Best system as upgrade from extract brewing

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Nov 8, 2020
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I've been brewing off/on for about 7-8 years now and finally moved into a house with more space (hell yeah). I want to start doing all-grain batches and was hoping for some advice on the best (cheapest, and most versatile) all-grain method. I don't want an all-in-one system like Grainfather, but I'm curious if people have thoughts on traditional 3-vessel vs. RIMS vs. HERMS vs. BIAB. I built a keezer years ago so everything already goes into kegs.

I want the future system to be able to:
  • Brew 5 gal batches up to an ABV of say 10%
  • Able to be automated w/out needing to purchase new vessels (this is a just-for-fun future project, and I don't want to pay for automation right now, just don't want to need to buy another mash tun if in the future I decide I want to add some temperature indicators/controllers etc.)
  • Not crazy expensive
  • I plan to fly sparge with all methods except BIAB
  • No plans to ever upgrade to 10 gal batches, nor do things like partigyle brewing
  • Don't want to weld anything
Here's my thoughts on each system so far:

Traditional 3-Vessel:
  • Have: a 5 gal SS brew pot that could become my HLT
  • Purchase: a 10 gal vessel for my MT
  • Purchase: an 8-10 gal SS brew pot
  • Purchase: two burners (HLT & brew pot). Will likely choose nat. gas since I have a convenient hookup in my garage already
  • Have: one MKII pump w/stainless head & plenty of hose/fittings
  • Purchase: a 10 gal SS vessel for my MT, and would direct heat with a nat. gas burner
  • Purchase: an 8-10 gal SS vessel for my brew pot
  • Purchase: two nat. gas burners
    • Frankly, I feel like I need a third burner otherwise I don't know how I would heat the sparge water
  • Have: a 5 gal SS brew pot that could become my HLT/HERMS exchanger
    • Purchase: Coil for HERMS exchanger
  • Have: one MKII pump w/stainless head & plenty of hose/fittings
  • Purchase: an 8-10 gal SS vessel for my brew pot
  • Purchase: a 10 gal vessel for my MT
This guy had a pretty cool idea for a 2-vessel HERMS (Two vessel HERMS system idea) if he added a bypass around the heater from the MLT to the BK he could do a fly sparge just fine. Not sure how I feel yet about messing around with a heat exchanger that can handle wort on both sides, but boy is this a cool idea!

  • Purchase: a 10 gal vessel for my MT/brew pot
  • Purchase: the bag
Clearly BIAB would be the cheapest but I couldn't sparge and I'm not excited to deal with a giant bag of wet grains.

Personally, unless I'm missing an obvious synergy with RIMS (can't see how unless I give up sparging), it sounds like I should go for a 10 gal SS vessel for my MT, and then I could choose between traditional or HERMS. I'm confident others have gone through this same process so I'm curious to hear what you guys chose.

Last thought: I will also need to get a wort chiller regardless of whichever option I choose - anyone have thoughts on using it for double duty (HERMS exchanger + wort chiller)? Obviously there is a sanitation/cleaning risk but otherwise it seems pretty doable.
Sometimes I think that all the brew hardware companies trying to make money have made the whole process more complicated than it needs to be. I can afford anything I want to buy but I think I can make great beer with a very high efficiency process and the least cleaning hassle with a simple cooler mash tun, a high quality false bottom, one high quality burner and a 2nd cheap burner, a good size but simple boil kettle, a simple immersion chiller with an ice cooler pump recirculating system, and a good fermenter that will hold pressure if desired. This isn’t rocket science.
@Jim R Thanks for the reply! I 100% agree that everything is way more complicated than it needs to be (part of why I didn't want an all in one system). A lot of why I enjoy homebrewing (as I'm sure is true for others as well) is building everything myself (which is why the automation aspect would be a fun "extra" project somewhere down the road). But right now I really just want to pick something that doesn't limit me later.
Sounds to me like you need to decide how much time you want to spend cleaning and futzing with equipment and how much time you want to spend brewing. I personally prefer as simple a system as possible. I use an AIO electric system and do manual recirculation with sparging. My brew day takes 4-5 hours total including cleaning and chilling and I consistently get 80-85% BH efficiency. You can brew great beer in any system from the most simple to the most complex. The brewer makes the beer, not the gear.

AIO systems are just fancy BIAB set ups. BIAB is a good way to make great beer. The grain weight is not too big a deal until you get into high gravity beers, and there are easy ways to deal with that too. My suggestion is keep it simple.

People brew beer for lots of reasons. If you are attracted to electronics, automation, and sophisticated" brew day equipment, then go for it. I am attracted to simplicity...less items to clean, sanitize, maintain and troubleshoot.

You seem to be a BIAB skeptic. I might suggest you get a grain bag and try a few 2.5 gal BIAB batches with your existing 5 gal kettle.

I moved to BIAB about 2.5 years ago and it was a great fit for me. I was using a crude 3-vessel system. BIAB cut an hour off a brew day with no negative impacts. I use a 10 gal kettle with a propane burner. I can get up to about 1.080 before I have to hold back some water for a sparge, but I have made a 5 gal batch of a 1.018 stout. A 15 gal kettle would make big beers easier. As a bonus, BIAB scales really well to 2.5 gal and 1 gal batches.

The AIO setups also look like a great setup. They would make step mashing much easier than my setup. If I was starting from scratch, I would probably pick up something like the Anvil Foundry.

Brew day equipment gets a lot of attention for how little it impacts the quality of the final beer. Make sure if you are investing some money that you have solid fermentation and packaging equipment and processes.
I went from extract to BIAB to eBIAB and have to say that 240v eBIAB was worth every cent i put into the system. I love the simplicity and the ability to brew indoors - I do a 2 gallon sparge with a spare kettle and a sous vide to maintain temp, gently pouring it through the malt pipe while it drains and my wort heats to a boil; my normal efficiencies are in the upper 70s.

OP - if you already have a pump, do yourself a favor and consider a digiboil with a grain bag, though I recommend the extra $ to upgrade to a digimash for the malt pipe since it makes draining the grain bed so much simpler (you could always put a hoist on your ceiling for a bag though).

Worst case scenario, you hate it, but you have a vessel that easily heats and holds your strike/sparge water at temperature for when you need it. Nothing wrong with a cooler mash tun either. All I know is mine makes great beer and my brew day is efficient to the point of almost never going past the 5hr mark
I want to start doing all-grain batches and was hoping for some advice on the best (cheapest, and most versatile) all-grain method.
I'd say the cheepest and most versatile would be a cooler MT with a 10-15 gal BK and a propane burner, but could go electric pretty easy though. I used this type of system for the first few years of brewing, then thought I wanted something fancy and got a Tippy Dump 3V with HERMS and a pump. Its cool and everything, but a lot of work. I recently purchased an Anvil Foundry 10.5 gal and so far love it. I use my old cooler to dunk sparge and have been averaging high 70% BHE. Good luck :mug:
If you're willing to consider BIAB, there's no reason to exclude the all-in-one systems. I have had a grainfather since 2015 (1st gen) which had the melted plug issue and was replaced out of warranty - shitty design but great customer service. If I was shopping now, I'd look for something that runs on 240V and puts out at least 4000W. I would not buy the 240V grainfather G30 - not enough heating power.
I used to do the mash tun/fly sparge thing, but a few years ago I went back to stovetop BIAB. Its been working just fine for me.
IMO people make a big deal about making wort. Making wort is incredibly easy and simple. If you aren't kegging or have temperature control for your fermentation, I'd do that first. The second thing would be fermenting in a keg or some other pressure vessel that you can do closed transfers to your serving keg. You can always add a "system" later if you want to.
Don't know why all the hate for AIOs...while some don't like the proprietary parts thing, I've had mine for two years and no issues.

Once you dial in the system with some brewing software it makes the brew day easy peasy.

I literally set up my Brewzilla 65L with step mash temps and can leave it alone to let it mash and do it's thing (I do like to stir every 15 minutes though).

Clean up is a breeze everything in, going through the CFC then back through to normal and everything is spotless.
I went all in on a all in one system all grain and just read on the internet how to brew before trying it. No regrets at all, I enjoy the recipe process vs the brewing process so the easiest way to do this was imperial for me.
First, in your "traditional 3 vessel", how will you keep the mash at temp? You really need either: insulation or heat/recirculation.

If you want less expensive, either less automation or fewer vessels is the answer. If you want faster brew day, then easier clean up is key and that means fewer vessels.

BIAB is the most simple process. It's fast, easy, simple, not a lot of downsides other than not easy for step mashes and you may have efficiency problems with really high gravity stuff.

What you call "traditional 3 vessel" sounds like what I started with:
Kettle, cooler MLT and a HLT (that I only used for storing heated sparge water). I did a batch sparge. There's not much of a driver for fly sparge unless you really, really, really like the process or need to really, really, really want to max out efficiency.

Anything that doesn't use insulation for the MLT means heat and, for all practical purposes, some sort of automated control. You can do that with gas, but it's easier, cheaper and cleaner (no CO) to do it with electricity. Go electric and brewing indoors is more of an option too.

Once you go electric you can do:

eBIAB - recirculating, electric controller single vessal, typically no sparge.
Honestly, it's pretty hard to argue against the eBIAB rig. It's relatively simple, small footprint, easy cleanup, can be run indoors, and is versatile enough to support advanced stuff like step mashes (the value of which is debatable).

The only real downside is that you get murky wort in the boil/fermenter. This has no impact on the ability to end up with a clear beer however, so not a big deal.

For really high gravity stuff, you can still dunk sparge or pour over sparge to increase efficiency if needed. I used this for a year or so and I liked it. I didn't try to do my 13% imperial stout with it however (due to limitations in kettle size).

RIMS - recirculating, electric controller. You can do this with or without a second (3rd if you count the RIMS tube) vessel and sparge. This is a pretty popular option. The smaller space of a RIMS tube (vs a HLT with recirculating coil) is appealing. It's also less expensive. It does require separate mechanisms for heating the RIMS tube and boiling the wort. I've never been attracted to this option, but there are many here who can tell you more about it.

HERMS - 3 vessel, electric controller, typically fly sparge.
I consider this to be the grandaddy of brewing rigs. It's big, it's versatile, and most closely matches the rigs that pros are using. That being said, I've never seriously considered one because they are big, expensive and there's more to clean. This rig, with a fly sparge, will probably yield the highest efficiency of the various options, but you can buy a lot of grain for what you'll spend setting this up. The fly sparge also adds 45 minutes to your brew day and you'll have more cleanup. People couple this with clean in place hardware, but I've asked and never gotten a good answer for how you get all the grains out of the MLT prior to running CIP. If you don't, it seems like your just reciculating the residual grains that didn't come out when you scooped out the spent grains. If I had a full brewery with floor drains, and could hose things out (and I won the lottery), I might consider this rig.

Counter flow HERMS - you use a kettle as a HLT, circulate hot water through a counterflow "chiller" while also recirculating the wort through the other portion of the counterflow "chiller". This rig gets less attention than it deserves. It's can be relatively compact and, with the smaller volume of HLT liquid, it can be more responsive for step mashes than a full-up HERMS rig. If you already use a counterflow chiller, you have the key element already in place. What I don't understand is how you sparge with this (assuming you use the boil kettle to heat the water you run through the counterflow unit while mashing). You'd need a third vessel to hold the hot liquor while you drain the MLT to the kettle.

Kettle RIMS - This is a true two vessel hybrid. Typically no sparge, recirculate the wort through the kettle and back to the MLT to maintain or ramp temps.

All have pros and cons for space, efficiency, cleanup cost, flexibility etc. This rig has gained a lot of popularity over the last 3-4 years, primarily due to the Blichmann BrewEasy, which uses gravity to drain from the MLT to the kettle, where the wort is heated and then pumped back to the MLT. You can also use two pumps and have the MLT and kettle side by side.

The primary drivers for choosing this rig are for people who want the off-the-shelf brew easy rig or those who already have a kettle that might be too small for eBIAB. It's also an option if you want to have clear wort into the kettle/ferm. Again, not required to get clear beer, but some people want it anyway.
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I went from extract brewing in my kitchen using the standard 1995 homebrewers kit to a turkey fryer boil kettle and 5 gallon round cooler mash tun.

Around 2010 I discovered Denny Conn's website and mimicked his Coleman Xtreme cooler MT using converted keg for a BK and began batch sparging.

Approximately 2016 I bought a three vessel all keggle rig complete with pumps and tubular steel rolling stand. I went back and forth between fly sparging an batch sparging on this system

That one didn't last long because I got tired of how heavy it was so in 2017 I sold this rig and went back to my first keggle and started using the BIAB.

I loved the simplicity of a single vessel but like the last rig this one only lasted about a year. In 2018 I bought what I hope will be my last system... an electric three vessel HERMS.

As much as I like my current system with the pumps, temperature probes and control panel I sometimes miss the simplicity of some of the older setups especially the BIAB. There is a soft spot for the Coleman Xtreme cooler rig because of the homemade, I-built-this aspect of it.

You may go through a lot of variations in brewing systems like this. You just have to try them on until you find one that fits.
I know it isn't favored but I'll strongly suggest an AIO be looked at. If I somehow lost all of my equipment and had to start over I think I'd do something like the Anvil Foundry with a 240V plug in, and have a water supply, large sink and drain nearby.
I know it isn't favored but I'll strongly suggest an AIO be looked at. If I somehow lost all of my equipment and had to start over I think I'd do something like the Anvil Foundry with a 240V plug in, and have a water supply, large sink and drain nearby.

I'd take a simple rig with water, sink and drain nearby over a shiny $6000 3 vessel pilot rig without those 3 things all day long.