Unless you were fortunate enough to have an experienced brewer bring you into the world of home brewing, odds are your first batch was on a very basic setup. For me it was a partial extract batch brewed in a borrowed stockpot, on the gas stove-top of my old college house. A simple yet effective (well let’s say good enough) setup. However, after a few more batches I wanted to make my beers even better and more consistent. That’s when I stumbled across The Electric Brewery. I immediately fell in love with this beautifully thought out electric brewing system and how every component was explained in detail in the DIY section. It was a 3 kettle setup, with 2 pumps, quick disconnecting hoses, and a gorgeous control panel that was at the heart of it all. Despite my appreciation for this work of art, I did foresee an issue with this elaborate brewing system. Once you’ve added up the costs of all the components, it amounted to several thousands of dollars. An electric brewing system shouldn’t have to be this expensive and complicated to make good beer. With a basic understanding of how electric brewing works, you’ll realize that you don’t need to spend your life savings to build a competent system.
How Electric Brewing Works
Electric brewing works the same as brewing with gas, but the equipment is a little different. Instead of using natural gas or propane to brew your beer, an electric system uses a heating element. It’s essentially a metal rod that sticks through the side of the kettle. This rod then heats any liquid that it is in contact with. The element must be fully submerged whenever it is turned on though; if it’s exposed to the air when it’s on, it’ll burn out the element. This is called dry firing. Elements come in various shapes and sizes, but for homebrewers they usually range from about 1,000–5,500 watts and an overall length of 9”-14”. One highly debated specification is called the watt density. This is basically how well the power is spread out over the heating element’s surface. If you have a small element with higher power, then the heat is very concentrated and you could (allegedly) scorch your beer. If the heating element is longer, then the power can be spread out over a greater surface area and heat your beer more gently. A lot of elements are folded or rippled to increase their surface area while remaining short enough to fit in a kettle. In order of harshest to gentlest, you will see elements listed as High Watt Density (HWD), Low Watt Density (LWD), and Ultra Low Watt Density (ULWD) to express how gently they can heat your wort. On the other end of the heating element is the power cord that will be outside of the kettle. This should plug into an electric controller so you can adjust the power of the heating element and turn it on and off.
There are a lot of options for the electric controller mentioned above. It is not recommended that you plug an element directly into the wall, since that offers you no control except plugged (full power) and unplugged (no power). Some controllers are just a plastic box with a light switch used to turn the element on and off. This is cheap and simple, but offers no control between on and off, just like plugging your element directly into the wall. You can’t choose 75% power to maintain your boil for instance. Some controllers take it a step further and add a dial so you can choose a power between 0-100%. This allows more control and might be suitable for finding a good power to maintain a boil, but it could still be tricky when you’re trying to hold a precise mashing temperature. The best option is to choose a controller that utilizes a PID (Proportional Integral Derivative). A PID will have a screen that displays the temperature you set it to and the temperature that the wort is actually at. If the temperature of the wort is 140ºF and you have the PID set to 150ºF, the PID will turn the heating element on until it reaches 150ºF and then automatically cycle off and on to maintain your temperature. Since the PID Controller is continually monitoring and adjusting the temperature, keeping your mash at a constant temperature is automatic! To do this, the PID requires a sensor to be installed in your kettle so it can read the actual temperature of the wort and adjust accordingly. Some of the additional luxuries that I’ve seen on a controller include lights to easily tell when elements or pumps are turned on, timers, switches to turn on elements/pumps, alarms to warn you of temperatures or timers, and meters to show how many volts or amps you’re using while brewing.
How Powerful Does Your Electric Brewing System Need to Be?
One of trickiest things to figure out for beginners is how powerful their system needs to be. At first glance they might think all heating elements are the same and you just plug it into a typical 120 (volt) household outlet and you’re set. However, heating elements come in many different flavors. First of all, there’s elements meant for 120v outlets (typical US home outlet) and there’s elements meant for stronger 240v outlets (commonly used for a clothes dryer). A 120v home outlet is rated at 15a (amps) and will trip a breaker if anything plugged in draws more amps than that. The most commonly used 120v element draws 1,500w (watts) at full power. A 120v system is convenient since it can plug into any normal outlet in your home, but it is only strong enough to gently boil 4 gallons and it takes its sweet old time getting up to mash/boil temps. That’s where the 240v system shines. Despite being twice the voltage, it’s almost 4 times more powerful. The most commonly used 240v element consumes 5,500w and can boil larger batches in less time than the weaker 120v elements. One of the setbacks though is access to an outlet. You would need to use your existing dryer outlet or install another 240v outlet near your brewing area which can be costly. Depending on the user though, the time savings of the more powerful 240v system could be well worth it for those who brew large or frequent batches.
There are several common setups for electric home brewing systems and most of them work similarly. I think the most basic example would be a 1 kettle, brew-in-a-bag system. The pictures below may help you understand how this system works. As you may have guessed, it only involves 1 kettle for the whole brewing process which makes it compact and cheap. You would start by mashing your grains in a brewing bag. The bag sits on top of a metal stand that is placed in the bottom of the kettle. This stand keeps the bag from touching the heating element. When you’re done mashing, you lift the bag of grains out of the kettle leaving the wort behind. Keeping with the 1 kettle approach, you wouldn’t bother sparging in this example since that would involve another kettle. Your wort is now ready to be boiled and your brew day carries on as usual. This is about as easy as an electric system gets. No moving parts, no transferring of liquids between several vessels, and minimal equipment to buy, clean, and store.
Although my example is very simple, it shows how basic an electric brewing system can be. That kind of setup can be built for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand dollars. Like most things in home brewing, you have the freedom to tailor your system to your own preferences. You could add a pump to recirculate your mash or even add a couple more kettles to have a dedicated hot liquor tank and/or boil kettle. It’s all a balance of time, money, and function. If you do insist on having a more complex system, there are two popular alternatives to a directly heated mash tun as shown in my example. They are the RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash System) and HERMS (Heat Exchange Recirculating Mash System) system. The RIMS system has a heating device installed in the hose that is recirculating wort from the bottom of the mash tun back to the top. The HERMS system recirculates wort through a metal coil that is placed in the hot liquor tank. Both systems involve more equipment than in my example but they each have their advantages. It’s up to you to decide what suits you best. If you haven’t considered an electric brewing system yet, I would recommend taking another look. The last couple of years have shown a large increase (and improvement) in electric brewing products. It could be a good fit for your brewing needs.