Friday, September 12, 2008

weapons of mash destruction

Most people that know me know fairly well that I like to brew my own beer. As of this week, I've also made my first batch of root beer. Yay me, right? Most people that know home-brewers also know that they like to make other stuff, too. For example, I also like to make desserts and bake homemade bread. But the obsession with creating stuff for most brewers doesn't stop in the kitchen. It also lends itself well to other projects that involve lots of milling around in The Home Depot looking for parts that can suit some new equipment project. And sometimes it also involves a little bit of woodwork like my project today.

A lot of home-brewers start off by brewing with malt extracts. *nerd alert!* This is where barley, or other grains, has had its starches converted into sugars (the stuff yeast likes to turn into alcohol) and the resulting liquid then has its water evaporated off leaving behind a solid "sugar" that is further processed into powder. Keep in mind that other non-volatile compounds remain as well. You take this extract, dissolve it in water, add some other ingredients like hops, boil it for a while, and then cool it for the yeast to have a fun time. And voila, a few weeks later, you've got beer!

But the more you get into brewing, the less and less that this approach with extracts seems to satisfy. You read about how starting with the grains themselves and doing the starch to sugar conversion yourself is way more satisfying and some say it produces better beers. Something to do with preservation of nutrients for the yeast, yada yada yada, blah blah. So, a few trips to The Home Depot and a couple hundred bucks later, you've got yourself a "real" brewery! Now the fun begins.

Well, if you're like me, you start off relatively inexpensively. One of the best attributes of a home brewer is to be able to do more with less. It takes some improv skills, but not the acting-type. More of the engineering-type improvisation skill. But acting is okay, too, as long as you're brewing with a few friends. Anyhow, back to the point about being on the cheap... A fairly cheap way to make a vessel for converting the starches into sugars, called a mash tun, is to use a 5-gallon cooler, of the variety that you see on construction trucks that are commonly orange like mine. Change out the button-style spigot with a ball-valve (handled) spigot and like magic, you've got a nice insulated mash tun. Did I mention that mashing occurs at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit and that holding that temperature is important for good conversion? Well I have now.

Well, the only real problem that I've had with mashing has been stirring the mash, which is not easy to do with about 12 pounds of grain and only three gallons of water. The mixture is a lot like a fairly firm mud. It takes some effort to get down to the bottom of the mix. And stirring is essential to get water into the nooks and crannies of the grains to convert more starches plus to even out the temperature of your mash to avoid hot and cold spots. Those natural enzymes only work in a fairly limited temperature range. I had been using a long plastic spoon, but it started bending way too much due to the heat. Plus it was kind of skinny and was difficult to get down to the bottom of the mash tun. Then I was using a kitchen spoon that had a metal handle with a plastic spoon end with some luck, but it just wasn't long enough. I did mention that this stuff is at 150 F! Ow, fingers!

So, I was looking for a solution. They had a nice long metal spoon at the homebrew store, but it just didn't look as durable as I would like. The metal was rather thin, probably less than 1/32". And barely long enough. I asked about a wooden mash paddle, like the ones you see on the internet for about $40, and the owner said that his suppliers don't sell them. So, it looked like another project time! Yay!

After reading up on the Internet and in a homebrew magazine that I subscribe to, it looked like the best wood choice was a nice hard wood like maple. So, off to The Home Depot to find a suitable piece of wood. The only problem was, the one I went to only had pine, red oak (too porous), and poplar (which was too grainy/pitted), and cheap "whitewood". Disappointed, I sulked off. Looks like I have to go elsewhere.

So, today, I headed out to another Depot, hoping their wood selection would be better. No such luck. I guess it doesn't sell well enough for them to keep it in stock. Since it was just a quarter mile down the road, I figured I'd try my luck at BLowe's. I avoid it as much as possible since it don't pay my bills but sometimes, it's worth the try if El Depot de la Casa don't carry stock. And guess what. They had maple boards. So I bought one. It only cost me $8.50 for a 1x4x48" plank. A far cry from the $40 bucks or so to order one pre-made!

I got it home and started measuring and marking. I'm not a stickler for perfection on simple projects where the only consumer is me so I marked some guidelines and free-handed a few curves and cut-outs then headed down to the garage to drill/cut/router/sand. About an hour and a half later, my masterpiece was complete! I didn't think to take pics during the construction so you'll just have to imagine from the jigsaw puzzle of scraps. I also took a picture with it resting in my homemade mash tun so that you could see perspective. There are a few places where it isn't perfect, chipped edge and bad drill placement on the upper handle, but the business end is pretty decent.

*cross posted at Illiteracy Rules!

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