Sunday, January 31, 2016

Brewing with The Grainfather, Part 1 - Mashing and Sparging

(Important note:  This article series is based on the US version of the product.  Prices are expressed in US dollars, measurements of temperature and volume are in US units unless otherwise noted.)

iMake's The Grainfather is an all-in-one RIMS brewing system designed to be used indoors with household electric current.  It includes the kettle, grain basket, recirculation tube, pump, electronic temperature controller, instruction book, and counterflow chiller.  It does not include a mash paddle, fermenter, cleaning supplies, or pretty much anything else.  The price is around $800-900 depending on where you shop and the discounts offered.

The Grainfather handles mashing, boiling, recirculating, sparging (to a degree), and chilling of the wort.  You'll still need a fermentation vessel of some sort and some other supplies we'll discuss later.

Grainfather Assembly and Initial Cleaning

Assembly of The Grainfather in my experience was pretty easy overall.  There were a couple of steps I didn't think were as well documented in the manual as they could have been, but consulting with the pictures in the book was a big help there.  I'd say maybe 15-20 minutes of effort was involved.

Before using The Grainfather, it's recommended that you clean it.  You do this by filling it with hot water (or cold water and heating it) and adding PBW or a similar cleaner.  Circulate the cleaner through the pump, recirculation tube, and counterflow chiller.  Wipe down the insides and outside of the kettle with the cleaner.  Discard the cleaning solution and rinse with clean water from the tap.  Rinse again (my recommendation) and then circulate the water through the recirculation tube and counterflow chiller to rinse those out.  Now you're ready to brew.

The Sparge Question

Before you begin mashing in with The Grainfather, you need to decide how you're going to sparge the grain when you're finished.  There are two recommended ways of doing this, depending on the time and equipment available to you.

One method suggested in the manual is to heat sparge water to boiling in The Grainfather's kettle, then pump it into another vessel (such as your old brewing kettle if you have one) and put a lid on it.  By the time mashing is finished, hopefully the sparge water will have cooled down to about 170F and be ready to use as sparge water.  This means you'll be heating one batch of water in The Grainfather, and a second one to do the mash.  Having to heat two separate batches of water in The Grainfather eliminates the need for a second heat source, but also means your total brewing time will increase since you can't start the mash until you've finished boiling the sparge water.  (It will probably take you 30-45 minutes to heat the sparge water to boiling, so the addition to total brewing time is significant.)

Another method, which is what I personally use, is to wait until about 30 minutes before the end of the mash period.  I measure the sparge water into my old brew kettle, set it on the kitchen stove, and bring it to a boil.  This way I can begin mashing immediately.  The down-side of course is that you'll need a second heat source to heat this other kettle and water, and you'll need to own another kettle.

Mashing with The Grainfather

The Grainfather manual contains formulas for calculating mash water and sparge water.  You are told to use these formulas in place of the ones in the recipe you're working with, as they're tailored to the way The Grainfather functions.  The Grainfather app for iOS and Android can calculate the water volume as well.  The formulas are based on the amount of grain involved and the recipe volume.  You'll begin mashing by calculating and measuring these amounts of water.

Grainfather temp and pump controls
Next, you'll set the controls on The Grainfather to heat the mash water.  The mode switch near the bottom of the kettle should be set to "normal" (boil) mode at the start of the heating process.  Depending on the mash temperature, you may later adjust this to "mash" mode.  You press and hold the "Set" button to enable temperature setting, and the up/down arrows to dial in the desired temperature.  Once the temperature is correct, press "Set" again to lock it in.  The Grainfather will now begin heating the mash water to this temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit).  In my experience, it stays within 1-2 degrees of the set temperature throughout the mash.  If your recipe calls for a step mash, you'll need to change the temperature setting periodically according to the mash schedule.

The Grainfather, in my experience, heats 5-6 gallons of water approximately 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit every minute.  So if your mash water starts at 52F and you need the temperature to be 156F for your mash, you'll need between 26 and 52 minutes to get the water up to temp.  This is one downside to The Grainfather compared to a propane or 220V electrical heating element.  It's not exactly fast.  On the other hand, you can use The Grainfather indoors so long as you've got enough space and ventilation to handle the steam coming off the kettle during the boil... so you can brew year-round.

Mash underway in the kettle
Once mash water is at temp, you'll begin stirring in the grain.  I recommend taking your time with this and doing maybe a pound at a time, as this will ensure that it all gets moistened.

After all your grain is in the water, you'll carefully insert the lid into the basket over the overflow tube and place the overflow cap on the tube.  You'll start the recirculation pump at this point and the mash is underway.


When the mash is finished, you'll set The Grainfather's temperature control to an appropriate mash-out temperature and wait a few minutes for it to reach that temperature.

Next, you'll insert the handle into the grain basket and lift it up out of the kettle and onto the ledge built into the rim of the kettle.  The wort will start draining through the grain bed and dripping into the kettle.

By now, your sparge water should be at the desired temperature and ready to use.  Carefully pour this into the kettle, making sure it doesn't reach the overflow cap and slip past the grain bed.

In my experience with grain bills in the 10-16 pound range, sparging will take at least 30 minutes.  If you remove the grain basket too soon, you'll find that you leave a lot of wort behind.  It's better to be patient and get as much value from your grain as possible.

Comments on Mashing and Sparging

Draining the grain basket and sparging
In my early batches with The Grainfather, I had quite a few issues with mashing.  Sometimes enough dust would settle out of the grain into the kettle that it tripped the kettle's thermal cut-out switch or scorch protection capability.  When this happens, there is no obvious audible or visual indicator, other than the fact that the mash temperature starts dropping gradually.  To reset the switch, you have to reach all the way UNDER The Grainfather to press it.  This happened enough in the early batches that I built a short wooden platform on which to place The Grainfather, with enough room under it that I could reach the switch.

If the cut-out switch keeps tripping, you've got a much more annoying problem on your hands.  You'll need to lift the entire grain basket out of The Grainfather.  It will be much heavier now, because it's filled with hot wort in addition to the grain bill.  You'll need something you can temporarily place the basket into, like an old brew kettle that's clean, to capture any wort that drains off and to minimize the mess.  Then you'll need to take your mash paddle or spoon and try to scrape residue off the bottom of the kettle where the heating elem
ent is located.  When you've removed enough of the residue, you can SLOWLY reinsert the grain basket and get the mash back up to the desired temperature.  The unfortunate part here is that this loss of temperature will probably screw up the mash.  For instance, if you needed to maintain 152F for 60 minutes, but the thermal cut-out caused the temperature to drop to 124F early in the mash, you've unintentionally done a step mash that will probably result in a drier beer than you intended.

Scorching caused by too much grain residue
I've found that by gently shaking my grain bill in another container before mashing will tend to make the dust (which is mostly what causes these scorches) to settle to the bottom of the container.  I scoop the bigger bits of grain into the kettle first, dropping the dust into the kettle last.  This puts the dust up top where the grain bed filters it a bit, and seems to minimize the scorching for me.

I've also found (and your mileage may vary here) that if I heat my sparge water on the kitchen stove starting about 30 minutes before the end of the mash, that it will be almost exactly where I need it to be when the mash completes.  You may want to experiment with this and determine, based on your own kettle and stove, how long it takes to get water to sparge temperature.

Coming in Parts 2 and 3

Next week, I'll talk about the boiling and chilling processes with The Grainfather and my experiences with those.  In Part 3, I 'll talk about cleaning and other overall notes about brewing with The Grainfather.

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