink a lot of wheat beers so it is interesting getting this into the collection.  It should prove inspiration for some future brewing.

Speaking of inspiration, check out the December 17th, 2009, episode of Basic Brewing Radio.  Yours truly an some of the guys from the SouthCoast Homebrewers Association discuss our big partigyle in an episode James calls Partigyle Gone Wild.  We are now referring to the technique of combining second runnings from multiple mash tuns to build a stronger beer as "collaborative mashing"  Just about everything is fermented out now but some is waiting to get into the bottle still (I'm currently having a bottle shortage!).  Thanks James, we had a blast on the show and plan to do another collaborative mash in the spring.  This time we are talking about doing big wheat beers so that Weihstephan Weizen should come in handy!

On a side note from beer.  I recently got a Kombucha starter from my friend Scott.  I just put my first batch in the fridge tonight.  I had never heard of Kombucha until recently but I'm gain to try anything that ferments!  My first batch is tasting pretty good.  Now I just need to get a ginger beer plant....