Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Grainfather - Test Run

Running PBW through the Grainfather
In the last post in this series, I showed you the unboxing and assembly of the Grainfather, an all-grain brewing system (pictured at left).  For the most part the assembly is pretty easy to figure out and follow from the instructions provided.

Today, I decided that I wanted to test the Grainfather out using nothing more than cleaning solution and ordinary water.  I didn't want to risk a batch of ingredients to a brewing device I'd never used before. This proved to be a wise move.

Initial Water Test and Cleaning

According to the instruction manual, the Grainfather should cleaned before its first real use.  I've read reviews online where people have tried to brew with it before doing this cleaning step, and their beers tasted terrible.  The manufacturer recommends their own CIP (Clean in Place) solution but says that PBW (Powdered Brewer's Wash) is a good substitute.

I filled the Grainfather with a full 8-gallon load of water and added four ounces of PBW to it.  I then attached the recirculating pipe and switched on the pump to make sure the PBW solution was getting moved around inside the kettle, through the pump, and eventually the counter-flow wort chiller.  I also wanted to be sure nothing was leaking.  All of this took about 30-40 minutes. I had the device heat the water to 131 degrees Fahrenheit as recommended in the manual. There were no leaks, the pump worked fine, and the cleaning solution did eventually reach 131 degrees.  It probably didn't hurt that it was about 85 or 90 outside where I tested it.

Grainfather Control Panel and display - hard to read outdoors
An important note to potential purchasers.  The LED display on the unit is extremely hard to read outdoors.  In late afternoon (early evening) light, I had to cup my hands around the display to create a dark space and stick my face down next to the kettle to see the temperature.  If you're thinking you'll use this outside a lot and you don't have a fair amount of shade, this could be an issue for you.  I did learn that you can take the controller inside (where you can see it), set the temperature, and carry it back outside to use.  The temperature remains set.  That's a "quick fix" if you're using it outdoors.  (Not necessarily very practical, but it works.)

Another thing I noticed is that when you lift the splash guard to get to the controls underneath, the lid pushes up against the bracket the controller is mounted in, lifting the controller up. This isn't a showstopper, but it does make you wonder if (were you not being careful lifting it) you might pop the controller out of the bracket during a boil.

After running the PBW through the system, I pumped the PBW out into a plastic fermenting bucket.  This gave the bucket a nice cleaning as well.  I filled the Grainfather with 8 gallons of clear water and recirculated that a bit, too.  Then I filled it with six gallons and ran that through as well.

Boil Test

At this point, I knew the Grainfather system had no leaks, the pump worked, and the heating element seemed to be heating.  The time seemed right for a boil test.  What I wanted to know was:
  • How long would it take the Grainfather to boil six gallons of water?
  • Over a 60-minute boil time, how much water would be boiled away?
I filled the Grainfather with six gallons of water.  I set the heating element mode switch to "Normal" (the setting you use for a boil, vs. the "Mash" setting for doing an all-grain mash).  I then plugged in the unit and switched the control box to the "Boil" setting.  Looking at my cell phone clock, the time I started this test was 5:38pm.  The water showed as 85 degrees Fahrenheit.  An hour later, the water had only reached 162 degrees Fahrenheit.  Two hours later, just 202.  When I finally gave up on it at 8:12pm (about 210 minutes later) it was still only at 209.
The Mash/Normal Switch on the Grainfather

Since I had plenty of time to waste while waiting, I started looking up reviews of the Grainfather.  None of them seemed to mention how long it took the unit to boil water.  I finally found one from the UK where the reviewer claimed it had reached a boil in 43 minutes.  Mine hadn't boiled in five times that amount of time.  

Toward the end, I decided to try a couple of things to see if they helped.  I tried unplugging the control box, setting the mode switch to Mash (thinking maybe it had been wired backwards at the factory in China) and switching it to boil.  No change in results.  I then tried unplugging the controller, setting it back to Normal, plugging it in, and trying the Boil switch again.  No good.

Wort Chiller Test

Since I had some "almost boiling" water to work with, I decided this would be a good time to try the counter-flow wort chiller.  I set it up, hooked it to our garden hose, and turned on the spigot.  The barbed connector popped out and water began spraying all over the patio.  Clearly our water pressure is too high for this connector to handle. I'll need to do something about that before I try using it on an actual batch of wort.

PBW flowing through the wort chiller during cleaning cycle
Using a lower cold water pressure kept the barb from slipping out.  I then tried pumping the 209-degree water into the chiller.  I opened the valve on the side of the kettle a small amount to allow only a little "simulated wort" though it.  Cold water from the garden hose went the other way.  The wort coming out of the "cold" end was hot enough to (mildly) burn my hands when I touched it.  Clearly the counter-flow chiller needs a lot of cold water pressure and you need to dial the valve on the hot wort back to a an even lower flow than I was using.  These are things I'll need to address before actually making a beer with the Grainfather.

Last, it's important to note also that the valve on the discharge tube where hot wort is recirculated through the device or out through the wort chiller is made of metal.  When hot wort is flowing through the tube, this valve will heat up - a lot.  Be careful to use gloves to protect your hands when you adjust that valve during use.  
Next Steps

I reached out to the manufacturer to ask if this long boil time was to be expected.  They contacted me the next business day and suggested that by testing outdoors I might have inadvertently activated the boil-off sensor that reduces or stops the heat if the Grainfather thinks you've boiled off your wort and are about to scorch the kettle.  They suggested that it be brought indoors and tried again.

Start of the second (indoor) test
A day or two later I took it to my basement, which is a consistent 68F most of the year.  Again, I filled it with clean water and it registered at 73 degrees.  I double-checked the switches on the Grainfather and turned it on to Normal and Boil settings.  This was at 7:10pm.  At 9:15pm (125 minutes later) the water was at 210, and had been for about ten minutes.  This seemed to be the limit of the device's ability to heat the water.

I reached out to the manufacturer again, but started doing some calculations in the meantime.  At 100% efficiency, a kilowatt of electricity should be able to generate around 3400 BTUs in an hour.  To heat 6 gallons of water from 73 to 212 (boiling), you need roughly 6,900 BTUs of heat applied to it. That means it should have taken the device just over two hours.  That seems to be in line with what I saw, so perhaps the device is working correctly and it's my expectations that are out of line.

Implications

Assuming that those calculations are correct, a brew day with the Grainfather is likely to be a very long-duration activity.  It would look something like this:

  • Minutes 0-15:  Gather ingredients, measure, clean, etc.
  • Minutes 16-75:  Bring 4.5 gallons of mash water to mash temp.
  • Minutes 76-136:  Mash for an hour, ending temp around 168F.
  • Minutes 136-140:  Sparge and top water up to 5 gallons.  Temp is probably around 160F at this point.
  • Minutes 141-179:  Bring 5 gallons of wort to a boil.
  • Minutes 180-240:  Boil wort, adding hops and other ingredients as appropriate.
  • Minutes 241-250:  Run wort through counter flow chiller into fermenter.
  • Minutes 251-254:  Pitch yeast, oxygenate, etc., and close fermenter.
  • Minutes 255-279:  Fill kettle with clean water, add PBW, and run cleaning cycle.
  • Minutes 280-290:  Run clean water through to rinse out PBW.
  • Minutes 290-300:  Clean everything else and put it away.
That's approximately 5 hours from start to finish.  Much of that time is spent getting the mash water up to temperature (nearly 60 minutes), getting the wort to a boil almost 40 minutes), and actually boiling the wort (60 minutes).  I haven't compared this to a brew on my kitchen stove, but I think the stove actually boils the water a lot faster, so the time would be shorter... but that's only a guess.

Note that the above are just ballpark figures based on typical recipes I have done in the past without the Grainfather in the mix, and your situation may vary (especially if you have one of the non-US Grainfather versions that runs on 240v and includes a 2000w element).

Closing Thoughts

Although I'm still not certain the boil times I've seen with the Grainfather are correct, the calculations would seem to indicate that they probably are.  Scientists tell you that any experiment is not a failure provided that you learned something from it.  In these tests, I've learned:
  • How to set the temperature for a mash and configure the Grainfather controls to reach it
  • How to connect and disconnect the recirculation pipe
  • How to configure the controls to start a boil
  • How to connect and disconnect the counterflow wort chiller
  • How to use the counterflow wort chiller to cool wort
  • The wort chiller needs a clamp on the barbed connector in order to handle full water pressure, which is something I'll need to purchase before I try using it
  • I'll need a food-grade water hose to hook up to a basement spigot before using it with the Grainfather
  • The hoses in the Grainfather are long enough to reach my basement sink from the spigots, but I'm going to need to rearrange some of the items in the basement to make it work
  • The power cord on the Grainfather isn't long enough to reach the electrical outlet nearest the water spigots, so I'll need an extension cord to bridge the gap
  • I'll need to do some testing to determine how to adjust the flow of wort and cold water through the chiller to ensure that the wort comes out close to pitching temperature.
In the next installment of this saga, I'll (hopefully) be walking you through a brew using the Grainfather.  I may start with an extract brew because I'm most familiar with that process (even though it's not really what the Grainfather is meant to do), but I do have the ingredients for my first all-grain batch on hand and can start that when I'm sure it's all configured and working.




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