Thursday, 26 April 2012

Brewery Build #3: Keg Drilling

Drilling kegs is another topic that is a common source of discussion (and contention) among home brewers looking to build their own systems.  After using a cheap hardware-shop step-bit to drill the tap-holes on my beer-fridge, I knew that it would not be up to the task of cutting holes in the beer kegs.  In addition, the various discussions I had read on the subject made seem like something that would be much more difficult than it turned out.

With the right tools, drilling plumbing-fitting holes in kegs is not so difficult, and in this case the right tools are quite simple; a drill capable of controlled sustained low speed (less than 300RPM) combined with a decent amount of torque, and a Tungsten Carbide Tipped (TCT) Hole Saw of the appropriate size.  The hole saw (mine was AUD$30 Keg King) but it should last a life-time (the guys at Keg King have drilled more than 80 kegs with theirs and it's still working fine).  The only other thing needed is some cutting lubricant or WD40 to help keep things cool while drilling and prevent work-hardening the stainless and/or ruining the hole saw.

Mark the location to be drilled, ensuring that it's not too close to any seams or curved edges on the keg, using a washer as a spacer helps to ensure that the fitting will sit correctly once fitted in the drilled hole.

A piece of tape will stop the drill bit slipping on the curved stainless surface while drilling the pilot hole.
Low speed setting on the drill, some decent pressure, stopping every now and then to spray on some more cutting lubricant.

And in just a few minutes the hole saw should punch through the stainless leaving a nice clean hole.
A 20mm size hole saw is just a fraction too small for most 1/2 inch fittings, but interestingly I have a range of fittings and the hole size required seems to depend on which fittings are going to be used, so it's good to check the individual fitting to ensure that you don't make the hole too big.
A small amount of manual labour with a file, a dremel type tool or anything similar will widen the hole just enough so that the fittings slip inside.
That's about all there is to it.

With the right tools, drilling neat, clean and easy to make 1/2 inch keg holes is actually a very simple and easy procedure that anyone should be able to do.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Brewery Build #2: Keg Cutting

To convert the used beer kegs into useful brewing vessels, they need the tops cut out of them.  Google search and YouTube videos show all kinds of complicated ways to do this, including things like using a jig to hold the grinder in the right position or even needing a plasma cutter.  Since I had not done anything like this before, I did try to follow some of the advice, but found most of it pretty useless and the actual procedure much simpler and easier than I imagined.

In the pictures below, the top collar of the keg has been removed, I find that this makes the kegs easier to work with and it also makes them lighter, the handles still retrain their full strength even with the rest of the collar cut away.  Removing the collar before cutting the top off the keg gives more working space, which is useful in keeping the grinder upright, especially when the cutting disk gets worn down.  However the collar does make a useful guide and can help cut the circle more cleanly.

I was planning to use this keg as both the HLT and still-pot, but SWMBO was not keen on the still-setup and installing the various fittings for the HLT would be significantly harder with only the spear-hole to work though, so I decided to cut the top out of this keg too - and took some pictures as I did.

The only major tool needed to cut the keg-tops is an angle grinder, a thin steel cutting disk and a thicker steel grinding disk are both need, and will likely be destroyed in the process, however the $1 disks (shown below) worked well.
The first thing to do is depressurize the keg, as you can see I had previously removed the spear from this keg so there was no chance of it holding any pressure.  Then mark out the top of the keg, I did this simply by running the marker around the outside of a 30cm glass fry-pan lid that I plan to use once the keg has been cut.
Attach the thin metal cutting disk to the angle grinder and run it -lightly- around just inside the marked line.
Now that we have a groove to follow, continue to run the angle grinder around that groove.  If you have not yet removed the top collar of the keg - and especially if you don't plan to use a lid of a specific size - there is no need to mark the cutting circle, simply place the shield of the angle grinder against the collar and use that as a guide as you cut around the top of the keg.

Continue to work the angle grinder around the groove, trying to keep the cutting depth even all the way round, this should help preserve the cutting disk and if you do not concentrate on one section for too long it allows the stainless steel to cool before you come back to cut on that location again.
After running the angle grinder around the top of the keg a few times, it will eventually cut through the top of the steel.
Although I had removed the spear from this keg previously, it's best to keep the spear in-place (but ensure the keg is totally depressurized) that way the section of keg-top has something to balance on as it's cut out.  Without the additional support the heavy section that is being cut out can bend or deform and make cutting the rest of the top more difficult.
When the top of the keg has been cut out, its time to change to the steel grinding disk and clean up the hole and edges.  If a lid of specific size will be used, ensure that it correctly fits inside the hole that has been cut, and it may be necessary to widen the hole just a bit (but that is why we cut inside the line at the start because we can make the hole wider if needed, but we can't make it smaller).

Run the grinding disk over, around and under the hole to smooth it of and remove any jagged bits of metal that were left behind.  The best method I found was to rest the guard of the angle grinder on the edge and then guide it backward grinding and smoothing the edge gradually around the circle - this allowed a good level of control and also ensured that the (generally) circular hole remained (pretty much) circular.
Once the edges have been cleaned up with the grinding disk, its useful to smooth off the edges even more using a file, dremel tool or even wet-dry sandpaper.  Continue working around the edge until it is smooth and clean and you can run your hand around without cutting yoruself or getting metal-splinters.  You don't want to injure yourself, or someone else, while brewing or cleaning up afterward.

After a bit of work - but nothing too difficult or strenuous - the top of the keg has been cut out, smoothed off and fits the lid exactly:

Friday, 6 April 2012

Brewery Build #1`: Overview

My old home-brewery setup has done me well over the last few years.  As can be seen in the picture below, the old setup included: 60L esky mash-tun, 30L HLT/Kettle Urn, various copper and brass fittings, DIY CFC and Marga-mill with water-cooler hopper.
However, I've been thinking about upgrading my home-brew equipment for some time.  The major objectives for the upgrade are outlined below:
  • Appropriate equipment to brew the best and most consistent beer possible (for me at home).
  • Keep upgrade costs to an absolute minimum.
  • Maintenance and cleaning easy and hassle free.
  • Able to brew double batches if required.
  • Minimise or eliminate the need to manually lift hot wort/water.
With those objectives in mind, I decided on the following:
  • 3-vessel system (more components but easier to design, build, clean and maintain).
  • All stainless construction: built from 2nd-hand 50L beer kegs.
  • Silicon hose and stainless cam-lock connections.
  • Pump for liquid transfer.
  • DIY for most everything possible.
  • Careful consideration of each component, source and cost - involving much shopping-around.
Initially I was planning to build a single-level system with a single pump, something very simple and easy like:
JD's brewery from HomeBrew Digest forums.
Cortez's Brew Stand from the AHB forums.
However, since I prefer to fly-sparge - and that would be difficult with only one pump - the design evolved into a 2-tier setup, something like Jeff McClain's Mossy Cup Brewing:
So over the last six-or-so months, the sketches on backs-of-envelopes and other bits-of-paper have evolved a little:
In addition to the three 2nd-hand beer-kegs, the plan now includes the plate-chiller I picked up cheaply at Keg King, a hop-back that I need to design and build, and a HERMS.  With my old setup, I often had trouble both hitting and maintaining the correct mash-temperature, which usually resulted in quick additions of boiling or cold water, over or under shooting mash temperature targets or having to do random on-the-fly decoctions.  While the HERMS adds a deal of complexity and additional expense, it should allow mash temperatures to be controlled and stepped in a much more precise and accurate way.

No doubt things will change and evolve as the brewery is built, but hopefully all the time, consideration and planning will start to pay off sooner than later - and I'll be able to get back to brewing before the kegs run dry - since I've sold the old system to help pay for the new one!

Monday, 2 April 2012


I spent the day stewarding at the Australian International Beer Awards.  The gala dinner and awards are not until next month, and it's all covered by an NDA, so there is not too much to say here ... but wow sooooo much beer!  The video (first 10 seconds) on the AIBA page linked above shows the room I was working in and the large number of kegs that were entered.  What is not shown is that the variety and number number of bottled beer entries is significantly larger again.