Start With the Hardest Part: Control Panel Design

There are clearly more than two types of people in the world, but if we were going to work with this popular (if asinine) theory, then a nice way to make the distinction might be to make it between people who tackle challenges by addressing the easiest part first and those who go for the hardest.  I belong to the latter group of folks and for this reason, I am starting off my e-brewery build by attacking the control panel first.

Key Decisions

In a lot of ways addressing the control panel first is the only logical way to start, as it forces you to make some key decisions in the overall design of the system.

120V or 240V Power? – How to power the brewing system was probably the decision I waffled over most.   At the center of most e-breweries are electric water heating elements (like those in household water heaters).  These elements can run off 120V (the voltage in a normal outlet) or 240V (the voltage in an outlet like your electric clothes dryer) residential power. Unsurprisingly, when available, 240V power is superior choice, allowing for the use of 4,500W-5,500W elements and shortening the time it takes to bring water and wort from room to boiling temperatures.  The Electric Brewery build uses 240V power to fire two 5,500W heating elements.  The problem with 240V power is that it isn’t widely available in most homes (rather specifically wired for a few appliances like dryers and stoves), it can be a pain in the butt to install a new receptacle, and I am renter (meaning I can’t monkey with the house too much either way).  Because I am locating my brewery in my laundry room, I do have the option of unplugging my dryer and using that receptacle on brew day.  But ultimately, I don’t know that I am going to live in this house forever and I want to build something that gives me the most flexibility into the future.  And so, I decided to use 120V power for my e-brewery so that it can be plugged into almost any residential outlet.  Moreover, because my build is designed around 5-gallon batches (smaller than those driving The Electric Brewery design), I’m hopeful that my heating times wont be too terrible.

RIMS or HERMS? – My quests for higher efficiency, better temperature control, and all around better beer, demand that I upgrade to a recirculating system.  The Electric Brewery build uses a HERMS design.  Wort passes through a stainless steel coil located HLT (hot liquor tun) where it is heated and recirculated back to a mash tun using a high temperature pump.  While this is a great design, it is NOT particularly compact (it uses three large Blichmann Boilermaker pots and two pumps all on the same tier) and it doesn’t have much consideration for energy efficiency (nothing is insulated and it does not take advantage of gravity).  Because I am looking to brew inside a very compact footprint, I started looking at two-vessel builds (for example the rather cool Brutus 20).  I finally settled on a RIMS design that uses the boil kettle like a RIMS tube during the mash, or what the good folks at Blichmann are calling a Kettle-RIMS or K-RIMS system.  The result will be a two vessel, no sparge system where an insulated mash tun is positioned vertically in relation to a boil kettle.  This design allows me to eliminate an accessorized brew pot, a heating element,  a pump, and a lengthy stainless steel coil from the original The Electric Brewery design.  Now that’s $AVINGS! 


Having made these two key decisions, I began planning the wiring for the control panel.  Again, the information on The Electric Brewery was absolutely invaluable in my planning.  Having something to modify was infinitely more feasible than starting from scratch.  I did however, modify the design heavily, as I was able to eliminate quite a lot of circuitry from the The Electric Brewery control panel.

  • Because I am using only one heating element (in the boil kettle), I can remove all of the wiring and components for one of the elements as well as the switch that toggles between elements in the original design.
  • I  scaled back from 3 to 1 PID Temperature Controllers.  The original design used one controller for each element and a third simply to read temperatures from the  mash tun (which, seems to amount to a rather expensive thermometer).
  • I eliminated the Voltage and Amp meters from the control panel, as they were merely cosmetic.

Below are the wiring diagrams I will be using for my 120V control panel’s four major systems.

Control Panel Power
Timer and Alarm
Heating Element
Wort and Air Pumps

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Electric Homebrewery: Getting Started

As promised, I am veering away from the current events theme that has been dominating my blog lately for this upcoming series of posts. Instead, I’ll be posting updates on something I am almost as passionate about (though perhaps I should not admit that): my homebrewery.

If any of you homebrewers out there are anything like me, you are perpetually in some state of upgrading–or at least planning to upgrade–your  brewing system or fermentation/dispensing rig.  Over the years, I’ve slowly made improvements to just about every aspect of my brewing process.  I given myself more dispensing options by moving to kegs, converting an old dorm fridge into a kegerator, and building a jocky box for serving on the run.  I’ve more tightly controlled my fermentation temperatures by converting an old fridge into a fermentation chamber.  I’ve added pumped aeration and filtration to my brew day.  And even geeked out pretty hard on water chemistry to try to get the most out of my mashes and dial in on the characteristics of styles I brew most.  What I have surprisingly NOT changed much over the years is my actual brewery.  My propane burner, brew pot, mash tun, and wort chiller have served me well for years, but are LONG overdue for an upgrade.

IMG_1089IMG_2163IMG_2156Friends know that I have recently relocated from Charlottesville to Lynchburg Virginia to join the faculty at Randolph College (GO WILDCATS!). The move has been a perfect opportunity to make a lot of changes for the better–in the way I live and work, in my space and with my belongings, in my health and well being…and now, in my homebrewery.

I have a few specific goals in mind in making this upgrade.

  • First and most significantly, I want to move from my gas-fired system to an electric system. While I have enjoyed many hours over the years standing outside on mild and sunny brew days listening to the gentle burble of a boiling wort; I have also suffered excruciating heat, freezing cold, high winds, unexpected rain, swarming insects, falling leaves, and more. Further, I am simply tired of hauling equipment and (often very hot) gallons of water and wort around my house and yard.  I am simply looking for a more booshy brew day.
  • Second, I want to make the footprint of my homebrewery much smaller. I am probably not unlike a lot of homebrewers, who tended toward MORE when leveling up. As such, my homebrew equipment takes up a LOT of space…too much space. The truth is, I rarely make more than 5 gallons of any particular beer at a time, though I have always maintained the capability to do three times as much. I’ve finally reached the point in life where less is actually a more attractive option.
  • Third, I want to increase my efficiency.  With my current setup, I can only achieve about 70%-75% efficiency.  No matter what I do, I rarely get out of this range.  Somehow this has always been something of a moral defeat for me and to be honest, I’m cheep enough to mourn the admittedly small cost of those wasted ingredients.
  • Fourth, I want to add more automation and precision to my brew day. Though I have been able to achieve relatively precise temperature control during my mashes, I’m not really set up to do anything more than a single infusion mash and frankly I just don’t like being limited in that way.  I don’t need complete automation, but I want to be able to walk away from my mash tun and/or kettle and not fear that I will make some sort of colossal, off-taste producing error.

I’m also sure that I am not alone in having drooled over and dreamed about Kal’s indoor brewery build at  It truly is a thing of beauty if you have not taken a look.  For years, I have simply marked this build as awesomely unattainable (after all the parts and tools, it’ll set you back about $7,000).  Now,  it is still awesomely unattainable.  But, I am in the position to do my own build–one that is scaled WAY back from Kal’s–but makes use of much of the incredible design and planning work he so meticulously and generously documented online.

So, in the same spirit of open documentation that is making my build possible, I am going to be documenting my process is it unfolds.  Feel free to comment (particularly if you see me doing something that will result in burning my house down), collaborators are encouraged.

NEXT >> Start with the Hardest Part: Control Panel

PINT: Values Lost

Bottles. Glass, Paper Chord.

Fairly early in the writing of my doctoral dissertation, I found, like many engaged in this process do, that there are issues and questions that I could not easily pursue within the scope of the project.  These, coupled with the impulse/need to have a creative outlet for those moments when ideas want to come, but refuse to be written cogently, resulted in the development of an artistic project.  PINT: Values Lost is a series of artwork developed to compliment/complicate my interdisciplinary dissertation project.

Though created to stand independently, the five mixed-media projects together tell a multi-layered story about contemporary American culture, capitalism, power, everyday material artifacts, and the raced and gendered subjectivities that emerge in relation to such fraught and overdetermined formations.  Though I showed this work in February 2014, all pieces are still in progress.

The first piece, A Thinking Man’s Game, takes up the historically messy interconnections between the brewing industry, baseball, American identity, and black masculinity in an installation of deconstructed and re-contextualized baseball cards.  It contemplates the economic reliance of pervasive American industries, such as beer and baseball, on black male bodies and these industry’s simultaneous efforts to conceal that reliance.

A Thinking Man's Game. Collage
“[In Progress] A Thinking Man’s Game”: Collage
The second piece, Bottles, explores beer consumption as a site of meaning with reference to urban blackness.  It introduces rarely posed questions about gendered interaction in these sites of meaning making through textile-based explorations of the brown paper bag and 40oz beer bottle.  By using the same materials that circulate urban everyday life—paper and glass—in a formal engagement that makes use of a traditionally feminine art, Bottles seeks to dislocate and thus question the meanings that circulate with this object.

Bottles. Glass, Paper Chord
“Bottles”: Glass, Paper Chord

The third piece, a collection of currently untitled photographs, raises questions about the pervasive narratives that characterize America’s founding fathers as patriotic homebrewers of beer.  Given the general understanding of brewing as women’s work in the colonial era, and fact that domestic labor was organized within the apparatus of American slavery for privileged families, these photographs envision a probable (but undocumented) tradition of brewing among African-American women.

The fourth piece, an unhinged polytych, charts the brewing process as a creative interpretation and subversive response to the recipe, as an organizer of brewing practice.  Conceived simultaneously as exploratory recipe cards and archival documents of actual brewing experiences, Gravity and Other Measures contemplates the brewing process as a space of confrontation with convention as it operates within the world of brewing and beyond.

[In Progress] Gravity and Other Measures, Wood, Paint. Collage
“Gravity and Other Measures”: Wood, Paint
The fifth piece is a collection of homebrewed beers designed to compliment the four pieces of visual art in the series.  “All-American Pastime Pale Ale”, “Belgian Blue Malt Liquor”, “Brew House Negro Colonial Ale”, and the “Divine Red Ale” were brewed to be tasted in concert with the visual experience of each piece—making use of brewing techniques and experiments that are intended to extend or provide further commentary on the themes broached in the visual work.

Tasting Flight. Hand-crafted Beer
“Tasting Flight”: Hand-crafted Beer