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The Grainfather: First Brew Day

2018 June 18
by Mad Alchemist

I received my Grainfather last week and decided to brew with it pretty much immediately.

My first step was to watch every video about the Grainfather that I could find. David Heath has put in incredible effort for the community and deserves a mention.

Various notes, warnings, tips, and tricks led me toward my first brew day with some degree of confidence.

The following were taken into consideration or otherwise implemented:

  • Wrapped the Grainfather in a Graincoat
  • Put the Grainfather on a hardwood dolly for Reset button access
  • Added a worm clamp to the filter to ensure I don’t knock it off
  • Strainer added to the overflow inlet to filter stray grains during the mash
  • Adjusted mill to 0.050″ (medium crush) to prevent a stuck sparge
  • Used 1 lb of rice hulls Just in Case™
  • Purchased a HotRod Heat Stick from BrewHardware
  • Purchased a Jaybird Whirlpool/Aeration paddle

To put the Grainfather through its paces without putting myself through too much unnecessary stress, I came up with a simple Dark Mild recipe with minimal hopping and a bit more grain than I’d normally use to keep the grist bill within the sweet spot. I also tossed in a few non-standard grains (for a Mild) just to mix things up.

Mad Alchemist Mild Mannered Ale

  • [7.5 lbs] Pale Malt, Maris Otter (Fawcett)
  • [12 oz] Caracrystal Wheat Malt (Briess)
  • [8 oz] 120 °L Extra Dark Crystal (Fawcett)
  • [4 oz] Midnight Wheat (Briess)
  • [1 lb] Rice Hulls (in part to bring the grain bed up a bit for the mash)
  • Hops: 0.25 oz Magnum @ 12.7% AA (60 minutes)
  • Hops: 1 oz East Kent Goldings @ 6.1% AA (20 minutes)
    • Used about 0.1 oz of EKG for the 60 minute hop addition as well
  • Yeast: White Labs London Ale (WLP013)
  • Other: Yeast Nutrient, Whirlfloc
  • Water: Added water salts for a balanced profile

Pregame

The day before brewing, I got the yeast starter going and cleaned the Grainfather as specified before the first brew. I used PBW since the official cleaner is unavailable in the USA at this time. I took the opportunity to familiarize myself with the Android app and controlled the temperature and pump from there.

Rather than use the handy timer to start heating the mash water (you can set up a delay and tell it when you want to start the mash, so it heats up before that time), I decided to watch it heat up for my first brew day.

I also exported my recipe from BeerSmith as a BeerXML file, then imported it to Grainfather’s own application. That required a couple of minor tweaks (not all of the data is properly standardized from BeerSmith) but was relatively painless. I also decided to use the Grainfather’s water volume calculations rather than BeerSmith.

Mash

Heating the liquor started off pretty slow–as expected with the 110V unit–so I introduced the HotRod Heat Stick and brought the strike water to 155 °F quickly.

I added a quart or two of grain at a time, making sure to stir throughly. After adding all of the grain, I used the Jaybird paddle with a hand drill to get things mixed up even more. This was really unnecessary, as my wooden mash paddle did a fine job of it. Next time, I’ll skip using the Jaybird paddle at this step as it was superfluous.

Putting the top perforated plate on required a little effort, as anticipated. I ended up putting some grain dust on the edges and dropped it an an angle before straightening it out. The seal popped off on the first couple of tries but it wasn’t too bad (indeed, the bottom plate was more difficult. I’ll have to improve my process on assembling that part in the future).

10-15 minutes into the mash, I measured the pH with an Omega PHH-7011. I was surprised to find that my pH calculations were off, as my results are generally very consistent. I then remembered that I didn’t do my standard collection of reverse osmosis water the previous day and instead purchased water for the brew day. It wasn’t wildly off, but I treated it a bit with phosphoric acid and will be smarter next time.

I let the mash go for 60 minutes, then it automatically took it up to mash out temp (168 °F). When it beeped at me to start heating my sparge water, I obliged and popped the HotRod into my old brew kettle to heat up the sparge water. It was ready by the time I needed it.

Sparge

The sparge was simple enough. After reaching temp for a period of time (I believe it was 10 minutes), it told me to start the sparge. That meant lifting the inner basket, rotating it so the feet stood on the inner stand ring, and letting it drip.

I let it drain for a few minutes, then pushed the top plate down to the grain bed and started sparging with a quart or so of hot liquor (aka water) at a time. This went by without incident. All the while, the Grainfather was starting to heat the wort up to prepare for the boil.

This is the first step that I’m dubious about. I’ve always taken care to reduce the possibility of hot side aeration (let us not discuss whether that’s a real problem or not here). The method of draining definitely introduces oxygen to the wort and puts me a bit on edge. But I digress.

My gravity readings indicated that I achieved higher efficiency than the application indicated, which is definitely not something I’ll complain about. After several more batches, I should have the numbers dialed in accurately.

Boil

Initially after completing the sparge and removing the grain basket completely from the boiler, I let the Grainfather heat up on its own power. That was taking longer than my patience would allow, so in went the HotRod Heat Stick and the boil began in earnest shortly thereafter.

I made the decision at this point to remove the heat stick and let the Grainfather maintain a boil on its own. It seemed to do fine at the job (with the Graincoat), so I’ll likely continue this practice in the future. The other option would have been to switch the Grainfather’s heating element to “Mash” mode and keep the heat stick in. It would have produced a more vigorous boil, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

While I have a hop spider, the 1.25 oz of hops I planned for this batch didn’t set off any alarm bells, so I set it aside.

The Grainfather continued to tell me when I needed to do things. I added a couple of dummy steps called “Scrape” to remind myself to scrape the heating element and keep it free from buildup.

To this point, this was one of my most pleasant brew days in recent memory, especially considering that I was using new equipment and processes. I was able to hang out with my wife and son while brewing, and my dog didn’t start tucking her tail while I ramped up in stress throughout the day.

I cleaned each piece of equipment as it was no longer needed, which also kept things pleasant. Knowing that I didn’t have a giant mass of cleaning coming up after finishing the brew day really reduced my stress level.

What did not reduce my stress level was what came next.

Chilling

Toward the end of the boil, it was time to hook up the counterflow wort chiller. I’ve always been an immersion fan for its simplicity, lack of maintenance, and ability to bring the entirety of the wort down in temperature quickly (highly recommended: JaDeD Hydra wort chiller).

Everything was hooked up and the boil was complete, so I started to whirlpool the wort using the Jaybird. This is the second part of brewing with the Grainfather that raised my hackles a bit. Won’t this cause hot side aeration? But they told me to do it, so I did it.

I then flipped on the pump.

Whine, whir, flutter. @#$%!!!

The pump wouldn’t start. Was it clogged? Did I have the valve closed? Was the wort chiller connected incorrectly? Plugged? Crimped? Reversed?

I feverishly worked through all of the things I could think of and utterly failed to get the pump to push wort through the wort chiller.

Unfortunately, I also had the Grainfather too far away from my garden hose to be able to use my immersion chiller properly. So, I rigged up a rather weak pond pump to my old chiller and slowly filled a bucket with water while it pumped through. This was taking painfully long because the water flow was trivial.

By the time the wort got down to ~140 °F, I was annoyed and tired of waiting, so I rigged up yet another wonky contraption.

I took a stainless wort chiller, sanitized it using the pond pump and StarSan, then decided to let gravity and a siphon do some work for me. I added ice to the pot within which I put the stainless immersion chiller, then decided once more to try the pump before using the siphon.

Fwoosh. Sputter. Glug. And it was pumping the wort. No blockages. What? Screw it. I pumped the wort through the stainless chiller and into my carboy. It got down to around 95 °F in the process.

Fermentation

I carried the carboy with a Brew Hauler, placed it in my chest freezer/fermentation chamber, and set it to 66 °F. I decided to just let that go and hang out with the family for a few hours, then pitch the yeast right before I went to sleep.

When I checked on the wort in the freezer, it had managed to go down to 60 °F. Argh. Yeah, the freezer is well insulated and I didn’t consider how long it would be on. Oh well, I’m pitching anyway.

I used the Jaybird (sanitized) one last time to aerate the wort. I’m used using O2 via a diffusion stone, but that process has always been a little inconsistent for me (and in my previous batch, I got into a conversation with my wife while doing so and have no clue how long I oxygenated). This process seemed to work quite nicely, so I’ll be using this method going forward.

Rather than heating my fermentation chamber to get the wort up to 66 °F, I just pitched the yeast and let it go. By the morning, I was starting to see evidence of fermentation, though the lag time was considerably longer than usual. I decided to be nice to the yeast and raise the temp to 68 °F on day 2, then 70 °F on day 3 to help it along given the early complications.

It’s now been a few days. Primary fermentation is complete and the krausen layer is settling out, flocculation is beginning, and I’ll let this condition for at least another week or two before cold crashing and transferring to a keg.

Closing Thoughts

What began as a pleasant brew day turned into a bit of a nightmare at the end.

I decided to troubleshoot over the course of a couple of hours and eventually discovered the core issue. The pump simply refuses to pump hot liquid after a boil has been reached for a minute or two. After that point, it will not pump until the temperature gets down to somewhere around 180 °F.

I contacted Grainfather and–credit to their customer service–there is now a replacement pump on the way. I’ll be sure to test it out before my next batch, and will take additional precautions just in case (primarily, I will ensure I brew close enough to the garden spigot to use the old chiller if the need arises).

It is far too early to review the Grainfather. It was an altogether excellent experience with one glaring exception at the end of the brew day.

The only remaining worry I have is that there are two times during which hot side aeration could be problematic (sparge and whirlpool). The final product will shape my opinion as to whether this is an issue.

I look forward to my next brew session using the replacement pump. For the next brew, I’ll also have the Grainfather Conical fermentor with the cooling kit. I’ll try to update this article with tasting impressions of Mild Mannered after the beer is ready.

Update #1: Bevie already sent me a replacement. Grainfather is now in full working order!

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