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The Grainfather: Zero Hour

2018 June 12
by Mad Alchemist

I’ve been eyeballing the Grainfather and similar all-in-one brewing systems for quite some time.

My first electric brew was in an apartment over 8 years ago. I’d been brewing for years, but had been limited to partial mashes and cooktops for my own setup (and had to go elsewhere to do all-grain).

I bought an electric turkey fryer and some mesh from the hobby store and brewed in a bag. After refining the process to work fairly well (Reflectix insulation, smaller batch size, small sparge, etc.), I ditched it like a bad habit the moment I lived somewhere I could use propane again.

It was an experience that left me cold to electric brewing. Back in those days, there weren’t any great off-the-shelf solutions for electric brewing.

The Grainfather recaptured my interest. A custom tailored system to brew indoors with a proper batch size, mash steps, reduced effort, and less cleaning?

That had me intrigued. Back in the old days when I really updated this site frequently, I would brew at least monthly, if not multiple times a month. In the past few years since having a kid, I’ve brewed once or twice a year. It’s such a hassle!

The single vessel mash/boil system and theoretically-reduced effort really was appealing.

But, the cost of entry was prohibitive. I’ve refined my technique and equipment for years. $1000 for a new mash and boil setup seemed exorbitant. I could buy a nicer kettle, burner, mash tun, pump, and other odds and ends for the same price.

The Grainfather maintained my peripheral interest over time, but never really grabbed me enough to buy it. Then, other electric brew systems started showing up. Most seemed to be pretenders. Inferior imitators. Some of the others that looked good were multi-vessel. No thanks. I have propane for that.

The Robobrew came out and I darn near bought it. But I didn’t. Probably because I wanted the Grainfather. It was proven, and New Zealand accents are cool.

But $1000!

The Grainfather conical came out. I was impressed. The double wall insulation and other considerations really meant that they get it. At least to me.

I’ve never gone to conicals over the years. I’ve used all manner of buckets and carboys. I have a chest freezer and built a PID temperature controller ~7-8 years ago that’s still going strong.

But the Grainfather conical… Ugh, that thing looks good. Arguably it looks way less cool than a conical from SS, Spike, Stout, or others, but the functional design speaks to me.

My biggest hang up is chilling. I can lager and carefully control my fermentation temps with my existing setup.

Then I saw their simple cooling kit. It isn’t glycol, so it couldn’t be as good as my freezer. Would I even be able to lager? Cold crash? Hrm…

Fast forward to last week when everywhere had the Grainfather for $200 off, and I looked at the system again. The Connect came out since the last time I really looked at it, and that looks pretty impressive. You can even import Beersmith recipes to it!

Crap. Goodbye expensive headphone gear, hello hobby cash. I decided to overhaul almost my entire homebrewing system in one go.

I pulled the trigger and bought a Grainfather Connect. Then I bought the Graincoat. Then I bought a Hot Rod Heatstick to heat strike water and supplement the boil if needed.

Then I bought the Grainfather Conical Basic Cooling Edition. This one has me the most worried, to be honest, since I can already control fermentation temperature tightly.

My plan for cooling: I added a collar and insulation to my fermentation freezer. I cut holes in it for the cooling tubes. I plan to use a glycol solution and keep the liquid below freezing to cool more effectively. I might also add a stainless wort chiller submerged in an ice bank for the return liquid (to cool it down and offset some of the BTUs).

We’ll see how that works. I’m confident I can manage ales, but I’m not sure I can lager with it, especially in my garage. Should lagering prove impossible, I’ll temporarily continue to use carboys in my chest freezer for that purpose and will invest in a Grainfather Gycol Chiller later on when it’s available in the USA.

Yeah, I’ve gone full Grainfather. Everything arrives soon (the Conical is delayed by a week or two).

I’m excited but more than a little worried about so many process changes at once. I also hope I don’t suddenly feel disconnected from the process with the automation capabilities of the Grainfather.

I’ll try to document my experiences here, and possibly in a video after I get things up and running. If all goes well and this helps kick-start my brewing habit again, you can expect more posts at Mad Alchemist over time.

Wish me luck! And any tips on using the Grainfather Connect or Conical are welcome.

Here’s a beauty shot of my keezer/chiller, complete with a paintjob by my 4 year old son:

Mad Alchemist Obliterum (Rye IPA)

2016 January 17
by Mad Alchemist

Every now and then, I brew a special oak-aged rye beer to share with my friends and coworkers. The last, Savage Remedy, was very well-received.

To commemorate the same occasion for our latest project, I brewed a Rye IPA, companion to the above, and lovingly call it Obliterum.

I also enjoy testing new techniques whenever the opportunity presents itself. With this beer, I purchased some HopRage to use for bittering. It’s a shelf-stable hop extract that can be kept refrigerated for~6 years.

It also smells wonderful and imparts–as I found with this recipe–a smooth yet assertive bitterness. I will likely use HopRage either as the only bittering hops in my future beers or I’ll augment it with my usual Magnum. Highly recommended.

On to the recipe and description. This Rye IPA is equal parts bitter and smooth, delicate and bold. It is silk obscuring an assassin’s blade. The flavor develops on the palate as luscious > sharp > warm > smooth > dry. You are compelled by a brain itch to retrieve the glass mere moments after your last sip.

I present to you, Obliterum:


  • 2-Row Pale (4 lbs)
  • White Wheat (4 lbs)
  • Rye Malt (1 lb)
  • Flaked Barley (1 lb)
  • Torrified Wheat (1 lb)
  • Flaked Rye (1 lb)
  • Special Roast (1 lb)
  • Crystal Wheat (1 lb)
  • Crystal Rye (1 lb)
  • Hops: Magnum (0.5 oz @ 60 mins for Bittering)
  • Hops: HopRage Extract (5 ml @ 60 minutes for Bittering)
  • Hops: Liberty (0.5 oz @ 20 mins for Flavor, 0.5 oz @ 0 mins for Aroma)
  • Hops: Willamette (0.5 oz @ 20 mins for Flavor, 0.5 oz @ 0 mins for Aroma)
  • Yeast: Dry English Ale + London Ale
  • Water: Balanced Chloride/Sulfate Ratio (favor Sulfate a little bit)
  • Mash: 150°F at ~1.25 qt/lb. Target pH is ~5.4
  • (Don’t forget the rice hulls! This is a recipe for a gummy mash)

Target Profile

  • Original Gravity: 18° Plato (1.079 SG)
  • Final Gravity: 3.36° Plato (1.013 SG)
  • Color: 17.7 SRM
  • Bitterness: 70 IBU
  • Alcohol: 8.1%
  • Carbonation: 2.6 Vols

Oak Cubes
2 oz Medium American. On brew day, put them in a sealed container with enough Rye Whiskey (I use Bulleit) to cover the cubes. Shake it up every now and then. After 2 weeks of fermentation, add the oak cubes to the fermentor along with the Rye Whiskey, and leave them in for one week prior to cold crashing.

Ferment at 67°F for ~2 weeks, raise it to 70 for the last few days of that two weeks, add the oak for a week, then crash it down to ~34 over the course of a week. Bottle/keg and age for ~3 months to allow the flavors to meld and harsher characteristics to mellow out.

Final Notes
As with any recipe, adjust to your equipment and taste. Some might want less rye, others more bitterness. Some might find they have a more efficient system than I do, while others might have to add additional 2-Row.

Experiment! Make the recipe your own and imbue it with your own artistic touch. Make a California variant with American yeast and fruity hops. Use different oak. Substitute “Wheat” everywhere you see “Rye” and condition the oak cubes in Irish Whiskey instead.



Lactose Alternatives for Homebrewing

2016 January 13
by Mad Alchemist

Some people want to brew a sweet/milk stout or other beer that calls for it, but they don’t want to use lactose. Perhaps you are vegan or you’d like your vegan friends to be able to drink the beer you brew, or you worry that lactose-intolerance could be an issue.

Are there any substitutes for lactose? For those of us who would prefer to avoid lactose but want a creamy sweetness in our beer, there are still many options available:

  • Mash at a higher temperature, around 158 °F. This will decrease the fermentability of the wort and make it fuller-bodied and sweeter.
  • Add some carapils, maltodextrin, carafoam, or similar. All of these increase head retention and body.
  • Treat your water to favor the flavors. A 2/1 Chloride/Sulfate ratio with 100+ ppm of Chloride will help, as will some additional Sodium (but keep Sodium below 150 ppm)
  • Increase the amount of low lovibond crystal/caramel malt you use. For example, if you have some Crystal 20 at a rate of 5% of the batch, up that to more like 10%.
  • Reduce the astringency you introduce from dark grains (like chocolate malt and roasted barley). This can be done in a number of ways, including using Carafa Special (dehusked chocolate) Midnight Wheat, or De-bittered black malt. Alternatively, you can steep your dark grains separately (below 170 F) or “cold brew” them like a coffee then add them after the mash to help avoid tannin extraction.

There’s really a lot you can do. I actually stopped using lactose even in sweet stout so I didn’t have to worry about it impacting lactose-intolerant friends, and I employ most of these techniques when making a sweet stout. If you’re interested in a longer write-up on sweet stouts, feel free to hit this article: Mashing the Perfect Sweet Stout

Recipe: Mad Alchemist Savage Remedy (Dry Stout)

2014 June 7
by Mad Alchemist

Frankly, this recipe is as yet untested. I’ll try to update this post with taste notes in a few months when the beer is ready. I’m brewing tomorrow.

Mad Alchemist Savage Stout is a not-to-style dry stout that utilizes rye and oak cubes sanitized in rye whiskey. It is intended to be a rye-forward, relatively bitter beer with an initially slightly-sour and spicy impression that dries on the tongue then rounds out with an oak tinge.


  • 2-Row Pale Malt (7 lbs)
  • Flaked Barley (2 lbs)
  • Rye Malt (1 lb)
  • Crystal Rye (1 lb)
  • Special Roast (1 lb)
  • Midnight Wheat (12 oz)
  • Chocolate Rye (8 oz)
  • Hops: Magnum (1.5 oz @ 60 mins for Bittering)
  • Yeast: Dry English Ale
  • Water: Balanced Chloride/Sulfate Ratio (favor Sulfate a little bit)
  • Mash: 151°F at ~1.5 qt/lb. Target pH is ~5.4

Target Profile

  • Original Gravity: 16.68° Plato (1.068 SG)
  • Final Gravity: 3.84° Plato (1.015 SG)
  • Color: 42 SRM
  • Bitterness: 68 IBU
  • Alcohol: 7.1%
  • Carbonation: 2.5 Vols (favor it a bit lower to stay truer to stout. I usually carbonate high in bottles because you can pour hard straight down the middle of the glass to get rid of excess carbonation)

Oak Cubes
2 oz Medium American. On brew day, put them in a sealed container with enough Rye Whiskey (I’m using Bulleit) to cover the cubes. Shake it up every now and then. After 1 week of fermentation, add the oak cubes to the fermentor along with the Rye Whiskey, and leave them in there for the remaining two weeks of fermentation.

Ferment at 65°F for ~2 weeks, raise it to 70 for the last couple days of that two weeks, then crash it down to ~34 over the course of a week. Bottle/keg and age for ~3 months to allow the flavors to meld and harsher characteristics to mellow out.

This turned out quite well. Quite well indeed. It is smooth as silk despite trying to savage your tastebuds. The bitterness is significant, but you can only really notice that it’s there if you’re looking for it. This is one of my favorite beers I’ve brewed. In addition to the yeast listed above, I also used pouch of Wyeast London Ale (no starter, so I had about 1/4 as much of this as White Labs Dry English Ale) to add complexity and ensure proper fermentation.

I would summarize this as a big, bold, rich, dry stout with significant complexity and smoothed edges.

The Secondary Myth

2014 March 3
by Mad Alchemist

Should you rack your beer to a secondary fermentor after primary fermentation is complete? When is it appropriate to rack to secondary? How long can you leave beer in a fermentor on the yeast cake before all hell breaks loose?

These questions are commonly asked, and there are people in both camps, but one of the camps is wrong. Traditional homebrewing literature posits that racking to secondary is vital if you wish to make the best possible homebrewed beer. Modern techniques and ingredients suggests that racking to secondary is a practice of the past, with an asterisk.

If you don’t want to read a bunch of text, stop after this paragraph. John Palmer, author of the seminal How to Brew, espoused the need to rack to a secondary fermentation vessel. In subsequent revisions of his book and in current conversations, he believes racking to secondary is rarely necessary (and wishes people would just buy his new revision rather than using the free first edition online to get old information). The only time racking to a secondary is advised is when actually performing a secondary fermentation (e.g. when adding fruit or souring the beer).

Quick review of racking to secondary: This is the practice of siphoning or otherwise transferring finished beer out of the primary fermentation vessel into a new one. It was done to allow the beer to condition and prevent autolysis (and its associated off-flavors) in the process. Autolysis is most likely to occur if the brewer uses unhealthy yeast or does not pitch enough yeast for the batch.

What are the risks associated with transferring to a secondary vessel? The two main risks are oxidation and infection. Oxidation can occur due to oxygen exposure during the transfer, which will cause the beer to stale sooner (as will warmer storage conditions, but that is not part of this discussion). You can mitigate oxidation by ensuring that the siphon does not get bubbles in it and that you prevent splashing during the transfer. Infection can come from a number of directions, but can be avoided with relative confidence with good sanitation practices (which you should already have), and isn’t a significant risk anyway given the alcohol content in the beer being transferred.

The alternative to racking to secondary is leaving the beer in the primary fermentor until you bottle or keg. What has changed since traditional homebrewing literature advised racking to secondary? Two main things have changed.

First, the yeast we have access to is worlds better than it used to be. There are multiple excellent sources for great yeast. In fact, it’s the same stuff that actual breweries use. Because we have access to healthy, viable yeast, we don’t have to worry much about autolysis.

The second factor is knowledge. We now know what proper pitching rates are for different gravities of wort. Since we know how much we need to pitch (and how to handle yeast), we can avoid the risk of autolysis by pitching at a proper rate (often a vial of White Labs or packet of Wyeast is enough for a standard/low gravity wort, but creating a starter is often advised for higher gravities or if you are obsessive like me).

It is now safe when utilizing healthy yeast a proper pitching rates to leave your beer on the yeast cake for several weeks, and even up to a couple of months in my experience. Leave it in your primary fermentor and it will condition properly, cleaning up acetaldehyde and diacetyl. Don’t risk oxidation and infection for no reason! This applies both to ales and lagers.

As I mentioned before, racking to secondary is sometimes necessary. However, it is only necessary when a secondary fermentation takes place. The two most common examples would be adding fruit (due to the sugars in the fruit) or souring the beer intentionally. The only other time I do it is if I want to free up my primary fermentor for a new beer.

Some of those who are firmly planted in the secondary camp also believe that the clarity of the beer is improved in a secondary vessel or that tradition is worth preserving. People who like to rack to secondary, keep doing what you’re doing. The clarity argument might be true, but I don’t feel the risk of oxidation or effort involved are worth it, and I cold crash my beer for a week before bottling anyway, which completely negates that benefit in my process.

Final words: White Labs, Wyeast, John Palmer (author of How to Brew), and Jamil Zainasheff (author of Yeast) all recommend against racking to secondary. They are all more experienced and knowledgeable than we are; listen to them.

BIAB – My Brew in a Bag Journey

2014 March 1
by Mad Alchemist

Incredibly Short Version: I brewed in a bag for about a year (2010-2011), then switched to a more traditional homebrewing method and have never looked back.

BIAB Negatives

  • Cleaning the fine mesh is something I never successfully mastered.
  • You will invariably end up with some grain in the boil, not matter how fine the mesh, leading to barely-detectable undesirable flavors (I never felt I could achieve quite the best possible beer with BIAB).
  • To really refine the process, you have to build a method to hoist the grains above the kettle to let them drip, which defeats some of the purpose of BIAB (lean and mean).
  • There is (or at least was when I did it) a small chance that the fine mesh will tear under the weight of the grain and wort, resulting in Bad Things That Suck (a big load of grain in your kettle–hope you have backup bags to strain through).

Long Version
I did Brew in a Bag (BIAB) throughout all of 2010, which equates to ~15 batches. Here’s a none-too-brief description of my journey and why I stopped brewing in a bag.

I lived in a small apartment on the fourth floor with a wooden balcony. I wanted–nay, needed–to brew all grain in a confined space, and my stove just wasn’t cutting it (nor could I use propane on that balcony).

So I got turned onto two things at once. First was using an electric turkey fryer to heat up my mash water and boil my wort. Way back in… 2010… electric heating elements were not really a thing in homebrewing, so they were hard to find and most would scorch the crap out of your wort if you tried to use them.

The second was an all-grain brewing method that was picking up steam in Australia (I was in Massachusetts, as an aside), and that sounded great. Get a fine mesh bag of a size that no homebrew places carried and I could just mash right in my turkey fryer, pull the bag out, let it drip for a while as I heated up to a boil, and I’d be golden.

Long story short, it mostly worked. Not at first, but after I reduced my batch size to ~3.5 gallons, doubled up on the mesh bags I made for myself (because one of them broke and pretty much ruined the whole experience), added Reflectix to stabilize my mash temperatures, and generally refined my process, I was successfully brewing very good beers in a bag.

Then I moved.

I got a house, I had a deck, I was happy. So I got a propane burner and a kettle. I started pricing out parts to rig up a system to hold my bag for me to let it drip and method by which to filter the bits of grain that would always go through the bag. I previously resigned myself to just buying craptons of bags because I never found a way to clean them as thoroughly as I liked, and then…

I realized that the cost and process would be just as expensive, arduous, and space-taking as going more traditional (in a homebrew sense) if I wanted to meet my need (in my mind) for the best possible beer.

So I went more traditional. I stopped BIAB.

And I have never looked back.

Brewing with a discreet mash tun and boil kettle is no harder than brewing in a bag for me, and clean-up seems to be simpler for my process. I get more predictable results and have decided that it’s the way I like to brew.

BIAB is great in certain situations, and it’s an awesome way to get started with all-grain brewing (especially in small batches) without a significant monetary commitment.

If you love it and your process works for you, awesome. For me, maybe I’ll mess with it again some day now that homebrew shops support the practice, but I like brewing the way I do now.

Interested in Brew in a Bag (BIAB)? Here are some places that can get you started.

Recipe: Mad Alchemist Americana Pale Ale

2014 February 12
by Mad Alchemist

This is a super clean, crisp, hop flavor-forward but balanced pale ale. It is relatively bready for a pale ale, but it dries out nicely on the back of the tongue. It is essentially an American Pale Ale but uses quite a few German ingredients for the grist. The ingredients I’m listing are for a 5 gallon all-grain batch.


  • Pale Malt (8 lbs)
  • Carahell (8 oz)
  • Caramunich I (8 oz)
  • Munich I (8 oz)
  • Biscuit Malt (8 oz)
  • Hops: Magnum (Bittering), 0.5 oz each Cascade and Centennial at 20 mins and 0 mins
  • Yeast: California Ale
  • Water: Balanced Chloride/Sulfate Ratio, moderate Sodium for roundness

Target Profile

  • Original Gravity: 1.052
  • Final Gravity: 1.011
  • Color: 9 SRM
  • Bitterness: 35 IBU
  • Alcohol: 5.4%
  • Carbonation: 2.5 Vols

I like to ferment this at 68°F for ~2 weeks, then I ease it down to the low 30s over the course of a week.

Bittering Units : Real Extract (BU:RE) Calculator

2012 February 25
by Mad Alchemist

Some people have requested that I post a calculator for the BU:RE ratio. This uses degrees Plato instead of Specific Gravity. If you don’t work in degrees Plato and don’t know how to convert from Specific Gravity, here’s a quick formula you’ll need to know:

degrees Plato = Specific Gravity / 4

To briefly describe what BU:RE does you, it is roughly a 10 point scale that helps estimate beer balance (with 5 being balanced, 10 being very bitter, and 1 being very sweet). It takes into account the bitterness of a beer (in IBUs) as well as Real Extract (in degrees Plato, which is calculated for you via the Original Gravity and Final Gravity inputs). While it can’t account for X factors like roasted malts and water composition, it goes a long way toward quantifying balance and is my current favorite method for calculating it.

BU:RE = IBU / ((0.1808 * OG °P) + (0.8192 * FG °P))

BU:RE Calculator
Bitterness (IBU)
Original Gravity (°P)
Final Gravity (°P)
Bittering Units to Real Extract
BU:RE = IBU /((0.1808 * OG °P) + (0.8192 * FG °P))
by Ryan “Mad Alchemist” Shwayder

If you’d like to compare your beer against a style, here’s a large spreadsheet with all the BJCP style data you’ll need (including a column for the average BU:RE of the style). Beer Style Data (Google Docs)

Relative Bitterness Ratio (RBR)

2012 January 13

I have a new calculation that I’ve been using when determining the expected balance of my beer recipes. It is a child of the commonly-used Bitterness Ratio (BU:GU), and the numbers output can be read in the same way as BU:GU. However, the one thing that is taken into account with the Relative Bitterness Ratio (RBR) that BU:GU does not account for is Apparent Attenuation (ADF).

The higher the degree of Apparent Attenuation (ADF), the more fermentable sugars are consumed and the less residual sweetness is left behind. That means that as ADF gets higher, beer balance tends more toward the bitter end of the scale. As ADF gets lower, beer balance tends more toward the sweet end of the scale.

For example: A beer that starts out at an OG of 1.050 at 25 IBU would be said to have a Bitterness Ratio of 0.5. If it were split into two batches and one had an apparent attenuation of 80% (Beer A), while another had an apparent attenuation of 60% (Beer B), Beer A would be perceived to be more bitter than Beer B, as the latter has considerably more residual sweetness.

In the pages linked below, you can find out a plethora of information explaining details about the Relative Bitterness Ratio (RBR). If you aren’t interested in the details, I’ve included the formula for figuring out RBR as well as a simple calculator if you just want to input some numbers and get results.

To quickly explain the formula:

RBR = Relative Bitterness Ratio. ADF = Apparent Attenuation. 0.7655 is the average ADF of all beer styles. Since the Relative Bitterness Ratio takes into account balance relative to all beer styles, it uses this as a constant. You are comparing your beer’s ADF against the average ADF (0.7655), then adjusting the standard Bitterness Ratio accordingly (it goes up if your ADF is higher than average, down if your ADF is lower than average). Just like BU:GU, higher numbers mean more bitter, lower numbers mean less bitter, and 0.5 is roughly average balance.

RBR = (BU:GU) x (1 + (ADF - 0.7655))

Relative Bitterness Ratio Calculator
BU:GU Ratio
Apparent Attenuation (%)
Relative Bitterness Ratio
RBR = (BU:GU) x (1 + (ADF - 0.7655))
by Ryan “Mad Alchemist” Shwayder


UPDATE: The charts are broken. Google decided to update their API and make things not backward compatible. Unfortunately I don’t have time right now to dissect what the heck they did to make them work again.

The Perfectly Average Beer

2012 January 7
by Mad Alchemist

What’s the Perfectly Average Beer? Well, it’s all of the averages from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines in one beer. I was surprised after entering all of the data that the average beer is roughly what I would expect an average beer to look like. For example, the average bitterness ratio (BU:GU) is almost exactly 0.5, which I’ve always considered perfectly balanced for most malt bills.

Want the short version? The Perfectly Average Beer looks like this:

  • ABV: 5.8%
  • IBU: 28.6
  • SRM: 14
  • OG: 1.058
  • FG: 1.013
  • Bitterness Ratio: 0.5

Want some more details? I’m happy to oblige!

Alcohol By Volume ABV Low: 4.95% ABV High: 6.71% ABV Avg: 5.83%
Bitterness IBU Low: 20.68 IBU High: 36.51 IBU Avg: 28.60
Color SRM Low: 10.07 SRM High: 17.97 SRM Avg: 14.02
Original Gravity OG Low: 1.050 OG High: 1.065 OG Avg: 1.058
Final Gravity FG Low: 1.009 FG High: 1.016 FG Avg: 1.013
Attenuation Apparent Atten Avg: 76.55% Real Atten Avg: 62.71%
Bitterness Ratio IBU/OG Avg: 0.496

Want even MORE? Well, you’ll have to wait. I’m working up another post about beer balance and how attenuation figures into it, and I have a massive chart of all the style guidelines I’ll link at that time. Until then, enjoy knowing what the Perfectly Average Beer looks like.