Sunday, September 6, 2015

Grainfather All-Grain RIMS System - Walkthrough and Review

When the IMake company ran its Kickstarter campaign to bring The Grainfather into the United States, I was considering making the switch from extract to all-grain brewing.  I'd been looking at the Speidel Braumeister, the Zymatic Picobrew, and some other all-in-one systems.  I came to the conclusion that what I wanted was:
  • The ability to brew 5-gallon all-grain batches of beer
  • Use of electric heating rather than gas, to allow indoor brewing year-round
  • Relative ease of use
  • If possible, an "all-in-one" system.  If not, as few points of failure as possible.
The Grainfather met these requirements quite well, at a Kickstarter cost of $840.  Other products I'd been looking at had more bells and whistles, but were priced at least twice that.  So I took the risk that the Kickstarter would fall through and paid my money for the Grainfather.  The device arrived in August 2015.

I spent my first few weeks getting to know it, and not actually brewing anything.  I made sure there were no leaks from my assembly of the device, made sure the pump worked, made sure the heating element worked, etc.  I also tested heating and boiling times to get some idea of how long it would take to brew a batch of beer with The Grainfather.  For the rest of this review, I'll walk you through the process and share my observations and experiences as I go.

Preparing to Brew

Being made of stainless steel, The Grainfather probably arrives at your door with a residue of oils and chemicals used during its manufacture.  Users of The Grainfather outside the USA, and the instruction manual provided with the device, tell you to run a cleaning cycle through it before you actually brew with it.  This is sound advice.  I've read stories of people upset that their first couple of batches made with The Grainfather (and other stainess equipment) have tasted like they were laced with industrial chemicals or machine oil.  I actually ran two cleaning cycles through mine and rinsed it repeatedly before using.  When the rinse water coming out of The Grainfather tasted like clean tap water, I decided it was ready to use.

Cleaning The Grainfather while testing for leaks
The Grainfather's cleaning process is relatively easy.  Put two or three gallons of water into it and follow the directions on a container of PBW (Powdered Brewer's Wash) to add the right amount into it.  Then, wipe down the sides of the unit with the PBW solution and a soft cloth that won't scratch the steel.  Plug in The Grainfather, set the temperature for 131F, and turn on the recirculation pump with the recirculation arm attached.  Run PBW through the pump and arm for a while, then attach the counterflow chiller and recirculate PBW through that.  After 20-30 minutes, use the recirculating arm and a length of hose attached to the arm to pump the PBW out. Dump any remaining PBW and rinse the inside of The Grainfather well.  Then fill The Grainfather with clean water and run that through the pump, recirculating arm, and chiller again.  

Mashing and Sparging with The Grainfather

With the Grainfather clean and ready to use, it's time to begin brewing.  You start by identifying your recipe, gathering and weighing your ingredients as you normally would.  When the recipe tells you how much water to use for mashing and sparging, you ignore that.  Instead, you follow a formula in The Grainfather manual to calculate the correct volume of mash and sparge water based on the amount of grain your recipe requires.  

You have two options for sparge water.  (This sounds like I'm jumping ahead, but bear with me.)  You will either use The Grainfather to heat the necessary quantity of water to boiling, then pump it into a heat-resistant vessel to wait while you mash, or you will heat water in some other vessel while mashing.  Using The Grainfather to heat the sparge water will take longer, as you'll need to heat the water, set it aside, and then heat more water in it to get the quantity needed for mashing.  However, using the Grainfather to heat the sparge water means that you don't need some other heat source.  

Once your sparge water option is chosen and the sparge water is taken care of, it's time to mash.  You do this by adding the amount of water The Grainfather requires based on the grain bill.  Then you lower the grain basket into the boiler.  Pour in the grain, stirring to make sure it all gets wet.  Put the perforated lid on top of the grain but not compressing it.  Now, you set the temperature on the controller, switch on the pump, and wait while The Grainfather gets the mash water to the appropriate temperature.  When the appropriate temperature is reached, you set a timer (on a smartphone or other device) for the mash time specified in the beer recipe.  The Grainfather's electronic controller will keep the mash within a degree or two of the desired temperature.  You can do step-mashing by changing the setting on the controller at appropriate times.

Beginning the mash with The Grainfather
I find that it tends to take about 30 minutes to get the mash water to my desired temperature.  Once there, The Grainfather will tend to keep it very close to the temperature you've set.  For example, if you set it to 155F, you'll see it between 153 and 156 pretty much constantly.  If you do the occasional extract batch, The Grainfather is an excellent way to keep the temperature under control during steeping as well.

When you're finished mashing, insert the handle into the grain basket and carefully lift it out of the boiler.  Once it's out, turn it until the clips on the bottom line up with the metal rods in the top of the boiler.  Set the basket down and it will remain on top of the boiler.  (I forgot to take a photo of this.)  With a large grain bill, the basket can be pretty heavy to lift, but it's manageable.

Taking the sparge water heated earlier, you'll sparge the grain with the amount of water specified in The Grainfather's formula.  This should (for a five-gallon batch of beer) leave you with about 6.4 gallons in the boiler.  This will account for boil-off and the fact that you may want to leave behind the trub in the bottom of the boiler when you're finished boiling.  (Once I've lifted the grain basket out and set it on the ring, I will set the kettle switches to boiling so that the kettle can heat while I sparge.  This will reduce the total brewing time a little.)

After sparging, you remove the grain basket.  Discard the grain responsibly.  I recommend doing this and cleaning the basket with PBW and fresh water while the wort boils, as it will save some elapsed time for the total brewing process.  Since you'll be waiting for the boil anyway, you might as well get the cleaning out of the way.

Boiling

To begin the boil, you set the heating element mode switch to Normal and the switch on the electronic controller to Boil mode.  It's a good idea at this point to use a spoon or paddle to scrape any trub off the area of The Grainfather where the heating element is.  If you don't, you may trigger the scorch protection.  This will prevent the heating element from working until you press the reset switch.  The problem with this is that IMake has located the reset switch underneath The Grainfather.  This means that to reset the heating element you have to tip the boiler full of hot wort to one side and reach underneath it to depress the switch.  For a device that is otherwise filled with good safety features, this seems like a particularly risky activity.  Since this initial brew, I built a small U-shaped platform on which to set The Grainfather so that I can easily reach the switch if necessary.  

The scorch protection in The Grainfather seems to be pretty sensitive. I've triggered it two out of three times I've used the device.  The first time I used it as a steeping kettle for an extract-based beer I made on the kitchen stove.  The second time I used it for the all-grain batch depicted in this article.  The first time I triggered it, I thought I'd broken The Grainfather.  It was only later that I learned about the reset switch and used it.

Depending on your mash water temperature, it may take up to an hour to get the wort to boiling.  In my experience , The Grainfather's heating element raises the temperature inside the kettle by 1 to 2 degrees (Fahrenheit) every minute with a 5-6 gallon volume.  Assuming you finish your mash near 165F, you'll need to raise the kettle contents to 212F (47 degrees).  This takes about 45 minutes in my experience so far.  You can shorten this time, as I noted earlier, by switching the unit to boil mode while sparging.  By the time you finish the sparge, the kettle will probably be at 180F or so.  This will shorten the boil time to about 30 minutes.

Once The Grainfather gets to a boil, you can begin adding hops and other ingredients.  The Grainfather does reach a rolling boil but depending on heating elements you've used in the past, it may be a much less "rolling" boil than you're used to.  My kitchen stove, for example, can boil wort so hard it jumps out of the kettle (if the kettle is very full).  The Grainfather doesn't boil anywhere near that hard, as you can see in the video below:

The Grainfather at full boil
I added hops pellets in muslin bags to The Grainfather during the boil.  This seemed to work well and kept hops gunk out of the kettle.  I had no trouble with the scorch protection during the actual boil and was able to complete the batch without incident.

About ten minutes before the end of the boil, you hook up the counter flow wort chiller provided with The Grainfather and direct the wort-out line into the kettle.  Turn on the pump and flow hot wort through the chiller to sterilize it for later use.

Circulating boiling wort through the counter flow
chiller to sterilize it
At the end of the boil, turn off the pump and heating element.  Put the wort-out line into your fermenter.  Attach the cold water supply to the wort chiller and place the hot-water-out line into a kettle or drain.  (Draining into a kettle gives you hot water to use for cleaning The Grainfather and reduces water usage, provided you have a vessel capable of holding such hot water.)  After the water is flowing smoothly out of the chiller, turn on the pump and begin pumping hot wort into the chiller.

In my experience, the wort came out of the counter flow chiller at approximately 79F.  Restricting the flow with the red valve attached to the recirculation pipe (caution: that valve gets REALLY hot) I was able to get that down to about 78F.  This is a bit hotter than most yeast are happy with, but you have to be impressed with near-instant chilling of wort from 212F to 78F.  (With my immersion chiller it often takes 45 minutes to get the wort that cool.)

Wort enters the fermenter at 79.3 degrees Fahrenheit
I placed the airlock in my fermenter and left it to continue cooling while cleaning The Grainfather, discarding the used grain, and otherwise cleaning up the brewing area.  By the time I'd done that, the wort in the fermenter had dropped to around 76F which was within the range my yeast could safely tolerate, so I pitched it.  



Update:  Since the original post of this article, I've found that recirculating the wort into the kettle after the boil is over can help further reduce the temperature in the fermenter.  I turned off the heat, turned on the cold water through the counter flow chiller, and pumped the wort back into the kettle.  I kept things this way until the kettle temperature read approximately 150F.  Then I shut off the pump, moved the cold wort hose into the fermenter, and started the pump again.  This reduced the in-fermenter temperature to approximately 76F.  I suspect that in the winter when tap water temperatures drop below 72F I will be able to get an even lower wort temperature.

Extract Brewing

As I noted at the beginning, I only recently made the transition from extract based brewing to all-grain.  I still had a few extract kits around that I needed to finish up.  The Grainfather isn't built or intended for extract brewing.  Still, I wondered if I could make use of it so that I could use the excellent counterflow wort chiller (which works a great deal better than my immersion chiller).

From my all-grain experiences, I knew that adding malt extract into the kettle would cause it to fall to the bottom and very likely trigger The Grainfather's scorch protection.  This meant that the only way I could make that happen would be to ensure that the malt extract was already well-dissolved before it ever entered the kettle.  My solution was to do the following:
  • Put 3 gallons of water in The Grainfather and add my steeping grains.  Set the steeping temperature and turn on the recirculation pump.
  • While the grain is steeping, on another heat source (such as a kitchen stove) heat 3 gallons of water to boiling and remove it from the heat.
  • Dissolve the malt extract in the water and make sure it's properly dissolved.
  • When the steeping process is finished, remove the grain basket and steeping grains.
  • Pour the malt extract mixture into the kettle and begin the boil.
  • Follow the rest of the recipe steps as you would normally.

Using the above procedure and an "economy 5 gallon kettle" I have, I was able to use The Grainfather for the extract beer and rapidly chill it to yeast pitching temperature.  The key seems to be to make sure you've dissolved the malt extract in another vessel before pouring it into The Grainfather's kettle.  I tried adding extract to the kettle directly, but it tends to collect on the bottom and trigger the scorch protection, so I don't recommend that approach.  Besides, scorched extract isn't going to make the beer taste very good.

General Thoughts and Observations

The Grainfather seems to be a well-made, good quality device with solid safety features.  It did a great job mashing the grain.  After an hour, an iodine test came up clear.  The counter flow wort chiller brought my wort instantly from boiling hot to near-yeast-pitching temperature, which should help with clarity and chill haze in the finished product.  Cleanup is relatively easy.

My biggest complaints about the device are:
  • The supplied electrical cord is just barely long enough to reach the outlets in my basement, which are mounted up off the floor.  Because my outlets aren't located near my cold water supply, I have had to use an extension cord to get the unit close to the water needed for the counter-flow chiller and the drain for the hot water.  Adding about three feet to the cord would have solved this issue.
  • The scorch protection works very well, but once triggered there is no visible or audible warning from The Grainfather to tell you that.  All you'll notice is that the temperature is dropping instead of climbing.  As noted earlier, resetting this means tilting your boiler full of hot wort enough to reach underneath and press the button.  Having a visible warning and an easier-to-press button would be a big improvement given that I've triggered this a few times now.
  • Because IMake has designed the device to work in a standard 120V outlet, which is a good thing, the wattage of the heating element is lower than it could be.  This results in a vendor-estimated boil time of 100 minutes for six gallons of water from room temperature.  In my experience (without an extension cord, it should be noted) the boil time for five gallons of water was more like 120 minutes.  Fortunately, you're more likely to be raising the temperature to boiling from a mash temperature in the 160F range than from 68F-71F room temperature, so your boil time won't be 120 minutes.
  • The handle used to lift the grain basket out of the boiler is strong, but can be a little tricky to get and keep in place.  I can imagine accidentally dropping it into the boiler and being unable to retrieve it at the end of a mash due to the heat.  I can also imagine it possibly slipping out of the basket and the basket splashing into the kettle, spilling wort.  (I will say, though, that in four uses this has not happened.)
  • Maybe I'm alone in this, but I would prefer that the grain basket be a single-piece item.  The use of friction to hold the bottom of the basket in place made assembly a bit of a nuisance and caused me to have to re-seat it after cleaning.  If the perforated bottom was part of the basket, that tricky assembly and cleaning step would be eliminated.  
With the exception of the scorch-protection-reset switch being in a very inconvenient location, none of my complaints about The Grainfather are very significant.  If you plan your brew day out carefully, the length of time it takes to finish a batch isn't bad.  It's typically 5-6 hours for me, including cleanup time.  It's certainly longer than for a propane-based RIMS system, but using a propane system indoors requires some very good ventilation.  You can use The Grainfather without that ventilation.

I've made two all-grain batches in The Grainfather as of this update (Oct. 2015).

The first went absolutely perfectly, and the beer (seen elsewhere on this blog as "Forrest's On-Call Ale") tasted very good.  As a first all-grain attempt, I'm happy with it.

The second batch, a Belgian Tripel, was more problematic.  This was most likely due to including a pound of wheat malt and a pound of oats in that particular beer - without including rice hulls.  I had a lot of trouble draining and sparging the grain in that one.  My original gravity was lower than expected as well, suggesting that I had some conversion problems.  On the other hand, the finished wort looked and tasted great, so although it didn't meet my goals I consider it a success.

The third batch done in The Grainfather was an extract based Peanut Butter Stout.  As of this update, it's still fermenting but I have every reason to think it will turn out great.

If you're looking to switch to all-grain brewing and want a relatively inexpensive way to do it, you should check into The Grainfather.  It's less expensive than the alternatives I've looked at, is easy to use, can be operated indoors year-round, cleans easily, and seems to produce good results.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up, thanks.
    You say it requires no ventilation. I guess from a safety point that's correct but there must still be a ton of condensation filling the house? Or is it not too bad?
    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete