In this series of articles we will investigate what the alternatives and associated costs are of building or buying a fully electric homebrew system. The approach I have taken is thinking about what is right for my personal situation so please be aware that others may have differing opinions on what is best for them, their situation, and their budget. There should still be some interesting takeaway points for anyone interested in electric brewing.
My current 3-tier homebrew system comprises of three converted stainless-steel Sanke kegs:
- 7.75 gal keg for HLT (Hot Liquor Tank).
- 15.5 gal keg for Mash Tun which includes a false bottom and is insulated with Reflectix aluminum bubble-wrap.
- 15.5 gal keg for Boil Kettle.
Each keg sits on a Bayou Classic propane burner and sparging is carried out via a fly-sparge arm whilst the sweet liquid is pumped from the Mash Tun into the Boil Kettle via a 120V Chugger impeller pump.
The system used to be entirely gravity fed but the pump was introduced to allow the Mash Tun to sit at floor level so it could be emptied when brewing on my own rather than trying to lift a heavy keg full of spent grain.
The brewing system is located in the garage but during the winter of 2013 it was not possible to brew for a few months due to the very cold weather which froze the external faucet (tap). During previous winters there have usually been 2-3 months where brewing has not been possible due to water freezing as it flows through the garden hoses used to fill the kegs, feed the wort chiller, and during cleanup.
The above problems have led me to investigate whether or not it is possible to buy or build a brewing system that allows me to homebrew year-round and also improve the amount of control over, and automation of, the brewing process.
Below are the key requirements for my improved homebrew system that you might also find useful:
- Ability to brew throughout the winter.
- Overcome frozen pipes when having to brew outside with propane.
- Use a power option that is viable in most US homes.
- Avoid the issue of fumes (carbon monoxide) without the need for an expensive exhaust fan installation in the house.
- Ease of cleaning.
- No lifting of heaving brew pots.
- Ideally automated.
- Minimize spillage for cleaning indoors.
- Worthwhile batch sizes.
- Minimum: 5 gallon.
- Ideally: 10 gallon.
- Match mainstream ingredient kits & equipment sizes e.g. fermenting or conditioning vessels (without too much head-space).
- Control of brewing process.
- Consistent mash temperatures i.e. in the Mash Tun throughout the grain bed.
- Temperature control e.g. keep HLT at sparge temperature, avoid boil-over in Boil Kettle.
- Address the issue of compacted mashes if recirculation used.
- Reduce hand-holding of brewing process e.g. timed step mashes.
Below are the different types of homebrew systems which are to be examined to see how well they meet the above requirements:
- BIAB – Brew In A Bag.
- HERMS – Heat Exchange Recirculating Mash System.
- RIMS – Recirculating Infusion Mash System.
- Conversion – upgrade, modify or convert my existing homebrew system rather than buying or building a system from scratch.
Throughout this series of articles I will examine electric brewing systems from a variety of suppliers. These have been selected based on a combination of the companies being major players in the homebrew supplies market and being the systems I was able to find whilst searching online.
In this article we will take a look at Brew In A Bag or BIAB as it is more commonly known…
BIAB is a homebrewing approach pioneered in Australia whereby a single brewing vessel is used to mash and then boil in. The traditional all-grain brewing process consists of mashing in a converted keg, picnic cooler, brew pot or similar using around half the final wort volume of water and then either batch or fly-sparging.
Batch sparging is where the grain bed is drained into the Boil Kettle and then refilled with hot water to mash again before draining the remaining volume. Fly sparging is where hot water is added to the top of the Mash Tun via a fixed or spinning arm that has holes in it with the aim of rinsing out the sugars from the grain bed as it drains into the Boil Kettle.
With both batch and fly sparging the Mash Tun needs some kind of false bottom or braided manifold to hold back the grain bed and once set avoid grain particles entering the Boil Kettle and therefore impacting the clarity of the resultant wort.
With the BIAB approach the entire grain bill is placed in a large meshed bag and placed inside the brew pot with a full volume of hot water e.g. 6.5-7.5 gallons for a 5 gallon batch or 13-15 gallons for a 10 gallon batch.
After mashing is complete the mesh bag is lifted out of the brew pot and allowed to drain then the boiling of the wort, including hop additions, proceeds as usual in the brewing process.
BIAB is in theory a RIMS-based system but we have kept it separate because of how it brews in a single vessel rather than more than one for a typical RIMS system.
Key advantages of the BIAB approach are:
- Low setup costs due to only needing one large brew pot.
- Reduced clean-up effort due to only using one pot.
- Reduced brew time due to no sparging period.
Potential disadvantages of the BIAB approach are:
- Reduced efficiency due to mashing in a full volume of liquid though this is heavily disputed and the prevailing opinion seems to be that this is not the case and at worst a little extra base malt can used to resolve this.
- The effort in lifting 25-30 Lbs of wet grain for a 10 gallon batch can be problematic and potentially dangerous with such a large volume of 150+ deg F (65.5+ deg C) water in the brew pot. Some sort of pulley system can be rigged up to address this problem.
- Using a brew pot with an electric element in the bottom could cause the mesh bag to melt if they come into direct contact. This can be addressed by either using a fine mesh metal basket or placing the bag inside a coarse metal insert.
High Gravity’s BIAB Electric Brewing System is a complete BIAB system from High Gravity Homebrewing & Winemaking Supplies who are based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Their system features:
- Single Vessel – default size is 62 qt (15.5 US gal or 58.7L) though other sizes are available
- 15 gallon mesh bag with metal basket insert
- Streamlined EBC (Electric Brewery Controller) for Precision Temperature Control
- Temperature Probe
- Chugger Pump (110v)
- Quick connects, hoses and clamps
- 4500 watt heating element (requires 220v 30 amp service)
- Pre-assembled Lid Bulkhead that includes Tee for the Temperature Probe to be housed in and circular pattern Spray Nozzle
Brewing begins with water in the vessel and the strike temperature is set to 5 deg F above the desired mashing temperature because once the grain is added the temperature of the water will drop due to the lower temperature of the grain.
The lid on the top of the Mash Tun includes a probe to monitor the temperature of the liquid entering the top of the grain bed via the spray nozzle fitted to the underside of the lid.
High Gravity point out that the efficiency is lower than a typical 3-tier system (around 60% rather than 70-75%) so recipes should be adjusted accordingly. They also recommend using a pH Buffer to help stabilize the pH at around 5.2 due to the full volume of liquid which gives a thinner and more diluted mash.
This system features a PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) Controller which turns the heating element On and Off in order to maintain the desired temperature. According to National Instruments:
The basic idea behind a PID controller is to read a sensor, then compute the desired actuator output by calculating proportional, integral, and derivative responses and summing those three components to compute the output.
During the whole of the process the pump is running continuously which ensures the temperature of the mash remains accurate. Once conversion is complete the temperature on the controller can be adjusted to mash-out at 168 deg F to stop the enzymatic process.
The Streamlined EDC retains an analog control knob which adjusts the heat produced by the element. For mashing this is set in the middle for a gradual rise in temperature and to avoid over-shooting the desired temperature but for mashing-out this would be set to maximum to raise the temperature more quickly.
The meshed bag sits in the metal basket insert that fits inside the brew pot. After mash-out this is lifted to drain the sweet liquid out of the grain bed by propping the basket off-set on the lip of the vessel. Note that there is a risk of it dropping back in and splashing 168 deg F hot water so High Gravity suggest coming up with an alternative method of doing this e.g. a hoist.
The next step is to bring the wort up to a boil by adjusting the analog knob and then complete brewing and cooling as usual.
This system retails for about $1095 + tax & shipping for 10 gallon batch version ($1195 for 15 gallon and $1475 for 20-25 gallon batch versions) depending on the options selected. Further details of the High Gravity BIAB Electric Brewing System can be found here.
Brew Boss E-BIAB (formerly picoBrew E-BIAB) offer an Electric Brew In A Bag which includes the following:
- Boil Kettle with lid – 15 or 20 gallon (for 10 or 15 gallon batches respectively), includes weldless direct-contact mount for Temperature Probe
- Strainer basket – sits inside the Boil Kettle and keeps the bag from making contact with the heating element
- Electric Heater Assembly (5500w, 3500w, or dual 1500w* versions)
- Wi-Fi Controller – with WiFi and 10′ long power cable (available in 120v and 240v versions – plug needs to be added for 240v version)
- Digital Temperature Probe – 2″ long
- Meshed grain bag
- Android app with optional Tablet
- Hoses, valves, fittings and adapters
- Sparge sprayer mounted into lid
- Pump (stainless steel version +$50)
* The dual 1500W heaters are ideal for US houses without access to 240V circuits.
The Brew Boss E-BIAB works in a similar way to the High Gravity system but is setup and controlled by a software application rather than directly on the controller.
The control box manages the electric heater element and the recirculation pump plus there in an optional Hops-Boss automatic hops feeder due out shortly (see here).
The control box is setup for brewing via an Android application that walks the brewer through the various settings and communicates with the controller via a USB or wifi connection.
The controller can operate in Automatic or Manual mode as desired by the brewer and can also be used for two or three vessel systems.
This system retails for about $1350 + tax & shipping for the 10 gallon batch version ($1375 for the 15 gallon batch version) depending on the options selected. Further details of the Brew Boss E-BIAB can be found here.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments on this article I’d really like to hear your thoughts as I have a major decision to make here!
In Part 2 of this series we will be examining HERMS-based systems…