Monday, February 20, 2012

Craftsman Cap Wrench

I love well-made tools. Objects that serve their purpose in a steadfast, understated, and seemingly effortless manner.  The Craftsman Cap Wrench Bottle Opener is one such tool. The name is slightly deceptive since it operates with a prying motion, and not the twisting motion you would tend to expect from a wrench, but I am willing to overlook that small marketing flaw. 

Like all bottle openers, it is a very simple tool. Its entire purpose is to apply a small bit of leverage to pop the caps off of bottles of beer.

Upon first glance, it doesn't look all that special. There is the obvious attempt to appeal to fans of their hand tools. It appears to be a good excuse to get you to spend $15 on a bottle opener, most likely as a gift. The beauty of the design is not obvious until you actually use it.

First, a short description. There is a raised dome built into the center of the openingrench. This pushes against the center of the bottle cap and acts as the fulcrum. There are two metal ears on that catch the edge of the cap. These are at opposite ends:  one by the handle and one on the far end. You can use either one, resulting in a prying up or prying down motion respectively. In the picture below you can see the unused ear by the handle, with the edge of the cap caught by the ear on the other side. This would be for the prying down motion.

The dome has the secondary purpose of preventing the cap from falling down into the opening where the combination of the two ears could make it difficult to remove. That pitfall is cleverly avoided.

The really beautiful design feature is how the two ears interact. When you catch the edge of the cap with one ear, the other pushes against the opposite side of the cap, preventing the wrench from slipping off. It takes almost no effort to keep the wrench on the cap. It almost feels like the weight of the wrench is enough by itself to open the bottle. It is incredibly easy to use. 

Sure, you probably don't really need such a massive chunk of forged steel to open a beer bottle, but if you're anything like me you will want your own as soon as you use one.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Modified Brew Hauler

Beer is heavy.

Five gallons of beer in a glass carboy is very heavy. At about 8.3 pounds per gallon, plus 10 to 15 pounds for the carboy, the total comes out north of 50 pounds.

Dropping a glass carboy full of beer would not be a fun experience. First there is the mess. Then there is the expense of ingredients, carboy, and the wasted time you spent brewing. And finally, there is the risk of severe personal injury. There are numerous horror stories on the internet about people cutting themselves on broken glass carboys.

Given all of that, it seems prudent to take some precautions. This is especially true since these heavy glass containers are often wet and slippery at the times they need to be moved.

Luckily there is a good, commonly-available, and inexpensive solution:  the Brew Hauler. It is a carrying sling made of nylon webbing that gives you two perfect handles for securely lifting and carrying a full carboy. This is incredibly helpful when lifting it in and out of a chest freezer.

The only complaint I have with the design of the Brew Hauler is that it sags. (If you look closely at the picture from Austin Homebrew, they had to use tape to keep it in place.) I was never able to tighten the top strap enough so that it would stay on its own. Even if I were able to, I would have to redo it each time I moved it to a different size of carboy. I have to admit that this is a relatively minor complaint. However, when it sags, it makes it easier for the straps that support the bottom of the carboy to shift. This could result in the carboy slipping out from between those straps if care is not taken to realign them before lifting.

My solution was to add a bungee cord to the top strap. This keeps the brew hauler snugly in place around the carboy. The materials are simple. All you need is one 24" bungee cord and four hose clamps. Any style of hose clamp that is about the right size should work just fine.

I used Oetiker style clamps because I had them lying around. They are stainless steel, which means they won't rust if they get wet with spilled beer or condensation. They are rather permanent once crimped, and there are no sharp edges or protrusions that could get caught on something. One of the clamps and the crimping tool are pictured below.

Step 1: Cut the hooks off of the bungee cord. They are not necessary and would just be in the way. Then singe the ends of the nylon sheath around the bungee cord's core with a match or lighter. This is just to prevent the cut ends from fraying or unraveling.

Step 2: Clamp one end of the bungee cord to the non-adjustable side of the buckle on the top strap. See the picture below. I used two clamps, which may be overkill, but I am confident that the bungee cord isn't going anywhere.

Step 3: Pull the bungee cord through each of the loops on the handles and lower straps. This is just like putting a belt on through belt-loops.

Step 4: Clamp the other end of the bungee cord to the strap on the adjustable side of the buckle. The only semi-tricky part is to make sure that the bungee cord is placed correctly. With the bungee cord completely relaxed, there needs to be 3 to 4 inches of slack in the webbing between the two sets of clamps. This way, when the webbing is pulled tight, the bungee cord is forced to stretch and maintain tension.

This end also shouldn't be clamped too close to the buckle. There needs to be enough adjustment  to pull the webbing tight around the smallest diameter carboy on which it will be used. As you can see below, I left a couple extra inches just in case. There are two clamps on this end as well; one is covered by the loop on the nylon strap. You can also see the singed end of the bungee cord in this picture.

For me, this has made a good product even better. I ended up buying and modifying a second Brew Hauler  so that I have one for each carboy when doing two batches at the same time. It was annoying to remove the Brew Hauler from the carboy after it was in the chest freezer and then try to put it back on later when it was time to rack the beer. These are great things to have around, and I highly recommend getting a couple.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My Brewing Fridge

I recently got into the hobby of homebrewing beer, and I really like lagers.

One of the more important pieces of equipment for brewing lager beer is some type of refrigerator. To keep the yeast happy (and happy yeast makes better beer) it must ferment and condition at the correct temperatures. For ales, you can often get away with brewing at room temperature. Lagers on the other hand require temperatures in the 50s.

The choice faced by homebrewers is what type of beer fridge to use. The two standard options are either an upright fridge or a chest freezer. Either one will require an external temperature controller for best results. I went the chest freezer route, and here is how I came to that decision.

The Refrigerator


  • Easier to fill. You don't have to lift heavy items very high at all to get them in and out of the fridge.
  • More durable. A fridge is designed to operate above freezing. It should last many years.  
  • No condensation issues. A fridge is designed to collect and drain off condensation from the air instead of allowing it to collect inside the fridge. 
  • Limited capacity. A normal fridge has less room for kegs and carboys than is available in most chest freezers. 
  • No secondary containment. When you open the door, any liquid in the bottom of the fridge will drain out. Rapidly.
  • Less efficient use of space. The freezer portion of the refrigerator is pretty much useless at this point. 

The Chest Freezer

  • More usable space. I can easily fit two carboys or three 5-gallon kegs in my 7 cubic foot chest freezer. 
  • More efficient. Chest freezers tend to have thicker insulation than refrigerators because they are designed to operate at lower temperatures. This means it should use less electricity.
  • Secondary containment. Any liquid that leaks will collect in the bottom of the freezer, and it will stay there until you remove it. 
  • Fits better in an apartment. A chest freezer is not nearly as imposing as a second fridge. It also doubles as extra counter space. 
  • Questionable durability. Chest freezers are designed to operate below freezing. The evaporator coils are usually made of mild steel. This is fine for something that will only be exposed to ice, but when operated above freezing, liquid water can cause corrosion. The expected lifespan for a chest freezer in this application is probably only a few years. (Some precautions, of unproven effectiveness, can be taken - like caulking any seams in the internal lining to prevent water from migrating in to the evaporator coils.) 
  • Condensation. Every time you open the freezer, room-temperature air laden with humidity rushes in. When this air is cooled, the water condenses out and collects as puddles in the bottom of the chest freezer.  (This is mostly just an annoyance in my experience.) 
  • Harder to fill. Anything holding 5 gallons of liquid is heavy. Kegs, carboys, and CO2 cylinders all have to be lifted up and into the chest freezer. 

To be fair, the value of secondary containment did not cross my mind until after I already had the chest freezer and had kegged my first batch of beer. A misbehaving CO2 pressure regulator slowly forced beer out through the faucet. I did not discover this until the next morning. I opened the lid on the chest freezer to discover two inches of beer sitting in the bottom. It was tragic and heartbreaking to lose two to three gallons of beer. It would have been so much worse to wake up to two to three gallons of beer on the floor of my apartment. 

I have rationalized away the shortcomings of the chest freezer. Condensation is easy to dry off periodically with a towel. Lifting items in and out is a good workout. If the evaporator coil fails eventually, it gives me an excuse to tinker and come up with a way to possibly eliminate the condensate issue.. But until then, I am very happy with my chest freezer. I was happy enough to buy a second one so I could ferment and condition different batches at the same time.