Homebrewing beer

Automated Brewing Systems part 1: the options

I won’t lie and say that home brewing is easy. It’s not. a normal brew day can last 5-8 hours and is a lot of work. Cleaning, heating water, pouring it into your mash tun, collecting runoff, sparge, repeat, boil for an hour to an hour and a half, clean up your mash tun, put it in your fermenter, clean everything else… There’s alot of intensive work just to make beer. So anything that can reduce the workload seems like a blessing.

And yet, at the same time there’s something personal about doing all that work. Somehow, all that back-breaking work makes the beer taste even better. It really feels like your product at the end of the day. So why would I want to automate the whole process?

I feel like that is a problem that some home brewer’s ask a lot, especially since some manufacturers have been trying to come up with an automated solution for us. Enter the quandary that is the “Automated brewing systems”, systems designed to do exactly as I mentioned, reduce the workload. These are often single vessel systems, generally all-electric with built-in pumps and strainers, recirculators to circulate your wort while you mash to make sure the temperature is even throughout, and in some case take care of the process from start to finish.  So what are some of the systems out there? And what are the benefits of these systems and what do you lose in the process?

Products on the Market

From the research I’ve conducted on these sorts of products there are two types of setups for these devices, which we’ll call “Partially automated” and “Fully automated”.

Partially automated systems are primarily single vessel systems (with some exceptions that I’ll detail below) that generally contain an inner cauldron with a false bottom and a top strainer (for placing over the grains when mashing, an electric heater, a temperature regulator, and a pump system for recirculating the wort during mash. There are of course exceptions to this that I’ll also detail. Some additional work is still necessary, as you have to lift the mash cauldron out and sparge if you want, and switch to boil and add your hops then run through your wort chilling before transferring.

Full automated setups though take this a step further. These are usually smaller setups meant to fit on the counter top, but you can input all your ingredients, set up your recipe, turn it on and forget about it. The entire schedule will be followed and additions made according to it.

partially Automated Systems

Grainfather

 

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If you’ve read my previous articles you know I’m a big fan of the Grainfather. It’s simple, its compact, and its low cost. One of the cheapest costing automated systems out there on the market at $899 US, this system handles 5 gallon batches with up to 19 lbs of grain. It does make getting those heavier weight batches out a bit more challenging, but that’s another topic. This system contains a heating element in the base, an inner cauldron with a false bottom to contain the grains and a false lid to place atop the grains when mashing that can be stood atop the device to allow the wort to drain through the grains, a pump to recirculate the wort during mash (from the top, where the wort drains down through the grains and back into the pump), a simple temperature regulator that keeps your temperature at a set level, and a counter-flow wort chiller.

Pros:

  • Price, at $890 it’s the cheapest all in one package
  • Compact: This device is easy to fit and use anywhere, even in a small apartment, and can be operated from the floor
  • 120V: The North American version runs on 120V and can run a heating element in both 1600W and 400 W, meaning you don’t need to find a 240 V to plug it into. There’s a European/Australian version that runs on 240V additionally.
  • upgradable: there are guides of people upgrading their Grainfather, replacing the built-in temperature regulator with an ArdBir to automate the mash schedule. Note: such upgrades may void your warranty, so I take no responsibility if you decide to go through with this

Cons:

  • Time: many reports I’ve seen indicate that this is one of the slower automated brewing systems on the market, which is understandable given that the heating element is not within the brew kettle portion but rather underneath it, as well as the heating element being 1600W.
  • Batch size and strength: With this set up, you’re definitely restricted to batch sizes of 5 gallons and no more than 20 lbs of grain. if you don’t aim to go super heavy with your beers that’s fine, but if you’re looking to make the next epic Barleywine or Russian Imperial Stout that’s likely to be labeled liquor in some states, you might want to look elsewhere.
  • hops and the pump: Some reports I’ve read and heard of state that the pump can easily get clogged by hops when running the finished wort through the wort chiller.On their website they list the pump as having a filter to keep the wort clear, but as of writing this article I do not have one to test how accurate that is.

Assessment: The Grainfather won my heart long before I starter writing this article. It’s incredibly low-cost, compact design, unique functionality and being such an all-inclusive package has gotten my heart set on a purchase of this baby one day, especially since my current home situation doesn’t really allow for me to set up a brew shed so a solution for brewing in doors is greatly appreciated. Also, being able to run on 120 V means I can take this thing with me to any brew day and not have to worry about whether someone has a spare 240 V outlet to hook up. It may not be the perfect machine, but you really can’t argue with that price in comparison.

Speidel Braumeister

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The Braumeister is what I’d consider the next logical step up from the Grainfather. Similar in some respects to the basic concept, the Braumeister takes the concept a step further by putting the heating element on the inside of the brew kettle, recirculate the wort from the bottom up (instead of from the top down like the Grainfather) and allows for full mash scheduling for a fully automated mash step. Unlike the Grainfather, the wort chiller is separate. It comes in three sizes for the base system (10 Liters, 20 Liters, and 50 Liters), and has options for a 200 Liter and 500 Liter build. For the base system (which is the system we’ll be comparing) prices start at $1,499.99 and go up to $2,699.99. All base systems are 220 V.

Pros:

  • Faster: the addition of moving the heating element within the kettle as well as coming in 220V  allows for a higher power heating element lets this heat up to boil at a faster rate
  • Compact: like the Grainfather, the design is more compact and allows you to brew in more enclosed spaced with electricity
  • Automated mash scheduling: the ability to program in your mash schedule out of the box is a major advantage to this system.
  • Larger capacity: Although the base option is a lot smaller than the Grainfather, the largest option holds more than twice its capacity, allowing for better scaling of recipes and batches.

Cons

  • Cost: Although not the most expensive unit,the comparable version to the Grainfather (20 L) is twice the price at about $1,799.
  • Voltage: The device is not directly available in the US, and as such runs in 240 V, meaning that you’ll need a 220V connection to use it.
  • No included wort chiller: The Braumeister does not include a wort chiller in its price. There is an optional stainless steel immersion wort chiller, but given the price it’s an extra fee you have to pay to be set up
  • Grain Capacity: the Braumeister can hold even less grain than the Grainfather. Recommended maximums is 4.5 kg (@10 lbs) and most users have maxed out at 6 kg (13.2 lbs), leaving you even more restricted than the Grainfather. You can get the 50L version to help with that, but that’ll cost you even more (And I imagine would have a similar capacity restriction in relation to its larger size)
  • Efficiency: surprisingly, despite its “recirculate from below” design being intended to improve flow through the grains vs. gravity fed recirculation (from top), the Braumeister’s efficiency ends up actually being lower than the Grainfathers! Check out Time4Another1’s Video series comparing the Braumeister vs. the Grainfather (the two most similar in design on our Partial Boil list)

Assessment:The Grainfather and the Braumeister are probably the closest alike products on this list, and I have to give it to the Grainfather over the Braumeister. The cost difference doesn’t justify the extra features like the programmable mash schedule, especially when it fails to compare on efficiency and does not even include a wort chiller at that price. It does heat up quicker than the Grainfather, even the european 220 V model of the Grainfather (see the linked video above to get a comparison on speed between the two), but still its cost is unjustifiable.

Brew-Boss

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Although it may be the least elegant looking system in this list, the Brew Boss makes up for it in other ways. Essentially this is a DIY system preset for you to get going right away with it. The inner vessel is a clear mesh with a central pipe that the hose from your pump feeds into, drawing wort from the bottom and recirculates it from the top through a pipe that feeds directly into the center, making it circulate outwards through the pipe in a horizontal fashion. Additionally, unlike the Grainfather and the Braumeister, you can connect to the computerized system with an android app. Additionally, this thing is very customizable when ordered. It’s not a “one size fits all” like some of the other choices, but rather is a “Have it your way” ala carte option, even giving you the choice of installing an automatic hop feeder.

Pros

  • Capacity: The BrewBoss can be customized in 5, 10, and 15 gallon batch sizes
  • Cost: Although the cost is higher than the Grainfather at $1255 ($1180 if you already have a tablet), the options for this system easily outclass it.
  • Flexibility: You don’t have to buy everything at once with this, and later on down the road you can upgrade it. You can even add a hop feeder if you want to further automate the process.
  • Automated software: Although it’s not super pretty or anything, the app appears to provide a lot of functionality. It may require a bit of learning, but from what I’ve seen you can program many aspects of your brew in, such as a multi step mash, and it’ll give you reminders for each step of the brew.

Cons

  • Grain Capacity: This one is actually a bit confusing. According to what they list for the basket, the 10 gallon basket handles 13 lbs, the 15 gallon basket handles 20 lbs, and the 20 gallon basket handles 35 lbs. However on their FAQ they have an entire mathematical calculation for this, but reviewing this does not appear to consider the capacity of the basket in this. So if you do a batch size closer to your maximum capacity, you’ll run into an upper limit. But if you reduce your batch size you can squeeze more out of it and raise your gravity.
  • Footprint: Unlike some of our other solutions on this list, the BrewBoss is not compact. This is more akin to doing it yourself, so you’d need to figure out where everything is going to go. You could perhaps build a whole stand for this, but brewing in an apartment probably is not the most ideal scenario with this one.
  • No sparge only?: I haven’t been able to quite figure this one out. The concept is similar to the Grainfather and Braumeister, but unlike those two the inner basket does not appear to stand on top of the kettle and allow you to sparge down through it. And since it’s a single vessel you wouldn’t drain the first runnings off of it. So I’m not exactly certain if you can sparge in this setup. It’d seem to me like this is a no sparge only method.
  • Warranty: the base warranty is 90 days parts and labor, buyer pays shipping both ways. Yeowch!

Assessment: in ways this is one that somewhat surprised me how much more I liked it once I started looking into it. On the surface it just really seems like a “preassembled” DIY package for automated brewing, and that still somewhat stands. You have to figure out the configuration yourself unlike the Grainfather, Braumeister, or the BrewEasy. But as I started looking at what all you can do with this the more I started liking it. I’m still not sold on it’s no sparge only setup, I’d need to look into its average efficiency, but I like the recirculating from within, and the options and upgradability of this has really sold me. The fact that it has a web interface sets it way above the Grainfather and Braumeister and the addition of an auto hop feeder really kids up the automation of this beast. Plus, it’s DIY nature makes it easily to integrate into your current system if you want to take that one a step further. I’m actually thinking when I want to build a larger two vessel automated system I’ll use some components from this. I’d say if you’re looking at an affordable step up from the Grainfather this is your best bet.

Blichmann BrewEasy Turnkey kit

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Unlike our previous contenders, the Blichmann BrewEasy is not exactly a “single vessel” system. However, its functionality easily makes up for it. The BrewEasy has the distinct notion of being the only gas powered brewing system in this automated list, although it can be adapted for electric use. It’s similarly modular and customizable like the Brewboss where the components can be bought separately, however the setup is intended to allow them to stack together.

Pros

  • Gas or Electric: Having a gas option is great because it means that you’re not restricted to just using electricity with this thing. Gas can heat up quicker, so having that as an option is a big plus, and yet also being able to convert this to electricity is also a huge benefit too
  • Style: This is a sleek-looking system, even though your silicone tubing may detract a bit from that look. It’s designed so everything fits and works together
  • Capacity: Unlike the other systems that require an inner vessel to house your grains, the use of a second kettle with a false bottom allows you to fit a lot more grains per batch than any of our other options on the list.

Cons

  • Price: Starting price for a 5 gallon setup is $1929.99,  leaving this as one of the priciest setups for our partially automated systems and goes up from there.
  • Footprint: This is one of the biggest systems on the list and takes up a lot of room. You’re not brewing in your kitchen with this thing.
  • No phone app?: Perhaps it’s because I just looked at the BrewBoss, but while having an automated temperature controller is good, it appears to have some short comings. It can be connected to a computer but the cable is optional, and there does not appear to be a wireless interface. Also it does not seem to have an easy to find app. From the sound of this, it doesn’t sound like a simple web server that you can access through any web browser either. How easy this is remains to be seen but does not sound promising.

Assessment: Smooth and stylish, this is the crown jewel of the partially automated systems. it’s a two vessel system by design unlike all the others listed above, so it’s much more flexible than our other choices. Also with the second vessel only having a false bottom and not an inner basket to hold the grains, your grain capacity is much greater than the previous options.Finally, with the ability to integrate and control a gas burner with this or an electric setup, this gives you options that the others do not. Still, given the choices I’d probably mix and match systems.

Fully automated systems

Fully automated systems are ones that are designed for you to not lift a finger until you have to clean out the spent grains and hop reside and move your wort to your fermentation chamber. These are ones that handle everything start to finish. Some people see these as taking the joy out of brewing, but that’s a discussion I’ll have in part 2, as well as a group discussion in the “Lauter, Rinse, Repeat” Podcast

PicoBrew Zymatic

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The Zymatic, from PicoBrew, was perhaps the first in the “fully automated” brewing systems. From start to finish this is intended to be a hands off device. Plug in the recipe details, put in your ingredients, and out comes the wort.

Pros

  • Small form factor: can be placed on a countertop, measures  20.5″ L x 14.5″ W x 17″H
  • Internet Connected: Internet connected for web monitoring and pulling data of the brewing process as well as feeding recipes in, and can be connected from any computer, phone, or tablet
  • Homebrew ready: Allows you to create and input your own recipes, not restricted to pre-built recipes. This would seem like a normal thing but in the fully automated world, that’s not necessarily the case

Cons

  • Price: at $1,999 this is a pricey device. Given what it can do that’s not necessarily terrible until comparing it with its competition
  • Capacity: Batch size is limited to 2.5 gallons, half a normal brewers batch.
  • Technically does not do a full boil: The PicoBrew recirculates the wort through a heat exchanger to boil it, as opposed to directly boiling the wort with a heat exchanger. The manufacturer claims that a true boil is not technically an essential step to the brewing process, but I’d prefer to compare two batches, one brewed traditionally and one on the Zymatic under multiple conditions, before I’m convinced
  • Cooling: this does not have an included cooling solution to it and requires you to cool down your keg afterwords down to pitching temperatures.

Assessment: There are positives and negatives about this, but I’d say the biggest of all is the capacity limitations. As a homebrewer I’m used to working with 5 gallon batches. I know some make smaller test batches, but I’d like to at least have the option of doing a 5 gallon batch. This may be the first, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. That’s not to say it’s not a good product, but as a homebrewer, I just can’t shake the feeling that this is truly a product not meant for me.

PicoBrew Pico

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The PicoBrew Pico is like the little brother to the PicoBrew Zymatic. Not released yet, the Pico is a smaller version of the PicoBrew Zymatic, serving in 5 Liter batches. The Pico also takes it a step further by focusing on “PicoPacks”, pre built recipes in biodegradable containers that house your ingredients. You can think of this as the “Keurig” of Automated home brewing. At a preorder price of $699 and retail price of $999 this is one of the cheapest fully automated systems.

Pros:

  • Price: Easily the cheapest fully automated system in our list
  • Batch size: Although also a con, the batch size is good for really small batches in case you just want to try something out

Cons:

  • PicoPacks: First is the PicoPacks. It appears you can only brew with this machine using the PicoPacks. There are no blank picopacks that you can buy, and you cannot make your own PicoPacks. While in the future it might be possible to hack the Pico to accept some sort of custom-made blank, there’s no certainty of that and they may void your warranty for that
  • PicoPack cost:next is the cost of these PicoPacks. They charge $19 for these PicoPacks. $19 for a 5 liter batch. That’s about as much as buying a 5 liter mini keg off the shelf , and I’m not even sure if they’re including shipping. The worst thing about that price is that if you brewed on a normal all grain system a 5 gallon batch would run you about $20-$60 on average, higher for a hoppy style and even less if you get good at purchasing your ingredients in bulk. Scale that down to 5 L and your average recipe would run you $5-15. $19 is really steep.
  • Batch Size: Just as it’s a pro, it’s also a con. It comes with the territory of the lower cost, but being restricted on a 5 L batch is pretty harsh. You have to run multiple brews if you want to keep stocked up.

Assessment: At first this seemed like a novel idea, allowing for easy brewing of super small batches. But I was coming at it from the homebrewer perspective and I’m not the target audience. This isn’t for people who want to build a small test batch and make it to see how it works, this is for people who want to make craft beer and not worry about the how to make craft beer. You can be judgemental if you want about this target market, but the bigger question I have is “Will the target market that has the money to spend on this sort of device really want to spend it?”. That has yet to be determined.

BrewBot

b76aeb52e373ad3cff3439ff2bcf03e4_large.jpgIt’s really difficult, considering the stylings of the BrewEasy, the PicoBrew Zymatic, and the Brewie, to explain why I think this is the most unique device on this entire list I’ve seen but honestly it is. Maybe it’s because it’s the only one that uses wood (I mean it could be pallet wood for all I know), or the clean minimalist look of the metal with a slight industrial tone to it. I mean I’m sitting here waxing poetic about the look of a device that makes beer. Style is not necessarily what one worries about in their brewing process. Their finished beer, yes. But the brewing process? I’m not exactly certain that there’s a design contest for home brewers “Most stylish brewing setup”. If there is give me a couple of grand to build a setup and I guarantee I’ll win every year.

The BrewBot actually feels the most like you’re brewing out of the four “automated brewing machines”. You still have to add your grains and hops on schedule and move the wort tub to the boiling section, it doesn’t just feed the wort through these series of tubes back and forth for you,  so it’s more of a in between for the two setups. Still, the precision this focuses on seems to allow for a more accurate reproduction of your beers on schedule.

But all this style and control comes at a hefty price. At $3642, this is easily the most expensive setup on the entire list.

Pros:

  • Sleek, elegant design: This is no denying that this is the best looking of all the choices covered today, even more so than the BrewEasy. Additionally, you can customize it should you not want to stick with the default wood finish.
  • Automated, but for brewers: This is designed for some interaction to still take place from the brewers side of things. It seems like it’s intended to be more of a high-end homebrewers device, or perhaps a small restaraunt or cafe that wants to start brewing some test batches to eventually serve. It’s not meant to be as much for the average person that doesn’t know how to homebrew.
  • Brewbot Core: This is perhaps the greatest middle ground to come out of this, a solution for the DIY users that can utilize their technology. The BrewBot Core Starter Kit starts at £175 and with a Starter Kit at £475 (Kickstarter Price), this comes with the software, black box enclosure, power block switch, and wi-fi connectivity, as well as a number of temperature sensors, two way valves, three way valves, pumps, and flow meters (how many depends on if you chose the starter kit or not).

Cons:

  • Price: this thing is expensive, in fact the most expensive on the list.That price is hard to justify given all the other choices on here, and in fact I’d say if you want something that’s gives you the flexibility of still doing some brewing yet also want to automate the process, go with the BrewEasy. You can get it in a much larger size than this at a fraction of the cost. And if you want the fully automated route, go with the Brewie.
  • App interface: This thing interfaces through an app. That’d be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that the app doesn’t work through a web server. Also, it’s only for Apple iOS devices. I personally have a disdain for Apple (That’s a technology argument though, not a homebewers one) and don’t have an iPhone or iPad, so I’d have no way to use this with my Galaxy Note phone. And given Androids market share, I’d say there’s a good majority of homebrewers who’d be in the same boat as me.
  • Size: Compared to the other auto brewing systems this thing isn’t going to fit on any counters anytime soon.

Assessment: at the price of $3642, there’s no real way I can justify it, no matter how sleek-looking it is. Additionally the lack of an Android Version, certainly at launch, is a huge burn to the majority of potential customers.They’d have been better off managing it through a web interface. I’d say that the BrewBot Core is the most appealing part of this (besides the elegant design), however I feel like some DIY ingenuity could achieve this at a much lower cost. How easy that DIY solution would be to set up in comparison to this though? I’m not certain on that part how simple a solution like MashBerry (a Raspberry Pi Mashing solution) would be to integrate in comparison to this.

Brewie

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The Brewie is a competitor to the PicoBrew Zymatic, but it gives you more bang for the buck. The Brewie brews 20 L batches (about 5.25 gallons) and still costs $1999, same as the Zymatic for twice the amount of beer. It has options for preassembled kits that they can sell you (Called brewie pads) or you can use blank bags to fill your own ingredients with. Or, you can just use mesh bags as it’s really just a brew in a bag system.

Pros:

  • Cost: At $1999 it’s the same price as the Zymatic, but brews twice the batch size and does a full boil.
  • Capacity: 5 Gallon batches are what most homebrewers work with or start with at the very least, and the average Corny Keg holds about that. It also gives you just a little bit more for putting in a few bottles if you want
  • Web Interface: being configurable from a web interface that works with your phone or tablet is always a plus to me
  • Automation at its finest: This is even more automated than the Zimatic. You add in everything, it has two chambers, one for water and one for your grains, and besides adding ingredients, all you have to do is add your yeast.

Cons

  • Space: Given that this can do 20 liter batches and is a two-chambered vessel, this thing will take up a lot of real estate space on your counters. its dimensions are 29″ L x 13.3″ W x 18.4″ H. Interestingly it’s not so much bigger than the Zymatic that you can’t fit it in your counter, but it will definitely take up more space.

 

Assessment:The Brewie is the dream machine; the fully automated brewing system that start to finish does everything except pitch your yeast.  It does full batches, scheduled step mashes and hop additions, and full boils where you can easily open up the top and add more hops in as you like. It even cools down your wort once done. I can find very little in terms of negatives with this, and for the price is what I’d have to suggest for a brewer or brewery that wants to put out test batches with no extra effort on their part.

Do It Yourself: The Homebrewer’s Way

There are a lot of products on the market to automate the process, and I may have missed some that’s out there. But reviewing the ones that are currently out there hopefully gave you some ideas on how you could do this yourself. Check out episode 2 of the “Lauter, Rinse, Repeat” podcast where we’ll discuss these types of products and their target audience in more detail. And in part two of this article, we’ll review how we can take the ideas we’ve learned from these setups and implement them into our own setup.

Until then, raise your glass in the air, and have another pint on me. Love and peace!

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