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Single Vessel Brewing Systems Pt2 - Reviews

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In part one, I gave an overview of all the brewing systems that are reviewed in this second part.

Blichmann BrewEasy 5-Gallon 240V


Blichmann BrewEasy
The BrewEasy system follows the “some assembly required” concept. Arriving in multiple boxes, it took several hours as I jumped back and forth between multiple instruction booklets to get it all together. The system was their “5 gallon” set up, meaning it’s sized to make 5 gallon batches of beer. There’s a 7.5 gallon mash tun with false bottom, and a 10 gallon boil kettle. The 2 are stacked on top of each other, and with some custom-built equipment that it comes with, they fit together nicely with a gravity feed from the mash tun up top to the boil kettle below. There’s an electric pump that takes the output of the boil kettle and recirculates it through to come in on top of the grain bed up in the mash tun.
Through a combination of adjustable restrictions in the system, you adjust the recirculation rate where your wort is getting circulated through the grain bed about every 10 minutes with a continuous stream. As the wort enters the boil kettle, the electric heating element there warms it before passing it out to the recirculation pump. The set-up I had used Blichmann’s LTE Tower of Power controller. It reads a digital temperature probe that’s in the output from the recirculation pump and adjusts the coil power based on the set temperature on the controller. So for the system to control, you have to be continually circulating wort. Shortly into your mash you get confused/frustrated with this temperature sensor location since you’re trying to control the mash at a step temperature, and there’s an inherit time lag between the incoming wort being at temperature and the entire grain bed at a different temperature.
Blichmann notes that this is intentional for their temperature control set-up. If the sensor were in the grain bed, you’d get overshoots of your mash step temperature. By controlling to the incoming temperature, it prevents your grain bed from getting temperature swings that overstep your set point. They offer some basic controller programming software where you can develop a set temperature profile and download it to the controller. But this temperature profile is just a set-point profile. Program the profile for a rate higher than the controller can meet, your mash step timer will start running while your wort is still climbing. And since your mash step time is based on the wort inlet temperature, not grain bed temperature, you have to mentally adjust for that time lag effect if you want to hold the grain bed at that certain temperature for a specific time. So the controller makes things a bit more automated, but it’s not full autopilot.
The manufacturing quality and finish of the equipment is top-notch. You would of course expect that for the price tag, but it does show. The one notable exception is the plastic pump housing, which is a poor match for the hefty stainless pipe fitting that goes on the output and makes thread damage a real potential. The equipment all cleans quite nicely, and the optional kettle cart really is a must. It makes it easy to move things around, but also means when you’ve cleaned everything, you just stack it up in its “ready to brew” position and makes start-up of your next session super-fast. The 240V power did a good job of heating things up quickly and providing great control of how vigorous of a boil I wanted. Overall brew times were good/quick, and it was nice having the separate mash tun and boil kettle to feel familiar from my all-grain process.

Brew-Boss 20-gallon COFI 240V


Brew Boss
Brew-Boss has multiple different systems for all-in-one brewing. They range in price and in functionality. They all use the Brew-Boss controller and its impressive software, and make use of custom kettles with tri-clamp fittings to make cleaning super easy. The mashing options start with a false bottom and regular BIAB bag, step up to a stainless steel mesh basket with a type of “trickle down” sprinkler head to drip recirculating wort, and the top of the line option is what they call COFI center infusion basket. With the COFI basket, recirculating wort gets pumped into a rod that goes down through the center of the mash basket filled with your grains, and then sprays out through holes along its surface to circulate wort throughout the grain bed at all levels. There’s also a dizzying array of accessories and add-ons, with the fanciest being a rotating hop dispenser. You fill each cup with your hop additions, and it will automatically rotate around at the prescribed time and drop in your hop additions.
The kettles are high quality and have nice features like etched volume markings, and the tri-clamp fittings. The COFI recirculation mash basket seems to have some logical advantages of making sure you’re getting all corners of your grain washed, but I suppose someone could debate the benefits of almost all of these systems for wort re-circulation during mash. The one thing that’s beyond debate is how special the controller/software is. You simply export your recipe from BeerSmith with hop additions, mash temperature/time steps, and boil times and the software automatically converts it to a program to run your brew day. It will heat your water to the prescribed strike temperature, prompt you to add grains in your basket, and go about whatever complicated or simple mash profile you created. It will then prompt you to remove the basket and get busy heating the wort to a boil. With some sophisticated algorithms, it automatically detects when a boil has been reached and then maintains power output at the boil level you set, and then sets timers for your hop additions. Messages prompt you for hop additions at time left in the boil you’ve set up in your recipe, and when all’s done, kills the power so you can start chilling. It knows when to turn your pump on and off and automatically controls that.
The controller also has Wi-Fi so you can monitor your brew session without having to be chained to your kettle, and you can also adjust power output, mash step times, etc. all on the fly. This level of automation may be over the top for some, and you can always use it in full manual control for turning the pump on and off, and controlling electric output. But if you’re looking for repeatability in process, it’s hard to argue with this type of system. Temperature control on mash steps was impressive with fast rising temperature rates, but without overshoot.

Braumeister 10L 240V


Braumeister
The Braumeister looks like a commercial large size coffee pot- but one that’s been super-polished with a chrome glow that almost requires sunglasses. It comes fully assembled and ready for action. Well, almost. The Braumeister was designed in Germany and Europe is their main market, so all systems are 240V. This becomes clear when you look at the cord and see an unrecognizable plug on the end. Depending on your electrical prowess, you’re either paying an electrician to wire a US-style plug on there, or a trip to Lowe’s will get you a plug head and you can wire it yourself. This was a bit of a challenge in that the 240V outlet I had available was a heavy-duty 50A outlet and the plug I was wiring to was expecting much larger gauge wire. But the 10 Liter size (~2.5 gallon beer batches) uses a low-power heater and has matched to it small gauge wire. But I improvised and overcame in true MacGyver style…
The equipment quality was top-notch, and it was clear that this system was truly designed and not just schlepped together. The system is laid out with the pump tucked underneath the kettle out of sight and out of the way. And instead of hoses and clamps going to and fro to manage the recirculating wort, the pump output comes up through the center of the bottom of the kettle. The grain sits in a cylinder with mesh on top and bottom, so this pump output is pushed up through the grain bed, overflows the top and runs down the outside of the cylinder, where it finds the pump inlet at the bottom of the kettle. It has a small controller interface screen on the bottom that is used to either run the system manually, or enter in a mash and hop profile. A surprising feature option was it had a selectable LED light feature so you could make your unit glow in red, green, yellow, etc. That was a surprisingly fun thing to decide on.
However, I might have opted for those few bytes of memory to be allocated to give me the ability to have temperature in Fahrenheit, not just Celsius. Google helped me out with conversion, though, so I guess it wasn’t that bad. The program feature was quite nice, automatically chugging away through the process, prompting with messages and chimes when it was time for me to add grains, remove grains, add hops. It was also smart enough to wait until it reached the mash step temperature and then start the timer for whatever I had programmed.

Grainfather 120V


Grainfather
The Grainfather comes in a neat package, mostly assembled, but a few connections need to be made. It also has the industrial coffee pot look, but is long and slender with a base made to sit on the floor. The pump is tucked up in its own housing at the bottom of the unit and recirculates wort up to the top through piping fixed to the outside of the main body. The grain goes into a cylinder with a mesh bottom, and you place a mesh top on after you fill it with grain. Recirculating wort comes down on top of the grain, goes through the mesh and the pump inlet is at the bottom, taking gravity fed wort and recirculating it. There’s a throttle valve to control the recirculation flow. It has a small control box on the side that has the digital temperature readout and allows you to input your target temperature for it to control to. You have a manual pump on/off switch, and the heating coil has a high and low power output switch.
Once heating the water to strike temperature, you pour in your grains, and then slide the mesh screen on top. The wort recirculation during mash goes smoothly getting good flow through the grain bed, but I did find that while mashing, the controller struggled to maintain temperature with the switch on the low power setting. The instructions recommend this low power setting, I presume to avoid temperature oscillations above your set point, but it was a bit annoying that this system set up to give me precise control was continually 1-2 degrees below my mash set temperature throughout most of the mash. The Grainfather has a simple but slick set-up that allows you to lift the grain sleeve out of the wort and let it sit in a position solidly to allow the grains to be rinsed/sparged to get the final sugars out and to get to your target pre-boil volume.
To me, this sparge step is a kind of anachronism with these all-in-one systems. Overall the systems are advertised to make things simple and fast, but sparging is the time step you’re trying to shave off by going away from 3-vessel all-grain. If you just pour room temperature water through your grain bed, you end up lowering your wort bulk temperature and taking longer to boil. But if you heat water separately for the sparge, you again are going away from the single vessel simplicity and now have a second vessel to deal with. Grainfather does have an optional electric sparge water heater vessel to deal with this dilemma if you’re tied to getting your mash efficiency as high as possible and trying to salvage these couple points of gravity by washing the grains.
Heating the wort to a boil takes a long time with the 120V. That’s the known trade-off you have by purchasing a 120V system, so as long as you’re expecting/accepting of that, you just go off and do something else or sit back and enjoy a beer. With the convenience of being 120V you do have the option of brewing at a regular outlet on your deck if it’s a nice day out, and having that extra time to chill is sometimes a gift rather than a burden. Grainfather is unique in that it comes with a slick-looking counterflow chiller as part of the basic kit. However, it didn’t work as slick as I was expecting. If you recirculate through the chiller and back into the unit you quickly gum up the pump inlet filter with hop debris, which slows your flow to a crawl. I limited the recirculation chilling time before directing the output into my fermenter, but I found the length of time to chill the beer was the same as when I just use my copper coil wort chiller. I think to truly take advantage of this counterflow chiller you really should use some sort of hop spider so you can recirculate a bit to drop the temperature more and then fill the fermenter more quickly.

Brau Supply Unibrau Mini 120V


Brau-Supply UniBrew
Brau Supply’s Unibrau Mini comes with a 5 gallon kettle and is sized to make 3 gallon batches. It makes use of some very slick quick-connects which allow the wort recirculation hoses to be put on or removed one-handed. It comes with the tiniest little pump, but it runs like a champ, never struggling or letting on that it’s aware of its own size. The quick-connects do require a fair amount of assembly with different joints, Teflon tape, etc. that have to be done right to ensure leak-free performance. You definitely want a test-run to ensure all is good and snug before you start brewing. The Unibrau Mini is on the economy side of the scale with these all-in-one units, and you can tell that there is some efficiency in certain materials. But overall the quality is still good and the set-up still looks nice.
The Unibrau Mini is set up like a true BIAB, and even uses the nylon fine mesh BIAB bag. You crush your grains extra fine, pour them in the nylon bag, and then this sits in a steel pot strainer. The pot strainer has lots of big holes so it’s not filtering anything, it just keeps your bag from contacting the electric heating element underneath which would melt it. The pump is manual control, which you turn it on and off by simply unplugging it from its power adaptor. The controller interface lets you set a target temperature, but there’s no timer function on it. Once grains are in and mash is over, you lift the metal strainer basket out, containing the nylon BIAB bag with your grains and either let that drain a bit, pour water through to sparge, or just set it aside. There’s no nifty feature to let it sit while doing this, so this step lasts as long as your arm endurance.
Overall, the system works well. Not as sophisticated as the other all-in-ones, but it does provide electric power with controller temperature precision in a compact size that gives you lots of options for where to brew. The 120V heater does encounter some limitations in its length of time to reach boiling after mashing, and a full 3 gallon batch provides a fairly quiet rolling boil. Of course depending on what you’re after on your boil, this might not be an issue. It definitely skewed my boil off calculations, so although I was hitting my pre-boil gravity spot-on, my post-boil OG came in low since I still had a lot of water in there. With some test runs and measuring, I’m sure I could dial in the equipment profile in BeerSmith and end up on target.

Brad is a full-on craft beer geek, talking about craft beer and homebrewing to any and all that will listen. He has a small website, where he has craft beer travel stories, homebrewing, and beer reviews, from a Michigan home base (www.beersnobby.com).
 
I focused on a couple of the most popular systems, and then added in a couple others to give a decent breadth of price point. In the end, the whole experiment took a lot longer and a lot more time than I had originally thought out. I'd be interested in doing additional systems, but I'd have to more carefully plan out a schedule. I've gotten a few suggestions, so I'm taking note. Thanks.
 
No, just these 2 parts. I tried to keep my review to just factual aspects, not specifically trying to identify best to worst. I obviously developed my personal opinions based on my own preferences. If you had any specific questions about any aspect in particular about one of the systems, or how various systems handled something, let me know.
 
I agree with the earlier poster, that this is begging for a part 3 article. I would have liked to see more "facts" in the reviews like average efficiency, dead space, grain capacity, average brew day duration, ease of cleanup, etc. Then a simple matrix chart to allow easy comparison of the systems would tie it all together.
 
Appreciate the info on the Grainfather. I have a review unit on the way and your tips will be helpful.
 
It's funny, I was actually concerned about the length of the story as it was, so there were things I was cutting out. Maybe based on feedback/questions/comments, if there's enough there I can add additional info for those aspects. Things that come to mind that could be added or expanded upon are:
1. Brew time (expand upon what in the process seems to be driving a lot of the time).
2. Sparge (These all use differing types of sparge and the equipment has different features between the systems to deal with this. Plus I can elaborate what sparge techniques I experimented with in order to get more insight into process time and conversion efficiency numbers I came up with.)
3. Cleaning (I don't have good time data for how long it took me to clean, but there are some overall observations and comparisons/contrasts between the systems I can add).
4. Temperature control (I've got the numbers in the table, but there's a time aspect to that temperature accuracy and differences between over & under set point).
The particulars like grain bill size and volume is info straight from the vendor websites, but I suppose I could compile in one location for ease of comparison.
 
It's not in my write-up anywhere (but is in my brewing notebook). Of course to have a true comparison, the exact same beer should be brewed in each. However, I wanted to try a number of different recipes to get a feel for how various aspects interact with the electric single-vessel systems in general versus my 3-vessel system/process. So of course there could be some confounding influences of different recipes done on different systems.
From a practical standpoint, as I also wanted to do at least 2 batches on each system, and get the complete review done within a somewhat reasonable timeframe, I was pushing the constraints of my fermentation/bottling/kegging capacity. And from a beer lover standpoint, having cases & cases of the same beer from all of these sessions would've been a downer...
If you're interested in deep diving my recipes for each batch, send me a direct message through HBT and I can provide the details on each brew session (recipe, mash schedule, volumes, times, etc.).
 
This last item, brewing different grain bills, almost means you shouldn't have included charts. Different grain bills can have HUGE effects on efficiency.
Many people have a tendency to use charts to blindly rank. For example, the Grainfather here shows the best efficiency vs. capacity and cost. So is it the best? That may or may not be the case, depending upon one's priorities. I strongly encourage potential buyers to completely read through your excellent reviews to see what specific things may influence their own buying decisions.
And, may I say, great job! You have attempted to be as neutral as possible rather than boasting about what you like and putting down everything you don't like or didn't buy. These products all exist because they each have some appeal.
 
I totally echo your comment on recipe affecting efficiency. I included the data in a table because a lot of people would want to know. What I tried to illustrate (and you're probably right that some people will just gravitate to the highest number) is that all of these systems are very similar. Maybe with advanced techniques and special tricks one will perform consistently better than the other, but they're all in the same ballpark.
And what I didn't include in the table, is comparing to where I was at with conversion efficiency on my 3-vessel system, they're right on top (Typically 70-75%, with occasional 80%). I didn't want to bring that into the table because everyone seems to brag about how they regularly hit 80+%. But as Darrin from Brew-Boss said to me, "They don't give out medals for conversion efficiency." All of these systems get you toward a stable/repeatable process, which in my opinion is way more important than how high the conversion efficiency number is.
 
I'll answer a slightly different question. What would be the reason someone should buy each of these systems?
1. BrewEasy is good for someone not wanting to feel too far away from traditional 3-vessel homebrew process, and a system with industrial-like equipment quality.
2. Brew-Boss is good for someone wanting seamless integration between recipe creation and brew process automation with short brew day times.
3. Braumeister is for someone wanting decent brew process automation in a well-designed and compact system.
4. Grainfather is for someone looking for a more automated all-grain process with a very large following with lots of good tips, tricks, and videos out there from a vast base of enthusiastic users.
5. Brau Supply Mini is for someone looking to get a good functioning electric brew system with decent control, but not break the bank.
 
Thanks for the reviews. I got really excited about the brew boss, then i searched the price...
Maybe buying the controller and building my own system might be a more economical way of doing it. But seeing as the CDN dollar is crap right now i might be waiting for a while.
 
Great articles. One thing to note is the type of beer that is being made.
I currently have a 20l Braumeister and I love the unit and the beer that it makes. One problem with the Braumeister ,and a couple of these other brands, is the type of beer that can be made. The Braumeister is challenged in making beer over 1.050 OG because it is limited to a 13lb grain bill. I get around this by incorporating extract in my recipes during the boil to raise the OG to where I need it. You lose a little bit of flavor control but not that much in the end. It does make great beer though.
 
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