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The Grainfather: Four Brew Review

2018 July 27
by Mad Alchemist

I’ve had the Grainfather for over a month now. After more than 15 years of brewing, I’ve seen the light with regard to indoor systems.

In the short time I’ve had it, I’ve brewed:

  • Mild Mannered – English Dark Mild
  • Het Zinneke – Belgian Pale Ale
  • Sweet D’s Irish Red – Irish Red Ale
  • Quaff Country Helles – Munich Helles

Without having to consider the weather (which is to say, without having to suffer the heat waves of Southern California–during one of my brew days, it was over 110 °F outside), it’s been a pleasure brewing indoors.

Since running into issues on my first brew day with the pump being unable to function at above ~180 °F (documented here), I’ve encountered no major issues with the Grainfather.

Here’s some information on my last brew day as well as more commentary on the Grainfather Connect.

Two Days to Brew Day

I decided to try a delicate style with the Grainfather setup now that I’ve become familiar with it. One of my favorite styles is Munich Helles, so it is time to see if this system is up to the task.

In the past, I’ve traditionally stepped up a single vial of yeast with multiple starters using a 2 liter Erlenmeyer flask with my trusty 8+ year old stir plate from Brewers Hardware.

Some last minute recipe changes made it so I only had 48 hours before pitching, so I had to go with a bigger starter and two packs of yeast.

I brewed up a 1.8 L starter at ~1.038 SG, then crashed it down to ~52 °F with some frozen bottles of water and a rather old brew kettle.

After chilling, I transferred the flask to my chest freezer (aka keezer), which was set to 50 °F to keep the starter at around the same temperature as my planned fermentation. I pitched in two packs of WLP820 Oktoberfest/Märzen Lager Yeast and some yeast nutrient.

After pitching, it became abundantly clear that I was pushing the limits of the starter size in this flask. Because of this, I hit the starter with some pure oxygen using a diffusion stone. I also loosened the foil a bit from what you see above. After this transpired, I saw an INTLLAB Magnetic Stirrer on sale via Homebrew Finds and ordered that and a 3 liter flask.

One Day to Brew Day

I prepared all of the necessary components ahead of time. My reverse osmosis tank is only 3 gallons and produces water at a rate of about 2 gallons an hour or so; commencing water collection tends to be the first thing I do the day ahead. I prepared the various pieces that would be needed the next morning (particularly those for the mash, such as brewing salts, a pH meter, Grainfather, etc.).

I used the Grainfather Connect’s timer feature to get the strike water up to temp before I was ready to brew, which worked out perfectly. I set it to start about 30 minutes before I wanted to brew.

Brew Day

I mashed in at 131 °F and thoroughly mixed my grains with my wooden mash paddle. I stuck with tradition and used acidulated malt instead of phosphoric acid or excessive salts to reduce the pH of the mash. It came out to 5.18 pH with 4 oz of acidulated malt and 3g of Calcium Chloride, which is a touch low but technically okay. I still got persnickety and added a little calcium hydroxide, which brought the pH to 5.34.

Things proceeded largely as normal, but I noticed a lot of liquid running over the top pipe inside and clogging up my sink strainer (thanks, David Heath, for the Grainfather mod recommendations). To test the limits of the system, I actually reduced the crush size on my Monster Mill MM2-Pro (highly recommended–mine’s been going strong for years) to .045″ from .048″.

Turns out, that was a little too fine. It’ll go back up to the larger gap for the next brew. I ended up pausing the mash during the final saccharification rest (148 °F was the second step, then 158 °F was the final), added some rice hulls, then mixed things back up. I might not have suffered a stuck sparge without the hulls, but I didn’t want to risk it.

Speaking of sparging, I put together a simple sparge assembly with a 1/2″ FPT stainless tee – , two 1/2″ barbs, and one 3/8″ barb. The ring is just 1/2″ tubing with some slits cut in it. This worked great! I was able to dial in the ball valve on a second Grainfather (yes, utter overkill as a sparge heater. In the future, I’ll be using my old brew kettle or cooler with a ball valve) to keep the flow even.

You can see above that I had the grain stopper in. This was just force of habit to prevent myself from pouring sparge water down the tube and was completely unnecessary with the new setup.

Above, you can see my Grainfather On Wheels setup. This has proven very convenient for everything except dough-in (the whole contraption moves while stirring up the grains, but it’s not a real problem, just a little quirk). The dolly is a DeVault DEV3000B and has a hole in the middle, which is perfect to reach the reset button if needed.

I added first wort hops through the gaps on the side of the grain basket during the sparge. After the sparge was complete, I introduced a secret weapon of many North American Grainfather brewers: The Brew Hardware HotRod Heat Stick. With a 90 minute boil and a large proportion of pilsner malt, I wanted a good hard boil. I set the Grainfather to 40% power (after some fiddling–for some reason it wanted to go to strange power levels initially) and had the heat stick on a different circuit. It boiled quite nicely and is something I’ll certainly do in future batches.

Did the rest of the brew day go off without a hitch? Of course not!

I knocked off the black pump filter cap at some point during the process. A day later, I replaced that part with stainless steel mesh and a hose clamp. That was a little frustrating since this is intended to be a very clear beer. I stopped collecting wort about 0.5 gallons short of target to reduce the amount of hops and break material I transferred to my fermentor.

A minor bummer, but I already planned to let the trub settle and dump it before pitching, so it didn’t do much in the end apart from slightly annoy me.

The real bummer came later.

Halfway through chilling to lager pitching temp (~47 °F for this batch), my Grainfather Conical’s controller went dark. Black. No pumping, no power. I scrambled and tried to get it to work, then gave up and ultimately found a carboy hood, dismantled a thermowell, grabbed my backup Inkbird temperature controller, and found a 12V DC power supply to get things up and running again.

I’ll talk more about my woes with the Grainfather Conical fermentor (yes, that is how it should be spelled darn it) in a later post about that piece of equipment specifically. Here’s a teaser of the fallout from the troubleshooting process:

Conclusions

I’ve mostly seen heaps of praise for the Grainfather Connect in various YouTube and written reviews. Often, the quirks of the system are pointed out and solutions are provided, but they’re not properly called out as flaws.

After using it four times, I have some thoughts.

The Good

It’s really a convenient piece of kit. Being able to brew inside and mash and boil in one vessel is a pleasure. Transferring my recipe schedule to the Connect is simple and makes step mashes a breeze.

My efficiency has gone through the roof. I’ve had to adjust old recipes to start dialing in my new brewhouse efficiency because my mashes are always above 80% now.

The counterflow wort chiller is very effective. Cleaning the whole thing is a snap.

Really, when everything is working as intended, it’s an outstanding piece of equipment. I spend far more time with my wife and son when brewing with the Grainfather than I ever did with my multi-vessel outdoor setup.

And, Bevie provides outstanding customer service.

The Less Good

Some of my criticisms are just idiosyncrasies of either the Grainfather or myself, but I consider them not good and will cover them here.

The first issue is specifically with the North American unit. It’s simply not that powerful. Getting 8 gallons of wort up to a good rolling boil is virtually impossible without the Graincoat accessory. Even with it, it’s not as strong as I’d like for a pilsner-laden grain bill. I want a bit more of a boil to help drive off DMS precursors.

I also worry about the sparge method. This is a quirk shared by every all-in-one type brewing vessel, so it’s not a direct criticism of the Grainfather. But, I really don’t love the idea of how much wort aeration is going on as I drain into the kettle from above. Given my proclivity for brewing delicate lagers, I do wonder if that will translate to perceivable hot side aeration, oxidation, coloration, reduced malt flavors or aroma, etc. Maybe it’s fine, but it raises my hackles when I do it.

Handles. Have they not been invented in New Zealand? I assume they have them, but they’re conspicuously absent on the Grainfather. I understand the desire to leave handles off the main unit to prevent people from lifting the thing with boiling wort inside, but man does it make it a pain to dump PBW and water out of it as well.

More problematic is the lid. It’s glass and gets really hot. To avoid burning yourself when removing the lid, you have to use brewing gloves, a towel, or something else for protection. It’s not an unforgivable issue, but it’s a quibble.

Something that I can attribute to either the Grainfather or my lack of familiarity with it so far is a problem with chill haze. It’s been quite some time since I’ve experienced issues with chill haze, but I’m seeing it in full force right now. Perhaps it’s the simmering boil or drip sparge method. Honestly, I’m not sure yet. What I do know is that I had not been experiencing chill haze issues with the same recipes using my old system. Take that for what it is (possible–as yet uncertain–correlation).

The final minor niggle is that the discharge pipe is pretty narrow. That combined with the spring and ball used to prevent accidental hot wort spray seems pretty prone to blockage. I’ve had to clear it twice in four brews so far.

The Ugly

The pump. This thing is not rated for boiling temperatures. It seems to be rated to 180 °F. Go figure, my first unit couldn’t pump through the wort chiller because it seized at above temperature. This is clearly a cost cutting measure and really should be remedied. Yes, they’re trying to keep the price down, but they really should find a better pump.

The Android app is also a bit of a letdown. For the past two brews, any time I disconnect from the Bluetooth connection, it loses what recipe I’m brewing on my phone. I either have to restart the entire session and manually advance the steps to where it should be or just let it go, since the Connect controller still remembers what it was doing. I even dug out an old phone last brew to make it a dedicated Grainfather App device, but it still happened (and yes, I followed the advice to make it not use battery saving). This is sold as a feature and I see complaints about both apps frequently on forums.

There are a couple of other design flaws that bug me. The first is the pump filter. The entire assembly is prone to dislodging either through user error or when whirlpooling as Grainfather recommends. So is the black cap on the filter. The outlet can be remedied with a hose clamp. The black cap requires the purchase of a mesh screen and large hose clamp to really solve that. I did the trick that some recommended: I flipped the filter and put the black cap against the temperature probe. That didn’t work in this last batch, as the cap came off anyway.

O-rings. There are one or two o-rings that are really prone to getting destroyed. I’ve murdered two o-rings already where the discharge pipe connects to the ball valve. This occurs because screwing in and out the recirculation pipe and chiller invariably twists and turns the connections, so you have to tighten them down and… boom. Goodbye o-ring, hello leak. I’ve replaced my o-ring with something more robust and will be adding some Teflon tape soon.

Finally, multiple US users have reported their plugs fusing to the Connect controller. This is said to have been fixed in recent batches of equipment, so hopefully that problem is a thing of the past.

The Recommendation

Problems aside, would I recommend the Grainfather Connect? Yes, I believe so at this time. It has made my brew days more enjoyable, and I’ve been slowly working out the kinks.

Some users on the Grainfather Facebook groups have gone pretty far in modifying their units. I’ll probably modify mine as well.

As is, however, it’s a solid unit and works incredibly well most of the time. If you run into issues, Bevie backs up the Grainfather with excellent and prompt customer service.

Hopefully they can work the kinks out of the system and manufacturing to the point that nobody runs into significant issues, because it really does make the brew day more relaxing.

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