Saturday, September 7, 2019

Brewie and Brewie+ Internals

The last time I brewed with my Brewie+ was July 12, 2019.  The machine failed during that brew, leaving wort slowly cooling in the boil kettle.  I saved the batch by pumping it to another kettle and finishing it out there, but the Brewie itself was out of commission.  I contacted the manufacturer that evening for help. Two days later, I was told that parts were on the way to repair it.  It's now September 7, and those parts haven't arrived.

In the meantime, there are strong indications that the company making the Brewie has gone out of business.  I'm hopeful those are just rumors, but there are a number of facts that suggest otherwise. Although their web site is still active, their tech support system reports "Account suspended" if you try to post a case or ask a question.  Their support email address, if you email it, comes back as non-existent.  Right now, eBay is filled with a number of broken "customer return" systems that you can purchase inexpensive for parts. (These are the older "Brewie" model rather than the "Brewie+" but that doesn't seem like a good sign.)

I have a friend who enjoys repairing broken devices and appliances.  He wanted a crack at the Brewie+ in my basement, so last night we cracked it open and had a look.  If nothing else, when the repair parts arrive from the Brewie folks, we'd have a good idea how to install them.

Here's the bottom of the kettle, with the heating element removed:

Bottom of the boil kettle

And the heating element itself:

Close-up of the heating element connections

Evidence of burning at the heating element

So you can see that during one of the previous brew sessions, issues with the wiring attached to the heating element and the thermal cut-out switch caused the wiring to burn out at the connector end.  This happened badly enough on the side with the thermal cut-out switch that the terminal broke right off that switch.  I'm probably fortunate that there wasn't a serious fire.

For those curious about what the inside of a Brewie+ looks like, I'm sharing some other photos, taken during parts of the disassembly.

The Brewie+ partially disassembled, to allow access to the heating element

Close-up view of the plumbing - dirty because I couldn't run a cleaning cycle in it after it failed




Close-up of connections that had to be unhooked to get to the heating element

Close-up of the wiring on the boil side of the Brewie+

I bought one of the original Brewie units for sale on eBay.  It turned out to have suffered a serious drop and showed a lot of mangled metal.  The mash compartment was misshapen, the base plate was damaged, the lids no longer lined up, etc.  It also failed its power-on self-test, possibly due to a power supply issue.  Here are a few photos of that broken one:

The customer-returned broken Brewie (original)

Inside the bottom plate of the original Brewie

Power and control boards inside the original Brewie

At left, what I think is a pump with the lid broken, off, on the mash side

Close-up view of the internals on the boil side, note the plate chiller at bottom

Close up of the broken pump(?)

Two lights indicate a successful self-test, I presume one indicates only a partial success
My friend and I are still in the midst of trying to get the Brewie+ to work again.  At this point, we are waiting on the arrival of some replacement thermal cut-out switches I ordered from eBay to arrive.

The Brewie and Brewie+ share a number of internal components, which makes the older machine a good donor parts system for the new one.  I may buy another broken one on eBay and see if we can't get it working with parts from this one.


Monday, September 2, 2019

Thoughts on the Brewie+ After 8 Months

I've been brewing now for at least 7 years. Over that time, I've brewed well over 100 batches and used several different configurations of equipment. Most of the batches were brewed with iMake's The Grainfather all-in-one system. Many were brewed with PicoBrew's Zymatic.  For the last 8 months, I've brewed exclusively with the Brewie+.  For home brewers considering purchasing a Grainfather, Zymatic, or Brewie+, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some thoughts and experiences since I've been fortunate enough to use all three.

Let's start with a quick comparison of high-level features:
  • iMake's The Grainfather:
    • Uses 110 volt (for the US model) electrical outlets
    • Brews up 8 gallons in a single batch
    • Has a grain bill limit of X pounds
    • Provides good temperature control through the mash
    • With the "Connect" controller, you can control temperature and pump activation remotely with their app, provided you are in Bluetooth range
    • Handles almost all of the brewing process, from heating mash and sparge water, mashing, boiling, and chilling
    • Requires manual intervention to separate the grain from the mash water, apply sparge water, switch from RIMS mode to Chilling, pumping wort to the fermenter, and cleanup.
    • I'd estimate the amount of manual effort involved in brewing a batch to be at least 2-3 hours depending on the recipe, cleanup time, etc.
    • Tech support comes from New Zealand, by email.
  • PicoBrew Zymatic
    • Uses 110 volt standard US electrical outlets
    • Brews up to 2.5 gallons per batch, but you could brew a strong wort and dilute it to get a larger batch size
    • Has a grain bill limit of 9.5 pounds
    • Provides good temperature control through the mash
    • Connects to WiFi and allows process monitoring throughout the mash and boil, with monitoring possible anywhere you have an Internet connection
    • The mash process doesn't really include a traditional sparge step, but otherwise it handles everything from mash through boil.  Chilling is handled by manually inserting the keg into ice water and having the Zymatic circulate the wort in and out of the keg.  So chilling is at best partially automated.
    • Requires manual intervention to load grain, measure water, initiate brewing, perform chilling, and initiate pumping into the fermenter.
    • Cleaning is partially manual, partially automated.
    • I'd estimate the amount of manual effort involved in brewing a batch to be about 1-2 hours, depending on the recipe, cleanup time, and chilling time.
    • Tech support comes from the United States, but is by email only in most cases.
  • Brewie+
    • Uses 110 volt standard US electrical outlets
    • Brews up to 6 gallons per batch, and as little as 2.64 gallons
    • Has a grain bill limit of X pounds
    • Provides good temperature control through the mash and sparge
    • Provides a touch-screen interface and an app
    • Connects to WiFi and allows process monitoring through the provided phone app, but only when connected to the home network
    • The brewing process is handled start to finish, with the Brewie+ loading its own water, heating mash and sparge water, separating wort from grain, and handling hop additions.  The Brewie+ also automatically chills the wort to pitching temperature.
    • Requires manual intervention to load the grain, transfer wort into the fermenter at the end of the chill, and perform part of the cleanup process (most of which is automated).
    • I'd estimate the amount of manual effort involved in brewing a batch to be 1-2 hours, depending on recipe, cleanup time, and other details.
    • Tech support comes from Hungary, by email.
Let's now take a look at the brewing process using each system.

Comparing the Brewing Processes

Note:  Although I have not used the BrewZilla, RoboBrew, and other systems similar to The Grainfather, I would imagine the brewing process with those devices to be similar to this.  There might be differences here or there that I'm unaware of.

Grainfather Brewing Process

The Grainfather brewing process goes like this (though it could be adjusted per the brewer's needs):
  • Decide on your recipe, measure grain and hops, crush the grain if it's not already crushed, and ready any other additions you may need to make.
  • Decide how you're going to sparge. One option is to have The Grainfather heat the sparge water, then set it aside in an insulated or other container until spage time.  Another is to heat the sparge water in a separate vessel and have it ready at sparge time.  Using The Grainfather means you don't need additional equipment, but your brewing process will be longer because you are waiting on it to heat water to separate times.
  • Calculate mash and sparge water amounts, measure them, and place them in The Grainfather and/or other vessel.  (From here on, I'm going to assume you are heating sparge water in a separate vessel rather than The Grainfather.  The only difference is that you'd have to add steps of heating the sparge water to ~180F, pumping that into another vessel, and then loading mash water.)
  • Set the desired mash in temperature and wait for The Grainfather to heat the water to the desired temperature. In my experience, with the Graincoat insulation attached, The Grainfather would heat the mash water about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per minute (but this will vary a bit depending on the amount of water, ambient temperatures, etc.  To give you an idea, assuming 70F incoming tap water, to get to a 153F mash temperature, you'd need about 55 minutes.
  • At mash temperature, begin adding and stirring in the grain.  Place the mesh mash basket top over the grain bed.  Put the glass lid on The Grainfather.  Attach the recirculation arm, then turn on the recirculation pump.
  • As appropriate for the recipe, run the pre-programmed mash process in The Grainfather's Connect app or manually adjust mash temps as needed.  
  • Set the mash out temperature and wait for it to heat. 
  • Stop the pump. Remove the recirculation arm.
  • As mash out is occurring, check the temp of the sparge water to make sure it's correct.  Adjust as needed.
  • Lift the grain basket out of The Grainfather and position it to stand on top of the machine so that the basket drains into the kettle.
  • Set The Grainfather's temperature controls to boiling.
  • Add sparge water a bit at a time until all has been added.  Wait for the draining to finish, then remove the grain basket and set it aside.
  • While waiting on The Grainfather to heat the wort to boiling, empty the grain basket, dispose of the grain, and rinse/clean the grain basket.
  • Once The Grainfather is at a boil, start a timer to know when to make additions and stop the boil.
  • Optionally add a hop spider, use hop bags, or direct kettle additions.  (To minimize the risk of clogging up The Grainfather's wort filter, I recommend a hop spider or bag, but many people do direct kettle additions. So it's really up to you.)
  • Add hops, spices, yeast nutrient, etc., as needed for your recipe, at the times you need them.
  • It's a good idea while doing the boil to prep your fermenter, cleaning and sanitizing it as needed, and having it at the ready.
  • Near the end of the boil, connect the counter flow chiller to The Grainfather.  Circulate wort through the chiller for a few minutes to sterilize it.  Then start circulating cold water through it to chill it down to ambient water temps.
  • At the end of the boil, turn on the cold water supply to the counter flow chiller.  Place the wort-out line from the chiller into the fermenter.  Turn on the pump to pump wort through the chiller into the fermenter. Wort is chilled pretty much instantly.
  • Turn off the pump and cold water line once the kettle is empty, or as empty as you can get it.
  • When the wort is pumped into the fermenter, seal the fermenter. If the desired temperature has been reached, you can also pitch the yeast, or wait until it cools to the needed temp.
  • Disconnect the counter flow chiller.
  • Dump the remaining wort and trub out of The Grainfather.  Remove and clean the wort filter at the bottom of The Grainfather.  Rinse out the Grainfather.
  • Reattach the wort filter.  Add a few gallons of hot water to The Grainfather.  Add some PBW (powdered brewer's wash).  Heat the water to around 135F.  Attach the counter flow chiller.  Place the wort-out line from the chiller back into the kettle.  Turn on the pump.
  • Recirculate the hot PBW solution for at least 10-15 minutes. This cleans out the wort lines and the counterflow chiller.  Turn off the pump. Connect the recirculation arm.  Turn on the pump
  • Recirculate the hot PBW solution for a few more minutes to clean the recirculation arm.
  • Turn off the pump. Disconnect the recirculation arm.  Dump the PBW solution.  Rinse the kettle well.
  • Load the kettle with clean hot water.  Attach the recirculation arm and run the pump for 5-10 minutes to rinse out the PBW.  
  • Turn off the pump. Remove the recirculation arm.  Attach the counterflow chiller. Place the wort-out line in the kettle.  Turn on the pump for 5-10 minutes to rinse out the PBW.
  • Turn off the punp. Disconnect the chiller.  Dump the water.  Dry out the kettle, mash basket, etc. with a clean dry towel.  When everything is dry, reassemble it so it's ready for the next use.
In my experience, this entire process takes anywhere from 5-8 hour from start to finish. The amount of hands-on time varies but I'd guess it's around 2-3 hours, some of which is just spent being nearby to make kettle additions during the boil.  Because it's mostly a manual effort, there is a lot of work involved. However, you have almost total flexibility in the grain bill, the number and amount of hop additions, etc.  Because it's a fairly simple system, breakdowns are pretty rare and repair parts seem pretty easy to come by from the same places that sell The Grainfather.

PicoBrew Zymatic Brewing Process

The brewing process for the Zymatic is simpler than The Grainfather:
  • Decide on your recipe.  Measure your ingredients.
  • Enter the recipe in the PicoBrew Zymatic web page.  Set the mash and boil schedule.  Save the recipe. Note the amount of starting water needed to brew the batch.
  • Measure the starting water and load it into the keg. Place the lid on the keg.
  • Load the plastic tray with grain and hops and place it into the machine.
  • Turn on the machine. 
  • Select the recipe you want to brew and hit the Start button.
  • The Zymatic heats the water to the necessary temperature for mash in, the floods the grain compartment in the plastic tray. The wort is recirculated automatically between the tray and the keg as needed to complete the mash.  Then wort is drained into the keg.
  • The Zymatic begins recirculating and heating the wort to approximately 207F.  Then it begins circulating the wort through the hop addition compartments in accordance with the boil schedule.
  • When the boil is over, the Zymatic beeps to let you know it's time to chill the wort.
  • Place the keg in a large container of ice water.  Hit the start button and the Zymatic recirculates the wort through the system and the ice water until it's chilled properly, then stops.
  • While this is happening, clean and sanitize a fermenter.
  • Attach a wand to the wort-out line of the Zymatic and pump the wort into your fermenter.
  • Dump the grain and hops.  Rinse the tray and hop baskets. Rinse the keg.  
  • Load a dishwasher tablet into the hop compartment.  Fill the keg with hot water.  Clean the wort filter.
  • Set the controls on the Zymatic to cleaning mode.  Wait for it to finish running the cleaning cycle and begin beeping.
  • Dump the dirty water from the keg. Rinse the plastic tray and the keg.
  • Reinsert the plastic tray.  Clean the wort filter again.
  • Attach the cleaning wands to both water in and out lines.  Set the wort-in line in a large container of hot water.  Set the wort-out line in a sink or another place it can drain safely into.
  • Set the controls on the Zymatic to a rinse cycle.  Hot water is pulled into the machine and pumped out the wort-out line into the drain or receptacle.
  • (I generally repeated the rinse a couple more times just to be sure it was as clean as it could be.)
  • Remove the tray, rinse it, dry it and do the same with the wort screens and keg.
Generally speaking, this whole process takes 5-7 hours.  Manual effort is probably in the 1-2 hour range including everything from setup to cleanup.  That makes it much less effort than The Grainfather, but there is still quite a bit of work involved.

Brewie+ Brewing Process

Note:  For the following discussion, I'm going to assume you have the Brewie+ attached to a cold water supply line (garden-hose style connection) and have a drain nearby.  If not, the process will be less automated than described here.

The brewing process for the Brewie+ is even simpler than for the PicoBrew Zymatic:
  • Determine your recipe. Gather and measure ingredients.
  • Calculate mash and sparge water amounts.
  • Optionally calibrate the Brewie+ water loading process.
  • Place the grain in a zippered filter bag and insert it into the Brewie+ mash compartment on top of the false bottom.  
  • Load hops and/or other additions into the hop baskets and insert them into the Brewie+
  • Close the lids.
  • Enter recipe information using the Brewie+ app or touch screen.
  • Place the outgoing water hoses into a sink or other safe drainage location.
  • Turn on the incoming water line if not already done.
  • Tell the Brewie+ to start the brewing process for the desired recipe.
  • The Brewie+ loads water into the boil compartment and heats it to the mash-in temp. 
  • The Brewie+ floods the grain compartment and begins recirculating the wort and keeping it at temperature.
  • The Brewie+ loads water into the boil compartment for the sparge step and begins heating it to the sparge remperature.
  • As needed, the Brewie+ executes changes in mash temperature based on the recipe you provided at the start. This all happens automatically.
  • The Brewie+ sparges the grain, then transfers the wort from the mash compartment to the boil compartment, and begins heating to a boil.
  • As the boil progresses, the Brewie+ automatically circulates wort through the hop baskets to simulate manual hop additions to the kettle (up to four total).
  • While this is happening, the brewer should clean and sanitize a fermenter.
  • When the boil finishes, the Brewie+ turns off the heating element, turns on the cold water supply, and chills the wort using its built-in counterflow chiller.  When the wort reaches the desired temperature, it shuts off the water and waits for the brewer to return.
  • The brewer tells the Brewie+ to pump the chilled wort into the fermenter. When it's finished, the wort-out line is placed back in the drain.
  • The grain bag is removed from the Brewie+, emptied, and rinsed clean. Later it can go in the washer for cleaning.
  • Dump the hop baskets and rinse well with hot water.
  • Wipe out the inside of the mash and boil containers using the provided sponge or a similar soft one until they're looking pretty clean.
  • Set the controls on the Brewie+ to full clean mode.  Wipe things out again when prompted. 
  • Add a dishwasher tablet to two of the compartments when prompted.
  • The Brewie+ finishes the cleaning cycle, rinses itself out, and lets you know when it's finished.
  • With a soft, dry towel, dry out the mash and boil compartments, the lid, etc.  Please the false bottom in the mash compartment.
In my experience, the brewing process generally takes 5-7 hours depending on the recipe and the temperature of the tap water.  The amount of manual effort involved is 1-2 hours at most.  Most of that effort is in prepping the recipe ingredients, specifying the mash and boil steps, and doing the manual steps involved in cleanup.  It's a lot less physical effort than The Grainfather, and less than the Zymatic in my opinion.

Comparison of Results

Using one of these systems is no guarantee of good beer.  I've made good and not-so-good batches in The Grainfather, the Zymatic, and the Brewie+.  I've won awards in competition with beers made in all three of those systems. The way I see it, while the system may help the brewer keep mash and boil schedules on track, ultimately the results depend as much on the brewer constructing a good recipe, using fresh ingredients, and making sure the machine executes on that recipe faithfully.  Despite some of the complaints I've seen brewers make online about systems like these, I've never had a judge provide feedback like "This beer clearly was brewed in one of those automated systems" so I'd be surprised if anyone could tell the difference between a beer brewed in one of these and a beer brewed on a very manual propane-based system.

That said, I have found that with both the Brewie+ and Zymatic, it has helped my competition scores to make some minor recipe changes. Specifically, I've had occasional complaints about malt complexity in some of my beers made in those systems.  By adding some mash steps and extending the boil for recipes where malt complexity is important, this has raised the scores I've gotten in competition for essentially the same recipe.

I've also seen pretty striking differences in brew house efficiency between the systems.  With The Grainfather, adjusting the crush and carefully measuring mash and sparge water got me brew house efficiency numbers in the 75-83% range depending on the batch.  I normally calculated recipes for it using 80% efficiency as my base.  Your mileage may vary, of course.  With the Brewie+, I have been generally seeing brew house efficiency numbers in the 58-62% range.  I've been trying to tweak the process in various ways to increase this, and that has helped some.  Manually measuring the mash/sparge water helped even more.  With the PicoBrew Zymatic, efficiency seemed to be wildly variable.  I often saw what I calculated to be around 50-55% efficiency, though higher for some batches and lower for a few.  Try as I might, I never seemed to be able to get consistent efficiency from it.  

Good and Bad Points

Every brewing system has its good and bad points, as much as the manufacturers might believe there are no bad points to their setup.  Following are what I like and dislike most about each of these, based on four years of Grainfather use, a year of Zymatic use, and 7 months of Brewie+ use:
  • iMake Grainfather
    • Good points:
      • You can brew almost any style you want using all grain.  Adding some malt extract would allow you to reach very high gravities.
      • Efficiency was pretty high in my experience, regularly around 80%. That means you need less grain and can brew higher-gravity batches more easily.
      • You can brew fairly large batches
      • During the four years I used it, I had comparatively few problems compared with the other two systems
      • It's a great way to learn and understand the all-grain brewing process
      • Because it can brew 2.64 to 8 gallon batches, and its efficiency is close to the standard 75% most brewing recipes are based on, it's easy to adjust recipes to work with The Grainfather.
      • Support is good and replacement parts seem pretty available
    • Bad points:
      • It requires the most manual effort of all three of the systems discussed here. A lot of that effort involves lifting the heavy grain basket and the entire Grainfather system. I found that hard on my back.
      • It's not fully automated, which is bad in that you have to babysit it more and do more by hand.  On the flip side, this teaches you more than a set-it-and-forget-it device.
      • Getting your sparge water to the right temp in precise timing with the mash out is a bit of a challenge, but doable. 
      • The biggest problem I had during my usage was early on. Residue in the bottom of the kettle would trip the thermal cut-out switch. Resetting that switch means getting underneath the machine, which is a bit dangerous when it's filled with boiling wort.  For that reason, I made a u-shaped wooden platform and ran The Grainfather on that, so I could reach underneath it as needed.
  • PicoBrew Zymatic
    • Good points:
      • You can brew many different styles automatically
      • The process is almost entirely automated, except for chilling
      • You can monitor the brewing process anywhere with an Internet connection
      • I found their support team to be responsive and helpful
      • The online interface works pretty well and it's easy enough to specify custom mash schedules with as much complexity as you need
      • The Zymatic has been on the market for a very long time, so their support staff are pretty familiar with how the device could fail and how to resolve issues.
    • Bad points:
      • Because it produces 2.5 gallon batches, you have to adjust many published recipes for both size and gravity before brewing.
      • There is a limit to four hop additions during brewing, which can be a challenge for some recipes, and manual hop additions aren't supported (at least not easily).
      • The Zymatic is relatively loud in operation.  With it running in the basement, I could easily hear it running from upstairs.
      • In one year of use, I went through four plastic trays because they always developed cracks in the bottom between the mash and boil compartments. Those cracks led to wort seeping out of the tray into the machine, into its small drip tray, and onto the table or floor.
      • In one year of use, I had three or four batches overflow the grain compartment, the drip tray, the table, and onto the floor. These led to big floor mop-up sessions which were not fun.  
      • A few months in, an issue developed with the heat exchanger where residue built up inside it that wasn't removed in the cleaning process. This residue caused the system to generate overheat errors while trying to brew. Often the batch had to be tossed when this happened.  It took almost a solid month of running various  cleaning cycles to restore it to good operation.
      • There were a number of times the ball lock connectors on the keg (or the wort filter) would clog up for unknown reasons and interfere with the brewing process.
      • The grain bill limit combined with the low efficiency and tendency to overflow unexpectedly meant that higher-gravity beers like Belgian styles were harder and somewhat riskier to make in the Zymatic.
      • The plastic trays seemed to crack often on me, and once out of warranty they would be about $150 to replace. That seemed the biggest problem with the design to me. I'd love to seem them produce a stainless tray with a plastic viewing window.
      • Brewhouse efficiency seemed variable and I rarely got the machine to hit my volume and gravity targets, which was frustrating when producing beer for competition.
  • Brewie+
    • Good points:
      • Batch sizes from 2.64 to 6 gallons can be brewed, which works well for just about any recipe you come across.
      • The grain bill limit is large enough to brew most recipes you want to brew. If not, you can dial down the recipe volume to squeeze in more grain.
      • It's almost completely automated between the loading of ingredients and pumping into the fermenter.
      • Cleaning is the easiest of all three of the systems discussed here, at least to me.
      • The touch screen makes it easy to interact with.
      • You can monitor the brewing process with their app, though the status isn't as clear as what you get from the Zymatic.
      • The Brewie+ is fairly quiet in operation.  It's not quite as quiet as The Grainfather but much quieter than the Zymatic. I could not hear it from upstairs.
      • If the device breaks down, the vendor will allow you to open it up to work on it and investigate problems, which means you won't be shipping it off for service in many cases. 
      • Supposedly, many of the pieces inside the machine are off-the-shelf electronics that can be replaced by ordering new pieces online fairly cheaply. This means that out of warranty support should be easier.
    • Bad points:
      • I had issues getting the Brewie+ to load water accurately, even with calibration. This led me to do that step manually to ensure I got consistent and predictable results.
      • Without doing something manual, there are limits on the amount and number of hop additions possible in a recipe. Since I don't tend to brew hoppy beers, this is a minor issue for me.
      • Support comes from Hungary, so there can be delays in getting responses and sometimes language issues.
      • About 7 months into my use of the Brewie+, it failed while heating wort to a boil. I ended up having to quickly clean a kettle, transfer wort into it, and bring it to a boil elsewhere... then manually add hops, etc. to finish it out.  The failure required the vendor to ship a replacement part.  It's now about six weeks later and I do not have the part or even a tracking number. From what I have seen in the forums online, this is unfortunately not a rare occurrence.
      • Common repair parts do not appear to be available from the shops that sell the Brewie+, though from what I understand in the online forums, many of the parts are common electronics that can be purchased online once you identify what has failed.
      • Since it's a relatively new product to the market, it seems to be experiencing a number of issues common to new products... failed components, manufacturing issues, and the like.
All that said, none of the three is completely trouble-free.  I had the least issues with The Grainfather of all three systems and used it the longest of all three.  I had the most issues with The Zymatic, and had to acquire replacement parts multiple times for the tray.  However, their support was very responsive and they delivered the repair parts with a minimum of hassle.  I'm still waiting for my Brewie+ part, and when it arrives, I'll need to install it myself, which might prove to be a challenge.

Thoughts and Recommendations

I love to brew new beers, tweak my recipes, and see how they turn out.  That means I tend to prefer the more-automated setups, as they make it much easier to do that with a minimum of effort.  Of all three units discussed here, the Brewie+ is still my favorite.  It's delivered consistent and predictable results, runs quietly, and produces beers that win in competition.  It requires the least effort to brew and clean.  It's almost entirely automated.  Because you have easy access to the mash compartment and kettle, you can move the grain about a little during mashing to help with efficiency, take gravity readings and pH readings, etc.  It's a nice balance between accessibility and automation.  If spare parts were readily accessible or reliability high, it would be an ideal machine for my needs.  (Naturally, that might not be true for you.)

In case it sounds like I'm trashing the Zymatic here, I'm not.  I did have the most trouble with it of the three systems. Wort overflows, cracked plastic trays, and foaming caused messes more than a few times that required manual cleanup and mopping.  Because it's a sealed device, and opening voids your warranty, when I had a problem with the heat exchanger, there was no option to open it up and clean it manually.  I just had to run nightly cleaning cycles over a period of weeks to get it to work again.  Despite this, the Zymatic had me brewing more often and flexing my recipe-design skills a bit.  I was more willing to try random recipes and styles because of the minimal effort involved.  I loved the ability to monitor a brew from anywhere.  The support folks were always great to work with, and they're located in the USA, so there were no communication barriers.

I love The Grainfather, too.  It taught me a lot about all-grain brewing because I had to be involved manually in the process, and kept me from getting discouraged by keeping wort temperatures where I needed them. I produced a few award-winning beers in it (including two state level silver medals).  I had a few minor issues (none requiring repairs) in four years of use.  It handles the entire process from mash to chill, minus heating and applying sparge water.  It's possible to disassemble and clean the system nearly completely without voiding the warranty.  Repair parts are easy to find and not terribly expensive.  My only complaints are that it requires a lot more hands-on effort to brew a batch, and this also includes a bit of heavy lifting.

As far as recommendations go, these are mine:
  • If you're new to all-grain brewing, The Grainfather and similar units are a great way to get into the process, learn it, and produce good beers.  These units are cheaper than the Zymatic and the Brewie+ so you don't need as big a cash outlay to own them.  In my experience, they were pretty efficient, too, so you needed less grain to make the same beer than you would with the Brewie+ or the Zymatic.
  • If you're experienced with all-grain brewing and lack the free time to brew as often as you like, the Brewie+ would be my recommendation.  It requires the least manual effort of the three systems to produce a batch. It's quieter, too.  You can brew standard 5-gallon batches with it.  You can control the mash and sparge water amounts. It even chills the wort for you.
  • All this said, there are plenty of used Zymatic machines on the market and plenty of Grainfather or Grainfather-like systems available new.  No so many Brewie+ machines since it's relatively new to the market.  You may be able to get the other two more cheaply, if that's a concern.  
If the Brewie+ ever fails or proves to be too unreliable, the next step for me would probably be to design and build my own automated system using as much off-the-shelf stuff as I can, so that it's much easier to clean, troubleshoot, and repair.  That's been my biggest complaint about both the Zymatic and the Brewie+.  Neither vendor publishes a lot detailed troubleshooting information so you're stuck in a support queue to get solutions or try to guess your way through a problem.  I'd love to see them produce technical manuals to help troubleshoot hardware problems and help you identify the issue and resolve it where possible.

In any case, happy brewing to all of you, no matter what system you use.

Update 09/02/2019:  Today, I became aware of the possible exit of the Brewie company from the business world.  Attempts to file tech support tickets return the error "Account suspended" although their main web site remains up.  There are many broken units available for sale on eBay, presumably from the US repair facility.  I hope what I am hearing is wrong, because with some minor tweaks this would be a great product.  We'll see.