Back when I was in college, I worked for a while with the support team for a big physics lab. The guys I worked with were a bunch of old Navy and Air Force radar technicians, so when the microwave in the lunch room stopped working, they didn’t go out and buy a new one.
They rebuilt it.
This thing was a beast – the entire control panel was dark and functionless, but there was a single large toggle switch protruding from the right side of the case. To microwave something, you flipped the switch up…and counted to ten while the machine hummed really loudly. Then you flipped the switch to off and took your food out. Ten seconds…maybe twenty or thirty if you had a big lunch. Piping hot. ‘Nuff said.
I have no idea what they did – nor do I suggest you go on eBay and buy radar parts from an F-4 Phantom to rebuild your microwave and if you do don’t go blaming me when you electrocute yourself, burn your house down, or accidentally produce a death ray. But the point is, the things we have can very often be made better, or at least more completely suited to our needs.
You see, us homebrewers, we love junk.
More to the point, we love junk that has been, or can be, turned into brewing equipment.
We love hacks.
Sure, I can log in to Northern Brewer and spend just shy of $900 on a complete roll-around brewing setup. Or go to More Beer and spend a few grand on a pimped up, all stainless, semi-automated brewing system.
I’m homebrewing, after all, making my own beer. Why not take the hombrewing as far as I can, and homebrew the homebrewery?
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about – my mash tun (don’t worry if you don’t know what a mash tun is): an Igloo cooler from Costco and a collection of small parts from the Home Depot. Instructions abound on the internet – though I’ll admit that what I built and how I use it is a mashup of several ideas out there. With half-an-hour’s labor and I created a device that turned 90 minutes of frantic stove knob fiddling as I tried to keep a dozen pounds of grain and four gallons of water within a two degree temperature window into a relaxing set-it-and-forget it process.
I hacked an Igloo cooler into a none-too-shabby mash tun.
Hack – the original meaning, not the one subverted by Anonymous and 1990’s thrillers – meant to transform something, some piece of technology, so that it fulfilled an unexpected, unintended, or improved function compared to that originally intended.
What I’m planning for my next homebrew hack is to repeat this same modification – ball valve and a spigot – on my eight gallon boil kettle. Erica sometimes uses this big boy, so I asked her, “hey, honey, would you mind if I put a ball valve and a spigot on the big stock pot?”
Her response: “No, the only thing I ever use that for is making stock and draining it without lifting it would be great!”
So in the next week or so I hope to have an eight gallon boil kettle (slash stock pot) that is equipped to gravity drain through a 3/8 inch ball valve and a five foot length of high temperature food safe tubing. Give me another two months and the whole thing will be hooked up to a 1/25th horsepower high-temperature food safe pump and 20 feet of copper tubing for easy clarification, quick chilling in a sink full of ice water, and pump-it-where-you-need-it distribution.
The hacker’s lesson is to not assume that there must be a purchased solution for every problem you face. And don’t assume that any particular solution you do have cannot be further tweaked and improved.
Every hack involves a hurdle of fear – of taking a drill bit to a piece of stainless steel cookware, of bricking an iPhone, of screwing up a perfectly good whatever-it-was and turning it into useless crap.
But there is also a conviction, the product of a belief in the power of experts and the relentless efforts of marketing, that purchased products were designed by professionals and must, therefore, be superior to anything an amateur could rustle up. That’s true to a point – to the part about being designed by professionals. But not necessarily about being better than what you could concoct. The professionals designing that…whatever-it-is…aimed for it to have the broadest possible appeal to the largest number of people and not to meet the specific needs of you and your situation.
Igloo didn’t design that cooler for homebrewers. Nor did they design it for people having corporate picnics in Issaquah. Nor did they design it for people car camping in Eastern Washington, or for sports teams needing a Gatoraid refresh at half time, or for preserving organs for transplantation or any of the thousand other uses that people probably put these things to.
They designed it to be at-least-OK for every one of those users – so that Igloo coolers would sell better than Gott coolers. Ok, homebrewing and organ transplantation may not have actually been on the spec sheet, but you get the idea. A mass distributed product will almost always target competence in a broad range of areas in preference to excellence in one area. Sometimes products focus on niche markets or pursue deliberate brand differentiation, but on the whole a philosophy of good-enough for as-many-as-possible pervades.
So go ahead and grab a drill bit. Get your hands on a multi-kilowatt 2.4 GHz traveling wave tube amplifier. Don’t accept a product designed for the mean user. Create something built for you.
Keep your eyes open for products designed for one application that can swing over to an unanticipated new area – like this French-press-turned-mash-tun from Homebrew Hooligans and Punk Domestics. Sometimes a little work might be needed – but all the more cause to celebrate as more of your own cleverness comes in to play!
These are hacks: clever engineering, outside of the box solutions, transforming technology across disciplines. Ingenuity – not the brute forces of scale, money or power – applied to bring about a solution.
I’ve hacked Igloo coolers, stainless steel pots, sound systems, surplus Atari power supplies, iPhones, Perl scripts, vintage radios, electric guitars, PBXs, Linux laptops, domestic wiring, PVC piping, power tools, baby swings and who knows what else.