Festbier – review of the new Grainfather system!

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My brewing setup consists of converted kegs/keggles, two propane burners, and a chugger pump — a pretty standard RIMS setup which has done me well for the past four years. It definitely comes with its challenges, though. Brewing outdoors exposes you to the elements, so any extreme hot or cold makes things difficult, i.e. hoses freezing up, ground water not cold enough to chill the wort, etc. Any slight breeze or gust of wind diminishes the flame heating the kettle (which is already an inefficient heat source) so keeping a constant mash temp without a temp controller is spotty, and maintaining a steady rolling boil is tricky although manageable. My efficiency is naturally low (usually 65%-68%) because I batch sparge, and my total wort loss from mash/lauter tun and boil kettle combined is around a gallon and a half due to dead spaces, so I lose a good bit of perfectly good wort on every batch.

Sounds like I’m complaining, but it’s a solid system that has produced really good beer (which placed several times in comps). It’s a piecemeal system that wasn’t expensive to put together, but all of its drawbacks have led me to look into overhauling my setup and switching to an all-electric system. I’m not so much worried about the consistency of the beer as much as maintenance and making the brew day easier. Start to finish, a 5-gallon batch on my propane system takes around 6 hours – it’s a long time, and although I’ve accepted that it will take up a good portion of my Saturday, that is a FULL 6 hours of work – constantly checking the strike temp, mash temp, boil level, assembling and disassembling parts for storage… you get the point. Having some automation in the system will allow me to get other stuff done during the day while brewing. The idea of brewing indoors all year round is attractive, and to do so would require ditching the gas burners. There are a lot of electric options for retro-fitting kettles with heating elements, but I came across the Grainfather system and was immediately attracted to its design and compactness. I did some research on what it would cost to build something similar from scratch. It would cost well over $2000, and the Grainfather is competitively priced at $890. So I made easily the biggest brewing purchase I’ve ever made and gave the Grainfather a shot.

The first recipe is a Festbier for Oktoberfest. It’s a simple recipe, and I’ve made this with good results the past few years.

  • 6 lb Pilsner malt
  • 3 lb Dark munich
  • 0.3 lb Caramunich I
  • 1.5 oz Hallertauer (2.5 % a.a.) at 60 and 30 minutes
  • White Labs Munich Lager (2L starter)

// Mash-in 1.5 qt/lb at 152 for 60 minutes, mash out at 168 for 5 minutes. Collect around 7.5 gallons pre-boil wort, boil 90 minutes. Collected around 6.75 gallons of 1037 wort. Chilled down to 82 with ground water, put in the fridge overnight to chill. Pitched decanted starter the next morning with wort at 62F and put in fridge at 48F. Brewed 8/30/16. //

Before I get into my notes of first impressions of the Grainfather, let me say that it’s not surprising to have some hiccups and unexpected issues when completely overhauling your existing brewing setup with an entirely different system. That being said, here are my main notes from first use of the Grainfather. Overall I enjoyed using the Grainfather. The components are extremely well designed and thought-out. You can tell someone who brews a lot made this. The size is awesome and really appealing for someone who doesn’t have a lot of space. Looking forward to continuing to brew on it and make some good beer!

Mashing

The mashing method for the Grainfather is like a metal brew-in-a-bag. They wisely have the metal basket raised off the bottom of the kettle where the heating element is (to prevent scorching), but there’s probably around a gallon of water that sits below the basket. I used my standard mash-in ratio of 1.5 qt/lb. Before you start the recirculation pump, the mash is THICK. I mean really thick. Once the pump has some time to move the liquid around it’s OK. I later learned that the brewing calculator on their website helps you choose the right ratio for their system based on your grainbill. Highly recommend this.

Boiling

If you’re like me and switching from a propane system, be forewarned that the boil on the Grainfather is not strong. It’s puny. Barely even what I would call “rolling”.  After doing some research online, several people in forums have noted the same issue. Some say that using an extension cord can drop the power slightly and weaken the boil. I tried both ways – not much difference. After talking with my LHBS expert (who has used the Grainfather extensively), he said that this “weak” boil is both typical for the Grainfather and most commercial breweries. He said that the crazy boils that homebrewers get aren’t common in a commercial brewery simply because its not necessary. I still have qualms about whether you’ll getting a good hot break, though. Regardless, using the Grainfather calculator will help you get your volumes right to account for the true boil-off rates.

Chilling

This was probably the most seamless part that worked especially well the first time. The inline chiller was able to get the wort down to the temperature of my ground water (85F) and go directly into the fermentor. The hop filter did a good job of keeping back nearly all of the hops from going through the pump. Beats having to stand over the kettle with a copper immersion chiller, stirring constantly for about 20 minutes. The hoses and adaptors for the cold-in hot-out feel a little cheap, but they work.

Losses

I should have done more research beforehand, but I totally over estimated the losses. First, the boil-off rate is low (i would guess 6%) compared to the propane setup. Second, there’s much less dead space in the vessel so I only lose about 1/2 gallon to trub/hops. So I wound up with way too much wort (probably 7 gallons or so instead of 5) after the boil so this first batch is a little thin. At the time I didn’t realize that their online calculator accounts for all those parameters to figure out what volumes you need.

Controls

The electric controls are easy to use – one switch to activate the pump, the other to toggle between mash mode (temp regulated) and boil mode (full heat). There’s another switch on the bottom of the unit away from the control panel, however, which can be set to “Normal” or “Mash”.  Apparently this switches between using the full electric power or a lower power unit, respectively. Not sure why this type of switching logic wasn’t built into the temperature control electronics, but they provide instructions on when you should use the different modes. It’s not super inconvenient, but it just provides a thing you can potentially forget to set before you use it.

 

8/31/16:  Lots of activity, no yeast on top yet. Fridge at 48F. Rotten egg smell in the morning, but by night smells clean.

9/7/16: Gravity at 1020. Fridge at 50F.

9/14/16: Turned the fridge off to let it rise up to about 60F.

9/16/16: Gravity down to 1014. Still fruity and cloudy, but with a pleasant bread flavor. Lots of airlock activity still.

9/22/16: Gravity at 1012. Slightly off aroma (sulfur) but flavor is wonderful. Set temp to 36F, will let this sit for a week and then keg!

 

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Filed under All-grain, Amber, Equipment, German, Lager, Malty

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