Choosing a Mash Tun Part 1: Insulated Mash Tuns

One of the most important pieces of equipment is the Mash Tun.  There are a couple of different types of mash tuns like insulated or converted kettles, which one is right for you?

We decided to take a look at both insulated and converted kettle mash tuns.  This post we will specifically look at the insulated mash tuns.  Since we are building a 20 gal system we took a look at the 20 gal insulated mash tuns for the comparisons.  Currently (as of July 2016) the more popular manufacturers that are being purchased and discussed (on home brew forums) are  Ss Brewtech and Chapman Brewing. We are going to look at each of the insulated mash tuns and compare the major feature sets of each. Those feature sets will be the Material its made of, where the product is manufactured, the physical features of the mash tun, the accessories that are included and the cost.

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Material

We covered the importance of material in the Kettle comparison but we will reiterate it here because of its importance and that its commonly over looked or just assumed. The most common insulated mash tuns are manufactured using Stainless Steel, however, there are multiple grades of Stainless Steel. 201, 304 and 316 are the most common and are ranked from lowest grade to highest grade respectively. Comparing the Mash Tuns: Chapman Brewing is made with 201 while Ss Brewtech is made with 304.  ALL major home brewing and commercial brewing manufacturers use 304 Stainless Steel. It is the industry standard. In my opinion, this takes Chapman Brewing out of the competition as it really cannot be compared to the rest as its a lower grade Stainless Steel. 201 has lower amounts of Nickel and Chromium which are the elements that make stainless steel corrosion resistant. That’s why you see 304 used more in marine applications, its more corrosion resistant than 201. 201 is about 30% stronger than 304 however it is harder to form and weld. You will see 201 used in the restaurant business because its cost effective. However, 304 Stainless is used across the entire brewing industry. From the big commercial producers like Stone, Budweiser, Sierra Nevada down to the home brew manufacturers like Spike, Ss Brewtech, Bru-Gear and Blichmann.

Chapman Brewing Ss BrewTech
201 ss 304 ss

Origin of Manufacturing

Honestly, everything these days is manufactured over seas. Mash Tuns are no different. Chapman and Ss BrewTech all manufacturer their equipment over in China and have it shipped here to the US.

Chapman Brewing Ss BrewTech
China China

 

Features

The mash tun features are what we really want to compare.  We are going to go through each manufacturer and list out the features that they have on their mash tuns as well as compare them with each other.  The most important features of the mash tun are actual volume, false bottom design and draining, heating source, number of ports and volume markings.  Each manufacturer has some additional details or nice to haves which we will list out as well.

Chapman

Chapman Brewing Thermobarrels are made from dual walled 201 stainless steel with a foam insulation. This mash tun does not support direct heat from an external heat source.  The lid is insulated as well and has a handle that is recessed into the lid. The lid also has 3 clips/latches so that you can securely tighten the lid onto the vessel.  The handles on the mash tun are positioned on the sides and are collapsible.  There are 3 ports on the mash tun, one for the 1/2″NPT 2pc ball valve which comes standard, a port that is plugged for a thermometer, and a port that is plugged for recirculation which is positioned about 2 inches from the top on the front. There are no volume markings inside the mash tun, however, looking at the height it seem as if the mash tun can hold 20 gal maybe right up to the rim.  As for draining and filtering, the ThermoBarrel comes standard with a torpedo tube which is simply a braided stainless steel tube. Chapman does offer an upgrade to a domed false bottom with a center pickup.  The false bottom, however, does not fit across the entire bottom of the mash tun.

Ss BrewTech

Ss BrewTech’s InfuSsion Mash Tun is made from dual walled 304 stainless steel with a foam insulation. This mash tun does not support direct heat from a flame but does support heat from their optional accessory the MTSS (Mash Tun Temp Controller and Heating Pad). The lid is insulated as well and has a silicone coated handle.  The handles on the mash tun are positioned front and back and are riveted and also silicone coated.  There are 3 ports on the mash tun, one for the 1/2″ NPT 3pc ball valve which is included, a port for the LCD thermometer which is included, and a port that is plugged for recirculation  which is positioned about 2 inches from the top on the side.  Volume markings are etched and go up to 20 gallons at 1 gallon intervals. Total mash tun volume is around 22-23 gallons.  The InfuSsion Mash Tun has a 5 degree slopped bottom with a center drain that allows for no dead space. The center drain also provides a more uniform rinse of the grain which will provide a better efficiency of extraction.  The false bottom sits across the entire bottom of the mash tun and has a silicone gasket to form a tight seal to the walls of the tun.  This ensures that all wort must travel through the false bottom in order to be drained out the center drain.  The InfuSsion Mash Tun also includes a manometer.  A manometer is a way of measuring pressure differential, in this case the pressure difference below and above the false bottom.  As a brewer, this allows you to monitor your flow rate and prevent stuck sparges.  This mash tun was definitely engineered to perform.

Chapman Brewing Ss BrewTech
 Volume 20 gal 22-23 gal
 False Bottom  Upgrade. Small Domed Full with Handle and Gasket
 Drain  Single side from center pickup Center Conical
 Heat Source No No. MTSS Optional heat source
 Volume Markings No Etched 20gal at 1gal intervals
 Ports 3 3
 Handles Fold-able Riveted with Silicon Grip

 

Lets take a deeper look into Chapman vs Ss BrewTech and really compare the features between the two.

Volume & Markings

Right off the bat Chapman’s ThermoBarrel does not have volume markings, Ss BrewTech’s does and goes up to 20 gal at 1 gal increments.  As far as total volume of the mash tun, Ss BrewTech has some more head space after the 20 gal marking which probably puts the total volume around 22-23 gal.  Chapman’s does not, without the volume markings its hard to tell the total volume but looking at the height and size of the mash tuns next to each other its clear that Ss BrewTech holds more volume.  Chapman’s is probably 20 gal to the rim.

IMG_4669 20160726_082128

Lid

Both Ss BrewTech and Chapman’s lids are insulated.  Chapman has a pretty cool design that includes 3 hooks and latches where you can lock the lid down on the vessel.  One thing we did notice about the design though is that it can be annoying to get all 3 hooks and latches lined up to lock down.  Chapman’s lid has a recessed handle while Ss BrewTech has a welded handle with a Silicone Grip.  I am personally not a fan of the handle design on Chapmans lid,  its a tight fit to get may fat hand in there to grab the handle.  The great thing about Ss BrewTech’s handle and lid is that you can hang the lid on the side handles.  Chapman’s you cannot do that.  The Ss BrewTech lid also weighs a bit more and has a cleaner look than the Chapman lid.

IMG_4624 20160726_082236

False Bottom / Filtration

This is where there are remarkable differences between the two companies.  Chapman’s ThermoBarrel does not include a false bottom, it comes with a torpedo tube.  Torpedo tubes to me are a cheap easy way to get the job done but are not efficient.  Chapman does offer a false bottom for upgrade for $50 but what does that get you? It gets you a 10″ domed false bottom that does not even cover the entire bottom of the Mash Tun.   When the false bottom doesn’t cover the entire bottom of the mash tun you have portions of the grain bed that just sit stagnant.  The wort that is being run through the grain will channel more through the center leaving sections of the bottom outer edge of the grain bed under utilized thus lowering your efficiency and extraction levels.  The entire point of upgrading a mash tun is to increase efficiency and temperature control.  Chapman succeeds in the later with doing a nice job maintaining temperature.  Ss BrewTech’s InfuSsion Mash Tun is completely on the the other side of the spectrum.  First, the base of the mash tun has a 5 degree sloped conical bottom with a center drain which provides NO dead space.  That means you can run every ounce of water out of the mash tun (although you wouldn’t ideally want to do that). A false bottom (which is included) is a flat false bottom that has a handle and a silicone gasket that seals against the inner wall.  This ensures that all wort runs through the false bottom for filtering.  Also, with the conical bottom and flat false bottom design you get even filtering across the entire grain bed which will help improve efficiency and extraction levels.  Ss BrewTech had really thought this through and designed an awesome vessel.

IMG_4629 20160726_082219

Handles

The handles on these are very different.  They are of a swinging type that can lay flat compared to Ss BrewTech’s which are riveted on and have a silicon grip. You can also hang the lid on the handles of Ss BrewTech. Chapman you cannot. If I had to move a full mash tun with grist inside, I think the Chapman handles would not be comfortable and id be nervous if they would hold.  That is my assumption and was not tested so come to your own conclusions on that.

IMG_4627 20160726_082247

Direct Heating

Both units do not support direct heat from fire or induction, however, Ss BrewTech has a removable bottom plate that allows you to install their MTSS system.  The MTSS is a temperature control unit that connects to a heating pad which is attached to the bottom of the vessel and will aid in keeping the temperature of the mash within 2 degrees of the set temp.   Granted with an insulated mash tun you are only loosing maybe 1-3 degrees over the course of an hour, but this is an awesome feature should you be interested in doing kettle sours or sour mash beers.  The MTSS however does not support increasing temperature for doing things like step mashes. Chapman does not have an accessory that does that.

IMG_4635 IMG_4638

Weight and Quality

Comparing the two mash tuns it honestly night and day difference. Ss BrewTech’s InfuSsion Mash Tun is heavier and just feels a lot more robust. The finish on Ss BrewTech is nicer and the attention to detail and thought behind each component is unbelievable. When I saw Chapman’s ThermoBarrel in a stand alone the product looked great, but when it was placed next to Ss Brewtech it did make the Champan unit look a bit cheaper. The bottom of this ThermoBarrel was severely dented and had this white powder substance falling out of it which could have been a product of shipping or misuse. That being said the fact that it dented that bad makes me wonder how thick the stainless walls are. The area around the ports looks like they are bent from the plugs. I cant tell you if this is a design or a defect as all the photos I have seen of the Chapman ThermoBarrels have this, but it makes it look like it was bent from over tightening.

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Included Accessories

Some manufacturers include accessories such as ball valves and thermometers and some don’t.  Lets take a look at what each manufacturer provides with their base purchase price.

Chapman

Chapman includes a 2pc ball valve and a torpedo tube for the filtration.  Those who aren’t familiar with a torpedo tube, its basically a stainless steel braided line that is connected to a pickup tube. They are a cheap quick way to filter for a mash tun, however, they are not efficient at all and leave a lot of dead space.

Ss BrewTech

Ss BrewTech includes a 3pc ball valve, a digital LCD thermometer, a manometer for measure pressure differential and a false bottom with a sealing silicone gasket.

Chapman Brewing Ss BrewTech
 3pc Ball Valve No 2pc Yes
 Thermometer  No Yes
 False Bottom  No torpedo tube Yes
 Manometer No Yes

Cost

Cost sometimes can be confusing because its like comparing apples and oranges some times.  Each manufacturer has a base price but that price can include accessories or it could not.  So you have to sit there and try and figure out which one you are getting a better deal on.  Well we are going to look at cost 2 ways.  First we are going to look at the price that the manufacturers base price.  Those prices are with what accessories are included by the manufacturer (see above section for included accessories). All of the manufacturers we are comparing offer Free Shipping with your purchase.

Chapman Brewing Ss BrewTech
$429.99 $550.00

 

Next we will build the mash tuns to be identical so we can see the price difference.  This will include a 3pc ball valve,  a thermometer, a manometer and a false bottom. All of this is included in the price for Ss BrewTech. For Chapman Brewing you would need to upgrade to the 3pc ball valve ($5), buy a domed false bottom ($50) and buy a thermometer ($15). As for a manometer, Chapman Brewing’s ThermoBarrel does not support one and looking at the design would be very hard to rig one up on it.

Chapman Brewing Ss BrewTech
 Base Price  $429.99  $550.00
 3pc Ball Valve $5 inc.
 Thermometer  $15 inc.
 False Bottom  $50 inc.
 Manometer n/a inc.
 Total Price  $499.99+ $550.00

 

Looking at the prices to me Ss Brewtech stands out for the fact that you are getting  304 stainless instead of 201 stainless.  For $50 you are getting a manometer as well as better engineered features like the conical bottom and false bottom.  When investing this amount of money into equipment Id rather spend the extra $50 for the all around better quality and better engineered product, that again is just my personal opinion.

 

Summary

Here is a summary table of everything we looked at for the mash tuns in one easy to read place.  Hopefully this will help you make a decision on which insulated mash tun is right for you.  It sure did for us!  In our next post we are going to take a look at converted kettle mash tuns.

Chapman Brewing Ss BrewTech
 Material 201 ss 304 ss
 Origin China  China
 Drain Single side from center pickup Center Conical
 Handles  Foldable (Sides) Riveted (Front Back)
 Heat Source No No. MTSS Optional heat source
 Volume Markings  No 20 gal Etched
 Mash Tun Volume  20 gal 22 -23 gal
 Ports  3 3
 Ball Valve 2pc inc. 3pc inc.
 Thermometer not inc. inc.
 False Bottom  Not inc. Torpedo Tube inc.
 Manometer not available inc.
 Base Price $429.99 $550.00
 Price with Accessories  $499.99+ $550.00