50 Days Happier: Day 8 – Dreaming for a Fermentation Studio

In the last two 50 Days Happier posts, I wrote about my multitasking kitchen and adjacent laundry room.  This (unfortunately, REALLY ineffective multitasking) is 99% a product of the fact that much of my homebrewery lives in and around our kitchen.  In the last couple of weeks, I’ve finally gotten frustrated enough to move most of the larger items to the basement.  I can’t tell you how hard this was emotionally.  (In fact, I wont tell you because I honestly feel a little weird about it.)  Let’s just say it was rough.

I also dropped a couple of hints about the potential solution to this problem in the last two posts. In my introduction to the challenge, I mentioned that 50 Days Happier would not be all about getting rid of things. Equally as important for me is taking the opportunity to reflect on what is most important to me, finding ways to prioritize those things, and taking the steps I need to take to align how I think and how I live.

Homebrewing is undoubtedly important to me.  Beer and brewing have been the anchor of my academic career.  Homebrewing is the form of leisure in which I have invested most of my time and resources–the equipment that makes up my homebrewery is worth more than both of my vehicles combined. And I still harbor dreams of embarking on some sort of small commercial brewing venture before I die. In order to give homebrewing its due, I really need to give my homebrewery its own space.

We do have an unfinished basement, but as renters, the kind of finishing I would need to do to make the space usable for homebrewing is completely out of the question. Lucky for me, a colleague who is steadily becoming a close friend, has a room in her basement that is alarmingly perfect for a small homebrewery.

While her unused basement laundry room is also unfinished, it has some amazing things going for it:

  • It’s more finished than our basement (i.e. concrete and not dirt floors).
  • It has direct access to the outside. (I don’t have to disturb anyone unless they want to be disturbed.)
  • It has two windows. (Perfect for ventilation.)
  • Basement temperatures are very fermentation friendly.
  • It has hot and cold water. (For cleaning and brewing respectively).
  • It has 110V and 220V electric. (Enough to power my electric brewing rig, lights and my fermentation fridge.)
110V and 220V electric. Ideal for running my electric homebrewery and other electronic peripherals.

Most importantly, the space is close to home and work and in the home of someone who is open and welcoming and creative and down with having a brewery/beer cave in her basement.

Making the Investment

As I considered this move, a lot of doubts crossed my mind.  I will still have to make a pretty hefty investment of time and money to get the space “brew ready.”  More to the point, I can’t just mooch off a friend and so I will be paying (an admittedly super modest) rent for use of the space.  I have asked myself a number of times whether or not it’s worth it for a few kegs of homebrew.

After some serious deliberation, I realize that this is something that I want to MAKE worth it.  While I don’t have a ton (or a penny) of extra cash, rent will be easy to cover.  I spend more time sitting in bars by myself (I call these times “remote office hours”), working on my computer, than I would really like to admit. A couple of drinks and a meal here and there add up quickly and all I really need to do is cut out a couple of these outings per month to cover rent for the new space.

I am also the faculty advisor for the Randolph College Zymurgy Team. While I am happy to have students on the “team” over to the house for brew days, the set-up isn’t ideal and my house is a bit of a hike from campus. The new space would be far more amenable to hosting the group, my colleague is sort of known for opening her home to students, and she happens to live virtually across the street from campus.

(There are some other potentially long term advantages, but I think you get the idea.)

Big Dreams for the Fermentation Studio

Miles and I headed over to the space so that I could take some measurements. He immediately approved of the location after discovering rope hanging from a tree branch just outside the studio door.

The first thing I will have to address is a deep cleaning and covering up some things. I’ll give this former laundry room a good scrubbing and (assuming my generous host is cool with it) hit it with a bright white coat of paint.

The concrete floors and wall will get a good scrubbing and maybe even a coat of paint.

The ceiling is unfinished and will need to be covered. I am hoping I can use a temporary/removable solution in the short term.  I’ve seen a number of solutions on Pinterest that may work, but this will take some thought and planning.  (If anyone has ideas, please leave a comment!)

Exposed insulation in the ceiling will be one of the first things I address. Fiberglass dust in the kettle doesn’t sound great.

The room is shaped something like a fat ‘L’ (or like a rectangle with one quarter missing.  The narrowest space created is about 5.5 x 6 feet.  It also the location of one of the windows and close to both the water, drain, and electricity. So, this will be where my brewing equipment will be located.

The perfect “nook” for my brewing equipment. I’ll put the brew table/stand against the back wall. Water and electricity are accessible on the right.

I will have to make a DIY vent hood to direct steam from the kettle out of the window. Lucky for me, plenty of industrious homebrewers have documented similar projects online.

Thinking I can retrofit this table into a table into a stand/table for my kettle, mash ton, pumps, and chiller.

Finally, I’ll need to install a laundry/utility sink in the space, which shouldn’t be too terribly difficult.

Laundry/Utility sink will be the last “must have” for the space.

Beyond these “must have” upgrades, the space will need to store my collection of kegs and carboys, gadgets and tools, ingredients and supplies.  I also plan to bring my fermentation refrigerator over.  In my more ambitious moments, I think about building a small bar/tasting area–but we’ll have to see about that.

The project is a bit daunting, but I am excited to get started and (at a minimum) get things moved over to clear out some space in the house.  Not sure when I’ll be able to make progress on this project, but I’ll be excited to post updates when the time comes!



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“The Value of a Pint” to be Published by University of Nebraska Press

I am very pleased to share that I recently reached an agreement with the University of Nebraska Press to publish my scholarly frolic through the cultural-economic dynamics of the post-Prohibition brewing industry. “The Value of A Pint: American Beer, Cultural Change, and the Stubborn Materiality of Contemporary Capitalism” is officially FORTHCOMING.


What is the value of a pint of beer?

Two dollars? Seven dollars?  A boost in one’s perceived masculinity?  The warming pride in having displayed an act of patriotism?  A successful bid for public office?  A novel path to entrepreneurial success? A tightly knit sense of subcultural belonging?  A measurable boon to the green economy?  The acquisition of an enviable expertise?  Many of us when asked to quantify the value of the objects that populate our everyday lives might answer, after some thought, it depends (and not in small part, upon what one means when one says value).  But seldom do we pause to consider upon just how many varied and complexly interrelated phenomena something like the value of a pint of one of the U.S.’s favorite beverages actually depends.

The Value of Pint: American Beer, Cultural Change, and the Stubborn Materiality of Contemporary Capitalism explores how Americans have assigned value to the cultural and material products of the domestic brewing industry; and perhaps more significantly, how those process of valuation have reflected and shaped American culture over the last century.  The book tells the story of change in the American brewing industry from its rebirth after federal Prohibition to the contemporary explosion of the craft brewing segment.  Unlike the industrial histories that currently dominate academic/popular non-fiction about American Beer, The Value of a Pint examines a series of formative snapshots—crises and turns in the trajectory of one of the nation’s most ubiquitous food commodities—and traces their connections to broader cultural movements, practices, and social identities. Researched and written in the tradition of interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, the book argues that the evolution of the U.S. brewing industry, American beer, and American beer drinking demonstrate how profoundly inseparable the cultural and the economic are, despite our collective compulsion to hold these two domains of human experience to be mutually exclusive.  In making this argument, The Value of a Pint advances a theory of culturally embedded valuation.

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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