Want safer cars? NI LabVIEW software can help. Improved physical therapy systems? LabVIEW can help there, too. A well-balanced winter ale? LabVIEW has you covered.
Recently, NI systems engineer and longtime homebrewing enthusiast Ben Black forged his two passions and debuted his automated brewing system at NIWeek 2012. It turned out to be one of the most popular demos on the floor. Black sat down with NI News to share his thoughts on how a brew floor is like a steel mill and why automating your hobbies may be the key to happiness.
Why did you decide to automate your brew process?
My wife and I have a two year old. When I found out she was pregnant, I realized that my hobbies were either going to disappear, or they needed to become more efficient. So I started trying to automate my brewing from scratch. I’d built a temperature control system for an electric smoker and a kegerator, starting with the microcontroller and the PCB—I thought about doing that with the brew system, but then someone recommended that I just use NI hardware. Most of it was products that didn’t pass inspections. You can get that stuff if you know the right people, look in the right recycle bins on the right days. So that’s how I got the first system scrapped together.
[+] Enlarge ImageA fledgling rig.
What NI products did you use to automate the system?
LabVIEW gave me the ability to bring all my hardware together nicely. I also grabbed different C-Series modules to fit the I/O needs I had, which meant if I needed a different functionality, I could just switch out one module for another. The ability to use off-the-shelf stuff and not have to spin boards or waste time like that was really nice.
Then we could do things like add web services, so I could see what the temperature of my brew was while I was sitting on the couch. I maybe could have done it with another platform, but it wouldn’t have been as easy.
Do other brewers use these tools, or do they take a more classic approach?
The average homebrewer doesn’t automate much. There is a community that uses an Arduino board, but I don’t know anyone that does it.
What has automating improved?
Well, now I can walk away in the middle of the process and nothing blows up. With a two year old running around, (and he runs everywhere)—I can pause the process and come back. I guess that even saved me more time. Now, instead of having to set aside a whole day, I can just do it in one evening. It takes up less space, and it just doesn’t need as much babysitting.
Has automating affected the quality of the beer?
Maybe a little bit. It was a little more consistent. I’m still waiting for a tap to open up on my kegerator.
Do you look at every hobby through the eyes of an engineer?
I pretty much approach everything in life as a project that needs to be solved. It’s a pretty normal engineering mindset. The world is just a series of problems that needs to be solved.
[+] Enlarge ImageBlack, testing an automated brew.
What’s the biggest problem you ran into?
Well, there was a big difference between the model that was showing at NIWeek and the model that I used at home. We used different pumps and valves—one had to constantly run, which isn’t normal. Probably getting the demo ready in that compressed time frame was the hardest. But it got a lot of interest!
What’s your favorite local brew?
I like Real Ale. I think they have the best scope of beer. I like the Pecan Porter from 512. I’m a dark beer fan. I brew mostly dark beers, because there are a lot fewer good dark beer options on the market. I’m always making porters and browns and ambers. My favorite beer is a porter that I brew with bourbon and oak chips.
I once saw chocolate milk stout. What’s the strangest beer you’ve come across?
I think it’s kind of odd when people put spices with beer—jalapeño, habanero, that kind of thing. There’s one guy I brew with that puts lemongrass in his wheat beer, but it’s actually kind of nice. The trendy thing for the last five years was bitter beers—who can make the strongest IPA. I’m not a big IPA fan. I’m glad to see that trend dying. But sour beers are emerging. I like those. They’re pretty weird and different.
Could this sort of process be applied to anything that’s not smoking chickens or making beer?
It’s a typical embedded process control application. Fundamentally, it’s no different than, say, a chemical plant. You’re just opening valves, reading temperatures, and adjusting pressures based off your data. One of my friends from grad school builds steel mills. The fancy automated process-controlled ones. We talk about the similarities between that and my homebrewing. There are a lot of the same concerns that come up in his work. High temperatures, safety concerns, electricity, gas, fires—really, just the same thing.
What’s your wife think of the hobby?
She just kind of shakes her head. She doesn’t really like beer.
Interviewed by: Joelle Pearson
Reader Comments | Submit a comment »
@David "I wonder if we are taking the fun
(hard work) out of home brewing?"
That's the number one reason that I
didn't want to automate more of the
process. I still like mixing the grain,
opening valves, turning on pumps,
dumping in hops, etc, etc. If I automated
more of the process, I think I would feel a
little too detached. The goal is to make
the system easier to use and more time
efficient while making it so that I can walk
away without it blowing up.
With that in mind, my big addition that I'm
working on right now is to add some
PWM automation to reduce the potential
of boilover. Basically I'll run it at 100%
until I get to 195F, back off to 50% as I get
to 210, hold it there for 5-ish min for the
hot break, and finally crank it back up to
70% for a nice rolling boil. I've been
doing this by hand, and am still working
out the details.
@Mark "I don't suppose you'd like to
share some of the code?"
I actually just posted my code on the blog
that's now linked in the article. I'd be
interested in hearing any feedback if you
get a chance to try any of it out.
@katic003 "I chose Brewtroller."
That's a really nice set of hardware and
software. I actually defined my sbRIO
daughter board as a combination of my
earlier generation of brewery controller
(based on cRIO), the brewtroller and my
wish list of IO. As a hobbyist, the sbRIO
and custom daughter board would have
been a little out of my price range, so it
was nice to have some funding from our
- Ben Black, National Instruments. email@example.com - Nov 13, 2012
I have updated the article to include the link to get more technical details. Sorry about that! Brittany Wilson, NI News Managing Editor
- firstname.lastname@example.org - Nov 12, 2012
Check out the community page for more technical info
In response to McMullan, Ben has a community page with all of the technical content you're looking for: https://decibel.ni.com/content/projects/the-wobbly-boot-pico-brewery?view=blog Perhaps this article should have a link over to his community...
- Nov 8, 2012
LabVIEW Homebrew a good combo
I am also a homebrew fan, research design engineer and LabVIEW programmer, so this story caught my eye. My wife and daughter (21 yrs old) do not like beer, but they accept my hobby with some mumbling. I would like to take this to the next level and automate the rest of the project, the bottling. I wonder if we are taking the fun (hard work) out of home brewing?
- David Neumann, Freelance Research Protos LLC. email@example.com - Oct 27, 2012
NI Hobby Lisc?
The NI software is rather expensive for hobby use. When I started to automate my 20 gallon home brew system, I considered NI. I chose Brewtroller, an open source project written in the Arduino IDE.
- firstname.lastname@example.org - Oct 17, 2012
Greatest use of LabView ever!
As a home brewer myself I would really like to duplicate your system. Also I agree with your dislike of IPA's. IPA's are for the young inexperienced palate that thinks a beer has to taste strong to be strong. It is really nice to see that fad dying.
- email@example.com - Oct 16, 2012
OK The first thought that came to me after reading this article was. . . Build This- Not That
- Jeff Bohrer, Jeff Bohrer. firstname.lastname@example.org - Oct 16, 2012
As a homebrewer myself I found your rig very interesting. Especially since I'm thinking of automating my rig. Of course using Labview crossed my mind though using NI hardware is a little out of my budget.. I don't suppose you'd like to share some of the code?
- Mark Stolowski, Gardner Denver, Thomas Products Div.. email@example.com - Oct 16, 2012
No engineering content?
This is a fantastic project. Like me, Ben appears to be one of those folk who isn't just an engineer 9am-5pm. The only think stopping me using NI parts on my own hobbies (which include beermaking and woodturning among others) is their expense. I clearly just don't "know the right people." My issue with this article, though, is that it is far too dumbed down. The reader is let with absolutely no idea what Ben did. Ben alludes to the use of a pump, but the interviewer appears more interested in what he has for dinner. After being enthused by the energetic, sensational headline in NI News, I read through the interview, gasping for one small technical snippet. That's a disappointing. 5 minutes of my life I won't be able to get back. Any chance we could see something in NI News written for engineers?
- NI@mcmullanfamily.org.uk - Oct 16, 2012
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