This FAQ would not have been possible without the gracious help of the following people --
Charles S. Jackson (email@example.com)
Bob Gorman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jack Schmidling (email@example.com)
Many others, too numerous to mention.
Finally, the fact that you are probably using a King Kooker or something similar as your heat source means that you will HAVE to move your entire operation to the great out-of-doors. This isn't bad if you live in an area where it never gets about hot and humid but if you live in the Deep South, you'll find that it can be pretty unpleasant to brew in the heat.
Additionally, costs incurred by breweries are simply passed on to consumers via higher prices, so you are doing the entire beer-drinking community a dis-service by cutting one of these things up. Do everyone a favor, and buy one from a documented, legal source.
When I started building my system, I decided that my underlying philosophy should be to make the entire brewing process easier, not harder. I was using a Phil's Lauter Tun and a 8 1/4 gallon enameled canning pot, so it was pretty hard to make things easier. I think I succeeded, however, by keeping it simple... Perhaps this helps.
But, everybody wants to build a brewery out of converted kegs, so let's continue with the fun stuff.
There is on-going frequent debate in rec.crafts.brewing and the Home Brew Digest about whether or not to use aluminum. I'm not going to deal with this here except to say that there are aluminum half barrel kegs out there. You should be able to spot them, since they should all be pretty old (apparently they haven't made aluminum kegs in a number of years).
If you plan to weld or braze or solder a brass or copper fitting into your stainless steel keg, you should be aware of the dielectric effect. This occurs when two metals of different conductivity are connected. Brass and copper and silver are all more conductive (carry electric current better) than stainless steel. This can cause the metal to corrode. While you should be aware of it, you shouldn't worry about it too much, since we home brewers generally just have small areas joined together, so the effect isn't that big of a problem.
Stainless Steel comes in a few flavors. The "L" grades are the ones that are suitable for welding, and the "300" grades are those which are suitable for food preparation use. Kegs are generally "304L". Stainless steel is made by adding nickel and chromium to steel. The nickel and chromium form surface oxides which are extremely tough, and resistant to corrosion. However, EXTREME caution must be taken when welding, brazing, and soldering stainless steel, because overheating the material causes it to become EXTREMELY brittle (the affected area will shatter into a zillion pieces with a light hammer tap). So, if you are going to solder or braze something onto stainless steel, be very careful that you don't overheat it. If you are going to weld stainless steel, OXY-ACETYLENE IS NOT SUITABLE. Use only TIG or MIG (or plasma if you're just cutting).
It should be pointed out here what the difference between copper, brass and bronze is -- copper is just plain copper, pure and simple. Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin. Brass is a mixture of copper, (sometimes) tin, zinc, and lead. While most people cringe at the thought of lead in their plumbing, lead in brass doesn't pose much of a problem because it is present in very small amounts (0-10%). If you are worried about the possibility of lead leeching from your brass parts into your beer, you can take John Palmer's advice and mix white distilled vinegar (5% acetic acid) with drugstore-variety hydrogen peroxide (3% concentration) in a 2:1 volume ratio and soak brass parts for 10 minutes. This will remove all of the lead from the surface of the brass parts, thereby eliminating the cause for concern about leeching.
Also, when joining two pieces of threaded pipe, it is not necessary to absolutely screw the hell out of it until it won't go any further. I like to tighten things up by hand, then do one or two turns of the wrench. I never have leaks, either. If you over-tighten parts, you will come to regret it later...
The process is simple -- clean all parts thoroughly, and using sand paper or a wire brush, score the surfaces that you want to stick together. Next, apply generous amounts of flux to both parts and put them together. Now, light your propane torch, and heat up the joint. Once it is hot enough, touch the tip of the solder spool to the joint, and capillary action will "suck" the solder into the joint. Make sure you solder the joint uniformly and thoroughly, then let the part cool and harden undisturbed. Voila! You've just soldered...
Again, it should be mentioned to avoid materials which contain lead or cadmium. Cadmium is far, far worse than lead, as it will cause severe poisoning and even death. Please, please be careful!
Brazing is almost identical in procedure to soldering. The major difference is the heat source that you use. Oxy-acetylene is generally used in brazing. Extreme care should be taken not to overheat the stainless steel parts. Again, I refer the reader to John Palmer's excelent article from Brewing Techniques (see above).
Bob McIlvaine writes... If something other than solder is desired for a copper joint, copper brazing rod is recommended. This rod can be used to braze any copper where solder is used. The rod contains phosphorus as a flux which basically burns off and when cooled only copper is left.
If you decide to go this route, look in your local Yellow Pages under "Welding", and look for someplace that specializes in stainless steel and/or sanitary welding. To save yourself some money, do everything that you can do yourself before you take the stuff to the shop (i.e. mark your keg where you want the nipple or coupling welded in, write explicit instructions on a piece of paper, disassemble all the parts). These people charge by the hour, so anything that you can do to save them time will save you money. Make sure that they use stainless steel filler rod, and make sure that the use either a TIG or MIG welder (this shouldn't be a problem if they specialize in stainless). Some people report having successfully had stuff welded at the local muffler shop or auto body repair place. While I wouldn't recommend going this route, if you want to save money this way, more power to ya'.
Welder-Types: There are really only two ways to weld stainless steel -- TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) and MIG (Manganese Inert Gas) these two methods are the most desirable because they don't overheat the metal, as described in the "Materials" section. TIG is the best method, MIG is the second best method.
Once again, I refer you to John Palmer's article in Brewing Techniques for more information.
If you're planning to weld copper to copper or brass, etc. You need to look elsewhere for more information. This is beyond the scope of this FAQ.
Definitions first, so you don't get lost:
Now, some words about design --
In the past, many people have just had nipples welded directly into the side wall of their kegs. While this works well, you are really stuck if you want to change your design after the nipple has been welded in. For this reason, it is a much better idea to weld a stainless steel pipe coupling into the side-wall of your keg. Mount it flush with the inside, then you can do absolutely anything that you want with the plumbing on the inside and the outside. Doing it this way will also probably make the welding a bit cheaper if you're having it done professionally.
While I offer some design ideas in this article, these are by no means the only way of doing things. By all means do it a new way, just let me know about it, so that I can include it in this FAQ.
As I mentioned earlier, your MOST important design philosophy should be ease of use. At every step in the design process, you should consider whether or not you will be making your brewing any easier.
Finally, shop around, do all your designing on paper, then start buying stuff. Do not buy anything until you have finished up the design, you will just end up buying parts that you don't need.
Lastly, some thoughts about implementation --
When you brew with converted kegs, you will need a BIG heat source. This means that you will most likely need to get a propane cooker. You do not need to get three burners, though (one for each vessel). I use just one propane cooker. The way that I do this is to first heat the mash (do temperature steps if I want to), then during the saccarification rest I heat the sparge water (I skip the mash-out), then I boil. Pretty easy. Having two would make things easier, but I haven't had a chance to get around to buy another one.
Try to figure out a design that will keep you from doing a lot of lifting during the brewing process, as this gets strenuous and tiring. It's also a good way to hurt your back. Some ways to avoid lifting are: using pumps, getting burners that sit higher off the ground, and using pulleys and ropes to lift your kegs.
Bev-Con International (BCI)
6400 Highway 51 South
Post Office Box 396
Brighton, TN 38011
4511 South Ave.
Toledo, OH 43615
Both companies are extremely friendly and helpful, and they both are aware of the fact that home brewers are a big part of their clientele. It should be noted that BCI does not accept credit cards, so you must call them about pricing and freight, and then mail them a check. Also, Sabco does not do direct retail, but they are more than willing to point you to the nearest reseller, and also send you their catalog, which is pretty interesting.
BCI will sell you a keg that has been "retired" by a brewery because it can no longer hold pressure. This is usually due to a defective valve in the top of the keg, and has no implications on its use as a boiler, mash tun, etc. They simply cut out a nice, big circle in the top and mail it to you. They do no reconditioning, and sometimes their kegs aren't in the prettiest condition, but you're building a brewery, and not holding a beauty paegent, right?! The cost of the keg is $40, plus shipping, which is usually about $15, for a total cost of about $55-$60.
Sabco takes great pride in the aesthetic appearance of their kegs. In their own description of the process, they "have the keg completely reconditioned, including upper and lower chine restoration, de-dent and weld as necessary for best appearance ... cut a perfect 12'' hole in the top ... acid clean keg and wire brush all the weld stains". The cost for a simple keg with the lid cut out is about $90. For $289.95 ($269.95 with a brass ball valve) they will sell you a "Totally reconditioned stainless brewing kettle with stainless ball valve, siphon assembly and lid. Removable false bottom stainless screen assembly. Built in stainless coupling with accurate 3 inch dial thermometer. Very efficient, very cleanable." The prices are plus frieght, which is, as above, $15-$20. In my unbiased opinion, the $289.95 is a really good deal.
Local junk yards and scrap-metal businesses may have some kegs
available. However, I would urge you to make absolutely sure that the
kegs were acquired legally by the business. It is ILLEGAL to purchase
stolen goods, so do your research and stay out of jail.
(b) Stainless Steel Fittings and Pipes
You should really only use stainless steel pipes and fittings in your
brewery. The expense really isn't that much greater than any other
material for pipes and fittings.
1/2" is really the best size to get, as 1" is just too damned big, 3/4" is kind of hard to find, and 1/4" is a little bit on the small size. Make sure that everything that you get is NPT (National Pipe Thread), and that you get male or female as needed. You should design everything out on paper first, and make a list of everything that you need, then go to the store and get everything at once.
Check your local Yellow Pages under "Pipe", and there will probably find someplace that specializes in stainless steel. Failing this, McMaster-Carr also sells stainless steel pipes and fittings via mail-order. Their address is:
PO Box 440
New Brunswick, NJ 08903-0440
(908) 329-3200 Sales desk
(908) 329-6666 Everything else
(908) 329-3772 fax
(c) Ball Valves
Here's a good place to scrimp. You can expect to pay around $20-$25
for an all-stainless ball valve, while for about $5-$6 you can get an
identical ball valve whose body is made out of brass, and whose ball
is still stainless steel or is chromium-coated. Avoid the cheaper
brass ball valves available at Home Depot with the name "Jones
Mfg. Co." on the handle, as they are made out of cheap, soft brass,
and are tough to tighten onto a pipe without ripping the corners of
the hex nut off.
Ball valves are available from W. W. Grainger (check your local yellow
pages) in both stainless steel and brass. I use brass "Speedaire"
ball valves, and I have had no problems with them at all.
Section 3 -- Cutting out the top
Before cutting into any keg, extreme care should be taken to relieve
the keg of pressure. This is so simple that it baffles the mind --
take a screwdriver and a towel or rag. Place the towel or rag over
the beer outlet of the keg. Next, take the handle of the screwdriver,
and put it on top of the ball in the middle of the beer outlet. Press
down on the screwdriver, and the keg should hiss and the towel should
get all wet with beer. Press down on the screwdriver until all the
pressure is released from the keg, then you can do whatever you want
to it. Failure to do this could result in serious injury or death.
Please be careful...
Another suggestion from Bob McIlvaine is to simply drive a large nail
between the ball and the rubber, and leave it there during the entire
process. This has some advantage over other methods since further
agitation of the keg will not re-pressurize the keg.
I haven't done this myself, so I'll quote Dion Hollenbeck's excellent
advice (embellished with further advice in parenthesis):
Tools needed are as follows: High speed die grinder with 3" cutoff wheel or drill motor with 1/4" cobalt drill bit to cut original hole. Sawzall with bimetal or carbide blades (21 or 24 teeth per inch). High speed right angle die grinder with 36 & 120 grit 3" sanding disks or coarse and fine files (HSS drill bits can be used, use a slower drilling speed and drench with a 50/50 mix of chain oil and kerosene).The book that he references, How To Build A Small Brewery is by Bill Owens, and is published by G.W. Kent, Inc. It's a pretty good book, I own a copy. You can also purchase cutting oil in hardware stores which will serve the same purpose as the 50/50 chain oil and kerosene.
Remove any blades from the Sawzall. Rest the nose of the Sawzall on the top of the keg with the side of the nose right against the top rolled rim of the keg. You will be using this rim as a cutting guide later on. With a heavy duty felt tip pen, make a mark on the keg aligned with where the sawzall blade would penetrate the keg. Make the mark about 1" long, or long enough to accommodate a sawzall blade. This mark will be opened up to allow the blade its first insertion in the keg.
With the 3" cutoff wheel, plunge into the keg just inside of the mark you made. Any cutting of Stainless Steel is much easier by abrasives than it is by cutting tools of any kind. If you must use a drill, drill 4 1/4" holes just inside of the mark and open them up to form a slot with a file or hacksaw blade hand held with a pair of gloves or in a blade holder which allows the tip to be free, not attached to a frame.
The book "How to Build a Small Home Brewery" (title approximate, author not currently known) recommends carbide blades for the Sawzall. This is probably a good thing, but they are sometimes hard to find. If you can't find them, buy bimetallic blades. You will need approximately 4 blades per keg. Insert the blade in the saw, plunge the blade into the slot you made and push the side of the saw nose up against the rim. Make sure the saw is perfectly upright. Turn on the saw and follow around the rim until you get back to where you started, at which time the top will fall down into the keg. Be aware that due to the curvature of the top of the keg, the saw will want to walk towards the rim and you have to be very careful to keep the saw upright at all times. If you wander from this path, commercially available lids will not cover a misshapen hole completely.
The deadly thing for the bimetal blades is that they will heat up and about 1/2" of the teeth on the blade will melt. If you can be patient and just cut a very small bit and then let the blade cool, you can prolong the life of the blade. If you are like me, you will use a lot of blades. If you use a carbide blade, please let me know how it works and how many were needed per keg so that I can add that to this report. (You can keep blade requirements down by using the 50/50 mix of chain oil and kerosene mentioned earlier. You will need to stop and add the lube often, but it will make the job much easier).
Now is the time to smooth the cut edge. This is best accomplished with the right angle die grinder and sanding disks. First use the 36 grit to shape the edge and remove all the grossest burrs and then use a 120 grit disk to smooth all edges. Be careful to not take off excess, because again, you will not be able to use a commercial lid. You are now done if you do not want any fittings in the keg.
If you're going to have stuff welded by a pro, I'd suggest going someplace that specializes in stainless steel (check you Yellow Pages). You'll want to make sure that the welder is not using rods which contain cadmium, since they will poison and kill you. They make rods which are 100% stainless steel, and a place that specializes in stainless will have and use these rods.
Also, before welding (or having someone weld) the lid out, put some water in the bottom of the keg. This will ensure that the little bits of metal that the welder blows through the weld will not "stick" to the bottom of the keg. Apparently these little bits of steel are very, very hard to remove.
Alan Gerhardt (firstname.lastname@example.org) gives the following plan for a weld-less mash-tun drain --
I then drilled a drain hole in the bottom, and used a brass "cooler drain" fitting. The fitting has a nut and a gasket, which gives a good seal, and is threaded on the inside as well. I then attached the required pipe/fittings to connect the drain to my RIMS unit.
======= =======flange =| |=gasket ----------| |------------keg bottom ======= ======= nut || || | | | |other fittings to suitAnother option (also from a back-issue of the Home Brew Digest which I can't find) is to take a pipe nipple and put a hole in the side wall of your keg. Then use Teflon washers on the inside and outside, and secure the nipple in place with stainless steel bolts.
The first is to put a nipple into the wall of the keg such that about two inches protrude out of the keg, and on the inside, the nipple comes just about 1/2 inch short of the exact center. It should also be oriented so that on the inside you can put in a 90 degree elbow and a 1/2 inch nipple, and reach almost to the bottom of the keg. Here's a drawing --
| | | | | | -------------=||<------------ 1/2" NPT SS elbow ^ | ^ ||<------------ 1/2" NPT 1/2" long SS nipple 1/2" | |\ | /| Ball ---| | --|----------------- | Valve goes | here | 1/2" NPT 4" long SS pipe nippleThe elbow and the 1/2" long nipple make a siphon to suck up all the sparge water. This works well and it only leaves about 1/2 a cup of water in the tank.
The other method is similar, but it has the added advantage of being able to drain 100% of the water from the tank. In this case, you simply put a hole into the bottom center of the keg, put a short nipple in it, add an elbow outside, then run some pipe or tubing to the edge and through the skirt, like so --
| | | | | | | | | | |\ /| | ----------|--------- |<----- Bottom skirt -----> --------------| <--------------- Pipe in bottom center | | | | --------------------------------------- Pipe or tube running to and through bottom skirt, with a valve on the outside.
I first used a "Scaled-up EasyMasher(tm)". I had a 1/2" NPT nipple welded in my mash tun which extended almost to the center of the keg, so I got a big piece of window screen and wrapped it around the nipple on the inside of the keg. Then I tightened it down with a SS hose clamp. This "false bottom" cost about $1.20.
---------------#|/|############################################|##| #|/|############################################|##| ---------------#|/|############################################|##| 0 ^ ^ ^ | |------- Hose clamp | ---- 1/2" NPT nipple Fold the end over -------------I got 28 pts/lb/gallon this way. This is THE most economical way to do it. The down side here is that if you want to do a step-mash, it is very easy to scorch some grains on the bottom of the keg, which is a mess. But if you do it carefully, and you heat the keg gently, you can keep this to a minimum. You can also minimize this by using a smaller heat source than the standard 185K BTU propane cooker or by purchasing a piece of heavy-gauge aluminum sheet metal and placing it on top of your burner and under the keg. I made some excellent beers with this setup.
Jack Schmidling Productions now also makes a "SABCO COMPATIBLE" EasyMasher (TM). This allows you to buy just the keg and attach the EasyMasher (TM). Both products are availible from "The Malt Shop" at (800) 235-0026.
Then I moved on to a Sabco converted keg. This item comes equipped with a stainless steel mesh false bottom that is the diameter of the keg. There are supports on the inside to hold this up. This method is easy to visualize, so I'll spare you the ASCII art. The pros of this method are the lack of a scorching problem, ease of cleaning, and simplicity. The cons include the large amount of dead space that is under the grain bed (about 1.5 gallons in my case), the fact that the false bottom must fit your keg EXACTLY, or else you will not get all the grain bits out of your wort, and the fact that it is added hassle to build supports for the false bottom into your keg.
The copper-tubing method remains very popular for many reasons -- it's cheap, it's easy, it's simple. It does, however, suffer from the same problems as the "Scaled-Up EasyMasher(tm)" -- scorching, etc.
Bob McIlvaine chimes in: The keg already has a fitting in the top. So take the keg, turn it upside down, now the fitting becomes a bottom drain. (From here on the top side with the fitting will be refered to as the bottom) So now, just below the top seam on the side of the keg cut the top (used to be the bottom). Now plumb to the fitting on the bottom. Use either a brass sink drain fitting or fabricate a plate with an NPT thread in it, that fits the keg fitting. (One person I know just used an old tap!). Now you can use the discarded top (bottom) as a false bottom, (drill a zillion wholes and cut to fit into bottom of the new tun) or acquire a false bottom. JB Distributing sells one that is hinged in the middle, fits inside the barrel when unfolded, and is made of 1/16" thick, 3/32" perforated SS sheet. Here are some more ideas, culled from old digests:
From: Bob Jones
Subject: Mash Tun False Bottoms Date: Mon, 18 Nov 1991 10:22 PDT >In HD 762 Mike Sharp asks : >How does one place a false bottom inside a 15gal keg? I have used two different methods. One is with SS screen sandwiched between two SS rings cut from a large diameter SS pipe. One of these SS rings is placed inside the other, with the SS screen between. The sandwich is held together with SS screws and nuts. I then made a copper L shaped pipe with a compression fitting that connects to the fitting that passes through the keg wall and on to the output valve. One end of this pipe rests on the bottom of the keg after passing through the SS screen. It is held in place in the screen with two washers soldered on each side of the screen to the pipe. Whew! We need some drawing tools here. This screen method works great, however it is complex to make(unless you have a machinist friend who likes beer). I have used another method that I think is easier to make and works just as well. You make a ring out of copper tubing that has a T in it. The output of the T connects to more tubing that connect to a compression fitting that connects to the same fitting that passes through the keg wall. This circular ring that rests on the bottom of the keg has lots of saw kerfs in the bottom of it. I mean one every 1/4 inch. The compression fittings allow you to remove either fixture for cleaning. Obviously the hole in the top of the keg is a little larger than the fixture. Mine are about 10-12 inches in diameter. I have been using the SS screen method for years for both kettle and mash tun. I recently went to the tubing method when I gas fired my mash tun for step mashing. I was afraid the mash liquid would not be properly mixed if below a screen, hence the new tubing design. Both work very good in a mash tun situation.
||== ============= ==|| ||----------------- -----------------|| || O O O O O O ||<-- These are ||----------------- -----------------|| SS end caps ||== ==|| ||== ^ ==|| ||| ||| | ||| ||| ------ These are 3" long 1/2" | | NPT pipe nipples | | | O<---- O's are 3/8" holes drilled clear | | through the pipe. | | | | | O | | |<--- This is a 4" long SS 1/2" NPT | | nipple ============================ <--- Keg wall | | | | | | |===| |===| <--- Ball valve goes hereThis worked excellently, left all the trub and the hops behind. I did have to tip the boiler up towards the end in order to drain everything out. There are some other excellent methods that people have used. In a recent Brewing Techniques (2(2), March/April 1994), Martin P. Manning described building a boiler with a small (8") piece of perforated stainless steel as a sort of false bottom, with a 3/8" hole drilled in the center. Into this hole, a piece of stainless steel or copper tubing was run, which connected to a nipple which ran through the keg wall.
Dion Hollenbeck describes his unique boiler design:
I took a 1/2" SS coupling instead of a nipple and welded it into the side of the keg with the inside surface as flush as possible and all of the coupling sticking out the outside. In this manner, no matter what the pickup design, it starts at the perimeter and if it is not correct, I just unscrew it and start over.
I got a SS 1/2" NPT x Swagelok elbow fitting and a length of 1/2" SS rigid tubing. The elbow is screwed into the coupling and looking from the center of the keg it is oriented to 4 o'clock. Out of the Swagelok end of the elbow is a 6" slightly curved piece of SS tubing. On the end of the tubing is an EasyMasher (TM) style screen. This means that the end of the tubing is right down at the level where the rounded bottom meets the sides of the keg and the screen tube snakes along the perimeter.
The first time I made it with the screen I had on hand which was too fine, but it did work. At the end of draining the wort, I was left with quite a bit or wort in the boiler because hops partially clogging the screen caused the siphon to break. This was easily solved by tipping the keg up so that the end of the SS tube became the lowest point in the keg. I could have not done this with the center pickup design because the center was already the lowest point. Then the liquid had to go up and over and once the siphon was broken, that's all she wrote. Now with the side pickup, when I tilt to make the pickup the lowest point, the exit from the keg is *all* lower than the pickup and no siphon is needed, it just flows downhill. I can drain every bit of wort.
But I really want it to break the siphon and leave some wort and the break behind, so making the new screen tube which will be heftier, larger surface area by 4 times and also coarser (1/12" holes, vs 1/18" holes before) should work like a charm.