I cannot stand the fact that propane is so expensive. I usually go through a small tank every 2 to 3 brew sessions, finding myself packing the empty cylinder in the back of my truck along with Abby (Great Dane/Sharpei and Momma's Girl) and trekking to the corner gas station or nearby Home Depot for an exchange. It can cost as little as fifteen and as much as 25 bucks for new gas. That can be just over eight bucks per brew, and considering the grain and hop bill for a ten gallon batch can run as much as 40 bucks you can see that it is slowly beginning to get expensive to make the brew these days.
Let us not be crazy here, though. Even fifty bucks or so for ten gallons of fine handcrafted brew is a deal, going for something less than fifty cents per glass, adding in electrical and cooling costs. Overall in my entire brewing career I have been most pleased with direct fired propane systems as compared to electric steam generators and other methods. There are benefits, the first that comes to mind is the quick flash point and pleasant caramelization effect on some of my ales. It is also awful nice to have strike-temperature water from room temperature in the same amount of time it takes for me to realize that Gilligan is not getting off the Island in this episode.
My friend turned me onto a welding buddy of his who erected one of those "tree" systems with three burners and gravity feed, all the nice stuff any brewer would want. I went to see the system and slobbered all over it like Abby over a biscuit for about an hour or so. Look how simple it is, you don't even need to climb a ladder to fill the hot liquor tank, see the quick disconnect (OOOHH, AHHHHH), etc. No more ladling! No more overaeration of wort! Even heat distribution from several points of contact! Easy cleanup! It all sounded like a brewer's dream and I am sure that there are many brewers out there who would love a system like that one, Jay surely did a fantastic job on it. Perhaps one day I will be able to convince the real BOSS (translated:Wife) of the family to shell out the 800 smackers or so to set myself up with the "Tree".
Then, as usual, I climbed out of my little dreamworld and stepped back into brewing reality. One of the main reasons I got into brewing to begin with was to save money, how in the world am I gonna save money by spending so much on equipment? I guess I'm the kinda guy who would rather spend a little less money and drive a Lincoln with all the features I want than refinance the house on a Caddy. After a few Red Ales and a nice Maduro I was struck with a thought: Why not go old school?
I am a wood chopoholic. I love to chop wood, it is a great workout and I actually have something to show for my efforts at the end of a sweaty workout unlike those five percenters at the gym. For those who don't know, five percenters mean the guys with five percent body fat, most of it in their head, working out each individual muscle on fantastic contraptions and treadmills while listening to death metal and sucking on an energy pooooop-sicle. Anyhow, back to the wood. It is nice to have a cord or two of it in the backyard in case it actually falls below forty degrees in central Florida (maybe a handful of times), and it is also nice to have the fireplace to set THE MOOD, if you knowwhutImean. A nice fire, a little homebrew, some Dean Martin on the phono, you get my drift.
With all of this wood in the backyard I thought of digging a pit and then thought twice as I really am not a redneck contrary to popular belief. Anyhow, too many deep roots in the ground to make it easy so it was on to a better design. How about a brick oven? I could double it's use as a kiln for claywork if I chose and it could also double as a hot plate instead of the typical gascrap contraption you find at the Depot. Maybe a simple coal oven with a lift of some kind like the old kettles in Medieval times.
After pondering my thoughts over several more pints I decided to design system that was easy and included a lot of components I already have. The design will begin with a half barrel keg sawn in half with four steel posts running waist high. A sturdy rack will be placed on top as such to make it easy to remove ash. I plan on a double pulley trailer winch attached to the side and running up and out on a limb of my great oak in the backyard. This line will carry two seperate kegs, one hot liquor tank, the other mash tun. The brew kettle will not be initially attached but will have a hook connect if I need to raise it off the heat in order to avoid a boilover.
The idea is simple. Start a small charcoal fire, build it with wood and heat my strike water, gravity feeding from the arm into the mash tun, turning to mash tun to the heat for decoction mashes if necessary or applicable. After starch to sugar conversion sparge directly in the same manner and drop the wort into the brew kettle laying on the heat rack. As sparge comes to an end, transfer the grain out of the mash tun and directly into a trash barrel using height and gravity to my advantage.
Attach the brew kettle hook to the winch arm and boil. If there is a chance of boilover lift the winch accordingly until you are in the safe zone. When boil is complete lift the winch and move the arm away from the heat, chilling with the wort chiller and transferring to primary into the cooler.
All of this sounds like a lot of work but if I could save ten bucks a batch I could cover my buildout costs in less than half a year, now that is some capital finance savings realized in a short time if I ever saw it, and I don't even know Rupert Murdoch personally. I do know what's in my bank account, though, and this sounds like a no-brainer to me.
The smoke might even make my brew more distinctive, you never know.