Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Grainfather: Review - Justin Field - Salt City Brew Supply

As a home brewer who likes gadgets I often dreamed of building my own automated system. Then the Grainfather came along and ruined that dream because my dream cost way more money and
the design didn't look as sexy.

The Grainfather is an electric PID controlled all grain brewing unit designed and distributed by
Imake Ltd, located in New Zealand. There was a successful kickstarter campaign, yay crowd
funding, and the Grainfather was brought to market. It is advertised as an all-in-one brewing system and is available for $899 which makes it about $800 cheaper than it's closest “equivalent” the Speidel Braumeister.

On February 19th, 2016 I received my tax refund and proudly walked into Salt City Brew Supply to
purchase the Grainfather unit that I spent many a Sunday shift fondling and secretly kissing when
the other employee's had their back turned. One cannot just purchase a Grainfather without an introductory batch of beer and fortunately there was an extra batch sitting in the back of the shop waiting for one of us to take it home. With both items firmly in hand I hurried home to unpack the sexy silver mistress from it's container.

Upon first glance it is a pretty basic machine. Stainless steel and plastic make up the majority of
the parts with a few silicone pieces here and there. There are machining marks on some pieces,
nothing that concerns me. If it ain't ugly, it ain't pretty. It's light, coming in at only 22 lbs and
takes up less space than my old 3 vessel system. It is made up of an 8 gallon outer tank that is both
the boil kettle and the mash tun. There is an inner vessel with a grated bottom and top with an
inner tube to hold the grain during mash. A 6 watt 1800 rpm pump handles all the movement of
liquid, a counter flow wort chiller takes care of cooling, and of course the digital PID controller
than handles temperature regulation. As I began assembly I noticed that the system is put together
with quite a bit of thought, showing a well engineered piece of brewing furniture that does not cost
much more than a homemade three vessel system. One thing I do need to mention is that even
though it is advertised as “all in one,” it still requires the use of a hot liquor tank to heat and
distribute the sparge water (for a 5 gallon batch). That was my one point of hesitance when making the decision to purchase the Grainfather, but decided the benefits outweighed the need for an extra pot. Also I make a lot of fancy stocks so I will put an additional 7 gallon pot to good use. Also I already had a brew kettle. Also it comes in handy later in the Grainfather process.
I am one to rush putting things together without reading the instructions fully. 5 years of working
for Ikea makes me almost an expert at figuring out convoluted systems. I became frustrated when
putting together the Grainfather, but it was my own fault for thinking it was a complex device.
Relax, have a home brew, read the instructions, watch a YouTube video, and if you still can't get
things together a little grain dust or water helps lubricate the seals that are prone to popping off
during assembly.

Once assembly was complete I filled the unit with 4 gallons of water, turned it on, tested the pumps, made sure the controller was calibrated, and timed the various stages of heating and cooling for reference later on. Everything worked swimmingly. I gave things a quick scrub down
with PBW and a rinse and she was ready to get the first batch going! The Grainfather uses special math to calculate mash volumes that's a little different than the well known 1.25 quarts per pound of grain most home brewers use as a starting point. With the help of some 'maths' provided in the manual I determined that my 11.68 pound batch needed 4.8 gallons of mash water, coming to approximately 1.68 quarts per pound. I was curious so I played with some
theoretical batch sizes to see if that was consistent for the purposes of programming Beersmith and determined that no, it was not consistent. I saw a variance of 1.65 to 1.78 quarts per pound dependent upon the total weight of the grain. There is a handy calculator on the Grainfather
website and it doesn't look too difficult to create an excel sheet to determine these numbers. I filled the outer container, decided on a strike temp of 152*F, assembled the grain vessel as described, lowered it into the unit, set the PID controller to the desired temperature, and flicked the appropriate switches. I put the recirculating arm on and turned the pump on as well. The instructions did not specify this but my brain seemed to convince me I would get a more consistent temperature throughout the vessel if I did this. The mash water was at strike temperature within 10 minutes! How exciting!

At first it appeared there wasn't going to be enough water in the grain vessel to successfully dough in the grain. I put my faith in the Grainfather and went ahead with it anyway. While stirring out the dry pockets it seemed a little thicker than I'm used to but everything looked and smelled like it
should. I assumed by recirculating the mash, the grain would stay plenty hydrated during the process. I placed the lid and the recirculation arm on, turned on the pump, and set my timer for 60 minutes. At first the mash was cloudy, but it quickly cleared up as it was filtered through the grain. It was easily the clearest wort I've ever produced. I made one mistake during this step and did not realize that the ball valve under the recirculation arm can be used to control the flow of the wort. The liquid was flowing so fast it was ending up dropping down the overflow tube in the middle of the mash, rather than running through the grain. I'm sure enough of it made it through the grain, but in the future I plan to dial the speed back slightly to encourage more filtering. One thing to get out of the way now, is that the PID controller is not entirely automatic. You must manually change the temperature if you plan to step mash. It's pretty simple and took no more than 10 seconds of my time to set the mash out temperature. Ten minutes later I was successfully mashed out and ready to sparge.

My initial hesitance with purchasing the Grainfather was the fact I needed an additional vessel to
heat and hold sparge water. You can't really claim the title of an “all in one” brewing system if
you need an additional piece of equipment to make total use of it. However, the system and it's
footprint in my one bedroom apartment has far exceeded expectations and the additional pot isn't
even an inconvenience.

To sparge with the grain father one turns off the pump, turns off the heating element, removes the lid and recirculation arm, and lifts the inner vessel slowly out. They include a handy handle that latches to holes on the vessel to aid in lifting. It's a bit of weight on 12lbs of grain so I recommend going slowly. The unit may not be appropriate for folks that cannot lift a lot of weight. As you lift and the wort drains and it gets easier, so just take it slowly. Once you lift the inner vessel to the top, you just turn it 90 degrees and the welded feet rest comfortably on the inner rim to allow the remaining wort to drain. Sparge water is calculated using a formula based on your original volumes so be sure to write those down! I needed 3.5 gallons to sparge this batch. You'll need to use the formula because it's impossible to see inside of the kettle with the grain vessel sitting on top. A fair complaint, but I had hope these guys knew what they were doing. I was too excited to start brewing that I didn't take into account building a rest to keep the sparge kettle above the
Grainfather so I just poured in the water by hand. Sparging went very quick, a byproduct of hand pouring and the huge surface area of the false bottom. After the last of the wort drained, I placed the sparge pot on the floor and put the inner vessel inside of it to catch drips as I began the next step.
Exactly 6.5 gallons of wort in the kettle! That sparge volume formula really worked! I took a gravity reading on my refractometer and I missed my gravity by a mile. Efficiency was calculated at only 53.2%. I damn neared cried. “Why Grainfather?! Why?!” Good thing I take notes! After reading through them I noticed that the loss of efficiency was less about the Grainfather and more about me 1.) Running the mash circulation too quickly, 2.) Sparging WAY too quickly, and 3.) Sparging at too low of a temperature. My sparge thermometer was off by about 10*F. Always make sure your equipment is calibrated!

To boil one only needs to flick the switch to boil. This bypasses the PID and fires the coil at full
power. From 154*F to 204*F(boiling temperature in Salt Lake City) it only took 45 minutes, a
little less time than my stove. I expected it to take a lot longer so I walked away to start typing this
review and came back to a near boil over. It was epically exciting! I used brew on an electric
stove and the strength of the boil was far more than I was used to so I was happy with that. I set
my time and did my hop additions as I had planned them. It was a pretty uneventful, in a good
way, boil.

After the boil comes the cooling stage. The Grainfather comes with a lovely counter flow chiller. It's easy to setup and they include every possible fitting you might need to attach it to a water
source. You place the lid on the unit, the chiller rests on top of that, you feed the outflow tube
back into the Grainfather, and attach the inflow to the pump. Make sure the outflow tube is
partially submerged in the wort, otherwise you risk oxidation of hot wort. Run the hot wort
through the chiller for 5 minutes or so to sanitize it. After five minutes start your cold water flow.
One additional note on cooling:
Do not allow the outflow tube to sit on the
bottom of the kettle, suspend it just
inside the top of the wort.
If it touches the bottom of the kettle
the cold wort settles there tricking the
thermometer into thinking
it has cooled completely,
while the top portion remains hot.

The chiller cools the wort and pumps the cold wort back into the vessel cooling the whole thing down, in a closed system, in about 10 minutes. The controller conveniently displays the temperature and you can watch it drop for fun! It cools so well that when I came back 15 minutes later, I was reading 58*F, way too cold for my yeast. I had to turn the hot water on and recirculate a little longer to bring it back up to temp. When you are ready to transfer, just turn the pump off, move the outflow tube to your fermentation bucket, turn the pump back on, and in 5 minutes later the wort is ready to be pitched. Go Grainfather!  After I made sure the beer was safely tucked away, it was time to clean this beast. Cleaning up after brewing is one thing I really dislike and on my old setup, I would clean at every step ensuring that I was working the entire 4-5 hour brew day. I was amazed at how easy the Grainfather
cleaned up! I dumped the trub out of the unit, removed, rinsed, replaced the pump filter, filled the unit with 3 gallons of water, 1 oz of PBW, and replaced the lid and counter flow chiller. Set the temp to 132*F, turned the pump on and walked away for 5 minutes. I didn't really walk away, I dumped grain out of the inner vessel(easy) and washed it in the sink, took 2 minutes at most. After five minutes I removed the chiller and ran some water through it to remove the cleaner, quickly scrubbed the inside of the unit with a sponge, dumped the water, filled with 3 gallons cold water, and ran the pump through the recirculation arm for 10 minutes, and then dumped it out. Viola! It was clean.

Overall it was an absolute pleasure brewing on the Grainfather! So much so I'm planning to brew again tomorrow. This time I will take my time sparing and make sure my flow settings are proper to see if I can work out some of the efficiency issues. It is easy and intuitive to use, the documentation is detailed and informative, cleaning is simple, engineering and workmanship are apparent, and most importantly it makes beer entirely in the footprint of a 10 gallon Rubbermaid mash tun.

In conclusion The Grainfather is not a Speidel Braumeister, it is not a PicoBrew, it is not a fully
automated all in one brewing system. It is a very affordable, very functional, and very exceptional
BIAB based system that is fun and easy to brew on. It does the job it advertises and it does it for
50% less than it's nearest competitor. I am happy with my purchase and plan to brew often on my
Grainfather system. If you lack brewing space and want to improve the consistency of your beer
then the Grainfather is for you.

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