Category Archives: Reviews & Top Posts

Hands on Review: Spike Flex Fermentor

This review is by Homebrew Finds Contributor Brad Probert.  Brad is an engineer, expert homebrewer and experienced reviewer.  Grab a link to Brad’s website at the end of this review.

Spike Flex Stainless Fermentor

Stainless steel is highly valued in homebrewing because of its durability and ease of cleaning. When used in fermentors, this ease of cleaning means you don’t spend as much time scrubbing yeast crust and dry hop debris off the walls of your vessel when done fermenting. And since your beer spends so much time in contact with the surface of your fermentor, it’s easy for aromas to leech in over time to plastic fermentors. Glass of course doesn’t have this problem, but it does have the problem of shattering if you drop it…

Spike is well-known for their heavy duty stainless kettles and free-standing conical fermentors. With all that stainless laying around in their shop, it’s no surprise that they’re now entering the category of “stainless bucket fermentors”. These bucket fermentors are smaller in size than the long-legged conical fermentors. What’s surprising to me is the price difference between the stainless bucket fermentors and taller conical fermentors. Even with the same holding capacity, you’re paying a few hundred dollars extra just to get a conical fermentor up on stilts. The stainless buckets offer essentially the same features, they just require you to crouch down- which to me, is an acceptable compromise.

Weld Flange from the Outside
TC Flange Seamless Surface in Contact with Beer

Spike’s new Flex fermentor is a bucket fermentor (crouching required) that has a 7.5 gallon volume, and has a 45-degree angle cone on the bottom. Utilizing the same 1.5” TC flanges that they’ve mastered the welding with their Spike+ kettles, you can interchange pieces from the Spike accessory catalog for a thermowell and a draining valve. It comes with a rack arm when time to drain that can be rotated by loosening the 1.5” TC clamp slightly and turning it. That feature is designed for those that want to take advantage of avoiding the fallen yeast that has collected in the 45-degree cone, but want to rotate the arm while draining to try to get as much viable beer out of it as possible. And the racking arm has a simple but ingenious bump welded onto it so you know which direction the pickup tube is pointing while you’re trying to rotate it from the outside .

Polished Interior with Etched Volume MarkPickup Tube Rotated Down into Cone

The fermentor walls are ultra-polished. While this has a super-glam aspect that’s sure to dazzle your friends, it serves a practical purpose as well. The polishing process eliminates any kind of surface roughness, which makes it even easier to clean. The inside of the vessel contains electrically etched black volume markings every 0.5 gallons, the same as they have on their kettles. The base is supported by 3 sturdy legs with rubber caps on them to keep it from sliding around on floors (or scratching your floor).

Lid Clamped on with Seal Visible

The lid looks like something from a 1920s diving helmet. In the middle of the lid, there’s a giant 4” TC port that holds a polished clear hard plastic window so you can easily see what’s going on inside your fermentor without having to open the lid. The base Flex model has a hole for a rubber stopper and airlock, and 5 latches that hook over the edge of the lid and onto a flange on the base. This base latch and seal set-up is capable of holding 2 psi of internal pressure. The Flex+ model uses a band clamp that goes around the circumference of the lid and tightens down with a screw/nut feature. And the hole for the bung/airlock is replaced by another 1.5” TC port. This ups the pressure holding capability of the unit to 15 psi.

With its short & stout size, the Flex can fit in shorter areas, but it is pretty wide. From the bottom to the top of a 3-piece airlock, it stands 22” tall. The widest diameter, with the stackup of the racking arm and a Spike butterfly valve with a camlock fitting at the end of it, is 21” across. If those dimensions don’t work for your fermentation chamber, Spike also has a version of its TC-100 temperature control system available that makes use of some common components from their unitank conicals and a form-fitted neoprene jacket sized to the Flex dimensions.


Get the Gear, Review Continues Below: FLEX Fermenters at Spike Brewing Equipment


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Can You Save Money Homebrewing Your Own Beer?

Pictured: MoreBeer’s BRKIT100 Homebrew Starter Kit

A driving factor for a lot of homebrewers to pick up this great hobby is… saving money.  After all, if I make my own beer at home, it’s got to be cheaper, right?

Let’s find out.

Ground Rules

These are estimates and assumptions.  Actual costs are going to vary.  This scenario assumes you drink quality craft beer.  Along those lines, for estimation’s sake, let’s say you like a popular style like a mildly hoppy pale ale and you’d generally spend about $7 or $8 or so on a 6 pack.  Shipping charges will be considered $0 as free shipping options are usually available at certain thresholds.  Taxes will be considered $0.  This scenario assumes an extract brewing technique.

Let’s get started…

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Hands on Review: Kegtron Smart Keg Monitor

This review is by Homebrew Finds Contributor Brad Probert.  Brad is an engineer, expert homebrewer and experienced reviewer.  Grab a link to Brad’s website at the end of this review.

Kegtron Smart Keg Monitor

Let’s face it, some homebrew gear is purely a luxury item. You’ll hear people ask, “Yeah, but how does that make your beer better?” Sometimes you can rationalize your flashy gear because it allows your brew process to be more repeatable, or take less time. Kegtron doesn’t make your beer taste better, it doesn’t improve your brew process, and it doesn’t make your brew day faster. But it’s something more than just brewery bling.

When I first saw the Kegtron keg monitor, it seemed just like a silly way to part homebrewers from their money. It looked cool, but it definitely didn’t seem like something I’d get excited about. And then I tried it.

Kegtron sells 2 models. One for a single tap, one for a dual. The measurement is done by some fancy digital flow meters inside the housing of the unit. There is a circuit board that keeps track of how much beer goes through the flow meters and stores that data on the board. It also has a Bluetooth transmitter that broadcasts this information to an app on your phone/tablet that you’ve paired through the app.

Since the flow meters just keep track of how much beer goes past them, you have to enter into the app how much beer you start with. You hook up your keg, tell it how many gallons are in it, and it tracks from there, deducting beers each time it measures 12 ounces has gone by. It’s customizable, so if you want to count beers by the pint (U.S. or Imperial) instead of 12 oz. bottle, you can do that. The display on the app tells you how many “drinks” are left in the keg. And since you also input to the app what size your keg is (2.5 gallon, 5 gallon, 1/2 barrel, etc.), along with telling you how many beers are left, it has a colorful graphic to show what percentage of your keg is left.

In the app, you can name each of your beers, so if you have more than one Kegtron tap being monitored, they all show up on your screen and you can keep track of each beer with its own space on your display. Since the data is stored on the Kegtron unit itself, and it uses Bluetooth to communicate to your app, if you leave the house and get out of Bluetooth range, you don’t see your beer lists. So it’s intended to be a display at home next to your kegerator, or on your phone so you can direct your underlings to run downstairs and fetch you what you want from the comfort of your couch.


Get the Gear, Review Continues Below:

Kegtron Smart Keg Monitor – Dual Tap Expansion Unit | Track Your Keg Levels From Your Phone | Upgrade Your Taps – via Amazon, multiple versions available


Hands on Review

Kegtron provided me a single-tap unit to try out and review at home. I saw it on display at Homebrew Con in Portland, displaying a club’s list of taps and their various stages of keg emptiness. I wasn’t sure that in a less busy setting it would provide the same value. What I found was it got me excited about what I had on tap (like I needed help). It was cool watching it accurately count down the drinks with each glass filled. I have a 4-tap keezer, and I found myself gravitating to whatever I had on the tap with the Kegtron just because it was fun. After a couple weeks I found myself wanting it on all of my taps. It was just so cool, and suddenly seemingly useful to know exactly how much beer was left in each tap. I was a convert.

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Hands on Review: Spike Brewing Equipment Spike+ Kettle

This review is by Homebrew Finds Contributor Brad Probert.  Brad is an engineer, expert homebrewer and experienced reviewer.  Grab a link to Brad’s website at the end of this review.


Limited Time Sale, Review Continues Below:

Spike Brewing Equipment is closing out all V3 stock (a v3 Spike+ kettle is reviewed in this post).  These are featured filled, high quality kettles that are rarely discounted.  The closeout is a rare chance to get a deal.  NOTE: Limited to stock on hand, when these are gone.. they’re gone.

V3 Kettle Closeout – a v3 Spike+ kettle is reviewed in this post


Spike+ Kettle + Mash Tun Conversion

Spike kettles come in sizes from 10 gallons all the way up to 50 gallons. The 10, 15, and 20 gallon kettles all share a common trait of 1.2 mm thick walls and a 5 mm thick base. The 30 and 50 gallon units up those numbers to 1.5 mm walls and a 6 mm base. Spike is quick to point out that these are the thickest kettle walls on the market. At first that might not seem like something that matters, it just seems like something that makes them heavy to lift and move around. But if you accidentally bang it into a doorway or a table you’re thankful for sturdy kettle walls that keep it looking new rather than beat up.

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Hands on Review: Anvil Brewing Equipment Forge Propane Burner

This guest review is by Homebrew Finds Reader Tom Brennan.  Read more about Tom and grab a link to his website and YouTube channel below.

Anvil Brewing Equipment Forge Burner

When I was looking for a new burner I stumbled upon this utilitarian looking burner it was for me, with the BTU’s (72,000/hr) to back it up. This looked strong, rugged, and simply made. And at first glance, the Anvil Forge Burner had it all for me.


Finding the Anvil Forge, Review Continues Below


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Room Temperature Kegging – Kegging WITHOUT a Refrigerator or Freezer?

I periodically get questions along these lines… can I keg without a refrigerator?

Well, the answer is, sure you can.  But, as with many things, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Balancing an Un-chilled System

The warmer your beer is, the less apt it is to absorb CO2.  As temperature rises so does the pressure required to maintain carbonation.  Let’s say your storage area is your basement and it stays at about 64 degrees Fahrenheit and you want something like 2.2 volumes of carbonation.  A reasonable carbonation level for an American ale,  Considering this example, you’d need to keep your CO2 regulator set to about 18 PSI.  If you use 3/16″ ID tubing, you’d need somewhere between 6 and 12 feet of tubing [See: Step by Step Balancing Your Kegerator Draft System] to offset that pressure for a decent pour.  I haven’t tried it, but my gut feeling is you’d be closer to 12 feet if not more.  Lots of tubing.  If there’s much of a temperature differential between the bottom and top of the keg, it may result in CO2 coming out of solution in that long length of tubing, causing excessive foaming, even if your system is balanced.  This can happen even in a chilled kegerator [See: Kegerator Beer Line Temperatures & Reducing Foam with a Recirculating Fan] so it’s certainly a possibility for a room temperature setup.

Of course you can tweak this scenario with different numbers and maybe it looks better for you.

Temperature Swings = Bad Pours

If temperature varies in the spot that you’re keeping your un-refrigerated keg the setup will be even more temperamental especially at points when it’s warmer.  Something like.. It’s hot outside today, my beer is going to be all foam.

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Hands on Review: Blichmann Engineering AutoSparge

blichmann autosparge review

This review is by Homebrew Finds Contributor Brad Probert.  Brad is an engineer, expert homebrewer and experienced reviewer.  Grab a link to Brad’s website at the end of this review.

Blichmann AutoSparge

The Blichmann AutoSparge is an ingenious device that gives you “digital like” control precision, but uses no electronics to accomplish it. Its function is to automatically maintain a water level in your mash tun during sparging or recirculation of wort. If your brewing process uses sparge water transfer or recirculating wort, the AutoSparge turns this into a hands-free operation where you set it up once and then can go worry about other things (or RDWHAHB).

The AutoSparge uses some cool engineering principles to maintain the liquid level in your mash tun. The main function is a slider piston valve that uses hydraulic pressure to let liquid flow into your kettle. This screws into a 1/2″ NPT port on your kettle. With fluid pushing on the valve (either from a pump or from a gravity feed), it pushes the valve back and lets beer in the kettle. There’s a barbed fitting and a length of hose that comes with it to take circulating wort from the top of your kettle down to the grain level. Attached to the other end of the valve is a long rod and stainless-clad hollow ball. This ball floats on the water level in your kettle. As the fluid level rises, the ball floats up and pushes the slider valve closed, shutting off the flow of wort into your kettle.

The rod and floating ball is adjusted simply by a wing nut you loosen and adjust the float to sit at the level you want, then hand tighten it down. With laws of physics and lever arms, the ball can easily contain the high flow rate of a recirculating pump you may have hooked up. Another nice detail is the hose that delivers the wort down to your grain bed has its own little floating ball. In this way, it will sit on the top of your fluid level, and not be buried down in your grain bed blasting its own trench.

Once you have your float level set, you just let your pump(s) run. As you pull wort out from the bottom of your mash tun, the fluid level goes down in the kettle and the float arm opens up the valve and lets more wort come in. If you’re pulling fluid out slowly, the wort level drops slowly and therefore the valve only opens a little bit to replace that wort slowly. If you’re pulling out wort quickly, the level drops more quickly and the valve opens up more.


Finding the AutoSparge, Review Continues Below


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Hands on Review: Plaato Digital Airlock – WiFi Fermentation Analyzer for Homebrewing!

This review is by Homebrew Finds Contributor Brad Probert.  Brad is an engineer, expert homebrewer and experienced reviewer.  Grab a link to Brad’s website at the end of this review.

Plaato Digital Airlock

There are more products entering the market for monitoring your fermentation progress digitally, and recording the data. I’ve used a wireless digital hydrometer for a year now. Worlds are opened when you can track your gravity over time and adjust fermentation conditions based on what you see. Dry hop addition timing and fermentation temperature adjustments can be custom-tailored to each batch to make sure it reaches its best potential.

The Plaato digital airlock design principle is based on chemistry. The major resulting products of fermentation are alcohol (ethanol) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Research has shown that the change in gravity of fermenting beer is roughly proportional to the creation of CO2. To get the math to work, you start with the Original Gravity and volume of wort so you know how much total sugars are there. Then as you measure CO2, you can keep track how much of that sugar has been converted to alcohol. The team at Plaato started with this principle and then conducted a bunch of fermentations to develop the algorithm that runs in the Plaato software to track the gravity.

The digital airlock is roughly the size of a 3-piece airlock, and you fill it half-way up with water. CO2 pushes up through that water in the form of gas bubbles. The body of the Plaato airlock has a “bubble divider” that takes the blobs of CO2 and divides them into evenly sized bubbles to pass by the sensor. The airlock is actually counting the number of bubbles, not measuring the time between bubbles. In this manner, it can tell the difference between a small bubble and a large “glug”. The fermentation of 5 gallons of wort produces many hundreds of thousands of these uniform-sized bubbles to be counted.

The data is transmitted via Wi-Fi to Plaato servers, and the App on your smartphone reads that data and plots it out. It plots three things: 1) gravity, 2) running total of bubbles produced, and 3) room temperature from a sensor in the body of the airlock. The meter is powered by a standard USB cable (6 ft cable provided, you need to provide the AC/DC converter plug).

Screenshot showing manual gravity corrections

The airlock has a learning feature so if you take a gravity reading yourself during fermentation and want to adjust the reading from your Plaato, you can manually enter this. With all of this data from all of the airlocks going home to the mothership, Plaato has the ability to adjust/improve their bubble count algorithm from every customer’s fermentation.


Get the Gear: PLAATO Airlock – WiFi Fermentation Analyzer for Homebrewing – via Amazon


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Hands on Review: Ss Brewtech InfuSsion Mash Tun

This review is by Homebrew Finds Contributor Brad Probert.  Brad is an engineer, expert homebrewer and experienced reviewer.  Grab a link to Brad’s website at the end of this review.

Ssbrewtech InfuSsion Mash Tun

At first glance, you might think the Brewtech InfuSsion mash tun was only created to lure those mashing in Igloo coolers into something more sophisticated. And that might be the appeal to some. For me, I was looking for a mash tun as I moved from e-BIAB to a 2-vessel electric system. I wanted a mash tun that’s only job was mashing. The InfuSsion provided that simplicity of function, while still being technologically advanced.

Two Vessel Setup

The InfuSsion mash tun is a combination stainless steel kettle and insulated cooler. The inside of the mash tun is durable stainless steel, as is the outside. In between is sandwiched high density insulating foam to make a full inch of engineered layers. With the foam inside the walls you can’t directly heat the mash tun as you’d risk melting the foam. Of course with the foam in there, it means you’re less likely to need to add heat.

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Hands on Review: Custom Spike+ Boil Kettle

This review is by Homebrew Finds Contributor Brad Probert.  Brad is an engineer, expert homebrewer and experienced reviewer.  Grab a link to Brad’s website at the end of this review.

Spike+ Custom Boil Kettle

Have you ever stood and looked at a friend’s brew rig and thought, “That’s genius! I should do that”? Or stood and looked at your own brew rig and thought, “If I could only have another port there, that would solve my problem with _______”? After using different systems, I found myself with a list of features I loved, and had an idea of the ideal set-up for me. But these ideas never went anywhere because I didn’t have the right skills to build it myself.

Spike offers a solution to this problem, with their Custom Kettle service. And they do it at a competitive pricing to DIY, but with professional quality (not knocking your welding skills- they’re great…). When designing a custom kettle, 1/2″ threaded ports are added at $30 a pop and Tri-Clamp (TC) ports are $50 each. Compare this price to $25 for a weldless TC fitting + $20 for a carbide bit hole saw. And with that weldless fitting you don’t have the smooth sanitary weld surface that’s easy to clean and keep free of beer-souring bacteria. Not to mention the heart stress induced by drilling a hole into the side of your stainless kettle, hoping you’re not going to let the drill slip!

To make a custom kettle, you can either have your own specific design in mind, or you can have a general idea and work with their engineer to detail it. By doing this, you have the benefit of working with someone that has the experience of having built a lot of custom kettles to help guide you through the process.

Custom Boil Kettle Drawing

Once the drawing for your kettles is determined, your project is transferred to the person that will coordinate the build of your kettle and help you with any accessories you want to add to your order. Once the kettle is built, they box it up with your accessories and ship it out together.

Spike features two types of kettles, differentiated by the types of weld ports. They have traditional 1/2″ NPT threaded ports (full or half thread), and also 1.5” or 2” TC ports. They’ll even mix and match if you want with some of the fittings NPT and some TC on the same kettle.


Get the Gear, Review Continues Below:

Brew Kettles at Spike Brewing


Hands on Review

This trial started with the creation process. I had a solid idea of what I wanted. I needed a boil kettle to use with an electrical element to heat strike water, use as a RIMS device for mash step temperatures, and for the boil. I knew most of what I wanted, but was undecided on a couple aspects. So through a series of back and forth questions and answers, I was able to hone in on how I wanted it configured.

The engineer working with me to finalize the kettle port layout was responsive and we exchanged emails daily for a few days until it was settled and I had agreed to the kettle drawings. When I was handed off to the Customer Service contact, she was equally as responsive, and we exchanged a few emails a couple times a day until we had the full order detailed. Five days later I got an email with the FedEx tracking number as it was all being shipped to me. I was amazed at how fast the whole process went.

The 15-gallon Boil Kettle configuration had three 1.5” TC flange ports and one 1/2″ NPT port. I had a TC fitting down low (2” up from the bottom) for the outlet drain, and another TC fitting also at 2” up from the bottom for my electric heating element. This required about 3 gallons of wort to completely cover the heating element. At 4” up, I had a TC fitting for a temperature probe. This required just over 4 gallons of wort to keep it submerged. The 1/2″ threaded fitting was up high on the kettle, 1.5” down from the top flange. To this I fitted a whirlpool recirculation tube from NorCal Brewing Solutions.

The kettle quality was top-notch. Heavy gauge steel walls were straight and true, and the extra-thick bottom helped provide a solid base to keep things stable. The purpose of the thick base is to make it induction heat compatible or help more evenly distribute the heat from a gas burner flame, but it also helped make the pot feel secure sitting on a brew table full of hot wort. The finish on the outside was a bit shinier to look more impressive when showing off to your friends, and the inside was a bit more brushed so the inevitable markings of multiple batches of boiling wort isn’t as noticeable. Both sides cleaned up really easily with hot water and a scrubbing sponge. I only had to use cleaning products prior to its virgin voyage to ensure all the machining oils were cleaned off.

The weld quality was superb. The NPT port was clean and without any porosity or crevices to make cleaning difficult. The TC flanges were beautiful. The way they were integrated into the walls of the kettle almost looked they were formed/pushed out of the side wall of the kettle rather than welded on. I really can’t overstate how flawless these were.

Kettle with PIckup Tube, Recirc Tube, 2,250 Watt Element and Temp Probe

Shorty Pickup Tube

The accessories were all of good quality and reasonably priced. There were two accessories that stood out for me. The first was the short pickup tube to connect to the TC fitting down low on the kettle. This dropped down low to almost touch the bottom of the kettle to ensure the maximum amount of fluid to be extracted. With a slight angular cut on the tube, it built a natural blocking barrier to any trub in the center, and then sloped upwards to ensure it didn’t create a flow restriction problem.

Spike Brewing Butterfly Valve

The other accessory that was impressive was the butterfly valve. The price was a bit intimidating, about twice the price of a decent 3-piece ball lock valve. But I was impressed. The heft and quality of this beast was impressive. Being a much more open design than a ball valve, it certainly was easier to clean and know you got everything out. The handle used to open the valve contained a locking mechanism so you could open it to a fixed position and the mechanism kept it locked in position so the flow going through didn’t cause the valve to float or try to close.

All of the TC fittings worked easily and sealed to a fully leak-proof condition with no fiddling required and nothing more than hand torqueing of the clamps- no tools required. The black painted/etched volume markings at every 0.5 gallons were very clear and easy to read while filling the kettle, and I liked how they went down as low as 2 gallons.

The main selling point of the TC fittings is ease of cleaning. I was curious to try this out because I’m not one to be obsessive about cleaning, so I figured I could give it a good critical review. I’ll shortcut to the ending and tell you that even a non-cleanfreak found these to be great. I especially loved the ability to pop the electric heating element out and easily clean it. I scalded the element a couple times so I was thankful at how easy it was to pop this out. The smoothness of the weld on the TC fittings also made cleaning easy without requiring brushes to clean inside threaded fitting grooves.

Conclusions

So overall, this custom kettle service is kind of a hidden gem. The kettles themselves are very high quality, and Spike makes creating your own custom build super-easy and relatively affordable. I was skeptical of the benefits of TC ports before, but now am a firm believer in how they make cleaning so much easier. If you’re in the market for a new kettle and have some ideas of what you might do a little differently, Spike Custom Kettles might be able to hook you up.

Get the Gear

Brew Kettles at Spike Brewing

More Photos

Spike Two Vessel SetupOpen Butterfly ValveSpike Custom Mash Tun DrawingTC Ports Make for Easy Cleaning!

Special Thanks to Spike Brewing Equipment for for providing the unit used for evaluation in this review.

By Brad Probert.  Check out Brad’s website – beersnobby.com

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