Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Grainfather Review

A few months ago, I received a cryptic text from one of our friends at Dr. Jeckyll's Beer Lab:


I had no idea who the Grainfather was, why I was being informed of his arrival at 11PM on a weeknight, or why all of a sudden I felt like some kind of craft beer mafioso was about to exact revenge on me for some reason. Fuhgeddaboudit.

The next morning, I swung by the Lab to brew an all-grain clone of Weihenstaphan Hefeweissbier with my brew-in-a-bag setup. I greeted the homebrew shop guru, Scott Cooper, with a smile and a wave only to find an even bigger smile on his face. It turns out that the text I received the previous night wasn't a warning for me to make like a tree and leaf; I had just stumbled upon the opportunity to brew my first all-in-one electric beer.

The Grainfather is an all-in-one electric brewing system that allows the brewer to mash, sparge, boil, chill, and transfer within a compact footprint using a standard electrical outlet and sink faucet. It takes each component of a traditional all-grain brew setup and incorporates it into a single vessel, complete with temperature control, counter-flow wort chiller, and even a pump!

Yours truly and Scott Cooper of Dr. Jeckyll's Beer Lab
in Pantego, TX (Arlington)

I have to admit, it was like Christmas in July. I don't think I stopped smiling at all that day. Another Dr. Jeckyll regular, Tod, had unboxed and assembled the Grainfather with Scott the night before, so all that was left was to get to brewin'! For those of you brewing along at home, here's the recipe:

Grain bill
5lb Pilsner Malt
5lb Wheat Malt
8oz Rice hulls

Mash
90 min @ 154F

Hops
2oz Tettnang (2.5% alpha acid) @ 60 min

Yeast
WLP351 Bavarian Hefeweizen, ferment at approx. 68F for 7-10 days

Kegged & carbonated @ 35PSI for 2 days, bled CO2 & repressurized to about 10PSI for serving

OG 1.048, FG 1.007, 5.4% ABV


There are several great step-by-step reviews of the Grainfather on YouTube and other places, so I'll leave each of you to your own preferred search engines for those. This post is about a few things I learned while using the Grainfather that I believe have helped me brew better beer.

We heated up our strike water with the use of the "high wattage" switch. Normally, this is only used in boil mode, but we figured we could get to strike temperature quicker. We were right, and we mashed in about 20 minutes after adding the water. Switching back to "low wattage," we doughed in and realized that the 90 minute mash would be a good opportunity for a little refreshment. Dr. Jeckyll's Beer lab is not only the finest homebrew shop in Pantego, they offer 40 taps of delicious and often rare craft beer from across America and the world.

Apparently, this was our first mistake. You see, beer has this thing called alcohol which may impair your memory, judgement, manual dexterity, speech, and memory. I have since taken a leaf out of Shannon Carter's book and decided to delay imbibing until cleanup time. I did however manage to take good notes throughout the process in order to be able to repeat the brew in the future. These two things can vastly improve the quality of your homebrew without ever having to spend another dime on equipment.

Our second mistake came when we realized at the end of the 90 minute mash that the reason our mash temperature had fluctuated so much was because we never turned the pump on for recirculation. That's kind of the main point of having the pump. Had we turned that sucker on, the mash liquid would have been continuously filtering through the grain, extracting more and more sugar as time ticked on, thus clarifying the wort before the boil and utilizing the grain to its maximum potential. This method is called RIMS - Recirculating Infusion Mash System. Instead, we were about 5 points shy of where we should have been for a pre-boil specific gravity reading. Whatever, we dumped some DME in and proceeded to boil.

Bringing her up to a boil

With the relatively light hop charge, there were not too many other opportunities for the bumpy maiden voyage of the Grainfather until it came time to cool the wort. The counterflow chiller is designed to connect to the pump and continuously pump hot wort through copper coils cooled by tap water. We went a step further and added another wort chiller to a bucket of ice water between the faucet and the counter flow chiller for an augmented cooling effect. While this is a good time-saving technique, we learned that it's still important to stir the wort while it's being cooled. We ended up with the temperature probe sitting at the bottom of the kettle reading several degrees below the liquid at the top of the kettle.

No problem there, just stir it a little, right? What could possibly go wrong? Apparently, the pump has a small filter just inside the bottom of the kettle which is basically a perforated stainless steel tube. The safety engineer at Grainfather decided the sharp edges at the end of the filter should be protected by a flexible silicone cap. While I'm thankful that the filter didn't fly out of the kettle of its own volition and slit my or Scott's throat at any point during the brew day, I am rather displeased with how easily this cap can be knocked off by the requisite stirring motion. We ended up with a few errant grains getting into the pump and restricting the flow, which led to a longer than normal chill phase.

Cleanup was simple and quick with the help
of the on-board pump

At the end of the day, beer had been made, so let us rejoice and be glad. I would definitely recommend purchasing a Grainfather brewing system if you are in the market and have the means. Here is a pro and con list based on my personal experiences to help your buying decision:

Pros

Very small footprint: great for low profile storage or for those of y'all that might live and brew in an apartment
Ease of use: if you read the instructions (2 minutes worth), it's as simple as flipping a couple switches
Predictability: the same process is used, regardless of the beer you're brewing, so the only thing changing is your recipe
Cleaning is a snap: just recirculate warm water with PBW or a similar cleaner for about 10 minutes, then rinse for 5 minutes
It's electric: very low risk of scorching your sugars with a normal amount of stirring.
Efficiency of design: the mash is contained within an inner cylinder with a false bottom. Once the mash is over, hoist the inner cylinder to the rim of the kettle, and small feet suspend the mash over the kettle while you sparge. That way, you can flip the switch to boil and quickly heat up the wort as it filters through the grain bed. This can save a lot of time.

Cons

Not really a con, but RTFM: Seriously, they've all but idiot-proofed the system and a quick glance at the instructions will take all the guess work out of operation
Pump filter cap: I bet they could make it a lot harder to remove if they tried
It's electric: if you're brewing in the middle of the storm of the century or off the grid in a cabin in the woods somewhere, you'll need a backup generator
Sparge water: You'll need to heat your sparge water on a stove somewhere since the kettle is going to be in use at that point
A little pricey: Dr. Jeckyll's has about as good a price as anyone currently selling (especially when you factor in picking it up locally versus shipping costs), but it's still a little on the high side. You may consider putting your old system on Craigslist to offset the cost.

The Weihenstephaner clone accompanying a
berlinerweisse and special editions of the RIS

I brewed a porter on the system the following week with a much higher degree of success. Both beers turned out great, and I can easily say that the Grainfather allowed a much more enjoyable and less physically demanding brew day. If you'd like to try out the system for yourself, stop by Dr. Jeckyll's Beer Lab in Pantego (Arlington), and ask Scott to set up a Saturday brew session. I might even poke my head in the door and see what kind of shenanigans I can get us into!

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