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Moving from Gas to Electric Brewing

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Brewing with Natural Gas, Propane, then Electric
This article covers the variety of systems that I have used for homebrewing beer over the last 5 years. Brewing first in my kitchen on the stove-top using natural gas, then out to the garage using propane and then lastly going back inside and down to my basement for electric brewing.
My aim is to explain some of the challenges I faced, the options considered, and reasons for making certain decisions. Hopefully other homebrewers facing similar challenges will gain an insight into the options available and perhaps find a clearer way forward.
Stove-top Brewing
Like many homebrewers, I began my journey into crafting my own beer by starting out with Extract kits that usually consisted of Liquid Malt Extract (LME) and/or Dried Malt Extract (DME), some crushed specialty grains for steeping to extract color and flavor, pellet hops, dried yeast, and corn sugar for bottle conditioning.
For a 5 gallon batch I would use a 60-quart pot on the stove top. Once the boil was complete, I would cool the wort down as best I could in a sink full of iced water and then add the cooled wort to cold water in the fermenter and pitch the yeast.

Large pot of wort on the stove top
This approach produced reasonably good beer, and after the first few batches I turned to All Grain brewing with full volume boils to try improve the quality of my beer. Whilst extract brewing was pretty straightforward on the stove top, All Grain brewing proved to be more of a challenge for sparging and especially full volume boils in an even bigger pot.
After a few boil overs, which welded hot wort onto the stove top, and struggling to lift large pots filled with 7 plus gallons of wort, it was time to exit the kitchen and move my operation into the garage.
Here are a few disadvantages I found while brewing on the stove top:
  • The burners are not very powerful, so bringing a large pot of wort to the boil can take forever.
  • Stepping up to full volume boils meant using a larger pot containing 7 plus gallons of wort and on my stove top it proved to be a struggle to reach and maintain a vigorous boil.
  • Boil overs, and the heat retained by large pots, caused some damage to my stove top which did not go down well with my spouse.
Brewing with Propane
Moving into the garage meant it was time to rethink my brewing setup; rather than making 5 gallons of beer, it also seemed like a good move to step up to making 10 gallon batches. I had been doing some All Grain batches in the kitchen but needed a better mash and sparge method. I also wanted the ability to achieve a vigorous full volume boil to improve hop utilization and drive off Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS).
Cost was a factor, and I was not keen on going down the Igloo Cooler route for a Mash Tun as my research indicated that raising the volume over a long mashing period can lead to over-diluting the mash, especially if the temperature over-shoots and needs ice or cold water added.
The system I decided on was a three tier gravity-based keggle system which involved building a frame to hold the vessels and burners. For burners I opted for 3 x Bayou Classic SP10 propane burners (55k BTU) which are 2-3 times more powerful than your average stove top burner. The Hot Liquor Tank (HLT), Mash Tun, and Brew Kettle were each made from converted kegs which I obtained from a brewery through legitimate channels.

Three tier Sanke keg-based brewing system
The advantages of this new system included:
  • Heating up liquids faster due to more powerful burners.
  • The ability to produce 10 gallons of beer in a batch rather than 5 gallons.
  • Using a fly-sparge to extract the sugars from the grains in the Mash Tun.
  • Ability to maintain a vigorous full-volume boil in the Brew Kettle.
  • Using a 50 foot copper immersion chiller enabled me to cool the wort down more quickly to pitching temperatures and hence reduce the risk of infection.
This system served me well for about three years and helped me produce more and better beer. It did however still leave me facing some challenges:
Brewing outside in the garage in Central Pennsylvania during January and February weather is not the most enjoyable experience especially when taps and garden hoses begin to freeze up and hamper the brew day.
Converted Sanke kegs can retain a lot of heat, which, when combined with powerful propane burners, can make maintaining a constant and correct mash temperature problematic. Under and over-shooting of temperatures becomes a regular challenge and varying efficiency can lead to random and hard-to-repeat results.
  • Emptying a 15.5 gallon Mash Tun full of grain is a lot of weight to handle. I could manage ok when help was on hand but brewing alone was hard going.
  • Clean-up of two large vessels was very time consuming.
The brew day still needed a lot of 'babysitting' to maintain correct mash temperatures and avoid boil overs in the Brew Kettle.
Electric Brewing
These challenges with propane brewing led me to start investigating the possibility of moving over to an electric brewing system. Electric systems are becoming more popular, with a key factor being that they can be used inside since they do not produce carbon monoxide gas (unlike propane burners which require plenty of ventilation). Other advantages include lower running costs and better control.
There are three main types of brewing systems, which include the ability to have a heated and controllable mash temperature as opposed to a cooler based system. Each of these systems are available in gas, propane, or electric versions:
  • BIAB - Brew In A Bag
  • HERMS - Heat Exchange Recirculating Mash System
  • RIMS - Recirculating Infusion Mash System.
Below is a summary of each of the alternatives that I investigated for my new electric-based brewing system. Note: I was not interested in building a Frankenbrew system. The keggle build was sufficient to satisfy those urges, so instead I chose to look at commercially available off-the-shelf systems.
BIAB
BIAB uses a single vessel as both a Mash Tun and Brew Kettle. The idea is that the full volume of water is heated up within the pot, and once it reaches temperature a meshed bag is inserted and the grain is added. The system recirculates the liquid out of the bottom of the vessel and sprays it back in at the top where it flows down through the grain bed.
Temperature control is achieved by varying the temperature of the heating element at the bottom of the vessel whilst recirculation continues. During this recirculation the sugars are extracted from the grains and the grain bed itself acts as a filter. Once mashing is complete, the meshed bag is raised and allowed to drain. The remaining wort is then boiled, with hops added at the usual intervals.

Electric BIAB system
Key advantages of this type of system are:
Low setup costs with only a single large pot needed.
Reduced cleanup effort due to using one pot.
Reduced brew time due to no need for sparging.
Disadvantages and challenges with this type of system are:
Potential for lower efficiency within the mash, but this can be overcome by increasing the size of the grain bill to obtain the required gravity.
With a 5 gallon batch, a meshed bag full of wet grain can easily weigh 25 plus punds. Usually some kind of hoist is needed, especially when brewing high gravity beers or 10 gallon batches.
Examples of commercial systems include Brew Boss E-BIAB and High Gravity's BIAB Electric Brewing System. The typical prices can range from $1095 to $1350 (excluding taxes and shipping).
HERMS
HERMS uses three vessels and one or more pumps. A typical configuration is to have a coil within the Hot Liquor Tank (HLT) and the water heated up to 170 deg F. The idea is that the liquid in the Mash Tun is recirculated through the coil which in turn acts as a heat exchanger and raises the temperature within the mash. To stop the temperature from being raised the recirculation pump is switched off.
Once mashing is complete, the 170 deg F water within the HLT is used to sparge the sugars out of the grain in the Mash Tun and into the Brew Kettle.

Electric HERMS system
Key advantages of this type of system are:
Reduced chance of scorching the liquid in the mash due to no direct contact with the heating element; instead heating is done via the heat exchanger.A high level of control is achievable over the mash temperature.High efficiency within the mash is achievable.
Disadvantages and challenges of this type of system are:
High cost due to having three vessels.Cleanup effort needed with having multiple vessels.An example of a commercial system includes High Gravity's HERMS system. Typical prices are around $2500 (excluding taxes and shipping).
DIY versions can be built from plans available online e.g. E-HERMS Brewing System, The Electric Brewery.
RIMS
RIMS usually uses two vessels and comes in various configurations. A common approach is to either use the Brew kettle to heat up a portion of the wort, which is recirculated out of the bottom of the Mash Tun and sprayed back in from the top. Another approach is to have a separate tube that contains a heating element, which heats the wort as it passes through it. Temperature control is maintained by varying the temperature of the heating element with recirculation continuing.

Electric RIMS system
Key advantages of this type of system are:
Lower cost than HERMS due to one less vessel.
A high level of control is achievable over the mash temperature.
Maximum efficiency within the mash is achievable.
Disadvantages and challenges of this type of system are:
Higher cost than BIAB due to one extra vessel.
Potential scorching risk with the wort coming into direct contact with the heating element especially if the flow rate and wort levels are not maintained correctly.
Examples of commercial systems include Picobrew Zymatic, Blichmann BrewEasy and Braumeister. Typical prices can range from $1700 to $2950 (excluding taxes and shipping).
My New System
The option I went for was the Brew Boss E-BIAB system that could handle both 5 and 10 gallon batches and included software automation using a tablet computer.
Now I happily brew in my basement all year round and can maintain the mash temperature within 1 deg F plus perform step mashes and avoid boil overs! Cleanup is also quick and easy.

Bio
My name is Phil Gowling and I have been an avid homebrewer since 2010. I am the current President of the State College Homebrew Club in Central Pennsylvania. I also run a craft beer and homebrewing website called 'Beer Infinity' (www.beerinfinity.com).//www.pinterest.com/pin/create/extension/
 

Comments

Nice write up. Thanks for all the info! As a current propane but aspiring e-brewer it's nice to have the pros v cons of each system. I've got my eye on the Brew Boss but I'm concerned about loss of efficiency in a BIAB system. What % of extra grains are typically needed to make up the difference?
 
Nice writeup! While everyone seems to know that it costs less on brewday to brew with electricity vs. propane, I get asked a lot exactly how much less:
It costs me about $1.60 in electricity to brew 10 gallons of beer, assuming I brew during peak electrical rates ($0.12/kWh).
If I brew on the weekends or evenings when the rate is half the peak rate, the cost is about $0.80.
$0.12/kWh also happens to be the average US national rate so most US brewers should expect similar costs. These costs do not include taxes, delivery charges, or other fees that your electricity provider may add so for a good "estimate", you can roughly double the number. So a weekend 10 gallon brew should cost you about $1.60. That's about the price of doing a load of laundry or two (electric dryer).
Cheers!
Kal
 
Nice article, but I think many who use BIAB would tell you that "Low efficiency with BIAB" is a myth. Most experienced BIABers report getting comparable or BETTER efficiencies than traditional mash tun set ups. The key to BIAB, as it is honestly with any set up, is to know your equipment and how it works best. Because BIAB uses a fine mesh bag as the filter, grains can be double crushed to increase the surface area and improve extraction of starches and sugars. Double crushing does not result in the extraction of tannins (another myth) either.
That being said, if you do not have access to getting your grain double crushed, adding an extra half pound of base malt can help with efficiency when the grain is not properly crushed for BIAB.
 
Nice article, but the image of the Blichmann setup isnt necessarily a rims even though they call it a K-RIMS (relativly new).
Most RIMS systems usually still involve 3 vessels, but typically the mash tun will have a pump that goes through a rims tube with a heating element inside of it and back into the mash to maintain temp. While thats going on the HLT is heating up water for sparging.
 
Wait, since when is it common to control your mash in a HERMS system by controlling the pump? This seems like it would break your pump prematurely.
As far as i know a majority of people(myself included) recirculate the entire mash and set their HLT to 1-3F higher than their target mash temp to keep the mash right where they want it.
There is no just setting it to 170 and leaving it...
 
@kal electric brewing allowed me to install an exhaust fan sized large enough to remove only the boil vapors and odors produced in the kettle.
If I were brewing with gas I would have needed to install a much larger fan, about 10 times larger, in order to properly ventilate the gas fumes, boil vapors and odors.
 
@BroomVikin, as @Foosier indicates, a drop in efficiency with BIAB is marginal if anything. The main thing is indeed to mill the gain a bit finer as the meshed bag will assist as a filter. As an aside one thing I have found is that rice hulls are needed for stronger beers otherwise you can end up with a stuck mashed - rice hulls are not just for a grist containing wheat.
 
@BeerInfinity, I'm a new brewer that only went to all grain this year using pots, coolers and 1 propane burner. I would like to skip gravity or pump based keggle systems and go straight to electric. So, what options of the Brew Boss E-BIAB system did you go with.
 
I like to brew outside. Sometimes it is hot, sometimes cold, sometimes in the rain or snow, sometimes perfectly sunny and cool. Regardless, I'd rather be out (I claim). People vary on this, of course, but just wanted to point out that you should understand WHERE you will be happy brewing before deciding how.
 
One more way to get your operation into the basement is electric induction burners. I finally did my first basement batch just this Sunday, with cooler mash tun and using a 3500 watt induction burner (240 volt) for all of the water heating and the boil. I was able to turn down the power two notches from maximum and still have a very strong rolling boil with 7 gallons in my 32 quart pot. So far so good, and a big improvement over straddling two gas burners on our kitchen stove top. Just had to buy the induction burner and do some wiring for the 240, otherwise I used all of my existing equipment. Oh yeah and a fan to blow the steam out the back door (which will be replaced by something decent eventually). Very happy now in my happy place, many more batches to be done.
 
@skylab4 I went with the 240v 15 gallon system that will do 5 & 10 gallon batches. 5 gallon for strong beers and 10 gallon for lower gravity beers. At the time there was a choice of 4500w or 5500w elements so I chose the latter. Now I think they also do a stainless steel element which would be better for cleaning. If you have questions about which setup to go for then the owner, Darin, is very helpful and will guide you.
 
Electric Brewing has really changed my whole take on the hobby..With propane, it used to be me worrying about the weather (cold, hot, windy(debris), humidity, if I had enough propane to get through the batch and just the bug factor alone outside brewing where I live. With my e-HERMS setup its now a comfortable, indoor with the a/c and TV on, relaxed, enjoyment for brewday. I would not trade it for anything.
 
@ScrewyBrewer Yup! Sounds about right. Gas brewing needs a lot more venting than electric to get all those poisonous gases out. It then also requires a much larger make-up air system (the source of fresh air). John Blichmann had a good article in BYO about a year or two ago - I stole some of the numbers for my ventilation article here: http://www.theelectricbrewery.com/ventilation (see about 1/2 way down the page for the comparison of gas to electric with numbers). Cheers, Kal
 
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