Recently, I have begun posting some more advanced brewing articles, but I don’t want to alienate any beginning brewers, so we’re going to start an “easy upgrade” series on some affordable, simple upgrades you can make to your own system that will hopefully lead to better beer.
We’ll start with a popular upgrade. Whether you’re doing extract batches or all-grain, five gallons or 10, it is always good to have the ability to boil the full volume in your kettle. This is preferred to having to boil a smaller portion and add water after the boil. A simple way to do this is to convert a stainless steel 1/2 barrel (15.5 gallon) sanke beer keg into a brew kettle.
I have done this for my own hot liquor tun and boil kettle, and I recently helped a friend of mine, Dave, convert three kegs into keggles (yes, that’s keg + kette = keggle) to use in his own system.
Working with stainless steel can be a bit tricky. Stainless is a very hard metal and requires a few special tools and a little elbow grease.
Remove the Dip Tube
The first thing you need to do is to remove the dip tube from the keg. There’s a few tips and tricks involved in getting this done smoothly. Make sure you release the pressure first. The tricky part is removing the spring, and then it’s just using a little force to twist the dip tube into position and pull it out. For some more in-depth on this process, I recommend watching this YouTube instructional.
Cut a Hole in the Top
Now you have a keggle! …Only it’s going to be hard to do much in a pot with a 2″ hole in the lid, so we’ll need to make that a little larger. The best, and easiest way to do this is with a plasma cutter. But I doubt you have one of those laying around your garage, so I recommend taking it to a professional or your local tech shop. It can usually be done for less than $10 and only takes a few minutes.
Or, if your more of a do-it-yourself guy (or gal), you can rig up an angle grinder to make the cut. That’s what we did with Dave’s kegs. Using a couple scrap pieces of wood clamped to the angle grinder as a guide, we were able to cut circular holes. The cuts are rough, so be prepared to spend some extra time filing down and sanding the cut so that you don’t slice your arm every time you reach into the keg. Here’s another great video that shows how this is done.
Install Weldless Fittings
If you’re a welder, you can always weld in couplings where you want to install your spigot, thermometer, sight glass, etc. But if you’re not quite that handy, or don’t have the equipment, you can purchase weldless fittings online that will also work very well. I personally recommend checking out Bargain Fittings. They have reasonable prices and flat rate shipping.
The hardest part about installing the fittings is cutting the 7/8-inch holes for the couplings. You’ll need a hole wherever you want to install your spigot or any other additions such as a sight glass or a thermometer. To do this, I suggest using a step bit on your drill. These allow you to slowly drill through the stainless and get a hole exactly the size you need. Bargain Fittings also sells these for $16!
Do this carefully and slowly because as you drill, the keg metal will heat up, and as it gets hot, the metal literally gets harder and stronger. If the drill and the hole heat up too much, the metal could get too hard to drill through. We almost had this happen to us, and it is not fun!
The best way to avoid this is by keeping some oil handy. Whether is spraying the bit with WD-40 or dipping it in vegetable oil, a well-oiled step bit is much less likely to overheat and cause troubles. If the bit does start to get excessively hot, simply step back and give it some time. It’s not worth rushing if it ruins your keggle!
Next, just instal the couplings and bulkheads and whatever ball valves, quick connects, hose barbs, etc. that you have. The only key here is to be sure you wrap all of your threads with teflon/plumber’s tape to keep them from leaking. You’ll want to do a test run of the kettle with water to make sure it holds up and doesn’t leak, because it’s more acceptable to leak a little water than to leak some of your homebrew!
Check back soon, because we’ll be taking a look at some other easy upgrades like an immersion wort chiller, cooler mash tun, and the hop spider!