A homebrew away from home

Ferment teams up with Six Degrees North and Heriot Watt University, to build a fully-functional nano-brewery


The team at Beer52 has been brewing on the Grainfather for a couple of years now and, after 30+ brews, we’ve found it to be a great piece of kit capable of producing excellent beers (and terrible ones, though only ever thanks to human error). For 2019 though, we’ve decided to take our homebrew game to the next level, by working with Six Degrees North Edinburgh and the Heriot Watt Brewing Society to create a three-tier brewhouse in Six Degrees’ unused commercial kitchen.

Leading the project is Alex Cox, Six Degrees bartender, final-year Heriot Watt brewing and distilling student, and homebrew guru. While we’ve provided some resources and moral support, this is really his baby, and he is a proud beer daddy.

Our kettle – generously supplied by Edinburgh’s Brewstore – is a hefty 50L beast and has a whirlpool attachment plumbed in, in addition to an outlet at the bottom. Alongside a 30L hot liquor tank with built-in thermometer, the kettle sits on the former kitchen’s powerful gas burner, allowing us to bring liquor quickly up to temperature and giving us fine control over the heat source. The 43L mash tun is made from an insulated igloo cooler with a false metal bottom, perfect for keeping the temperature consistent.

We also have a powerful pump used for recirculating, both during the whirlpool and during chilling using our plate heat exchanger (originally an air conditioner spare part). We have two fermentation vessels: one sturdy flat-bottomed stainless steel fermenter with built-in thermometer, kindly provided by homebrew supplier Balliihoo, and one SS Brewtech 50L conical fermenter. The latter features an integrated cooling coil, which is plugged into a glycol chiller with STC temperature controller, allowing us to regulate temperature throughout fermentation, crash cool and potentially produce lagers. 

The construction of the brewhouse was a real hands-on effort by Alex and his small team. After clearing out the kitchen, there were long days of DIY, during which some unexpected challenges inevitably had to be overcome. 

“We found the steel on the kettle gets thinner as you go up from the bottom of the pot,” says Alex, “so when we were drilling it, we were almost melting the steel, and the hole we drilled wasn’t perfect. So we had to spend a couple of hours filing those down to make them round. But then the bulkhead that came with the whirlpool attachment wasn’t big enough to properly seal the enlarged hole, so we had to find a bigger one. Once we did that though it worked a treat.”

But why go all the trouble of cleaning out the kitchen and spending days drilling, hammering and welding in a windowless, subterranean room? 

"Having a three-tier kit opens up a world of opportunities,” Alex explains. “This setup gives us much more capability in terms of our batch sizes; if we want to brew an imperial stout for example, which takes a lot of grain, you might struggle to brew much liquid on a Grainfather. On our kit we can do that comfortably. 

“We can also recirculate, we can whirlpool… These things give us a better quality wort and therefore a better quality beer at the end. It’s much more similar to the setup at a professional brewery, where there will nearly always be a three-tier setup: hot liquor tank, mash, and copper.”

This is crucial for the Heriot Watt Brewing Society, as the brewing and distilling students need to get as much time as possible on a commercial-style brewkit.

"Having a three-tier kit opens up a world of opportunities"

Alex continues: “It gives our students a chance to try something that’s similar to what a professional kit would have. They get more a more intimate understanding of the process, because you’re not just pushing buttons; you’re opening valves, getting the right balance on each valve so you don’t suck the mash through. Things like that, where you actually need the practical experience.”

This is also why Alex has made sure to include some features that would be unusual on a standard homebrew setup, like the conical fermenter and glycol chiller. 

“Fully temperature-controlled fermentation is a big deal, and we can do everything blanketed in CO2, so we don’t have to worry about oxygenation. These are just little tweaks, but they all culminate to produce a product that should be akin to a professional beer. We’ll keep adding to the setup too, gradually getting more sophisticated and closer to a scaled-down professional kit.”

Over the next year, we’ll be sitting in on some of the Herriot Watt brews, chatting to the brewers-in-training and experimenting with them on this fantastic new setup. It will be an opportunity to not only raise our own home brewing game and bring you more insight into advanced brewing techniques, but also talk to the next generation of professional brewers about their ambitions.

Huge thanks to Six Degrees North (sixnorth.co.uk), Edinburgh Brewstore (www.brewstore.co.uk) and Balliihoo (www.balliihoo.co.uk) for the generous support of this project.

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