Sunday, August 21, 2016

Things I've Learned Brewing with The Grainfather, Part 1

Late in 2015, I made the switch from extract brewing to all-grain. I had made some really good extract beers prior to that switch. Switching to The Grainfather and all-grain brewing at once was like learning to brew all over again. All-grain brewing is different from extract brewing up to the point at which you start boiling the wort. Brewing in The Grainfather is different from brewing with other equipment. I'm not saying that either is necessarily better or worse, just that it's all different. Any time you introduce a change into your process, you introduce a need to learn and experiment. I'm hoping in this post to share things I've learned about brewing all-grain beers with The Grainfather so that the rest of you won't make some of the mistakes I did.

Note: This post refers to the US model of The Grainfather and may not apply to non-US versions.

Let's start with things about The Grainfather itself:


  • What else do you need? Although The Grainfather is an all-in-one system, it's not the sum total of everything you'll need to brew a batch of beer. You'll also need at least the following:
    • A stirring paddle or spoon to stir the grain in the mash basket and possibly during the boil if you're adding syrups, extracts, etc.
    • An accurate scale for weighing grain, hops, and other ingredients. I recommend something digital with the ability to measure in pounds, ounces, and grams.
    • A vessel for storing and/or heating at least 3-4 gallons of sparge water. I personally prefer an induction-ready kettle and induction cooktop but anything that can heat 4 gallons of water to 168F is good enough.
    • A fermenter to store the beer during fermentation. I personally like SS Brewing Technologies Stainless Steel Brewmaster Bucket, but there are lots of other good products on the market. You can also go with the good old glass carboy or a plastic bucket if you want.
    • Hops socks to keep hops particulate out of the beer. I don't know that these are strictly necessary but I prefer to use them.
    • An electric outlet near where you're brewing. If you need an extension cord, make sure it's a heavy-gauge one that can handle a 1600 watt draw without overheating or causing voltage drop that will slow down boiling time.
    • Powdered Brewer's Wash (PBW) or a similar cleaning solution. PBW is recommended in The Grainfather manual and works very well in my experience.
    • Kitchen sponge for cleaning The Grainfather
  • Power: A common question people ask me, because they've seen the Braumeister and other all-grain brewing setups that need a 220-240V outlet, is what kind of power requirements you have with The Grainfather. The Grainfather uses a standard 3-prong plug like most modern electric appliances and draws about 1600 watts, which is comparable to a high-end hair dryer. If you can run a hair dryer from the outlet, you can probably run The Grainfather. If in doubt, consult an electrician.
  • Brewing Time: Your experience may vary, but I found that I could do an extract batch in as little as 3 hours with my kitchen stove, a Mega Pot kettle, and an immersion chiller. All-grain brewing with The Grainfather has rarely taken me less than 6 1/2 hours, and sometimes takes much longer. Be prepared to spend more elapsed time brewing.
  • Heating: The Grainfather features a 1600-watt 120V electric heating element. This heating element in my experience will raise a 5-gallon quantity of water or wort about 1 degree Farhenheit per minute. If you add the Graincoat accessory, which I recommend, you'll see heating of about 2.1F per minute. That is a massive reduction in brewing time. You'll also get a little more vigorous boil with the Graincoat.
  • Mashing: The Grainfather mash process is pretty easy.  Measure and crush your grain. Calculate the amount of mash water you'll need based on a formula in the manual and fill the kettle with that amount of water. Drop in the grain basket. Carefully stir in your grain, making sure to get it all wet. Insert the top grate on the basket, making sure not to compress the grain bed. Attach the overflow cap on the tube. Put on the glass lid. Attach the recirculation tube. Turn on the pump and make sure the wort is circulating. Let it finish mashing. For a step mash, you will need to set a timer and come down the adjust the setting on the temperature controller for each successive mash step. When mashing is over, turn off the pump, remove the lid, lift out the grain basket and set it on the kettle to drain.
  • Sparging: It's not talked about much, but The Grainfather (out of the box) doesn't really address sparging of the grain. What I wound up doing was purchasing an induction cooktop on Amazon and setting my old extract brewing kettle (Mega Pot 1.2) on top. When I've calculated the mash water I need, I also calculate the sparge water and add about a gallon to cover dead space in the kettle and the possible need for more wort. About 30-40 minutes before the end of the mash, I turn on the induction cooktop and set it to high. By the time the mash is finished, the water in my kettle has heated to sparge temperature. I attach a length of temperature safe hose to the Mega Pot valve and let gravity draw the sparge water from the kettle into the grain basket. This makes sparging very easy.  If I didn't have this setup, I'd have to heat sparge water another way and pour it into the grain basket by hand. This is something you'll want to think about before you purchase and use The Grainfather.
  • Boiling: It's not widely documented, but The Grainfather boils off about 0.4 gallons per hour. It does generate a rolling boil, but it's definitely NOT the equal of a propane burner or even a good, strong kitchen stove burner. It's good enough to produce a nice beer, though you find as I do that a slight chill haze exists in the finished beer. 
  • Chilling: The counter flow chiller included with The Grainfather is nothing short of amazing. Pumping 212F wort in one side, 70F tap water in the other, will cause the wort going into the fermenter to be around 83F instantly. If you adjust the valve to reduce the flow through the counter flow chiller, you can drop that temperature further but it will take longer to pump the wort out of the kettle. I find that it takes around 15-20 minutes to pump the entire batch out.
  • Cleanup:  The cleanup process consists of emptying the grain basket, cleaning the grain basket, kettle, recirculation tube, and counter flow chiller. For me, this is usually a 30-minute process from end to end. I clean the equipment using hot water and PBW (powdered brewer's wash). I put about 3 gallons of water and PBW in the kettle. Using a kitchen sponge, I clean the grain basket, stirring spoon, and kettle. If the cleaning solution is relatively clear, I'll use it for the remaining steps. If not, I dump it in the sink and mix a second batch. I do this to avoid sediment getting stuck and built-up in the pump, recirculation arm, and chiller. It's not strictly necessary according to the manual. With the kettle and grain basket clean, I attach the recirculation arm and turn on the pump. This allows hot cleaning solution to run through the pump and arm to clean them. Then I turn off the pump, attach the chiller, and run the wort exit tube into the sink. I pump the hot cleaning solution through the chiller and into the sink. This cleans the chiller.  Now, I fill the kettle with 3 gallons of hot water again. I run the hot water through the recirculation arm for about 5-10 minutes, then pump it through the chiller and into the sink. I dump out any leftover water in the kettle and dry it with a clean towel. I dry the grain basket and other things with a clean towel, too.  This whole process typically takes about 30 minutes. It may be longer if anything scorched on the bottom of the kettle, or less if the wort was particularly clean.
In the next installment, a week from now, I'll talk about mashing and sparging in The Grainfather, the mistakes I've made, and what I have learned to improve that process.

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