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.