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-   -   Brewmation: An amazing turnkey brewery (not a Brew-Magic vs B3, but with comparisons) (http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f11/brewmation-amazing-turnkey-brewery-not-brew-magic-vs-b3-but-comparisons-163149/)

SankePankey 02-15-2010 05:05 PM

Brewmation: An amazing turnkey brewery (not a Brew-Magic vs B3, but with comparisons)
I am writing this review for all those who are considering a turnkey brewhouse/brew sculpture like a Morebeer B3 Sculpture, a Sabco Brew-Magic, etc. who are interested in amazingly high level of automation and function. I will start by saying that my review is a bit preliminary since I don't own one yet and have not gone through the every nook and crannie, but I did visit the Brewmation shop a couple days ago and spent about 4 hrs going over this amazing system with it's builder. You could consider that I don't own one yet to be a plus, though, since most people think their system is the best as a way of justifying their purchase..... well, I haven't spent the money. I am not affiliated and will be purchasing this system at retail $. Also, sorry for being so long winded:o but I wanted to be thorough to give newbies in particular like me a head start on all of the research I've done over the past several months as a way of saving them time and as a 'thank you' to this great forum. You can go to www.brewmation.com to see videos of the semi-automatic system at work, but there really is nothing on his site about the full-auto functionality other than a paragraph, which is why I'm writing this review. It is simply "set-it-and-forget-it" brewing and should be distributed by Ronco. I do realize that I will sound like a salesman for this guy, but I just appreciate good engineering, especially when it comes from the 'underdog'. I am not a veteran brewer (yet) but have worked in quality commercial alcohol production and sales for several years, making wines, hard ciders, and running a flagship distillery in New York and I have several friends in the commercial brewing business and enjoy their advice. So, while you can consider me a newbie and dismiss my thoughts if you wish, I am not a total newbie and have a reasonable grasp of the fundamentals, enough to review this brewhouse.

I have not personally owned a B3 or a BM, but I have researched a bunch and feel I have a good idea of the plusses and minuses of both systems. This review is based on my months of research in contemplating spending money on those turnkey systems and also trying to take plans to a welder to build a stainless steel brutus clone, which was a dead end considering price and time to completion. I looked at brew-magic and decided that it was of course an incredibly nice system but just too much coin for me, so I never really considered it, but still researched as much as I could to make an informed decision. Also, I thought it interesting that sooo many people (newbs like me) think that it's the only game in town (as evidence of all the posts you see on this forum) for 'reference quality' mini-brewhouse not in the least because of the well-played and well-circulated marketing effort of the Sam Calagione and DogFish Head story- it has been very effective for them. Then you look at the B3 sculptures and the fantastic list of breweries who use that brewhouse for a pilot. Equally impressive (Stone, Rogue, etc.). Personally, my hat tips ever slightly to the B3's design which I was going to purchase until I found the Brewmation. I love the sturdy B3 kettles and the fact that you can use the same structure with double size kettles down the road if you wish. I also think that the soft (B3) vs. hard welded piping (on the BM) is a good debate, and one that for me would tip in the favor of soft tubing so you can see thru the lines and remove them to clean easily but - 'too each their own'. For the money, you can go with a B3 and upgrade to the digital automation later, eventually spending somewhere around the same money as a BM which requires you to lay that down up front. Both would offer equal repeatability and consistency, again..IMHO.. One is HERMS (B3), one is RIMS (BM). Both use gas and should be operated outdoors. There are those who would say that electric breweries are 'dangerous' and who brew in a basement with propane and an open window (and no pilot lights) and they are kidding themselves. You'll die from carbon monoxide poisoning or blowing up your house the same as electrocution (and might take someone else with you). Also, propane doesn't float up and away into the air, so I personally would never feel that a commercial kitchen hood setup for using a propane rig indoors is my cup of tea, for safety reasons, and probably not up to code. Some guys brew in a garage with the door open, and I can see doing that, but I'd have a blower in there as a backup, not to mention carbon monoxide detectors. That's just my personal opinion, not that these don't work for others. If you haven't researched electric brewing, the debate about low density water heater elements scorching your wort has been settled- they don't. And, electric breweries are far quieter, much cheaper to operate per brew, don't require refilling propane tanks, do require you to have a 220V plug to use, and offer you the ability to brew indoors in frigid northern winters and not have to fight the elements for heat loss (which was a huge consideration for me... it's frickin freezing Mr. Bigelsworth).

If, however, you want the same level of automation B3 and BM and want to spend less money than either of those 2 great systems and run an all electric rig with slightly bigger kettles, you might do yourself a favor and check out the Brewmation semi-auto system. Great value. If you want to spend the same money for a full digital SMART B3 sculpture, and enjoy even more automation than either the B3 or BM provides, the full-auto is sweeet. As of right now, the hierarchy of cost goes Brewmation semi-auto @ $3650 (delivery included), the Brewmation full-auto rig @ $4200 (delivery included), the B3 1100 full dig. rig @ $4200 (delivery not included) and the BM @ $5590 (delivery not included). All are very nice systems and will make great bear. One belongs on the USS Enterprise;). Of course, you have to not have some hang ups about a few things with the Brewmation. Namely, if you have a problem with all electric brewing, a ridiculous level of automation because you think it takes the fun/zen out of it, and brewing in drawn stainless vessels that can otherwise be described as 'sinks' (they are) because that's not what the cool kids brew with, then this system isn't for you. I have heard the same arguments about using synthesizers in Jazz being a blaspheme and, well, all I can say is that Herbie Hancock rocks every bit as much as Sydney Bechet.

SankePankey 02-15-2010 05:06 PM

The Hardware.
In my review I'll omit some of the info you can find out on his website and just give you my opinion about implementation. From chatting with him and looking at it in action, I felt that this rig and it's software are just at end of the final stage of the R & D phase which started in early 2009, which is why you don't see any real reviews of this online and why he doesn't do rigorous advertising. He's sold several, some to brewpubs, and gotten a lot of feedback about the software and the hardware that he's made changes to throughout it's development. I came up with 5 or 6 requests of both software and hardware that he said he'd change for my unit and possibly all future models. The hardware is basically 3 X 17.5 gal drawn stainless steel sinks that sit on a very nicely/professionally powder coated steel frame that's only 26" high. Dimensions are 56"H X 26"H X 22"D- easily the lowest profile rig for it's volume on the market that I have seen. It is basically designed so that it sits on a table or something to bring it up to chest level, thereby being able to gravity feed which ever fermenter you use at the end. This point is pretty important because while the pumps are great (I'll get to that) they don't provide the speed (on purpose) necessary to pump into a fermenter in anything but an annoying amount of time, unless that's your idea of wort aeration. It would also be annoying to bend down to brew, so I like that it sits on a table so I can also have a place to store my grain crusher, cleaners and sanitizers, etc. (It doesn't get hot really at all under the brewhouse while brewing, so no worries). I might ask him to build me some powder coated steel leg extensions for mine and I can see those becoming an 'option' at some point. It just makes sense for him to provide them. He just uses a home depot table, but regardless it needs to hold good weight. The rig has the appropriately sized low density water heater elements for each tun and they have float switches that make it impossible to burn them out if run dry (actually the MLT element can technically be run dry, but not the others). The mash tun's element is attached to the stainless false bottom, which is actually a really cool feature because the whole false bottom heats up to gently heat the mash. The tuns sit on the frame with a thick plastic lip on the underside that makes it easy to slide them in and out to remove grains and hot break. The HLT wouldn't need to be removed which is why the control box sits in front of it in the center. They are pretty light weight and, as one poster in another thread mentioned, not incredibly heavy gauge as compared to, say, a B3 kettle. It is not an issue except if you drop one and dent it. If the heating elements were outside the tuns, it might be the cause of scorching- like using some 'economy' brewpots on a flame burner. The mash tun is covered in reflectix insulation anyways (actually on both semi and full auto systems which isn't apparent from the pics on the website), so your unlikely to ding it if you bump it. Dropping one will dent any kettle. Just remove and clean with care and/or use a shop vac instead, which is what Ill probably do.

The water and wort are moved around with steel peristaltic pumps, which I think are the coolest thing since sliced bread (except if you want to fill your fermenter as I mentioned) and for some reason, no one really uses them- likely for cost. Most other magnetic drive pumps are a little more tricky to operate, requiring priming, and sometimes ratcheting down the output valve to slow down the flow which IMO is not a very repeatable/consistent approach. These pumps are very gentle and very variable in speed. I will mention again that they are made of STEEL because a previous poster elsewhere questioned that they were plastic. They are not. The only plastic is the front cover (and thick plastic too) which is convenient in that it lets you see the action. The mechanics are steel. The tubing part of the pump that is what the rollers 'squeeze' is actually an inexpensive sanoprene cartridge that can be replaced by the user (nice!), although he said he has never had anyone ask for one. They are rated at a specific flow that is appropriate for how you'd want to sparge and recirculate wort at, slow and steady. They are nice and fairly quiet and require no fussing.

The unit is controlled by either a semi-automatic CPU or a full-auto. The semi-auto version provides the same kind of automation you get with a BM or B3- except that with a Brewmation the temp logging box that hooks up to the control box and a PC is a $100+ish add on. The semi- has similar temp gauges, float switches, etc and I won't chat too much about it because you can clearly see it in action in his videos on the website. I will just elaborate about the programming of the full auto below because I think it is well worth the ~$800 extra. The software is upgradable via a serial PC connection (or serial to USB converter for macs.. guess you'll need boot camp though, or just borrow a friend's PC). Every part of the brew session can be manually controlled with a flip of switches on the control box.

SankePankey 02-15-2010 05:06 PM

The Brew Session.
When the full auto brew session starts after you've filled your HLT with water (you BYO a water filter or whatever) and the HLT heats up, the water is recirculated onto itself in the tun. This speeds up heating of the hot liquor and also heats up all the piping and the pumps.... so there is no heat drop in the MLT when you start recirculating the mash- a problem with almost every other recirc design (unless you do just that yourself). It is automatic in the Brewmation. The tubing is all sanoprene which is very high temp and long lasting - except for the tubes that hook up to the sparge lid which are see through so you can watch your wort change colors. The full auto also automatically measures strike water for you which is pretty cool. Just punch it into the control box. No measuring in buckets, etc. I noticed that he hadn't yet programmed the full auto box for step mashing, requiring you to switch to manual. He said he just does single step, but I said.... "if you're gonna pay for automation, this needs to be automated." He responded with "oh, yeah, no prob. good idea. I can do that for yours (and probably all future boxes)." It would probably be a prompt like "how many mashes?... mash one temp:.... mash one time:... etc.). The box prompts you to set things like sparge speed and boil kettle heat level beforehand and also would let you know if your mash temp probe is disconnected on the display. Very well thought out. It will ask you for mash liquor volume as I mentioned and automatically add the appropriate volume to the hundredth of a gallon and you can manually stop that too by pressing a button. When mash-in starts, the kettle fills up from the bottom up so as to prevent any channeling through the grain. As you can see on the website, the sparging lid is very interesting. I won't comment on it too much cause I'd like to use it for a while first before I do, but it seems like it does a very decent job. It both floats and rests on the grain bed. You would want to be there when mashing begins so that you can stir around to prevent any grain sticking/dough balling. Due to the design there is basically no foaming in the kettle and no hot side aeration or HSA concerns. Pumps maintain sparge rate in perfectly synchronicity and the level of the mash never changes. They are a very neat feature of this rig. Peristaltic pumps ARE definitely expensive and add a considerable cost to this rig, but for synchronized, measurable, adjustable flow rate, gentle handling of the wort, no priming, (yada, yada) there isn't anything better. There is a reason hospitals use these to move people's blood "n such around.

When the mashing schedule is finished, the unit automatically starts filling the boil kettle. The BK fills gently (like the mash tun-from the bottom up) at the sparging rate which isn't very fast, of course, on purpose. Doesn't matter anyways since you don't have to be there. The full auto version has a photo eye sensor that automatically measures final wort volume. It did look a little flimsy and doesn't scream 'robustness' and I suggested he build it up with some protectors ala a blichmann kettle's sight glass that's shrouded in metal- to which he said 'hey, that's a good idea-I can do that'. In practice, he says he's never had a problem with the photosensor, but I can see in a production environment that you could knock it out of place or something. The sight tube (not glass) is a little flimsy looking too. He said he started out with a thicker gauge tube but said the photo sensor didn't work as well through it so he had to go with a thinner gauge tube. It just a piece of tube anyways so if you destroyed it some how and needed a replacement, no biggie. He says he's never had any issues with the current setup and it's robustness and I can believe that once seeing it. It's just a 'looks' thing IMO. An easy fix. Seems he'll sort it out.

When the BK is full (as per the photo sensor) it is heated up to the set boil temp and when that temp is reached, an alarm sounds- the first time since initially stirring the grains that you need to be present. So you stop doing your laundry and check out the boil and turn it down if there starts to be any foaming issues (mostly with higher gravity beers). I'm sure you could know what level to set the boil at eventually for higher and lower gravities. For my unit, I will probably ask him to program in a hop addition schedule with alarms like I mentioned for the mash schedule. There weren't enough beeps in the alarms, either, so I asked him to change that. When the boil is finished, the alarm sounds again to prompt you to hook up the chiller of your choice. I think the smartest would be an immersion chiller- no plate exchanger to bake, and if you are going to do a double batch, you are then heating up the HLT to start the next batch and mashing would begin while you are fiddling with your fermenter. In that case you would sanitize the immersion chiller in the HLT, not during the last stages of the boil.... or you could ask him to program an alarm that sounds 15 min before the boiling ends so you can sanitize it then, but the former only requires you to be there once. Whatever. Alternately, if you wanted to start the next batch during the boil and not after it, you'd then want some other chiller, cause the HLT would be in use at that point and not available for the immersion chiller. Even though this is a BYO chiller design, the chilling is also controlled by the full auto box. Flow rate, temps, etc. Just punch in your pitching temp... done.

SankePankey 02-15-2010 05:07 PM

Additional Notes.
If this isn't all freekin' cool enough for you, there is something else that is probably the nicest feature (for me anyways). I live in an old building and have power outages some times and I know that at some point I'll have to deal with that mid-brew. So, the control box is programed into e-proms (or whatever he said... I'll edit that later) and not flash memory. Long story short, he pulled the power plug on the system mid mash and when he plugged it back in, the box prompts you to "resume" or "restart". Every setting is saved and all you have to do is shave off the 5 minutes your power was off from the schedule. Schveeet! That was the main thing I was worried about in operating an electric rig vs. gas.

For cleaning, well, you'd have done that with all the tubing and pumps when you ran the chiller. There is a sink style spray nozzle to help clean the kettles that is powered by the pumps. You could fill the HLT up with your cleaner solution and spray every tun down. Everything seems easy to clean. The only part that really needs to be sanitized is the boil kettle outlet and ball valve which can be easily taken off (with a swivel nut/think kitchen sink) and put into the HLT to boil off when brewing starts. The BK and MLT easily slide out for dumping. Actually the whole rig comes apart and even the stand can be taken apart 3-ways. It ships in 3 boxes- one part each stand/tun combo. You do have to BYO your own GFCI circuit or have him build it to your specs. Also, if you have low ceilings, you might want to install a small bathroom ceiling fan to combat steam from the BK (really the BK mostly since the MLT is covered by the sparge lid). For me, I am going to put the rig next to a window and have one of those 'in-the-window' double fans running. And, I personally will be employing a grill cover to keep the dust out when not in use. He should get ones made with a brewmation logo...hehe. The height of the unit installed is fine. My fermenter is ~34" tall on the casters, so installed for gravity filling, the top of the kettles are at about nipple height (the BK outlet is 6.5" up from the bottom). I tried his light kolsh and an imperial porter he brewed and enjoyed them. The kolsh was light in color (not scorched) and the porter was quite good and pretty dry like I like em. One thing is, like I mentioned before, the temp logging box is an optional add on. I will not personally be going for one. It is really just for verification of what you've already programmed into the control box. He had one hooked up and I suppose it has helped him tinker with the programming/firmware of the control box, but I don't think it's necessary, but it's nice I guess. I will already have graphs made from software like BeerTools Pro. That's all I need. Also, he is prepared with heat loss values and what not for the kettles so you can just plug them into your software, too.

SankePankey 02-15-2010 05:07 PM

Shame on me.
Now for the shameless part of the review. If I've convinced anyone and you want to buy one within the 2 or 3 weeks weeks, send me a PM. I'm trying to get a 'group buy' together. It won't be that much of a discount, but something. Cheers mates. I'll update once I've done several brews with this amazing system.

I think I have one buyer already lined up besides me.

SankePankey 02-15-2010 05:08 PM

Updated Review after several brew sessions.
This is a Placeholder for editing so I can add comments after I have owned and operated this rig for a while.

Party on Wayne.:rockin:

ajwillys 02-15-2010 05:10 PM

To be honest, I didn't read any of this. Where are the pics? That will tell me if its worth a read.

Brooklyn-Brewtality 02-15-2010 05:11 PM

"Holy wall of text, Batman"

Time to start reading!

SankePankey 02-15-2010 05:11 PM

ummm.. as I said.. go to the website. I'm not an affiliate, just a fan.

drmark50 02-15-2010 06:17 PM

Thanks for the review! That was very extensive and it is obvious you have done your research. Any idea how much the system weighs empty, and it's max weight? I see a YouTube video in the future...

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